Guild Wars 2: Where do Strongholds come from?

So, after over two years of Conquest, we’re finally getting a new PvP game mode in Guild Wars 2, and in the past few weeks we’ve learned a lot about what it’s going to be like. Mid-February brought us an article on the game’s website, and the following day a demo of the new map in Ready Up 28.

More recently, we’ve had a plethora of streamed Stronghold games, played by developers, journalists, and members of the public at PAX East and Rezzed (including a game between WTS finalists the Dankening and Heaven and Earth).

As we know, the win condition will be killing the other team’s Lord, just like in the Guild vs Guild game mode from the original Guild Wars. But ANet’s decision to call the game Stronghold rather than GvG, combined with the presence of NPCs you can spawn to attack the enemy base, have gotten some people worried that the whole thing will be too much like a MOBA. This was especially so with the original announcement at PAX, with the person running Mistpedia’s (since renamed to AspectGG) Twitter account wondered the same, asking:

Even though we’ve learned a lot more about Stronghold since then, this impression seems to have stuck, and I saw a lot of derisive “MOBA Wars 2” comments on Twitch chat in response to the Stronghold exhibition game played during the WTS finals. So the question that everyone looking forward to Stronghold wants to ask is: is it really GvG, or is it a MOBA?

Well, hold on, embittered Twitch commenters, I’ve got an answer for you!

What’s in an acronym?

As far as why they didn’t call it “Guild vs Guild” is concerned, let’s face it: when you say “GvG”, a lot of GW2 players don’t think about Guild Wars 1 GvG. Instead, they think of the big Team Elimination (ie. “wipe the other guys”) fights that happen in Obsidian Sanctum and the WvW Borderlands. Even for those of us who will always think of GW1 when we hear GVG, Stronghold isn’t an exact copy of it, nor could it ever be with the lack of Death Penalty mechanics in GW2 making a flagstand in the middle of the map pointless. So ArenaNet choosing the name “Stronghold” doesn’t mean they’re deliberately distancing themselves from GvG. It’s more so as not to disappoint people who expect something different when they hear that acronym, whether “something” means a carbon copy of GW1, or a 25v25 Elimination match. Choosing a name that isn’t “GvG” doesn’t automatically mean “MOBA”.

(Just to avoid confusion in the rest of this article, whenever I say “GvG”, I’ll always be talking about the GW1 game mode. The “GvG” that happens in WvW can be called Team Elimination or Last Man Standing instead, which are so well established names for that game type that there’s even a Wikipedia article for it.)

So is it or isn’t it?

With the name out of the way, let’s look at the actual mechanics. If you’re asking whether Stronghold is a MOBA, the first thing to do is define what a MOBA is. In my opinion, MOBA game-types have the following essential ingredients:

  1. A base for each team, with an objective in it that your opponents must destroy to win the game (usually a building, whether it’s called a Nexus, an Ancient, or whatever)
  2. Multiple routes from one base to the other (lanes)
  3. Intermediate objectives in the middle of the map (towers)
  4. AI mobs you can fight (creeps)

Now, let’s see what Guild Wars 1’s GvG is:

  1. There’s a base for each team, with a Guild Lord who has to be killed to win the game
  2. There’s a front gate and back gate, and therefore at least 2 routes between each base (more on some maps, some of whom also featured shortcuts like teleporters, or roadblocks like gates that could be locked or canyons that had to be bridged before the back gate could be reached)
  3. There’s an important secondary objective in the middle of the map (the flagstand), preventing games from becoming just a rush to the enemy base
  4. There’s mobs you can fight (the NPCs defending the base and guild lord).

When viewed in those terms, the two game modes don’t look that different. This isn’t an accident. ANet was founded by ex-Blizzard developers, and all three founders had worked on either Starcraft or Warcraft 3. Those games were ground zero for MOBAs, as the original ‘Defence of the Ancients’ started out as a Starcraft mod before moving to WC3!  So it wouldn’t be surprising if the developers of GW1 were familiar with MOBAs and decided to base GvG on them.

