Encounter Design: Spotlighting

The more I right this blog the more I am realizing that old school pen and paper RPG's, Dungeons and Dragons, and World of Darkness mostly, influence my views on Guild Wars 2. When I played with my friends in high school I am usually took on the role of the dungeon master. This continues even now over ten years later. I follow and keep up with a couple RPG blogs, Gnome Stew for example, and I am especially fond of articles they right on encounter design. Those were also always my favourite bits in the dungeon master sections of the Dungeons and Dragons books. Designing good encounters is not easy. Arena Net has an even more difficult task of trying to make interesting encounters and then make them interesting multiple times. 

Today I want to look at encounter design and how it relates to Guild Wars 2. Specifically I want to look at spotlighting. Spotlighting is a term used for when a DM designs a particular encounter or task specifically for an individual within the group. You can do this based on the players class, abilities, or skills, or you can focus more on who they are as a gamer. The whole point, though, is to make that player feel like the boss.

Guild Wars 2 has a tough time doing this and it is what makes a lot of the encounters feel bland. The problem is that Arena Net decided to do away with the "holy trinity" of Tank, DPS, and Healer and then failed to replace it with anything. Massively recently wrote an article on the problems Guild Wars 2 has and the lack of roles was one of there chief complaints. The problem it causes is that people do not have roles to play, and thus there is no spotlighting and no structure. Most MMO's have this built right in. If you are an awesome tank then every time you have to pull a room of mobs and sit on that boss you are spotlighting. When you do your job well you are rewarded with that feeling everyone feels when you do something no one else in the party could have done.

Arena Net choose not to go down this path. They have specifically stated that they do not want the holy trinity in their game. This is not necessarily a bad thing though, it just needs something to replace it. Having not replaced it with anything most encounters in the game are a snooze fest, because essentially they are all the same. The vast majority currently fall into one of two types, tank and spank, or dodge the AoEs. A tank and spank can be a relief after an extremely challenging encounter, and it has its place, but the vast majority of encounters in this game involve fighting a massive HP well. This is not fun, and I often find myself spacing out during most fights. Dodge the AoE can also be a lot of fun. The first time I ran Crusible of Eternity I had a lot of fun fighting the Alpha boss. After the third time fighting the same NPC in the same dungeon with the same mechanics I was done and hate going to run this dungeon because I know no matter what path I do I will have to suffer through the same encounter three times in a row.

There are exceptions though and Guild Wars 2 does have some good encounters, specifically, the hammer fractal. In this mini dungeons there are a series of encounters based around a hammer. The hammer is the only thing that can destroy the seals which are central to each of the combat encounters. There is a trick though, the hammer places conditions on the person holding it, does damage to you when you pick it up, and will out right kill you if you hold it for too long. This is great! Roles are back, kind of. If you have the hammer it can be a lot of fun. Although this is a great little mini dungeon it is still not all the way there. Two or three people are normally responsible for passing the hammer back and forth and they normally get this role because they are the most competent or the quickest to grab the hammer. The others are stuck doing the same old stuff. It is also extremely frustrating to have to explain this encounters design to those that do not understand it. The mechanics are left up to the player to discover. Why not have the mechanics explained as part of the story?

While not completely there, this dungeon takes a step in the right direction. If you are not going to have specific roles at the outset, tank, dps, healer, then make the roles within the encounter itself. For example, in the hammer fractal they could add two other items, say the gloves that go with the hammer. Wearing one of the gloves grants the person wearing it the ability to remove conditions from the person carrying the hammer. It would be possible to continue this theme and add in a shield too. The person carrying the shield can create a bubble which protects the person with the hammer from attacks. Finally, they could add in a helmet which allows the wearer to buff and inspire the person with the hammer to do more damage. Now each person has a role in the party, and will need to work well together to succeed. When they perform their part they will know that they were integral to the success of the party and team and each time you run the dungeon you can try a different role to keep things fresh.

This is not the only way that Arena Net could add more spotlighting into the game though. They could focus on class abilities. In Citadel of Flame path 2 there is a part where you need to kite some mobs around in a circle while Magg plants a bomb at the door. Usually the party takes turns kiting, usually starting with a Warrior. The warrior has the ability to leap a distance and makes an effective kiter. This is a spotlight moment for a warrior player. In the same dungeon you have to cross a lava field with Magg to retrieve some materials to make a bomb. A thief can do this easily on their own using stealth making for a great thief spotlight. Similarly, in Crusible of Eternity there is a laser trap that needs to be crossed. A Mesmer can quickly cross it and set up a portal to get everyone through. These are the kind of moments you say to yourself, "I am glad I picked that class." Another great thing about these moments is that you do not have to have a person playing that class to finish these dungeons. It is just vastly easier with a good player playing that particular class. It sets up situations where other people in the party will say, "I am glad we had that guy in the party."

Spotlighting is something that I believe would add more depth to the encounters in Guild War 2. It would make me happy I picked a certain class, and it would make the dungeons more than what they already are. This is something I learned being a Dungeon Master for Dungeons and Dragons and it made a huge difference in my encounters and how they were enjoyed by my players. This is not the be all and end all of encounter design and not every scene needs to have a spotlight moment. Guild Wars encounters need something though. The Massively article says it perfectly;
...[Guild Wars 2]'s actual group dungeons lack much in the way of structure, and group combat feels more like a mess of people trying to overwhelm events and enemies with numbers instead of finesse.
And that is exactly it. There is no sense of accomplishment when you finish a dungeon in Guild Wars 2. You just go off and look for your group for the next slog through another dungeon. In the future I will look at other aspects of encounter design and how Arena Net could utilize them to bring new life to Tyria.

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