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This post is entirely about PvE endgame. I know WvWvW is the focus for many people, but I'm only a little bit into PvP (though I think WvWvW looks pretty cool and will try it).
I've posted on these forums quite a few times in different discussions on endgame -- is it good, is it crap, are you fanbois, am I a stubborn old-school raider, etc. I've mostly been arguing the point that I felt, through my impressions in the beta weekends and through reading about the design of later levels, that the so called "endgame" would lack a motivating game mechanic to keep me and others who like traditional raiding... hooked, long-term.
I'll say for the record that I still hate it when people chant the marketing line "It's all endgame!", as I think that's only talking about the content, and is mostly what I would categorize as "blind faith", but my thoughts on the endgame have changed recently, and I would like to give you at least one hard-core raider's thoughts on why that is.
Endgame without Raids:
To give a bit of background, I am -- in "real" life -- a game designer for a large company, and a hard-core raider. I've played all of the beta weekends and stress tests. I don't know how many hours that is, but I guess it's enough to give me a very good feel for the game overall. I've played most classes and a few up to the level 20 range. I come from a background, in other games, of what I guess most people would consider hard-core raiding in organized guilds. I've played a lot of the major MMOs, and perhaps most notably a lot of raiding in AoC, WoW, and Rift. Contrary to some people who frequent these forums, I think raiding -- if you get into a good group of people -- can be a fantastic and fun experience. It's cooperative gameplay at it's finest (in my opinion) and a very social experience most of the time, if you're in a good guild.
However, I love all parts of a game. I guess in that sense I'm also like a casual player, in that I am big on exploring, seeking out shiny collectibles, crafting, grinding factions, even... gulp... fishing.
To me, two of the most important aspects of a successful MMO are having a large (mostly) seamless world to explore, that I can be immersed in and believe, and secondly a character which I can identify with and improve over time. I think GW2 has the world part covered nicely, but the character improvement -- what I will controversially call "progression" -- is more up for debate.
There have been huge debates here about whether or not there is enough character progression post-level-cap in GW2. To me, it's irrelevant whether or not there is a ton of fun content in the world to play with after hitting 80. If I can't improve or slowly work on my character over time, I KNOW my motivation in the game will dry up and I will move on. I say I know this because it's obviously happened before.
So the big questions here have been: is it enough that GW2 gives you mostly cosmetic rewards once you have hit level cap? Is karma a strong enough incentive system? Will the dungeons satisfy my need to do strong group content?
When looking at the design of GW2, I have been very afraid that the answer to all of these questsions has been no. But I have lately had a bit of a change of heart. And it all relates to my experience in Queensdale. I will try to explain why.
That Damn Queensdale
Here I need to explain the slightly strict way that I've been playing the beta events. I don't want to spoil the game for myself, so I've been mostly confining myself to the human start area, Queensdale. I have a few times ventured a little into the Asura start area, peeked at the Sylvari, and the zone south of Queensdale, whatever it's called (which looks awesome, tbh). When I started BWE3, I thought I would it would start to get boring and I feared maybe I would need to break out of there and try out one of the other areas.
But that is just the thing -- it did NOT get boring. Seriously, I've played that damn area at least 5 times through, and I am still having fun with it. I started to think: what is happening? Curse this damn game, it's messing with my stubborn old man pre-conceived notions of what endgame must be! This cannot be right.
In fact, the really annoying thing here, is that I just keep damn well having fun in the game despite my doubts. In fact, I will go so far as to say that I keep having a tiny bit of that "raid feeling" in the open world. It's only in very small doses, but it's that working together, cooperative take-down-the-boss feeling that I usually get only from raids. It's pushing a wedge in the gap of my "the endgame sucks" armor.
I think part of the reason is that I find myself spontaneously in a group of people, cooperatively working towards a goal so frequently in this zone. Sometimes it's attacking an overrun outpost, sometimes it's defending some beer kegs from invading thieves. Whatever. I'll give Anet some credit here -- they've taken grouping (and you don't need to group, which is the brilliance) to a new level, making it easy and fun.
So, as many a fanboy has said, that's what you do at endgame, you run around, you do all the suff in the world, blah blah blah. I've mostly discounted this, because I KNOW from other games that it gets boring to run around and repeat content.
Or does it? Yesterday playing the stress test for a few hours, I was having a blast. As I've said, I've done it 5 bloody times. Something in my brain is pestering me... something doesnt' compute with the decision that I've already made -- that niggly decision that repeating the content sucks.
Then a long distant memory resurfaces from some other MMO I've played. I can distantly recall complaining to myself in WoW or Rift or some other game (maybe even SWTOR) that I was annoyed there was no reason to go into the zones I loved the most. Take WoW for example... I used to love a few of the forest zones on Kalimdor (however you spell it), but aside from leveling up a character, there wasn't much reason to go there. Because of that also, it was generally a ghost town except for the few people leveling up. Sometime later, they added archaeology, which kinda made people go quickly buzzing around the zone, but it didn't feel like a meaningful reason to visit.
In Rift, they do "Instant Adventures" which push people into the zones and make them feel more populated. They also do invasions, which are dynamic events to take over a whole zone. Each are alright in their own way, but IA's feel like a "mode" seperate from the rest of the world, and invasions -- though awesome at first -- become a bit formulaic over time. Mostly because all invasions, in all zones, generally follow the same pattern. This has improved over time, but not by much.
