[GW2] The Gathering Progression

Even in my absence through most of the last Guild Wars 2 beta weekend event, I still lurked on plenty of community sites where I could. The two most prominent complaints I saw were about progression, namely weapon skill unlocking and major trait tiers. We’ve already covered weapon skill unlocks, and I think the most elegant change would be to change it to skill usage instead of critter death. It will be interesting to see the iteration that Jon Peters, ArenaNet dev, hints at. So, that leaves us with major trait tiers.

ArenaNet already put forth a pretty solid argument on why this current iteration is necessary.  What I find interesting is that now traits mirror skills a whole lot more. There are 5-basic skills, 3 more complex, more powerful utility skills, and 1 elite skill, and there are 6 basic traits, 4 mid-level traits, and 2 “elite” traits. Also at the top end only one elite skill or elite trait can be slotted.

Long ago in the days of Guild Wars 1, it was stated many times that Magic the Gathering was a guide to how the skill system was designed. They brought up the collectible aspect many times as well as the need to build a skill deck with only a few of many possibilities. While the Guild Wars 2 system is farther away in terms of build creation in that a large portion of the deck is built for the player with weapon skills, it is much closer in terms of rarity.

Rarity in Magic the Gathering is not simply a way to get more money from the addictive gambling aspect of opening up booster packs of random cards. There is significant design involved in placing the correct cards with the correct power in each tier of rarity. Check out the uncommon Serra Angel versus the mythic rare Baneslayer Angel. They cost the same to cast, but the rarer card is way more powerful in numbers and amount of techincal words. There is a game design reason for this.

The first, as ArenaNet mentioned, is opportunity cost. In Limited formats for Magic the Gathering, players only get a pool of cards from booster packs. They will only get to slot so many higher rarity cards in their decks, and it is critical to make the correct decision. If no card had a rarity this opportunity cost would be replaced with a huge reliance on player knowledge. It is easy to understand why higher rarity cards are usually more powerful because they are balanced by opportunity cost. In other words, opportunity cost provides guidance. It also provides balance.

My favorite Magic the Gathering article ever is on the balance of tiered rarities in cards. Yet this balance is not so brutal as the difference between a Serra Angel and a Baneslayer Angel. It is actually requires elegant design. Commons are the lifeblood of the design. They are simple and reinforce the base concepts of the color and set theme. Uncommons build on the base that commons have provided by creating more complexity and synergy. Finally the rares are the big bombs that are exciting to play. Without the parsing by rarity, it would be a nightmare for a designer to reinforce these concepts. The baseline for all cards would just above mediocrity since great cards would become statistical fliers.

ArenaNet also mentioned the slope of downward excitement to 30. At 10 points, it is most exciting because players get the most powerful trait. At 30 points it becomes more of a decision of which trait does the player have to choose. It would be like opening a booster and seeing the rare card on top. The other 14 cards can immediately become as exciting as garbage.  There is a reason Wizards of the Coast puts the rare card near the bottom.

I wonder about players demanding unrestricted traits. Do they not remember the plethora of orphaned skills in Guild Wars 1 that were simply not good enough? Wizards of the Coast has refined a tiered design structure to a science, and applying a similar structure to the traits of Guild Wars 2 seems preferable to me. I think that the design of traits in Guild Wars 2 could really benefit from this structure.

–Ravious

37 thoughts on “[GW2] The Gathering Progression”

  1. I’d love to agree with you Ravious, but I don’t specifically on trait selection. I understand the points presented I really do, plus the new system makes ArenaNet’s job much easier. However, I feel like they took the easy way out. They implemented too many traits that they could never equalize, and instead of fixing the problem, they skirted around it and found a shortcut. I love Guild Wars 2, but this was one of the first of two major decisions that have me shaking my head. In the latest Guildscast, they begin to talk about it, and I would really like to point you to them, because they bring up fairly good points for both sides of the debate. With the new system, it becomes simply another talent tree system. I’d rather see them try to make 8 or so extremely balanced traits for each tree (so less than before), and give us free reign if we spec into that tree. ArenaNet had the chance to make something fantastic, and they took the easy way out. Now we have 12 traits, split into 3 tiers, with some nearly unused by professions. We now have a decent to good system, but I really believe it could have been so much better.

