All Aboard the Living Story Train?

Things have been pretty interesting lately in the GW2 development sphere. When I last wrote about the state of things, we were just coming into the last phases of the return to Southsun. I mentioned previously that I thought the Living Story (LS) had a lot of promise. It gives ways to revitalize oft-ignored areas of the world, it gives ways to have targeted market manipulation via zone-specific buffs and/or drops, and it gives a way to extend the storytelling aspect on a frequent basis. I still believe all of these things. Apparently, so does ANet. According to Eurogamer, ANet plans to dive head first into crazy-land and has no plans for expansions for at least the next two years, planning to focus entirely on LS and core gameplay updates like LFG tools. In other words:

The Story So Far

It all started in Halloween. The Mad King returned to Tyria and blew up the lion statue in Lion’s Arch (LA). Afterward, the generous citizens of Tyria made donations to rebuild the statue. Side-track, the primary competitors to the Black Lion Trading Company (BLTC) known as the Consortium have discovered a new island, called Southsun (SS). In doing so, they pissed off an ancient race of monsters known as the Karka, who then attacked LA. We went and killed their queen, like good adventurers. There was much lag and loot to be had.

Moving on, the Flame Legion and the Dredge teamed up to form the Molten Alliance, in the Flame and Frost arc. We did a new dungeon for two weeks, and it was grand. After defeating the Alliance, we helped usher the displaced people of the north back to SS. Finally, we started celebrating the Dragon Festival. Then some dudes wearing gear-punk armor started popping out of the things that used to spawn dragon holograms… I guess. I suppose they are bad guys? I hear there is a new dungeon too for two weeks, ending one week from today? Okay, so I’m actually starting to fall behind on the story, but that’s kind of my point.

There is a thin strand that has connected the LS content thus far. Emphasis on thin. This is, no doubt, intended to be that way so that players who miss out on the temporary content are not completely lost. Each chapter is supposed to be mostly self-contained so that even if you don’t know the events leading up to it, you can still participate and pick up there. It’s pretty much necessary to structure it this way if you are making previous content inaccessible after the time window has closed. This strategy has some obvious pros and cons.

The Good

On the one hand, it is a way to constantly give something new to do without introducing a gear teadmill. This is the biggest selling point for me. You can have events that you have to follow on time in order to ever see them, and that can be a powerful motivator to log in. This is great for players, and great for ANet. It’s a nice, soft way of reinforcing log-in behaviors. Instead of a monthly fee guilting you into playing, or having rest bonuses, they are merely adding short time windows of opportunity to get you to want to log in. This is the kind of strategy that all F2P or non-subscription games need. They need to make you want to play, and payment to them be completely voluntary, because when players feel that way about the game they enjoy spending their money. That’s all well and good.

As I previously mentioned, they can also use this system to revitalize dead zones. This is a very noble endeavor. The world ANet has created is pretty sizable, but the population of players is very focused into a few popular zones. I fully endorse using the LS to repopulate some of the areas of the world. It was really awesome seeing people in Wayfarer Foothills, Diessa Plateau, and Southsun Cove.

The Bad

On the other hand, there are some severe limitations with such a system. If we assume that they want players to be able to jump into the LS at any point, but not be able to access past content (as an incentive to keep playing regularly), it severely limits the kind of storytelling and plotting that can occur realistically. I don’t feel like the LS thus far has had a plot. It’s had a series of small plots, that are vaguely related to one another, but they aren’t really building to anything. They feel entirely insular. Again, this is a good thing when we are talking about incentive mechanisms. However, it is a bad thing when we are talking about, well, sustained storytelling on a grander scale. You know, like the main game or expansions do. Now, many people, myself included, have criticized the main storyline of GW2. I still feel that it was one of the weakest aspects of the PvE side of the game at launch. That doesn’t mean I don’t want an overarching story.

When I play the LS, I feel like I am playing content to tide me over. It is interesting, but ultimately it can be done very quickly when we are talking about the meat of the content. The achievements, mostly of the kill/interact with 300 of something, are incredibly tedious and boring. They are grindy as hell. That’s okay, in and of itself, because they are optional, but IMO that means that they don’t really count as content. They are the new way of having some new, mostly pointless objectives to chase after if you play a lot. For the much more casual player though, there is little incentive to chase them. As I sort of alluded to earlier, I’m starting to lose the thread of the LS. While the dungeons have been of fantastic quality, the filler of the LS has been pretty hollow to me. Some cutscenes that look nice are neat, but Kill 300 Rats achievements don’t do anything for me. A new zone that had no hearts, no vistas, and no skill points, as well as very sparse DEs leaves much to be desired. Southsun in particular came out almost 7 months ago now.

While many people are pointing out that there are many developers at ANet, and the Eurogamer article mentions that they have the same staff as at launch, I take away a far different message. While many say “There are lots of people to make bigger content than the LS we have seen so far”, I see “They haven’t made enough permanent and fleshed out content in the past 8 months to replace the benefits of an expansion for me, and they haven’t added any staff.” Yes, they now have more people working on LS. They have 4 staggered teams working for several months on the LS content. They also have a lot of other staff doing other work. They have always had that other staff though, this isn’t a big new hiring motion. If they have had that staff the whole time, isn’t it reasonable to suggest that we have already seen some of the results of their work, and it isn’t fleshing out the LS? After all, we have seen some major reward system overhauls (and are about to see more next patch), WvW overhauls, PvP features like custom arenas and spectator mode, the ever-present balance patches, an aforementioned LFG tool in the works, making a public API… we’ve gotten a shitload of non-story and non-world content. That has to come from somewhere, and my bet is that it’s been coming from those “other staff that aren’t on LS”. I don’t expect them to be picking up the slack on LS things any time soon.

