Breaking the Paradigm: What “Beyond the Point of No Return” Really Means

UPDATE: Due to the very recent discovery (as of 13 January 2015) of a trademarked GW2 logo with the words “Heart of Thorns” on it, I’ve been spurred to some more thoughts. Read them here.

This post is speculation, but based on facts. I do not know any more than the rest of the player base for what actually is getting announced January 24th at PAX South. (In short, I could be wrong)

TL;DR,

ArenaNet has been working on an expansion, and will release it in bulk chunks over the next year for free to owners of the original game.

The expansion will go into the takedown of Mordremoth, with Season 2 being a lengthy introduction. It will include tons of large QoL improvements and new features, though those will also be staggered to story-type releases to give additional QA/bug-fixing time.

Now how have I come to this conclusion?

How I know it’s an expansion: The Panel Description

Firstly, let’s look at the panel description:

Guild Wars 2: Beyond the Point of No Return

Join ArenaNet president and co-founder Mike O’Brien and Guild Wars 2 game director Colin Johanson for an exclusive sneak peek at what’s next in Guild Wars 2 and be among the first to hear how we’re setting up a new framework for how an MMO can grow its universe. The Living World was just the beginning.

There are three key phrases and one note of the participants to pull from this short blurb:

  1. “Beyond the Point of No Return”
  2. “…new framework for how an MMO can grow its universe.”
  3. “The Living World was just the beginning.”
  4. ArenaNet president Mike O’Brien and game director Colin Johanson are presenting.

Beyond the Point of No Return

Point of No Return is the eighth, and based on marketing, the last episode of Season 2,  especially with a tagline like this on a panel happening 11 days after its release.

Since the panel is entitled “Beyond the Point of No Return,” then it has to be about future plans. This already narrows it down to two possibilities:

  • Living World Season 3
  • Something bigger than the current Living World paradigm (boxed expansion, massive content patch, etc.)

Also, consider the marketed trailer linked at the beginning of this section. It’s all about preparing for war, scouting around, and that point, that final point, where you can’t go back, where retreat is not an option.

In a narrative sense, then, going Beyond the Point of No Return has to deal with the actual war with Mordremoth, because the exact point is the war’s beginning.

“…new framework for how an MMO can grow its universe.”

What is the classic way for an MMO to “grow its universe”? Expansions. From the very first MMOs to WoW and beyond, additional lore and content patches pale in comparison to an expansion when it comes to growing the universe.

But Living World already fulfills that, right? Growing the universe with a biweekly cadence* with new content, features, and everything. So…

*Yes, I realize that the biweekly cadence isn’t being held to that much anymore.

“The Living World was just the beginning.”

Oh. Well, uh, never mind on that point. With a phrase like that, whatever is Beyond the Point of No Return is bigger than simply Living World Season 3. From the wording itself, the scope has to be larger than simply another season.

Going back to the first point, that only leaves something expansion-like.

But maybe it’s standard ArenaNet hype over something new and different, but really not huge in scope.

Mike O’Brien and Colin Johanson are both presenting

Since Guild Wars 2 has released, Mike O’Brien has been fairly quiet on the official post and announcement front, favoring specific team leads to deliver the news about what they’re bringing live.

The few exceptions to this have been big announcements that define the direction of the company or public statements of company policy/culture. (To back this, his last post on the Guild Wars 2 News page was in August 2013,  and he has posted only three times on the official forums, most famously with the Communicating with you post in August 2014. He also wrote the much-referenced Design Manifesto article back in 2010)

Colin Johanson is much more active, but he also has a particular role: overviews and forecasts*. Back in 2013, he was the author of both looking ahead posts (January and July), and more recently he’s announced feature packs, the dates that Living Story will start up, and game systems that transcend just one team (New Player Experience).

*Which is to be expected from the game director, but bear with me.

Put the two together: the president who by past example alone is going to define the direction of the company with what he says, and the game director in charge of implementing that direction across every team.

That’s not Season-3-Get-Hype-Yo. That’s “we’re changing our direction, and what’s coming next is bigger than Living World. Much bigger.” I.e., an expansion.

How I Know It’s Mordremoth: Narrative Arc

The entirety of Season 2 has been about Mordremoth, with occasional nods back at Scarlet (which, since her entire arc culminated with waking him up, is still about Mordremoth).

However, it’s all been about “framing the problem.” More time has been spent on concluding the Zephyrite aspect of the arc than has been put at fully revealing Mordremoth. He’s a much more insidious and crafty dragon compared to Zhaitan, so this is fitting.

But there’s no way that we’re confronting anything more than a lieutenant of Mordremoth in the Point of No Return release. The war is just starting, the forces finally mobilized. That’s not getting wrapped up in a single episode, no way no how. Hate on ArenaNet’s dialogue all you want, they have narrative arc pretty well figured out.

