Gamism vs Simulationism- Attributes in GW2

This post is primarily about the Attribute system of Guild Wars 2. Before I get to that though I’m going to have a short description of Gamism and Simulationism as they apply to RPG design. These terms relate to a theory known as GNS theory, GNS standing for Gamist, Narrativist and Simulationist. The theory essentially details three different preferences of gamers and how they impact game design as well as how the three views can come into conflict with one another.

Gamist

“This is a game. There are goals for us to achieve, and we want to win.” This is the basic premise of the Gamist viewpoint. Essentially, Gamists prefer to have a structured environment in which the rules, goals, and balance are all explicit and understood. In tabletop games, Gamists often prefer hack-n-slash styles of adventures where the goal is clearly to kill the monsters, clear out the dungeon, whatever. The rules of combat are well designed and players know what they need to do. Above all, balance is extremely important to a Gamist because they feel that they don’t want to play a game where they are gimped for certain concepts. They find it hard to have fun playing something that sucks just because the story or the lore says it does for example.

None of that is to say that Gamists don’t enjoy story or roleplaying. In general it is more about having structure and fairness instead of perfectly consistent lore or logic.

Simulationist

“We are members of a living, breathing world. We are but small cogs in the workings.” Essentially, a Simulationist wants to be part of a world that does not necessarily revolve around the players themselves. Simulationists are not bothered by system imbalance as long as there are reasonable and conceptually logical reasons behind them. “Life isn’t fair and balanced” is something that they feel carries just fine into games. If you are familiar with tabletop games, the phrase “Linear Fighter, Quadratic Wizard” is exactly what I’m talking about here. Powerful magic at high levels is so powerful that it just doesn’t make sense that a regular human swordsman would be able to deal with it. That is reason enough.

Simulationists still like rules and structure like Gamists, but they want their rules to more accurately describe a consistent and logical world. As I said before, if there is imbalance, well, that only makes sense because the real world isn’t fair either.

Narrativist

I’m not going to spend much time on this one because it largely doesn’t apply to the attribute system. That’s kind of the point I suppose because Narrativists care more about the personal growth and internal conflicts within characters more than having a goal or the machinations of the world at large. In GW2 terms, this will be most applicable to the Personal Story where you have to make personal choices that aren’t combat related but instead are about your growth as a person.

Now how does this apply to Attributes?

Essentially, most video games tend to fall into either Simulationist or Gamist systems when it comes to leveling up characters and how their abilities work. Many RPGs, both tabletop and electronic, have systems where certain classes are good at the beginning and weak later and vice-versa. Similarly, some choices are just inherently bad compared to other choices, but perhaps they have more flavor or cool looking effects. Often systems will have large amounts of complexity which lead to the ability to create powerful combinations, but also lead to the ability to create absolute garbage and not even realize it unless you know the system well enough. For example, you normally invested 12 points into one or both primary attributes in GW1 and then left the rest alone, or had 3 fairly high stats and left the rest. The reason for that is that spreading yourself too thin basically made you bad at everything rather than decent at most things. Yet you could still invest 6 points into 9 attributes. Sure, it would be dumb, but that was just a quirk of the system. A Simulationist would tell you that only makes sense because you have no focus and basically it’s your own problem. A Gamist is more likely to chafe at the percentage of totally garbage trap choices and wish the system was more tightly balanced.

Attributes as we knew them in GW1 are gone. Instead they have been replaced with more standard MMORPG style attributes. Originally GW2 had:

  • Strength—increased melee attack damage.
  • Agility—increase ranged attack damage.
  • Intelligence—increased magic attack damage.
  • Vitality—increased health; increased defense against melee attacks.
  • Perception—increased critical strike chance for melee and ranged attacks; increased defense against ranged attacks.
  • Willpower—increased critical strike chance for magic attacks; increased defense against magic attacks.

Anyone who has ever played DnD, or really almost any tabletop game will recognize the similarity to the classic Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Constitution, Wisdom and Charisma. These attributes are very commonly used in Simulationist games. Basically, if you are hitting with melee, you need strength. If you are using ranged weapons you need dexterity(agility) to aim. Vitality describes how hearty you are, intelligence fuels magical powers. Perception and willpower are all about criticals. The logic is basically that it doesn’t matter that it is bad to spread your attributes thin because a real person isn’t amazing at everything. Strength, Agility and Intelligence are the logical attributes for their respective abilities.

Here’s the thing. I freely admit that I’m a Gamist. I like games as a form of recreation and competition. Therefore I want to be playing something that is fun rather than something that mimics a real complete logical world. To me, I want to be awesome in a game. If you look at say Lord of the Rings, some of the characters are just plain awesome at everything. Nobody looks at Legolas and says, “Man if he had only focused on being able to shoot and ignored any melee ability, he would have been so much better off”.