Of course, there’s some fundamental differences between the two, and it would help to go over them:

  1. GvG has no levelling mechanics, or acquisition of gear through gold earned during the match.
  2. The NPCs don’t charge to the enemy base, but instead sit in the base defending the lord (at least until Victory or Death).
  3. There are no towers scattered along the lanes.

It’s not hard to see why ANet made the first change. GW1 had a complicated RPG ruleset, with literally thousands of possible builds. Characters simply weren’t balanced for pvp combat below the max level, as some skills are useless at lower levels, and some builds hinge on those specific skills with a minimum amount of attribute points invested in them (eg. energy management skills that don’t return more energy than they cost until you’ve invested enough attribute points in them). Heroes in MOBAs, on the other hand, are designed from the ground up to work fine at level 1 and gain power smoothly. You unlock the same fixed skills with each level, and, although some heroes are weaker at level 1 and stronger than others at high levels, all of them are viable at any level, and gain power in a smooth curve. MOBAs are designed to offer a pleasing ramp-up as everyone gets more powerful abilities during a match, with the tradeoff that each character always has a fixed build, with only a small scope for personalisation. The build diversity you can have in MMOs make it impossible to offer a ramp-up through levelling mechanics in a balanced way.

Once you make the decision that everyone will be max level (and with max level gear) in pvp, then the reason for the other 2 differences become self-evident. In a MOBA, your character is too weak to take on the enemy base (or even the towers!) when you start off, and the race to level up fastest is a big part of the game. So, to help levelling up, you throw creeps into the lanes in the direction of the enemy base. These do two jobs: your own creeps are a meat shield to hide behind when you’re still a fragile lowbie, and the enemy creeps feed you XP and gold when you kill them. This aspect of the game is so important that kill-stealing to deny gold or XP is an important skill in some MOBAs. Towers are there to slow down the relentless advance of your creeps towards your base. They’re a roadbump that gives you time to respond when you see enemy forces advancing down a different lane than the one you’re on, they give a focus for the AI to fight over, and they’re a way to ensure the progress you made in one lane is maintained even if an entire wave of creeps is wiped out.

Once you’ve removed levelling, though, you don’t really need creeps in the lanes. You don’t need things to kill to level up from. And you don’t need their help to take on towers and the enemy base, because you’re already at powerful enough. In fact, since there are no creeps in the lanes, you don’t need towers for the creeps to fight over either!

The mid-field fights in GvG are, therefore, fought only between enemy players, over the flag stand, which takes the place of towers as a mid-map objective. The morale boosts the flagstand gives are powerful enough that it prevents games from becoming a base race. Plus,all those NPCs who, in MOBAs are running down the lanes? Well in GvG, they’re sitting in your base guarding the lord, so even if you gank the lord with your full team, it only takes part of the enemy team to stop you combined with NPC support.

These differences simplify and telescope the game. In GW1, you start at maximum level, so elongating the game to give players the chance to level up is unnecessary. GvG, then, is more similar to a MOBA than most people realise. I’d go so far as to say GvG is a MOBA,  but without the laning phase! GW1 squeezed 45-60 minutes of pushing and pulling down the lanes into 15-20 minutes of intense team fights and outmanoeuvring the enemy. The two game modes might not be identical, but they’re the same DNA.

So what about this new thing? Stronghold was it?

Since I’m arguing that GvG is basically a kind of MOBA adapted for an MMO, then the question as to which of the two Stronghold is becomes meaningless. If it’s GvG, it’s also a MOBA. It doesn’t really matter.

You can argue that having doorbreakers and archers running down the lanes to the enemy base makes it more MOBA than GvG. But those NPCs don’t do the same job. You don’t need them to level up on, or to have your back while you level up. You just need them to get the door down, because ANet wisely figured out that, if you allowed players to break down the door like on Foefire, everyone would always run zerker to get the gate down as fast as possible, and the game would be renamed to Player vs Door. Moreover, the supply you need to spawn those NPCs takes the place of the flagstand from GvG. It gives you a mid objective to fight over and ensures that matches aren’t just a race to the enemy lord.