    1. With so, so, so many moving parts 8 traits * 5 trait lines * 8 professions becoming “extremely balanced” is a pipe dream. It also ensure we never get “elite” capstone traits, which I would rather have over 8 mundane traits.

      Is free reign that important over better design? Given the sheer amount of moving parts in a build, I am really surprised that people are really trying to hang their hat on major traits.

      1. I would hardly call it a better design, and calling it better is pretty subjective. There are a lot of people that disagree with this change and its very easy to see why. There are so many uninteresting traits in both the old and the new system. However, now ArenaNet can say, well that’s a tier one trait, it doesn’t really matter. We are now picking traits that get better as we go, but many of them are pretty uninteresting in the beginning. The old system was great, the problem was the lack of balance among the traits. And this new system does nothing to change that. A bad trait is still a bad trait. Yet, now many of them are shoved into tier one. Play the way you want to play, well at least, after you get past tier one.

        1. Wait, how are you defining a “bad” trait? Something that’s subjective (for instance, there was a warrior trait, Death From Above, that AoEs and KBs when you take fall damage) might seem horrible to you but actually be amazing in the hands of the right person (I had a great time with Death From Above); this is basically the whole point of traits, really. Not min-maxing the system for all its worth, but to create a character that you, uniquely, enjoy playing.

        2. Have you ever played MtG? Because if you have I think you’d have a clearer grasp of the elegance of this design. It doesn’t matter if T1 traits are weak compared to the entire pool of traits, as long as they are all relatively balanced *within the T1 pool*. In MtG limited, commons will be the bread and butter of your deck, so you still need to make intelligent choices about which commons you choose even though they’re all relatively modest cards (assuming the developers did their jobs right in balancing). So these tiers are a skill testing system, in that a skilled player will choose the “mediocre” cards that work well with the “good” cards in his pool, or that combine to become “good” cards through synergy.

        3. i have to agree with entombed, i understand why they did it, but i also understand what they did. they did not try to rebalance traits, they just tiered them. and they still need some rebalancing, ive heard “what do i need any of those tier 3 traits for? they arent good!” more than once :D

      2. About capstones… the utility tiers are baffling. The utility tiers are great, and they’re much better than the trait tiers, but if the racial skills are supposed to be weaker than the regular elites, it makes no sense to put the racial elites in the second (and highest) utility elite tier.

        1. To me at least, the skill tiers are annoying, but bearable. I can’t lie, the new system makes me try skills I never would have before, and adds a sense of progression. While it unmistakably adds some grind to the game, it’s alright.

          There was just so much promise with traits, and now it just seems so WoW-esque, which isn’t always a bad thing. I felt like I was promised more for the trait system, more than what I’m seeing. Again, the quarrel is hardly game-breaking, but it’s a little frustrating. The only other feature I disagree with is the latest change on making dyes Character-bound, instead of Account-bound. I don’t think anyone can argue that doesn’t make ArenaNet more money, and is especially disappointing after a blog post detailing they were going to be account-bound. Things change, I understand that, but I would like these changes to be beneficial to the game. I feel we are starting to take a couple of steps in the other direction.

          1. The more I think about it, the more I like the dyes being character bound. Account bound has obvious benefits, but it was just another thing that discouraged me from buying a second copy of the game.

            Now that they’re character bound, that’s one less thing standing in my way.

  2. The trait tiers are pretty good, they’re not the disasters that they could easily have been. But there are problems with the current release, which they say the’ll look into, of course. The luna atra skill tool has updated with bwe2 info (and some needless commentary on skills) but the engineer is pretty much a mess.

    The Engineer has 3 grenade traits, and they’re all in the second tier of Explosives, that doesn’t make sense at all. One of them couldn’t be pushed into another line or down to the first tier?

    Firearms is also bad, none of the 2nd tier traits are for pistols. It is either rifles or flamthrower.

    1. Oh no doubt the traits themselves need work, but that is different from arguing system design. You can’t point to the current traits and claim a failed system when ArenaNet seems to move incredibly fast with moving around skills and modifying traits, etc.

