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Is  Guild Wars 2  the answer to stagnant MMO design?
Is Guild Wars 2 the answer to stagnant MMO design? Exclusive
May 21, 2012 | By Caleb Bridge

May 21, 2012 | By Caleb Bridge
Comments
    36 comments
More: Social/Online, Design, Exclusive



While the MMO genre has been set in its post-World of Warcraft ways since Blizzard released its market-leading online game 2004, ArenaNet is trying to go its own way with Guild Wars 2.

"We're finally seeing a point where companies realize that they're not going to create the next great MMO by just copying what's come before," said Christopher Lye, global brand director at ArenaNet, who believes the definition of an MMO has come to mean games that follow a similar quest and combat structure to World of Warcraft.

"'MMO' is a platform and set of technologies, not a game design model - and we've barely scratched the surface of what's possible ... Honestly, I think the problem is that there's been a lack of change in MMO design and that Guild Wars 2 is a reaction to that."

Guild Wars 2 -- which has no firm release date yet -- will be taking neither the subscription nor the free-to-play routes, instead opting for the one-off payment packaged products just like 2005's Guild Wars and its expansions, except this time, backed up with microtransactions.

Running with this model for Guild Wars, ArenaNet was able to keep a regular flow of income through selling expansions. The result of this led to a refined production pipeline which allowed the team develop and deliver their content very quickly.

"At one point we were delivering a full game's worth of content in six months. That's an insane pace," said Lye. "We know that launch is only the beginning and the players' appetite for content is virtually insatiable, so we devoted a lot of programming resources on content development tools that allow designers to do in hours what used to take weeks."

ArenaNet hopes to be able to use this to its advantage in Guild Wars 2, preventing the game from becoming stagnant in its play-style and content. Lye points to the ever-changing "Dynamic Events" systems as a way of allowing the development team to easily modify and add new content. These, coupled with effective use of instancing - heavily used in Guild Wars - are intended to deliver a satisfying story to players, which is a notoriously difficult feat in MMOs. Guild Wars 2's instancing will allow a more player-focused, personal story, while the story of the world will be delivered through dynamic events, shared by all players.

The dynamic events will also help naturally build a sense of player community "by scaling events up by the number of players, by ensuring that everyone who participates in the event receives rewards, and by ensuring that high-level players' abilities scale down to ensure events are still challenging," said Lye.

ArenaNet is also breaking what Lye called the "holy trinity" of MMO combat -- tank, healer and DPS -- and omitting a dedicated healing class all together, giving some healing abilities to each profession. The designers hope this will "free players up from that dependency, so you see a lot more creativity in party make-up and tactics," said Lye.

Guild Wars 2 appears to be holding a position somewhere between the fully action-based combat of Bluehole's Tera MMO, and WoW's more static, action-bar focused combat, as ArenaNet's take utilizes dodging, running and gunning as central combat mechanics.

Lye said he believes MMO players are waiting for a more engaging combat style, and Guild Wars 2 will bring on the change. "People will call this risky, but we think it's riskier just to churn out the same MMO that everyone has played before. People can read the words, but it's not until someone actually plays the game that they really understand some of the fundamental changes that we've made to the genre," said Lye.


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Comments


Iulian Mocanu
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Having played the beta, I can honestly say, no. What Guild Wars 2 does is modify certain aspects of the MMO genre that players have become annoyed with, like the holy trinity of combat. That's about all it does. The Dynamic Event system is nice, but it's not new. Had it been released prior to Tabula Rasa, or even Rift, sure, it would have warranted some attention, but now, not so much.
It's still a fine game, with a fantastic PvP system, but it's not as much a revolution as it is a step in the same direction that everyone else is already going towards.
The Secret World probably does more to change up the MMO genre than Guild Wars 2, trough it's puzzle-mystery relate quests. And if you really want something different, Salem is on the horizon. Even Firefall, should it keep it's promise of a player driven story, is still more relevant of an answer to the stagnation of the MMO genre than Guild Wars 2.

Jonathan Jou
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I agree with you! In fact, I would tell you that the directions MMORPGs have been trying to go towards, they've been trying to do for a long while now. Conan tried to pull off more action-like combat, and user-created content is clearest in things like Second Life. Apparently Puzzle Pirates qualifies as an MMORPG, and so there's a good chance that there are really not too many new ideas in where MMORPGs should go next.