Why Are Expansions Different?

AJ presented one point of view on expansions. She doesn’t like the massive content dump, and the potential for a race-to-the finish scenario. I can respect that view, and to some extent I sympathize. However, expansions can provide several unique benefits and, for lack of a better word, feelings. I think that everyone that has played an MMO before and then leading up to an expansion will agree that there is just a surge of feelings with the expected content dump. Excitement, anticipation, eagerness, hope, and wonder. You know that there is about to be a huge amount of content, and you are excited to see everything that comes with it. Now, ask yourself: Have you felt any of that from the Living Story? Do you feel as viscerally satisfied with the new dungeons as you do with an entire new continent? I know that’s not really a fair comparison, but that’s how I feel. I enjoyed the hell out of the F&F dungeon, and I have high hopes for the Aetherblade dungeon, but those are both temporary. From what we’ve had so far, I haven’t been engaged in the story, I haven’t felt anticipation for any LS segments, and I haven’t felt satisfied with any of the permanent content. Coming out with more LS content faster does not make me feel like I am approaching a steady stream of an expansion’s worth of content over the course of the year, it makes me feel like I’m getting a bunch of content I can take or leave, most of which I will never know that I missed if I do miss it.

Like I said, I’m starting to fall off of the LS wagon. I’m investing less and less into it, because it is bite-sized, temporary, and insular. Is it really cool that they are planning on having this much content so rapidly? Sure. Does that make me feel like it is a suitable replacement for Cantha or Elona? Not really. If they started releasing an entire zone of Cantha every month or two, and those zones were fully fleshed out with complete DE’s Metas, Skill Points, Vistas, Jumping puzzles, AND had a bigger, permanent story, then yeah, that would be pretty great. If they came out with one zone a month, for an entire year, that would be twelve zones. The question is, can they, or will they, produce this much content in the time that an expansion would have been made? Will it be that much permanent content? Others may say to have faith, I am skeptical. I am willing to wait and see, but if I am judging off of what we have had so far, it’s just not enough yet. We can all believe in hope and change, but they need to really deliver to make up for a complete lack of expansions. I know that they’ve said that a profession is not out of the realm of possibility, but it’s not in the works at all right now. The scavenger hunt for precursors was also something that was being discussed like, 4 or 5 months ago, but as of right now it’s still not really being worked on.

Anecdotally speaking, expansions bring back people that have taken a break. So far, the Living story has not in my experience. Yes, all of my Twitguild friends are still playing, but the key word here is still. Most of my real life friends, including my fiancee, have either stopped playing, or have stopped playing regularly. They have stopped tuning into the LS. I’ve spoken to them, and the repeated sentiment I’ve gotten is “I feel like I should play again, but… I feel like I did so much already, and I haven’t bothered to keep up on the LS stuff. I have no idea what’s even going on right now.” I even personally am starting to get there, though I am more dedicated than they are (nothing against them). I can guarantee that most of them would definitely drop money on an expansion and play again for awhile. That’s what happened with GW1. We would all start to tire of things, but as soon as an expansion was around the corner, we were hooked for at least 200 hours again, and we all dropped the money for it. You know how many gems my friends IRL are spending on GW2? 0. None. Zilch. While the active player base is providing them with a healthy revenue stream, expansions bring back a lot of players and money, who in turn will also drop money on gems.

Anyone still reading this blog should know that I really like ANet. I believe that they are trying things that no other developer is willing to risk. It’s bold, and its dangerous. While I support them, I also feel that giving healthy, grounded criticism and warning is vital to shaping the game that we all want. I can be sold on the no-expansions route, but I also feel the need to be clear that it needs to be a whole lot more than what we’ve gotten so far. Will they deliver? That’s up to them now.

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3 Responses to All Aboard the Living Story Train?

  1. Ravious says:

    I completely agree with the xpacs bring people back theory. They are exciting. They build excitement and usually are packed with features. They give people whatever activation energy they need to return.

    Right now… I tell my friends playing other games all the cool stuff, but nothing has been big enough to really get them back for more than a small putz around.

  2. Paul Davis says:

    Notice how tight lipped they are on their revenue? I think they’re making a killing off the micro transactions. I think so far the LS has been a test to see if they are better off with expansions or LS. From what I’m hearing, to purchase a legendary, which quite a few people are doing, it’s $1k real money. I can only imagine the amount of money people are dumping into the temporary micro transactions.

    I agree so far the LS has been petty. The sky pirates? Who cares. I thought the ending to the festival was cool, but when they came out with where it was going, it felt weak. Molten Alliance felt more monumental and world changing. The karka feel entirely against cannon. Where the heck did that island come from? The reasons it’s there are all immensely flimsy.

    At this point, I believe they realized that their expansions are best put into these LS. I do wish they would separate them better. Why do they all need to be so related? Tyria is big. Shake it up if you truly want to keep anyone and everyone coming back.

    Anyway, ultimately now I think we’ll start seeing our new major expansion content (the last few dragons in the area, the massive regions, possibly new player races and profs, etc) as LS since the model has proven very profitable. When that starts happening, and the LS is actually meaningful, I guess we’ll see what they do.

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