Baby Steps: The Evolving Approach to PvE

In my last post about the overall PvE meta, I stated what the current situation of PvE is. That statement isn’t quite accurate, because it was focused not on the current situation, but the release situation.

Granted, the vast majority of the content in the game is generally the same as it was when Guild Wars 2 released, but calling it a “current situation” doesn’t do justice to what has been added. The new content shows a completely different approach to designing challenges for the player base.

In this post, I’m going to illustrate how different content has been tailored to address many of the shortcomings of PvE at release. Each small piece shows how thing are getting better, one step at a time.

NOTE: For this post, I am focusing on the following major pieces of content. While there have been other changes, they aren’t as impactful (or as easy to illustrate) as these:

  • Fractals of the Mists
  • Guild Content
  • Living World (Seasons 1 and 2)
  • Super Adventure Box
  • Tequatl Rising
  • Triple Trouble
  • Dry Top
  • Silverwastes

Condition Vulnerability

Content in View: Living World Season 2, Triple Trouble, Silverwastes

Condition damage is a losing proposition in the majority of PvE. It takes time to ramp up to lethal damage, condition caps cause a player to overwrite another’s damage, and no amount of duration boosts make up for the strength of critical hits.

But utilizing the armor-ignoring aspect of conditions has made using them extremely effective in niche circumstances. Both the husks of Triple Trouble and Mordrem fame drop like flies when assaulted with 25 bleed stacks, while shrugging off a warrior channeling all of Hundred Blades.

Triple Trouble went so far as to make it impossible to kill a husk with direct damage. Hits that would do 5,000+ do less than a tenth of that. But put some heavy duty necromancers on the job, and a husk melts. Mordrem husks are slightly more forgiving, but conditions are still the way to go.

I must stress that neither case truly “fixes” conditions, it just makes them the niche obvious choice for a very small subset of the game. Running around Silverwastes as a pistol/pistol Sinister engineer might work pretty well, but pulling the same stunt in Cursed Shore causes time-to-kill that would rival a glacier for speed.

Control Emphasis

Content in View: Dry Top, Silverwastes

Control has the potential to make simple encounters even easier, but that’s a severe waste of the potential of the numerous control effects out there, from stuns and dazes to knockbacks and knockdowns. The all-or-nothing approach of Defiance stacks only makes it worse.

Dry Top has the extremely fast moa Three-Toed Tootsie. Her (his?) entire event is premised on landing tons of CC. Fail to do so and she runs away and you have to start over. It outright requires control to be beatable.

Silverwastes takes a different approach in two different enemies. Teragriffs are terrifying (ah, alliteration), but throw a chill or an immobilize on them, and they faceplant on their charge. Thrashers either spin everywhere or sit on extremely long channeling skills. Interrupt them in any way, and the channels quit. There’s an incentive to use control, but not a requirement.

As with conditions, though, these cases are very niche. Sure, the entirety of Silverwastes has spawns of teragriffs and thrashers, but that’s one area of dozens. And a single event in Dry Top does not a control revolution make.

Encounter Design

Content in View: Fractals, Guild Content, Super Adventure Box

As the previous post said, encounter design was not a release strongpoint. What few challenges there were turned into optimization problems of putting the right mix of damage (primarily), support, and what little control is worthwhile when Defiance stacks exist. End result: the zerker meta, and people stacking in melee for lack of a reason to go anywhere else.

Fractals of the Mists almost immediately fixed the stale design of encounters. While I’ll cover Fractals more in a later section, most of the encounters required stronger positioning, and a better sense of timing than their dungeon counterparts. Add in encounters where spiking the boss wasn’t even possible (Uncategorized), a secondary part of the fight (Cliffside), or not the real challenge at all (Jade Maw), and it’s still my favorite endgame content.

While guild bounties boil down to a rezrush-DPS-mob-zerg-doomball, challenges, puzzles, and to a lesser extent rushes*, utilize new encounter mechanics. Some are as simple as doing the same thing in multiple locations, while others require a multi-layered approach to a single overarching goal.

*The differentness of rush depends on whether “protectors” are used. Protectors null a lot of the enemy challenge of the rush, making it a simple matter of avoiding traps and following the correct route.

I mention Super Adventure Box, because it’s easily, easily, the best example of how much creativity ArenaNet can put toward encounters and challenges. Every last piece of the place is oozing in not just theme, but creative challenge. It plays with the unbridled fun of not being chained to the expectations of the overall PvE meta.

Both seasons of Living World, Dry Top, and Silverwastes also show extra thought being put into encounter design. If anything, encounter design is the most addressed release shortcoming for PvE, though it has thus far been restricted to new content and the scant few reworks of original content.

Puzzle Mechanics

Content in View: Fractals

Most of the release world was impossibly straightforward, the only puzzle being in how to do it in the first place. Once that was done, the mystery was gone, and it was a simple matter of doing the same steps over again, maybe with minor changes. This made all second-time encounters stale, because there was very little to spice them up.

A good portion of how Fractals pulled off complex and varied encounters was by applying puzzle mechanics to the mix. Cliffside takes a hammer, and applies it to four different encounters, all based around the mechanic of killing a mob, smacking a seal, and repeating. Old Tom requires three of five people in the party (Level 10 or higher) to pay attention to visual cues and keep the poison vented.