There’s only one big difference between Stronghold and those other two game modes: the lanes. Although each team has two outer gates, only one will be vulnerable to enemy attack. The lanes are therefore segregated and unidirectional: each team has an attack lane, where their NPCs advance towards the enemy gate, and a defence lane, where the enemy NPCs run to take down yours. You’ll always be attacking down one side of the map and defending down the other, and I have to confess, it worries me a little.

Single-direction lanes make the game extremely predictable, because you always know where the attack is coming from, and they give fewer opportunities for outmanoeuvring the enemy team and using map control and movement to dictate the pace of the game. This means a far smaller range of team compositions and strategies will be viable. More worryingly, and this has been evident in all the matches we have seen streamed from PAX East so far, it means that the map has very low comeback potential: when one team gets an early lead, it’s too easy to steamroll. The presence of a point system tiebreaker makes this even more of a potential problem, as the points lead you will get from early kills can very easily be maintained all the way to the end by playing defensively: enemy NPCs are extremely easy to kill, and the predictability of enemy movements inherent in only one of your lanes being vulnerable means you can defend your lord very effectively with the help of your base NPCs, maintaining your points lead and negating the need to go for the enemy lord.

Bidirectional lanes, on the other hand, punish a team too focussed on base defence. Multiple routes into each base means the enemy can juke and trick you into focussing your strength in one lane while they send a lone ganker down the other lane to take out your base NPCs. Bidirectional lanes also massively increase comeback potential, allowing the side that lost an early team fight to come back by using movement and map control to attack where the enemy is weak and take back the initiative. This is harder in Stronghold, as only one gate for each team is vulnerable, so you always know down which lane they’ll be coming from!

In other words, bidirectional lanes, like you have in GvG and MOBAs, give more options for manoeuvring and map control. It gives you a meaningful tactical choice over whether you want to all stick together and steamroll the opposition, or split up and give them the runaround. Single-direction lanes take away all those decisions and opportunities.

There are other things you can send a roamer to do (summon a Hero, get supply and spawn more NPCs to help the team fight, etc), but it remains to be seen whether these secondary objectives will be meaningful enough to split off someone to go for them. From what we’ve seen Heroes can be focussed down too quickly, and supply being infinite means you can’t effectively deny it to the enemy team (chase them off and they’ll just sneak back in after you leave).

Towards the end of the Ready Up video (36’), Hugh Norfolk provided a reason for the unidirectional lanes: he said that they tried having NPC spawn points in both lanes, so you could push towards either of the two enemy gates, but the armies of spawned NPCs simply ran into each other, making the game too chaotic and minimising the role of the players. I get how having NPCs running in both directions wouldn’t work, but there are other ways to make the lanes bidirectional. Maybe one gate would be open from the start, but the route to get to it was much longer than the breakable gate, or was guarded by tougher, high-damage NPCs. Or maybe one gate was breakable, but the other could only be opened by stealing a key which is kept somewhere dangerous (perhaps dropped by a powerful NPC), all the way across the map.

This is the only significant difference between Stronghold on the one hand and MOBAs and GvG on the other. But Champion’s Dusk is only the first Stronghold map. Future Stronghold maps have differences in lane mechanics, supply acquisition, secondary objectives, or methods for getting into the enemy base. If we assume that the core of Stronghold is “kill the lord”, then, fundamentally, it’s a gametype based on GW1 GvG (which itself, as we discussed above, is based on MOBAs). While it won’t be identical due to the differences discussed above, it’s the same game mode at its core. A future post will explore the consequences of unidirectional lanes in more detail, but for the moment I’m optimistic about Stronghold: it’s coming from good pedigree!


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