In my eyes, while it is perfectly logical to assign attacks to Strength, Agility and Intelligence, it is also annoying and arbitrary. Ranged characters don’t have any penalties for firing in melee range, and often they have a lot of ways to mitigate damage when in melee or get away from enemies. Just look to GW1 for that. The same is true for magic- all magic is magic, so all of it keys off of Intelligence, no matter the range. Basically, if a melee character wants to be able to do anything at range, they have to sacrifice their effectiveness at both ranges when a mage can split between one damage type and then one defense type. It’s logical and it’s not well balanced. Worst, it doesn’t fit well with the weapon switching mechanic where they seem to encourage swapping weapon styles. Having those attributes discourages mixed weapon sets and in doing so drastically narrows build options. That’s why I’m so behind what they changed them to:

  • Power—increased attack damage.
  • Precision—increased critical strike chance.
  • Vitality—increased health.
  • Toughness—increased defense/armor.

See, this attribute system is far more Gamist. Do you want to be good at dealing damage? Power. Do you want to be good at crits and special effects? Precision. Do you want huge health pools to augment your base armor? Vitality. Do you want to be able to shrug off small hits? Toughness. It is simple, it is elegant, and it encourages every conceivable weapon set in the game. If you want to focus on all forms of ranged combat, choose two ranged weapons and whatever attributes you want. If you want to focus on melee, same deal. If you want to have a bit of everything, one ranged set and one melee set will still work just fine, you will simply be less versatile at each range than a specialist, not less powerful.

I see Power as sort of the baseline Attribute. Everyone wants to be able to deal damage and fortunately it applies to all forms of attacks. Given a lack of a dedicated healing role and tanking role, pretty much everyone will need to do damage. It will be interesting to see if/how Power interacts with conditions and boons. If boons and conditions are percent based, or at the very least don’t get affected by Power then I would expect we might see a fair number of Support/Control specced characters with little power and a lot of the other three attributes.

Precision is a fairly common type of Attribute for MMOs, but ANet has indicated that they want criticals to do more than just mulitply damage. There are a number of critical effects that can be added by weapons and traits that might encourage crits to be more interesting instead of just more damaging. Some of these might include things like giving boons or conditions on criticals. If it is really the case that Precision is more about effects than damage output, that will truly make an interesting choice instead of just having some optimal combination of Power/Precision like in most games. That said, I think that it will need to be either mostly ignored or heavily focused on because causing conditions and such on crits won’t be useful if they aren’t reliable.

Now, there has been quite a bit of debate about Vitality and Toughness and whether either one is more or less useful. We don’t have enough information to make a perfect judgement at the moment, so instead I’m going to go through some potential strengths, weaknesses and pitfalls. In most systems damage reduction is far more important than health. One of the major reasons is that damage mitigation essentially is extra health in the form of damage you didn’t take but otherwise would have. Another is that in many systems if you stack up enough damage reduction (DR) you can take almost no damage at all. Yet another point in favor of DR is that most games have strong healers and having lots of mitigating but lower health makes healing that much more efficient because the heals aren’t percent based.

In GW1 most defense was percent reduction with very few ways to just have static reduction. We know that there are three armor classes in GW2- Scholar, Adventurer and Soldier in order of ascending strength. What we don’t know is how that armor actually works. Here is how I hope it works to create what I would consider the most balanced system. Base armor (based on profession) is percent based, like GW1. I don’t know what would be the best spread of reduction, but it shouldn’t be too huge between Scholars and Soldiers because they don’t want damage between those roles too skewed either. Then, in my eyes, I would want Toughness to be flat DR. So say Soldier armor reduces incoming damage by 30% and each point into Toughness reduces incoming damage by 1 point. If this were the case, then there would be some cases where Vitality could be better, i.e. when you are taking fewer hits that are very big and therefore making the flat DR from Toughness less mitigating overall. Similarly, Toughness would be better against a large number of smaller hits because it blocks a lot more of the damage overall.

The pitfall you would have to avoid is in letting Toughness provide too much DR, or making Vitality not provide enough health. It would be a delicate act to deal with, but you won’t want anyone to be invincible in this system. Another concern is how healing (mostly boons) interact with characters. If they are percent based healing and regeneration then the system can work alright, but if they are static amounts (and small) then the Vitality character would have a massive penalty because healing in static amounts greatly favors damage mitigation. Overall the Toughness vs Vitality issue will be pretty hard to balance. Some have suggested adding another “pop” to Vitality, something more interesting than flat hit points. My favorite suggestion was to have it make conditions last shorter durations, but I can’t really comment on the balance of that without knowing for sure how damage calculations work.

A final note and disclaimer

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with Simulationists or Narrativists. Not at all. I have lots of friends that are both of those things. I just wanted to write this up about why I personally like the more Gamist approach to stats and professions in general and to outline the basic function of them in GW2. I also don’t really agree that Narrativism is necessarily in conflict with Gamism or Simulationism as much as the theory might suggest because at its heart Narrativism is about the story whereas Simulationism and Gamism are more about mechanics. There are some intersections, just not as many as Gamism and Simulationism have.

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