Having played GW2, I can vouch for the fantastic art direction, the amazingly well-woven structure of events that Rift lacked, and their continuous pursuit of interesting gameplay. The WvWvW is a welcome change, the ability to play with friends on different servers is an understated yet mysteriously missing improvement in many current offerings, and I'm inclined to believe that removing the holy trinity is a bigger deal than you make it sound! Heck, you make it sound easy to replace healthbar monitoring with tactical positioning and skill usage, which I found made GW2 a very different game than the alternatives. I have never been aware of my surroundings as I am when I'm playing GW2, and while others have come to see how interesting making "builds" like Magic: The Gathering decks is more interesting than eventually having your game play itself, I seem to be of the opinion that very few developers come up with skills that so strongly emphasize strategy.

It's completely fair to not like GW2, or to say that it's not as innovative as it might have been in 2007. The wait has been long and other people have done many of the ideas they're working on. But I'm rather sure it does a great deal more than you've given it credit for, and what's most amazing about these ideas is they're so sensible people seem to take them for granted. Things like equal exp for all, everyone being able to revive each other, and all the other things that eliminate competition from PvE and bring players together make me wonder if Arenanet should be taking credit for not just making a better game for players, but a game that makes better players.

But that's just me. We will only know when it comes out, I guess!

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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In short, no.
GW2 is a step in the right direction, but not nearly as revolutionary as its being made out to be.
Developers and community need to first stop treating MMOs like a separate genre and then start developing games instead of "MMOs".

Hoping for Planetside 2 to mix up the genre a bit.

Simon Ludgate
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I think I'm going to go with Penny Arcade on this one: http://penny-arcade.com/comic/2012/05/02

Patrick Davis
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Truth. Currently, you have to pick out which of the big elements you like more, and play that game.

I'm sticking with TERA myself. Even with the same old terrible quest system, the action oriented combat and engaging BAM fights more than make up for it.

Philip Daay
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Any MMO coming out today was probably born 5-7 years ago as an idea. Back then, the assumptions were to think of the next-gen MMO as an evolution from what WoW did because it was the only truly big title on the market. Hence, you're getting SWTOR. Fast-forward to 2012, those new games are now being released, but they've fallen waaay behind the curve of player expectations.

Any MMO project born today will likewise need truly visionary design leaders to impress players in ~2020.

James Coote
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The problem is the RPG bit, not the MMO bit.

RPG's are born out of tabletop RPG's, that had to use stats and classes and rules to create a plausible universe out of nothing but bits of paper and imagination. Now those same elements are boxing us in

Matthew Mouras
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How so? I've seen something similar to this statement a few times on Gamasutra lately, but I haven't heard a good argument to back it up.

What exactly do you mean by "stats and classes and rules"? What is the problem with them? It seems to me that those things make for a solid architecture. Is it the implementation you take issue with?

Sorry - I just see this as a fashionable statement and would like to hear the reasoning behind it. What about traditional RPG design is holding back video game design or MMO design specifically?

David Pierre
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I think I can see where this argument is born from because I partially believe in it, but not necessarily for this.

The idea is that stats within traditional RPGs simply served as a framework. The rulebook contained numerous ways to create and resolve situations that players could come across. STR, WIZ, CHA and the like along with all the spells, skills, items on hand were tools that you used to go about your quest. But beyond that, everything else was simply limited to the imagination of the players. The system was only as broken as the GM's leniency and the player's creative method.

A lot of that is gone when you transfer RPG systems to a video game. The limits are still similar because the rules programmed into the world are just like rules written down in the book. However, the players can't bring things into it. All that's in the game (neglecting DLC and mods) is all that will be usable in the game. So, that near-infinite area to player creativity is gone. Digital RPG Gameplay becomes based on stats and combat skills alone.

However, I only use this when discussing Traditional vs Digital RPGs. When it comes down to discussing Digital RPG design, it's a moot point because it doesn't really tell you where the problems lie. At this stage, you can simply look at the differences of player interaction. Traditional RPGs are "additive" where as Digital RPGs are "subtractive". In both settings, the rules are determined, the tools and skills are all pre-designed, and every possible outcome is at the mercy of the system. Players are still able to utilize the tools given to them creatively. However, traditional RPGs feel more infinite as it's based more on player creativity. Players can simply add new things at the GM's leniency or roleplay an event really creatively to reach a seemingly impossible conclusion. New interactions are born very easily. Digital RPG don't have that until the game gets updated, but even without it, it can still feel huge with enough permutations of content.