Furthermore, ArenaNet is not dropping Mordremoth in favor of another dragon to take out in an expansion. Based on The Dragon’s Reach (especially the World Summit segment) alone, they have gone out of their way to “leapfrog” the other dragons. (Add in Point of No Return’s trailer tagline of “All of Tyria is threatened”, and this is even clearer)

Add to that the fact that the minion presence of Jormag, Kralkatorrik, and Primordus has remained functionally unchanged. Meanwhile, Mordrem vines are everywhere, and the diversity of his horde grows with each release.

So without reservation I say the expansion will be story-focused around Mordremoth, specifically, killing him.

How I Know It’ll have Big Features: CDI & “Lost” Features

For as much grief as the Collaborative Development Initiative gets, there have been a lot of topics in just the past year and some change. Further, they’ve been topics about either A: stuff the player base has asked for a ton, or B: stuff the player base has said desperately needs fixing.

The #1 complaint people level against CDIs is “They get all this feedback, then don’t release anything based on it.” Even the summaries of “what’s getting forwarded to the appropriate team(s)” have a really low rate of becoming reality.

There are only a few conclusions that can reasonably be made for such a low rate of “payoff”:

  1. The developers are incompetent at implementation, but really good at describing possible solutions.
  2. The developers are deliberately being misleading by indulging the player base’s desires, while having no actual interest in implementing their suggestions.
  3. Implementing the suggestions has a bigger scope than initially expected, requiring the features to be kept under wraps “until they’re ready.”

The first conclusion is belied by ArenaNet’s own track record.  Yes, releases have bugs (sometimes game-breaking ones), but when it comes to creating new systems and implementing them, they are really good. To illustrate this, consider both feature patches this year. (It’s another argument entirely whether or not the new systems are desired by the player base, and not within the scope of this topic)

The second one is terrible, terrible business sense, and would be near-impossible to pull off without the entirety of the company making a conscious decision to be deceitful liars. Just one person with a conscience and such corporate skullduggery would be out on every gaming blog in a heartbeat. (And the company’s reputation, profits, and overall viability completely sunk with it)

That leaves the third conclusion: it’s bigger than expected.

The Collaborative Development Initiative started as a handy way to collate feedback on particular topics so that ArenaNet could go to the drawing board and figure out a way to make them real. General topics, lots of general thoughts.

My conjecture is that CDI quickly ran into the wall of Development Time. And not just development time on the scope of a once-quarterly feature pack. Ones that required a lot more time than something like Collections or the Wardrobe.

But rather than say “well, we don’t have the time to do that,” it got thrown onto the ever-expanding table as something to work through in the background.

Interestingly, the tone of CDI has changed in recent months. Consider the beginning of the CDI:

  • Game Modes
  • World Population
  • Living World

Simple, generic topics that apply to everyone (though PvP will always be niche, even if it is accessible to everyone).

Fast-forward to the most recent ones:

  • Guilds: Logistics and QoL
  • Raiding
  • Guild Halls

Very, very specific. Sure, guilds are a big part of the game, but very little requires them (Guild Content, that’s it). Likewise, raiding is really popular, both from other MMOs and within GW2, but fairly niche compared to the overarching Living World concept.

This indicates to me that high-level solutions got devised, but finding a specific form that the player base wouldn’t use as an excuse to spike the torch-and-pitchfork market required going back and asking more specifically.

Still not much to base on speculation-wise, but then you bring in…

“Lost” Features

Everyone remembers the infamous Looking Ahead post of 2013. If there is any one single document not named the Manifesto that ArenaNet has gotten raked over the coals for, this is it. More specifically, people always mention these features that were to be released by the end of 2013:

  • New legendary weapons and types of legendary gear
  • New skills and traits (healing skills did make it in during 2013, but new traits were April 2014, and no further skills have been added)

Also swirling in the maelstrom of lost features is the precursor scavenger hunt (an artifact of 2012, no less).

(Curious side note: aside from those two bullet points, the post was 100% accurate for what was delivered during the second half of 2013)

New legendaries, new skills, and the precursor scavenger hunt have spawned so many “nothing is off the table” references it’s not even funny.

But combine the confirmed nature of “it’s still on our radar, just not ready for release” of these long-time features with CDIs and the recent trend of being more niche, and you run right back into the third conclusion above: it’s bigger than expected.

Unexpected Difficulty

Anyone who’s designed and implemented something in code will tell you that few things are as straightforward as they looked in a simple diagram. Bugs show up in the weirdest places, interactions don’t go as planned, and a host of other issues decide to make a simple A to B job into an alphabet-laden nightmare.

And in a genuine effort to make Guild Wars 2 better and more engaging, ArenaNet successfully ran into unexpected difficulty time and time again. Features hit the table, but didn’t have the actual simplicity to come off the table and drop into a patch.