      The point of this article was that I like the theoretical benefits of the tiered system, which is well known in magic the gathering over the SINGLE benefit of free reign in the other system.

    2. Uh, if you have 3 traits for grenades and you can get all 3, that means that a grenade build will “need” to get all 3. That’s not usually good design since it means that you have less versatility – i.e. grenades need to be balanced for the person who gets all 3 traits, which in practice means that they will suck for anyone who doesn’t. That would go against making the class versatile.

      1. Just because you have 3 traits for grenades, doesn’t mean you need to get all 3. Good game design can balance between players choosing 0, 1, 2, or all 3 of those traits. The old system allowed you to pick what you want and ignore what you didn’t. The new system doesn’t really fix anything that the old system couldn’t, and limits player choice. Now I may be forced into picking something I do not want, so that eventually I can get the trait I want.

        This single benefit of choice is one of the most powerful attributes to Guild Wars 2. You level the way you want, you play with who you want, you do whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it. And you can be just as successful in gaining XP and useful currency, the only thing that was important was enjoyment. You did not have to trudge through boring or bad content before having fun, the whole game was end-game. Well now, every character must work their way through the first tier before we can start to see good, quality traits. If this doesn’t feel like a change in game design, then what else is it?

        1. This is cute in theory but in practice balancing is a hard, time consuming process and most games that try to give you more choice in builds then they can really handle end up being an unbalanced mess. If you are given every choice but only a few choices are actually viable you end up with less choice overall (see for example, D2 vs. D3). A smart developer tries to give enough choices to where you can have some fun, without them being so many that it’s impossible to balance within their budget.

          All in all, when you compare GW to standard MMO’s (SWTOR, WoW, etc.), you have plenty of choice for your builds. I’m much more worried that they’ve given us too many choices for them to be balanced properly, than that there’s too few choices.

      2. Not if you wanted something else in the final tier or wanted to put points into another line.

        Now you get something generic in the fist tier, a grenade skill in the second, and you can punish yourself by taking a comparatively weaker grenade skill than one of the grandmaster traits in slot three.

        Grenades are routinely trashed anyway, few people like them, several people want them removed from the game, and one of the traits was even nerfed I think (extra grenade?) This does feel more like an excuse to get rid of them all together.

        And you can, for example, get all the mine and bomb specific traits in explosives.

  3. I don’t think people realize how hard it is to balance skills, traits, and other player choices. The difficulty increases exponentially (maybe even factorially). Balancing five different options isn’t that hard: balancing ten is almost four times as hard as balancing five. Balancing sixty is ridiculous, about 120 times harder than balancing just five.

    Here’s an exercise for anyone who thinks balancing options is easy. It’s called Mutant Chess. It’s regular chess, only each player gets to choose five special powers before the first move. The challenge is to design a pool of powers for players to choose from. For beginning designers I suggest you limit yourself to 15 powers. If you want something crazier, design a full 60 powers. Play it with a lot of friends, and see how many powers never get picked.

        1. Guild Wars 1 is far harder to balance than Guild Wars 2 from a theoretical standpoint, yet many players still played that game. I think imbalance is going to occur in GW2 with or without the current system, and I don’t think it adequately addresses the problem. It’s a band-aid, when some serious surgery needs to be done. Yeah, you may see some short-term improvement, but the problem is still there.

          1. But that implies that there is an entirely non-band-aid solution to this specific problem that doesn’t also A) aggravate other problems or B) create problems of it’s own. I have to say I’m on the fence about this one; I thought that the way it was set up was fine for what they said they wanted it to be. On the other hand, the extra guidance really helped me for the utility skill system, and I feel that I haven’t experienced the new trait system enough to pass judgement. One of the things about this “band-aid” solution is that beta is still beta, and band-aids are easily removed in comparison to skin grafts.

  4. The tiered design caused (and still causes) a lot of problems for MtG, as a game. For years, Wizards made the real bombs rare to sell product, more than as a game improvement. Putting the bombs at rare makes Magic a ‘who has the most money’ game — you must spend hundreds of dollars to make one of the highly competitive decks. At the beginning of the game, when Garfield actually tried to use rarity as opportunity cost, several rares (the Power 9) broke the game, and were restricted. That use of rarity to create opportunity cost was acknowledged to be a mistake.