Over the course of time, I think RPGs have been getting better design-wise. I said earlier that Digital RPGs are solely stats and combat skills, but that's actually been changing. Over time, a lot of games have introduced that power of player choice which I feel truly makes a game an RPG. Having that ability to make the decision to do or to do something else is what separates an RPG from other genres (because just having stats and skill trees doesn't cut it anymore). This is why I think that the RPG section isn't really the problem here. It's perfectly doable, and I believe they do it fairly well in GW2.

James Coote
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Firstly, what David said.

There is nothing wrong with RPG's as such. We could waffle about pro's and cons of various aspects of RPG's all day

Point is, MMO's are giant collaborative spaces with many contributors. At the moment we're providing one narrow set of tools (RPG mechanics) and filling in most of the canvas before players ever get there

Matthew Mouras
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I follow you David. That's a good example. The tabletop is a different experience from sitting in front of the monitor, but are those differences a limitation? Can looseness in how the stats are implemented in a video game recreate some of that GM effect? What about better stories in video game RPGs? Would that help remove some of the emphasis on stats? There have been many successful "traditional" video game RPGs. Clearly they did something right.

And where does MMO design come in? I'd still like to hear some specifics about the elements of pen and paper RPG design that are creating issues when adapted to an MMO... or the elements of traditional video game RPGs that are creating problems for MMOs for that matter.

If we are to accept the argument that the history of RPGs is creating an issue with current MMO design, then there must be more examples of poor translations from one medium to another (stats implementation, lack of GM, ?, ?, ? ). It's interesting stuff to think about. I'll have to do some digging as there must be some good writing on the subject.

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benn rice
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@James

thank god some people are starting to understand this.

out of all the gameplay genres out there, the RPG was about the WORST genre to marry to a multiplayer virtual world.

and to then make the next 15 years or so virtually ALL RPGs? that would have been terrible no matter what genre it was started with.


** (SOME of the) Problems With RPGs **

Levels/stats/overall-power that is wildly divergent between players prevents them from having meaningful interaction with other players. only a small subset of the players they serendipitously encounter in the world, are a good match to either PVE or PVP with.

it also makes only a very small subset of the entire games content worth interacting with. as people move up in levels, they are addtionally segregated (even moreso than in the previously mentioned ways) by geography, due to this fact that only a small part of the world is relevant to you.

rpg mechanics invalidate most of the properties you'd get from varying positions, the shape of the landscape and whatever obstacles in the world architecture around you. outside the line of sight aspect pretty much. and even that is largely just an interface issue. lock on to a target, and then the rest of your environment is just visuals. your position doesn't matter, cover doesn't matter, etc.

the mechanics of combat are extremely hardwired to a very dull and mindless process. this worked great for pen & paper, to make it feasible to somewhat "simulate" the concepts of what you are supposed to be doing in combat.

once moved over into a computer that can easily simulate 3d spaces and objects and their interactions with each other, it just doesn't make sense to slavishly hang onto those mechanics and completely ignore the context of the advanced hardware we are playing it on. especially when all those things properly simulated together is capable of so much emergent gameplay value. by the nature of the way all your positioning, the shape/architecture of your environment, your movement, your projectiles all combine to make every combat play out differently (the more different your environments are, the more radically different the resultant combat will have). the combinative nature makes proper simulation infinitely more variable and deep, even with just a handful of different weapons, than a typical RPG game that has thousands and thousands of "different" weapons/spells, etc., where every freakin' battle plays out almost identically, and ignores the world around it for the most part.

David Pierre
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I think the problem though is that people are looking at GW2 to be "The Savior of MMO Design", when in truth, it can't possibly be. It's an MMO itself. It's not a design, but the product of the design. The "Savior of MMO Design" would be the people who design them. I feel that what ArenaNet has done to explain, explore, and discuss about their development is what truly saves design. They asked and answered a lot of questions about what fails, what works, and what to change in their writings, and their MMO is simply the result.

Throughout their development stories, there's been lots of rants, raves, lauds, praises, and all the like about what they've done. One of my friends flat out decided that he would never play the game because there's no healer class, and we've discussed on numerous occasions what the consequences of a "healerless" game would be. It's probably given birth to much discussion and hopefully, even more MMO ideas in itself. Other games might go other ways. Consider a game where you decide that rather than removing the healer class, you removed DPS! Or perhaps you removed "health" altogether. Every shot is a OHKO, and the skill is actually in blocking, dodging, and tricking your opponent. The meta of your game is completely different and players will have to approach it differently.