Enter an expansion. What does an expansion always provide? New, large features that change or expand large portions of the game. Consider what Factions added to the original Prophecies feature-wise (abbreviated list, for illustration only):

  • 2 new professions
  • 100’s of new skills
  • The concept of “Faction”
  • 3 new PvP modes (on top of the existing 4)

So on the one hand there’s a bunch of problems that are tough to implement, but can be done. On the other, you have the already-existent expectation that an expansion will provide the exact same sort of features that are taking a while to get right.

Problem, meet solution. Take the right amount of time to get the feature working as it’s supposed to, and throw it in a pile with a bunch of the other difficult features. Release them all with the publicity blitz that “expansion” always elicits.

How I Know It’ll Be Free: The Living Story, Population, and “Different”

UPDATE: This speculation was outright wrong.

Data point 1

Remember when Colin announced that updates would be biweekly, and still free? They even pulled off that ridiculous pace for the better half of a year. From almost Day 1, ArenaNet has bragged that they release more free content than most subscription MMOs do.

Data point 2

Time and time again, ArenaNet employees have expressed concern about splitting the player base too much, of having deserted zones, and the like. The Megaserver system was a direct result of wanting to make sure that players always find a populated map to play on.

Data point 3

Going back to the panel description at the start of the post…

…a new framework…

With Guild Wars 2, ArenaNet has always sought to do something different from the competition. It’s written into their manifesto: “If you hate traditional MMOs, you should really check out Guild Wars 2.”

Tying Together the Data Points

Working backwards, what is the traditional MMO way to release an expansion? Boxed copy. But the panel description states “a new framework.” So that’s out, far too traditional.

What about digital copy with a gem price? Again, “a new framework.” I just described DLC, a far-from-novel concept in 2015. Too traditional.

What about monetizing a la carte the new content, letting players pick and choose what they want? That’s pretty new, though a staple of mobile games.

Enter the population splitting concern. What’s the easiest way to split your population? Release something new, then restrict access to it with a cost. Having a la carte content options splits by every single permutation of the options.

So what’s left? Offering it for free to people who own the original game.

Why restrict it to the original game? Additional marketing reason to buy the game if you don’t have it already. “Oh, we’re so awesome that we didn’t just give years of free content and features to our players, we just gave them a full-blown expansion for free.” That’s a sales-driver if I’ve ever heard it.

The clincher is the living world concept itself. The panel description states that “The Living World is just the beginning.” That means it was the starting point, and all thinking went from that.

The selling point of the Living World has been regular changes to the game, advancing a story, free of charge. Why abandon one of those three pillars? It’s the marketing point alongside the lore and update ones, and based on the continuing marketing of that exact point, removing the “free” aspect would hurt far more than the short-term financial gain could offset.

How I Know It’ll Be Done in Chunks: Books and Bugs

UPDATE: This speculation was also wrong.

Narrative

Recall the narrative arc point about how it’ll be about Mordremoth? Now toss in the panel description’s wording: “Beyond…” and “The Living World is just the beginning.”

ArenaNet has arranged updates like chapters of a book, discrete pieces with beginnings and endings in the overall narrative, and specific things added to each. This is even clearer with Season 2 due to zone expansion.

So from a narrative perspective, doing it in chapter-based chunks (though the chapters will very likely be larger due to it being an expansion) is likely.

Population Splitting

Consider the known effect of adding new content: everyone swarms it, then gets bored of it. Population splitting via boredom as people return to their original haunts when “The New” has worn off.

ArenaNet actively combated this by steadily expanding the new zones with new events and new territory with each release. The zone wasn’t completely the same each update, so people who would have otherwise written it off as “boring” tried the new stuff again.

Bugs

Finally, consider the bane of programming: bugs. The even more infuriating part about bugs is that the bigger your release, the exponentially larger your revealed bug count after the fact. It’s simpler and easier to release a few large features here, fix up the revealed bugs, then release the next few large features.

Combine all three of these factors, and releasing the expansion in manageable chunks reduces the raw bug count, maintains interest, and fulfills the chapter approach ArenaNet has chosen for delivering the story content.

Conclusion

What will the expansion hold beyond long-promised features and Mordremoth? I haven’t a clue, but based on the evidence available, I can say with confidence that it’ll be free.

UPDATE: Misplaced confidence.

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One thought on “Breaking the Paradigm: What “Beyond the Point of No Return” Really Means”

  1. Awesome thoughts. Having played GW1 since day 1 (or rather purchased on day 1 with a few difficulties accessing the game due to a few problems) and pre-ordered GW2 and playing since day 1, I thoroughly enjoy what Arenanet has thrown/gently given us thus far. As a well inked story, I for one will be indulging in their GW universe until the very last drop.

    As for how the game will develop, your bet certainly appears sound to me. 🙂

    Like

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