Back to GW2, I'm standing in that damned Queensdale yesterday, then I'm alt-tabbing out to a web browser and scanning over a world map which someone has labelled the zones and their level ranges. I'm starting to do the math -- that the world is currently comprised of somewhere in the 20-24 times this Queensdale place I've been hanging out. I start thinking of all of the dynamic events that I've been doing, the ones I like, the ones I pass by, and I guess more than anything else the real scale of the thing hits me. I've known for a while that it was a fairly big world, and of course I thought of all those zones having dynamic events. I had just not quite grasped exactly how many of these events there would be. Despite myself, I just can't shake the thought of the fun I've had so far, multipled by 20 or more times. And that's excluding WvWvW and the dungeons.
What is here in this game... what I've started to believe... is the backbone for something very good. I'm not sure that it's all there yet, because I haven't played it yet, and at least some of those 20 odd zones could suck horribly. But the game designer in me has started to see the potential for what this game really is and perhaps more importantly, what it could become.
If they take the basic idea of dynamic events and go with them a bit further (and maybe they do in later zones), I think the world could really come alive, and for once, I could feel like I have a REAL reason to hang out in older zones.
I can give one example of this. The DEs in Queensdale, where the centaurs take over some of the forts and you have to retake them -- unlocking the quick travel waypoint at that location, etc. I can see already if these events went further -- if they cascaded into the centaurs using those bases to organize an all out attack on one of the towns (at a larger scale than what they do now) and eventually take the town and hold it hostage, or imprison people in the dungeon below the city, etc. etc. If stuff like that starts to happen, these zones could just come alive.... rewards or no rewards.
Maybe that's already the case -- as they've described something vaguely like that in Orr at the end, but I think it could be everywhere on a more detailed scale. But then again, this is just the launch content. They will likely iterate on this stuff for years.
Is there really no gear grind?
The fanboys -- you know who you are! -- here will tell you there's no gear grind. Some people... I don't know what happened to some people, if they tried to get into guilds and were scorned, or they just sucked at games and couldn't get in with the cool kids... who knows. Maybe they just got super burned out by copycat mmo designs, which is something I can at least relate to. But some people seem pretty passionately against gear grinds.
I have no such dislike of it. Gear grinding -- or stat increasing gear tiers -- are just a device. They are a replacement for the leveling process which slowly trickles out abilities to you on the way up to cap. Gear grinding is a motivating game mechanic.
So does GW2 really lack this? This is a big one for many people, and a question that most traditional raiders would be most worried about.
After much worrying and much reading and some experience in game, I don't really buy this line. The game most certainly DOES have gear grinding, it's just capped out once you have filled all slots with a certain level of quality. Doing this appears to be a fairly substantial grind, and I don't quite see what people are saying when they say it's easy to do. The gear is aquired outside of dungeons -- for the most part -- but thanks to interesting crafting and the mystic forge, it is a combination of experimentation, luck, and some grinding elements to max your stats and get the look of the items that you want. I think it will likely take people a while to fully max themselves out, and this is a GOOD THING. This is "motivational activity #1" once people like me hit endgame.
So in short -- I believe, at least, that there is a gear grind, but as many have said... it is "wider than it is tall", meaning that you can't endlessly get more and more powerful gear, but there is a bit of a journey to achieve top stats on all items, and that journey is prolonged by a lot of sideways grinding, to get the looks that you want and experimenting with the Mystic Forge.
There is also the fact that to you really will want multiple sets of gear, if you want to play different roles in different situations -- ie. maxing healing ability gear for times when you want more healing, maxing ranged damage builds when you want to use your pew-pew setup, etc. etc. The gear allows a lot of specilization for different build setups, and that also is a GOOD THING.
The Skill Point Grind
In addition to doing a little gear grinding, as I said I like to improve my character as much as I can. Most recently in other games, I like the "Planar Attunement" system in Rift, which is a post level cap experience system giving you small stat increases over time. It's not perfect, but it's something.
GW2 offers you, at least, the ability to max out all of your abilities through skill point increases. It may be that this is already complete by the time that you hit 80 -- I'm not sure. However, once you hit level cap, experience gives skill points over time, which allow you to purchase high level crafting ingredients for the mystic forge, which in turn allows you to craft legendary items (something like 200 skills points for a weapon for example)... which is cool.
I wish there was some other way to tweak your character post-cap, but I think this is something to note at least.
Conclusion, of sorts.
Will this help anyone? Maybe not. It's subjective to my own experience of course, but as one hard-core raider, I can say that I feel much better about the longevity of the game than I used to. This is partly because I've come to see there IS, in fact, a little bit of a gear grind (which makes me happy) which will keep us busy for a while, and the real scale of the number of DEs is also giving me some hope. The social systems in the game -- that feeling of being in a cooperative group against the PvE challenges is also so strong and pervasive, that I think at least it will satisfy some of what I used to get from raids.
Most of all though, I think the potential of taking the dynamic event system and going with it -- expanding on it over time, weaving it into the world even further, is what I -- as a raider -- find the most exciting.
Will the existing reward systems be satisfying enough for most hard-core raiders? I'm not sure. I think they will to some extent, and then it will be a matter how exactly how long it takes people to hit that plateau of not being able to further 'improve" their character. For myself at least, I think that peak is higher than I first thought it might be.... and potentially much more fun along the way.
Edit----> For those commenting about the differences between gear at level 80, I point you to a very nice post on the subject via GW2Guru, where someone explained how the stats differ between the different qualities: