After meeting a very awesome new friend over Thanksgiving break, Nate and I discovered that not only did this guy, let's call him J, share almost all of our geeky loves (board gaming, tv shows, fantasy books, card games, movies), he was a huge Guild Wars fan! If you already know all about Guild Wars, look for the big red text near the bottom, that's when I'll re-write history.
Quick description for anyone bothering to read this who didn't play Guild Wars (GW). GW was (and is, I guess) an MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role playing game) in which you could create a character, level up, that sort of stuff. Yes, it was like World of Warcraft, and no, it was not like World of Warcraft. WoW specializes in dangling carrots: just one more level, just one more piece of gear, just one more accomplishment, cool mount, trophy item, rare skin, dungeon cleared. GW had a campaign but it was rather short and the max level was 20, which you hit very quickly. The game didn't really begin until level 20.
But the really awesome thing about GW was the PvP (player vs. player, you fight other people, ho man these abbreviations are starting to kill me). You could team up with eleven of your best friends, build a guild together, and fight other guilds for points and dominance. There was a random 4v4 arena, team 4v4 arena, and the much-renamed Tombs/Heroes Ascent/Hall of Heroes/etc. *GOLD STAR* arena that determined world dominance over the realm. Whichever country controlled the Hall of Heroes got special access to regular PvE (player vs. environment, you killed monsters) zones with rare loot and cool challenges.
But what's the really unique thing that sets GW apart? Because there were, and especially now, are a TON of games that let you fight other people. GW let you create a max level character with max stats JUST for PvP. This meant if you weren't into the campaign (and most players lost interest in the rather short campaign rather quickly) you could be ready to fight in the arenas in the time it takes to create a character and pick your skills. You didn't have to level up, you didn't have to find the best gear, and your success in your fights wasn't based on how many hours you'd spent grinding your character to be the best.
Not only this, you only created your primary profession. The original game launched with six: Ranger, Elementalist, Warrior, Monk, Necromancer, and Mesmer. In addition to your primary profession, you could pick a secondary, which you could change at any time you were in town. When you left town, you could bring eight skills with you. Just eight. Any combination of your primary/secondary, as long as you had no more than eight. And some skills were "elite" skills, meaning they were slightly better than others, and you could bring one elite as part of your eight, if you wanted (low level characters didn't generally have elites). That said, elites weren't these "20-minute cooldown use it for the INSTANT WIN BUTTON." They'd heal for 50% more, or do 30% more damage, or be cheaper to cast with a slight bonus. They were just a little better, but they weren't broken.
This meant there were limitless possibilities. Sure, there were a lot of "bad" builds out there, but there wasn't just one "right" build (*cough* what I hate about number grinding games like WoW). See an E/Mo on the battlefield? They could be a fire mage, a water mage, they could be an earth tank with protection spells, or they might just be using the elementalist ability to have lots of energy and be a full time healer with their monk skills. Point was, you didn't know until they started casting, or if you were very clever and could identify the type of weapon they were carrying. There were all SORTS of crazy builds out there, and a lot of them were fun. Not only that, but every single build, every skill, had a counter. There was always some way to build against anything you could run against. The only question was: did you bring it? Did a teammate bring it? Running a strong build that was common meant that the counter would be common as well.
One other important thing. There was exactly one ability in GW that caused loss of control of your character. Just one. It was being knocked down. Very few skills could knock you down, and they were all expensive, elite, had penalties, or several of the above. You were only knocked down for a second or two. Do you know what makes a game frustrating? NOT BEING ABLE TO PLAY. Pay attention here LoL and WoW: fear/stun/silence/sheep/toss/mind control is NOT FUN. Who wants to have their character become feared for FIVE WHOLE SECONDS (this is an eternity in PvP) while your character runs in random directions? It's frustrating and suicidal and makes us throw peripherals at the wall. And there are so many characters who can do it in WoW/LoL! At least in GW you knew who could and could not kick you on your ass, and there were counters for that too, and you never spent the entirity of a fight unable to do anything. You might CHOOSE to not cast, because you would take damage, but then you could auto-attack. You could CHOOSE not to move because you would take damage, but you could if you really needed to. You could CHOOSE not to attack because of a curse, but if the value was worth the penalty, you could do it anyways. There was no ability in the game that said "you may not attack or do anything useful for quite some time, because this other character has cast it on you, so fooey on you, have fun, oh you died? Should have played someone else then."
All this aside, I think the PvP in GW really took off with their first expansion, Factions. This is where the last several years of online arena play could be COMPLETELY REWRITTEN if GW had figured out what they had, instead of marketing it as what they didn't. See, the Factions campaign was terrible. It was awful. The only reason people bought Factions was either they didn't know any better, or they wanted the skills and classes for PvP. Factions also added (in my opinion) the BEST arena ever: Alliance Battle. Instead of having to be in a super cool guild and playing with the bad-ass elite, or randomly fighting in the 4v4 with who knows who, you got the best of both worlds.
Alliance Battles (AB) were based on the two factions in Factions (*sigh*). You picked one side and your guild was aligned with them. You could enter to fight with up to 3 other people, meaning the most control you had was over four players. The actual map incorporated three teams of four players on each side, making a glorious 12v12 capture-the-point melee. AB was where you could try out new builds that synergized with bigger parties. Not to mention, AB had the best overall team/map strategy of any of the arenas. Knowing where to be and when to be there was a huge part of the fight, not just mashing buttons or having an awesome build.
See, no one screamed bloody murder if you had one bad team member. No one had a ton of control, and the arena was a lot more laid back than the others. If you had friends you could join in easily, but if you were alone that was fine too. It was awesome. I've been told that after AB came out WoW released their own version of a capture-the-point PvP arena, conveniently named Arathi Basin (or AB, boy do we love our acronyms!). Now there's a whole style of games known as MOBA, or multiplayer online battle arena, where the ONLY thing you do is fight other people in arenas! One of the most famous of these is League of Legends, the completely free to play game that just celebrated it's 2 year anniversary (and yes, I play LoL, and Dominion is the much better map, thank you).
Let's re-write history now:
See, Guild Wars got a huge following because it was free to play, but in the end they couldn't support themselves. Other games like LoL are also completely free to play, but Riot Games (makers of LoL) are rolling in money because of something we call "micro-transactions" (this is also what makes those Facebook games profitable). People are willing to step over small monetary fences for worthless eye candy. You can spend your entire time playing LoL without spending a cent, but pay a few dollars and your character can be transformed with a new costume. You can unlock more characters quicker, and get new skins for them too. In WoW you can pay a small amount to change your character name, to move characters between realms, to buy fancy mounts, etc. None of this makes you fight better, but it makes you feel cooler.
Let's say GW had jumped on this micro-transaction idea back in Factions, when it was clear that PvP was what they excelled at, and not PvE. People can pay to change their character name, to get really cool elite armor, to change their character's haircut or face paint or get unique shoulder pads or hair nets or staves. Now GW pulls in a bunch of money for very little work.
Let's say they stopped advertising their crappy campaigns (Nightfall, really? Didn't you get the memo when people bought Factions just for the PvP skills?) and instead actually advertised their PvP. Do you know how many WoW/other online gamers I've talked to who had NO IDEA that Guild Wars possessed an incredibly detailed, easy to jump in (max level characters and all that), balanced, challenging PvP playstyle? They might have started the campaign and never even reached halfway before quitting in boredom. They never KNEW and thus never TRIED.
So now they have advertising. All those people who are playing games like LoL (28 billion worldwide, or something like that?) might have heard of GW. Heck, if even a fraction of those played the PvP, that's money for the game plus micro-transactions. Instead of flickering out like a sad candle as their devoted players eventually get bored waiting for new content or GW2 or move off to play another game, GW now remains strong in the market. They might even be leading the MOBA/free game micro-transaction business model. Instead of all this other PvP out there, we have a solid, huge game, with PvE elements for those who want them, and an incredibly rich, varied field of PvP play.
Think about it. Is there any other game that let's you PICK YOUR SKILLS? You're a warrior in WoW, you get all the warrior skills, although only some are good. But you've still got 50 on your bar. In LoL each character gets four skills and every time you see that character, you know they have those four skills. It's not bad, but... there's no diversity. There's usually a "right way."
Eight skills. One can be elite. They must come from your primary and secondary professions. Rules done.
You can change your secondary profession at any time in town. You can make a new primary profession and be ready to play (PvP only) in 10 minutes. There are a thousand possibilities as to what you'll run into on the battlefield. Did you bring the right counters? Did you decide to play glass cannon? Are you hooking up with friends for incredible skill synergy? (Three air eles and a channeling rit with iron mist, I'm looking at you!) Did you do something hilarious just because you could, and not get flamed all match for it?
It's balanced. You always have control. You always have a choice. Do you run? Attack? Cast? Look up the Mesmer class. It's like nothing any other game has out there. It's all about making the other players think about what they're doing. If I'm fighting a mesmer, will she interupt me? Make it painful for me to cast? To attack? Is it one of those crazy Me/W Illusionary Weaponry builds? Even if she does cast backfire on me (I take 140 dmg for casting a spell), is it worth it to save my team member? Now there's a depth and a richness that takes forever to master. It was the challenge and the flavor of a game that's fairly simple on the surface and just gets richer and richer the more you play.
Guild Wars could still be running today (instead of the shadow servers that are left running). We've been waiting for GW2 for years now and no one I know is holding out any hope. The fans that loved GW see GW2 as a WoW wanna-be, abandoning most of what was so simple and wonderful about GW. People who love games like WoW are never going to convert over. Too many other games have tried and failed to live up to the cash cow that is WoW.
Are we ever going to see another PvP game with a similar set up? I loved the idea of a limited skill selection, and better-but-not-broken elite skills. PvP was balanced and you always had control. It was a game of choices and not button mashing. The characters were simple, the skills were straightforward, and their mixing was what gave so much flavor and joy to the game. I spent a long time playing GW, and a good portion of that online with my brother and now-husband as we fought in AB all night long. We ran good builds and bad, we tried crazy stuff, and we have so many stories that we still laugh at it's unbelievable.
I want that PvP back. I want GW to go back and redefine the start up of free-to-play micro-transaction MOBA style games. They could be the undisputed leader in what balanced, controllable, fun fantasy PvP could be, instead of a what-if waiting on the will-flop. Not that I don't think LoL and similar haven't done a good job, they clearly have a fanbase, but I think part of their success is that their fanbase had no other similar style games with that kind of quality. GW could have been that game.
Development and Marketing take note: if one of you makes quality in department A, please don't advertise your crappy department B. Redefine history. Bring back AB. Give me back my crazy air ele so my friends and I can run iron mist builds and laugh ourselves silly because no one in their right minds brings iron mist, but we made it work.