I remain an enthusiastic observer of the ongoing Guild Wars 2 development. In particular, I like that they’re challenging the MMO trinity of DPS-healer-tank. And of course, whenever I find myself liking something, I get all upset and manage to find some aspect of it that gets me all bent out of shape. Clinically, I’m not sure that’s neurosis, but, hey, shake what yer mama gave ya.
My primary point of contention is one of fundamentals. First off, who’s the authority who claimed that DPS-healer-tank is a “trinity”? Who imparted divine status on this mode of content consumption? It’s not a holy trinity. It’s a default. Many games have proven that you can deliver a steady, spooled, subscribed-to stream of content by rolling with the proven model. Forgive me for getting all fired up oevr semantics, but I don’t see anything divine in doing the same thing over and over, especially when it’s what most of the medium already does.
And that brings me to my second quibble. Don’t start your design with a negative. Don’t build your premise on what your game isn’t. The Halo franchise wasn’t established when a Bungie guy ran into a room and shouted, “I’ve got it! Let’s not build an RTS!”
Of course, all this is a bombastic way of saying that in design, you need to know what you want your player to experience. It’s not enough to break an existing model. It’s not enough to cast your design in terms of what it’s not. The pivotal piece of your game… is what it is.
Over at RPG.net, the term “fantasy heartbreaker” often arises. (Russell and Ben have even adopted it as an eye-winking moniker for their own journal.) The “fantasy heartbreaker” is a title that casts itself in terms of another game — D&D — and distinguishes itself only in the differences. “My game is like D&D, only the elves are dinosaurs.” “It’s like D&D but the combat is way more realistic.” “It’s like D&D with a much better magic system.” The “heartbreaker” comes in terms of the idea being, well, really not good enough to support its own weight, despite the doomed, loving myopia of the designer. “It’s like Vampire, but you’re a Highlander instead.” “It’s like Changeling, only it exchanges folkloric themes for gratuitous SCA fan service.”
Now, I don’t say of any of this to cast the stink-eye on ArenaNet. They’re smart, skilled developers and they know what they’re doing. I can guarantee you they had this whole conversation and decided what they wanted to do with GW2, even if it started with a critical look at other games in the market and their own initial title and a list of ways in which they wanted to depart from that experience. That’s fine, so long as it results in a definitive statement of what their design is and doesn’t languish in what their design isn’t.
Subtractive design is a productive method of game design. In subtractive design, you pare away what didn’t work in a previous design, trim the excess, shear off the experience that’s not central. It leaves behind an integral core. It’s valid. Negative design, however — choosing your direction as a derivative of where you know you don’t want to go — well, that’s a disastrous and all too often well-traveled path.