    In the last couple years, Wizards improved their approach, as noted in the article referenced above. Even today though, many players see most of the commons as just filler – they’re looking for the good uncommons and the rares. Wizards treats the tiers differently now, using the tiers as a way of controlling the complexity of what new players are exposed to. (And Serra Angel is now Rare, not Uncommon, Baneslayer ultra-rare, so that part of the argument is inaccurate)

    Rosewater is quite explicit about rares driving sales in the article: “rares (and mythic rares) sell sets. The role of your rares is to make splashy cards players want to put into their decks.” He gives complexity as only one of the four reasons to make cards rare.

    Garfield took a different tack with his second game, Jyhad, trying to fix the mistakes he made in the Magic. In particular, he tried to fix the opportunity cost problem, by making the rares more situational, rather than powerful, and by removing the four-of-a-card limit.

    Since much of the reason for rare tiers in Magic comes from the need to sell packs of cards, does it really make sense to adopt that model? Complexity, yes, and building a foundation with the first skills you get, yes. But that isn’t what seems to have been done with skill tiers.

    Utility skill tiers instead resemble a grind of relatively useless things we have to get through in order to get to the best stuff, like the many packs of Magic cards we need to buy in order to get the good cards we need for our decks. ArenaNet disappointed me hugely with this poor design. I expected something much less me-too; we’ve all seen similar skill tier systems in other games.

    If the main progression is power level, then the progression is just another grind. If the progression has mainly to do with increased synergy and complexity (which it does not seem to in the GW2 instance), then it makes theoretical sense. Staged progress makes sense, but the current system restricts the players’ choices way too much. Forcing players to grind up in order to get the most powerful skills also fails ArenaNet’s stated goals.

      1. Ack, you’re right. They took it back down (was rare for 7-10). Shouldn’t have relied on what I saw at Star City.

        Since everyone can have every skill if they grind enough, isn’t GW2 more like constructed than limited?

        1. The traits aren’t because you can only slot one tier 3 and only two tier 2. You get a limited amount of higher “rarity” slots, just like in limited where you only get a handful of rares. Skills are much the same if you look at weapons as being base (common), utility being uncommon, and elite being rare.

          If traits/skills were unbounded then it would be more like constructed.

        2. “Since everyone can have every skill if they grind enough, isn’t GW2 more like constructed than limited?”

          Screw tournament rules. I miss GW2 being like the basic rules – no restrictions on how you could build your deck beyond the 40-card minimum.

          We get crap like trait & slot skill tiers because they decided to focus on 5v5 PvP because they have very silly dreams of it being an e-sport (which, frankly, requires a level of balance that is completely impossible with an MMORPG – they would be far better off to just institute a single-build mode for every profession that they could balance without making the game crap for everyone else. You’d think they would have learned from GW1 that balancing the entire game around PvE isn’t a good thing)

    1. The tier 3 skills aren’t necessarily the most powerful. For mesmers, they tended to be the showiest and highly situational or more group oriented (as well as duds like mimic most mesmers weren’t terribly excited by), and the tier 1 skills were some of the most generally useful. Even once I got a couple of tier 3 skills (by level 24) I rarely ever equipped them.

      To me, the biggest problem with the system isn’t the tiers, it’s the skills. Tier 2 doesn’t have many useful OR interesting skills for mesmers. Yeah, we could’ve ignored them before, but isn’t it better to push for more interesting or useful skills in the first place?

      1. Isn’t this the heart of the problem? We’re forced to take skills we don’t want, in order to progress. That’s severely at odds with ArenaNet’s stated goals for freedom and control to the player.

        1. Well theoretically you would want all skills, but depending on how narrow your build of choice is you will always not want all skills as you level.

          If there is a bad skill that is a symptom of being a bad skill, not a symptom of the skill tier design issue.

          1. Skill tiers are pretty inconsequential at any rate. They are more akin to weapon skill unlocks in their purpose, though they serve as a balancing tool for future additions as a secondary effect.