Granted, these still run into the problem of “done it once, then it’s all repetition,” but they require a more active investment up front rather than porting the logic from Dungeon A to Dungeon B and achieving the same results. Implemented well, puzzle mechanics are a great tool for making encounters interesting and involved, but before I veer off into “new topic” territory, back to the post:

Mass Organization

Content in View: Guild Content, Tequatl, Triple Trouble, Living World Season 1, Dry Top, Silverwastes

Five minutes at a world boss will tell you everything you need to know about how to reduce encounter difficulty to zero: stack the entire map in a safe spot and spam all the cooldowns. Or, barring that, rez the downed if they can’t avoid the AoE. Open world content went from challenging on paper to a snorefest the instant level 80 exotics were a common sight on players.

Problem, meet solution: require lots of people in physically separated locations to succeed. This was first tried with Guild Puzzles and Challenges, though due to the limited reward period (once a week) and availability (guilds had to unlock it), it didn’t give any reason for people not guilded together to stop blowing all the cooldowns in a zerg.

Then Tequatl ascended in the ranks from punching bag to murderer of thousands. And Scarlet disturbed the Three-Headed Wurm*. Dozens of people had to cover many different places to have a hope of killing either. Beyond that, they had to execute en masse multiple different mechanics to succeed.

*Is it like an elder dragon? She woke the poor thing over a year ago and it’s yet to go back to sleep.

The main issue of shoving raw minimum player counts at the zerg problem is that there is no guarantee that the content will be popular enough to successfully complete it. Without a zerg’s worth of people, content meant to force zergs to split up is impossible.

New problem, meet new solution: better, more varied scaling. This is on display in Dry Top and Silverwastes. Both require players to split up, but rather than tying success to a minimum player count, each area is more than completable by five people (and sometimes less). But toss fifty people at the same place, and difficulty rises to match. The improved scaling is also related to the next point.

Simple Complexity

Content in View: Living World, Dry Top, Silverwastes

A good portion of why release PvE is a repetitive mess is how bad the AI is. That’s a topic all its own, but the individual stupidity of enemy mobs makes most encounters one-dimensional: group up mobs, disable their damage, obliterate them, repeat.

Looking back at the Molten Alliance (and Scarlet’s other retinue), and moving forward into the Mordrem of Season 2 and the Maguuma Wastes, two characteristics come forward: more complex skills, but still being simple to kill individually. A Mordrem husk by itself isn’t much of a threat, nor is a wolf.

But combine the mob types, and individually simple mobs become a synergizing force of doom. Getting hit from behind by a wolf is easy to avoid…unless you got nailed by a husk’s immobilize. Dodging a charging teragriff is doable…unless a vile thrasher just coated the area in sticky, torment-y, crippling gunk*.

*Is the fact that I enjoy Silverwastes showing? It does have some really good examples of what I’m trying to say, and it’s fresh in the memory.

Synergy is what is expected out of players, and having mobs display the same traits in their own ways increases both the difficulty of fighting them, and the satisfaction upon defeating them. It’s not merely obliterating health bars in corners and other convenient terrain features, it’s outsmarting the enemy at their own game.

This same synergy makes the original problem of throwing a bunch of worthless trash in to scale an event a thing of the past. Where before an extra player or two meant a half-dozen basic trash mobs spawn, live for a second and a half, then give up a loot bag, now it can lead to an extra veteran, or three enemies that together spell big trouble.

Mob synergy does exist in the rest of the game, but it’s undone by AI that can be lured around corners or stacked up with basic CC. A lot of work remains to be done to make PvE mobs capable of half the things their skill listings say.

Different Functions, Same Rewards

Content in View: Tequatl, Triple Trouble, Dry Top, Silverwastes

With all of the shared rewards available in the game, players are trained into the expectation that they should get the same rewards as the next person doing the same content. Sure, RNG gets its grudging place in the equation, but no one likes feeling shafted. This is just as true in large encounters that by nature require many people to do many different things.

In a lot of content, players utilized the scaling mechanic to deliberately increase the value and quantity of the loot dropped, because it exceeded the end reward for the event. Clockwork Chaos invasions are the most clear example of this, with the original Queen’s Jubilee a close second.

Combine this problem with the expectation of “fair loot,” and it’s clear why the content that requires numerous people to do completely different tasks awards the exact same loot at the exact same time for everyone who participated in any measurable way. It’s two birds with one stone. This is functionally the entire system with Tequatl and Triple Trouble.

But in Dry Top and Silverwastes, ArenaNet took the idea one step further by increasing the number of options available to players, few of which are wrong. To take an example, consider a lane at Vinewrath. A player can build and man siege, buff or stealth a carrier, call in an air strike, CC mobs out of the carrier’s way, gather ammunition, or just plain kill the mobs. Over a half-dozen options, all of which help the ultimate goal of winning the event. About the only wrong option in this case is to do nothing.

I personally think these new approaches are awesome for the game, because it preserves the cooperative thinking that Guild Wars 2 is designed to encourage. It also makes completely pointless lootfarming builds like a guardian spamming Staff 1 or a warrior going ham with a greatsword.

Unfortunately, these approaches have to be fully confined within an event large enough to support multiple roles, else there’s no point restricting loot to the end chest or otherwise. So while the idea has legs, its application is limited by default.

Conclusion

Several different kinds of design paradigms are evident in what has been added to the game since launch. By looking at each set of content, it’s clear to me that ArenaNet is genuinely trying to move away from a braindead approach to PvE. But so far, it hasn’t quite happened because of how little of the game is covered by the new content.

Looking back at these baby steps and looking forward to the expansion, I’m seeing that desire to do challenge justice falling into place. How? I’ll look at the likely future situation of PvE next.

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