In order for that to happen though, designers craft their games around these experiences for their players. Guild Wars 2 was able to remove the healing class, which sounded so ludicrous that it wasn't even believable, and then balance their game's mechanics to work well enough that you didn't even miss them. Things still feel familiar, which I think is the core of why people don't feel it changes the stagnation but that's the experience they wanted to give the game. There's that Penny Arcade joke going around where you take ToR's giant world, GW2's questing, and TERA's combat and you have the greatest MMO of all time. I find it particularly amusing because I have witnessed the big rift (ha, Rift) between GW2 and TERA players that comes solely out of their combat systems, and it is living proof that you can't please everyone at once. If either game switched their combat system to behave like the other's, then there are a vast number of players who would be disappointed.

GW2 is a nice experimenting MMO design, but I don't think that it, in itself, can save MMO design (or any other MMO for that matter). I won't even go as far to save that ArenaNet is "the answer" because they're only one team. However, they are doing their part. "The answer" to stagnant design is to learn from what's been made and craft better (not new) experiences for our players. We can only hope that there are more dev teams like ArenaNet's and TERA's that are willing to pull apart what makes the genre to them and deliver a more engaging experience.

I have officially spent too much time writing today...

Jerome Grasdijk
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It seems to me that the problem that mmo's have is not solely related to design, but more to business. It's the social aspect that ties people strongly into WoW, allowing it to maintain a large entrenched player base which is basically separated into 'butterflies' and 'settlers'. The number of unattached settlers is low, most have formed strong WoW-based social groups.

Some degree of interoperability would seem to be required to free up the market and allow a larger range of mmo's. If guilds were persistent across mmo's, with a meta-level account, that would remove a lot of obstacles. But there is no incentive for Blizzard to do so, unless they were to turn Battle.Net into an MMO publishing platform for third parties - for a healthy slice of the pie.

Nevertheless I'm quite looking forward to Guild Wars 2, it has sufficient innovation to carry the genre forward a bit more ;) And the price is right.

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Jerome Grasdijk
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When it first came out though, WoW *was* a great experience. It had no equals, and it was the first MMO to suck the casual crowd into a socially-bonded structure in a virtual world. Just being a better game may not be enough to break those bonds, since the game has no natural endpoint.

SWTOR's failure to break the 2m subscriber barrier (cf AoC, Aion) is a clear indication that even the most mass-market, casual friendly IP is not sufficient, even with excellent story, all-spoken dialogue, and spaceships! The next one to watch is Firefall.

Michael Rooney
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"When it first came out though, WoW *was* a great experience. It had no equals, and it was the first MMO to suck the casual crowd into a socially-bonded structure in a virtual world. Just being a better game may not be enough to break those bonds, since the game has no natural endpoint."

that's pretty debatable. I was a fan of a lot of MMOs released previous to WoW much more than I was a fan of WoW.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Before I make my primary point, let me just say that I have played GW2 and I think it kicks arse. But.. the problem with all of the MMO's people have mentioned in this thread (this applies less to Secret World, which I have also played) is that there are generally two achievement paths in any MMO: leveling and wealth. In any game without either perma death or negative leveling (like in the original EQ), once you hit the level cap, that achievement path is over. What is left is the wealth path, and that is dependent on a sustainable virtual economy. Granted, as a game designer and virtual economist I have a certain bias, but I think this meaningful game economy is what is missing from essentially all games except perhaps EVE Online. The latter has enjoyed amazing longevity for this reason.

I think game developers and their masters need to start thinking much more outside the box and think about not how to entertain players in the first 10 hours of play, but in the time between 100 and 1000 hours of play (and beyond). Instead of throwing more content at the players in the form of expansions and patches, let the players create their own content by building the player economy. This allows long lasting player investment in the game environment, and allows the formation of equity which means enduring value to the customer.

Adam Bishop
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How many players really want to get involved in "building a player economy" vs churning through content released through expansions? Guild Wars and WoW both have had significantly more players than Eve Online has. Maybe most MMO players *like* content.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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Eve has other problems that prevent it from being popular. Correlation is not causation.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Adam your point is well taken, and I am very happy to address that. I was tempted to do so in my original post but did not for length reasons. EVE Online is the closest thing to a balanced virtual economy ever created. The problem is they made a deal with the Devil to achieve this feat. Instead of carefully crafting a balanced mix of inputs and outputs in their economy, they decided to use unrestricted PvP as their primary money sink. This does work well to maintain some level of scarcity in the economy, but it also makes the game extremely unfriendly to newcomers.