            You need 25 points to unlock your first tier 3 skill. Hopping through just the newbie zones in the BWE and picking up the easy skill points (like the free one waiting near Issormir or the Hands of Ungoth), this can easily be done by level 15. This gives you another 15 levels to save up for that first elite, and you could do even better, considering the newbie zones each have 5-7 skills points, and the full game thus will have another 10 to pick up early for you.

            On the subject of traits, I’m pretty much in line with Arenanets justification. The choice between fewer viable options is much more interesting than unrestricted choice that includes unviable options. Eric Flannum mentioned on the reddit AMA that the tier 3 traits are not necessarily must-have powerful, but rather more specialised effects, as befits something that you can assume should enhance a known subset of playstyles (if you go 30 points in water as an ele, the devs can infer something about your intentions for playstyle from that, that they could not tell at 10 points).

            At the end of the day, the most striking quote is this: “the best builds were all 30/10/10/10/10”. That is a huge problem: Under a system of unrestricted choice of traits, I’m not choosing traits at all. I’m just decidng which of the 5 lines to put 30 points into, and the rest follows from that. No amount of balancing would fix that for such a large pool of traits, and I’m not in favour of just limiting the pool to only what they can reasonably balance. “Just balance it properly” for a pool large enough to hold diverse and interesting alternatives is a myth as long as all traits are not just numeric stat modifiers and thus boring as hell.

            1. I really don’t think the strongest build were 30 10 10 10 10. I theoryycrafted a lot of builds and only one of them was like that. Besides I think with the new system we will see 30 30 10 very commonly. The new system will not help new people, lessens diversity, and allows some traits to remain unbalanced and useful.

            2. If it’s helped some people who have played the game (and it has), it’s a safe bet it will benefit people who are new to the game or even MMOs period, and/or casuals in general, and this is a game that has been marketed heavily toward such players all along.

              Also, a lot of those traits the system allows to remain are traits people enjoy using that are too niche or situational to be balanced against more generally useful traits. Players would have to forgo those fun traits to be competitive, which actually diminishes diversity – especially if ANet gets rid of the fun, niche traits and replaces them with more of the useful but less interesting traits.

              We were already seeing 30/30/10 builds very commonly, whether it’s because people thought they were better or just didn’t want to plod through all the possible choices, I have no idea.

            3. Well, picking two lines to focus on is already more interesting than one, if you ask me. Even if the new ‘mask’ for traits is always 30/30/10, there is a big difference hidden in that: Those 30-pointers will not always be the same even for similar builds, because you are forced to make a choice at the top trait: One of the grandmaster traits (that *only* need to compete with each other, and thus are vastly more easy to balance and keep interesting), or one of the lesser ones

              The example I heard quoted in the AMA was that before all ‘big damage’ warriors would go 30 points in Strength, and pick up a certain trait as the first one. Now they might still go 30 points in Strength, but at the top they would be forced to make a choice between say pressure or spike.

              As to whether you think 30/10/10/10/10 were the best: ANet said that this was the report they consistently got from their internal PvP testers, whom I presume have done a ton more theorycrafting and have vastly more play experience than anyone. I find it a silly thing to not believe, because it makes sense.

    2. TBH, I felt that the utility skill tiers were of great benefit… at least to me. It was a little grindy, sure (especially tier 2, I thought) but I felt like it was more of a buffer. “Don’t just grab the next skill after that skill point, take some time to learn how various things work first. Then try the more complicated stuff.” There is a reason we don’t teach Algebra in Elementary school. Bridges of understanding is what I’m getting at.

      1. Also: I would like to say, as a bit of a rebuff to this whole issue, the question is not whether it makes this better for you, for your team for your friends, for those of us who have been playing these games for years. The real question is: How much benefit does it give to the community as a whole? If there is a kick-ass, witty elementalist-in-potential who doesn’t quite understand traits or finds the game to have less variety because they never really try certain types of skills, or avoid PvP like the plague because it’s so different from PvE, and thus PLAYS LESS AND MEETS THE REST OF US LESS… I think that’s far more of a loss than having to spend an extra skill point or trait slot NOW rather than later.
        But hey.
        Whatever floats your boat.

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