Thus the price they pay for their sustained virtual economy, and their longevity, is an obvious lack of growth. Their numerous advertising campaigns and friendlier tutorials do help, but they can never undo the deal they made without starting over. I'm not saying that making a friendly and sustainable player based economy is easy, but as it is my life's work I can certainly tell you it can be done.

Michael Joseph
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"Thus the price they pay for their sustained virtual economy, and their longevity, is an obvious lack of growth."

However, comparatively slow growth may be offset by longevity (doh, you did actually say that) and sustainability. They have today ~400,000 subscribers and have been running for 9 years. And they've not even peaked yet unlike WoW and SW:TOR which seems to have peaked in record time at 1.7 million users.

In this light, Eve is not too shabby. Seems to me it's not a deal with the devil, it's just a simple trade off.

Michael Grimes
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What would really revolutionize the MMO industry is to go back to one of the greats, SWG before CU1/CU2...that in and of itself created a sense of exploration and unknown risk taking through choosing your own path....either it be Jedi or just Merchant...there were no quests..there was only you and the open worlds....figure it out yourself and stop dumbing everything down to allow 10 yo's to play it....that game was what really got me into gaming (post LOZ days) and because Sony wanted to keep up with the WOW business model, they destroyed their game.

If someone wants to take a popular franchise and get away from the linear path of levelling, gear, etc....then that would change the industry...not just making an adaptation of all the MMO's....we saw that will Kingdoms of Amalur...they took everything from everyone...and the level designers put way too many monsters on the maps....meh....NOT AN MMO..I know...but still...stop cloning and/or stealing...innovative ideas don't include that.

GW2? I played the beta..I had fun..I enjoyed the story driven content...but free to play microtransaction just turns me off....that's why I play FB games....because I can wait till the next day to get my item....no big whoop.

Give the players what they aren't expecting, and stop cloning each other....the best things will always come from the past...as the past always comes back to haunt us...

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Simon Ludgate
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Lord of the Rings Online has Skirmish zones that auto scale to player level, and group size (with certain minimums on some zones).

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Trent Tait
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swtor makes you feel like lightsaber technology 3000 years ago was just a glowing bat.

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Michael Rooney
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Which race did you play as Josh? I tried the Norn first, and their story was pretty dumb. Then I tried the Char, and the stories there are much more interesting. I didn't get that far, granted, but the story was leaps and bounds better for the char than it was for the Norn.

I'm really curious to know how much time was devoted to the different areas as far as story content goes. I feel like if there were a "throw-away" section of the game it would probably be level 1-15.

I was pleased to see how much user feedback they were taking on every quest they had and how thorough it was. That at least gives me a good amount of hope for the future.

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Maria Jayne
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I see many mmos trying to make changes, especialy many mmos people accuse of being "wow clones" god how I hate that term.

Guild Wars is no more a messiah of the way forward than any other mmo that isn't out yet. People always talk up mmo features from games not released and dictate how they will be genre killing, mmo killing and the best thing since sliced bread. Unyet the closer you get to launch, you start to see the voices of dissent and after launch the voices of dissatisfaction.

Guild Wars, has a unique defence among other mmo games out there in that once you have bought the client much like most newly released mmos, you're done. There are no subscription numbers for fans or nay sayers to get frothing at the mouth over. People can stay or leave the game and it makes no impact. You can't claim it's lost 400,000 subscribers because even if that many people stop playing, they have the client so can return at any time. Much like a free to play mmo, Arena Net has the luxury of shouting about success and then never having to stand up and be counted among how many people are leaving their game.

So no, they aren't the answer, they are just the next iteration of evolution with a few ideas of their own thrown in like most mmos. Great games aren't pulled out of the aether, they are evolved using ideas from other games.

TC Weidner
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I would like to see the entire genre changed, the designs are tired. Build dynamic worlds for people to inhabit, not simply static treadmills.

Michael Rooney
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I think the largest aspect of GW2 I enjoy is the focus on cooperation rather than separation. In WoW I would never help people kill things without being a part of their group. In GW2 I find myself running up to help people constantly because it helps both of us when I do. It seems like such an obvious thing to have, but the sense of cooperation with complete strangers is something that I think will drive GW2 higher than previous mmos.

And while there have been systems similar to the dynamic events system in GW2, I really like that they tie in dynamic events with storylines that move back and forth based off success or failure of other events. It makes an even bigger impact that those events actually affect the difficulty of the areas surrounding those events after the event has finished (waypoints get contested, more monsters are able to spawn, etc). I could see myself still coming back to lowbie zones with a high level character just to play through the events because I know they'll benefit other players after I finish them. That's something I just didn't get from WoW.


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