Building a Better Balance: The Future of PvE (As Far as We Know)

Continuing my series about where PvE stands, I’m moving from the release (and mostly current) situation and slow evolution of PvE to its future with Heart of Thorns, both as I can confirm based on statements, and what I can reasonably speculate. Also, what’s I’m not seeing in what’s been revealed so far that I think should be there.

I realize that a lot of information dropped from over a dozen different sources in the past few days, so there’s a chance that the following post is out of date, or outright wrong in places. Please let me know. I’ll correct it.

A week ago, Ten Ton Hammer interviewed Jon Peters and Kevin Stocker about the wyvern, and in the process the new defiance system. A good amount of this post is derived from that interview.

What We Know

Defiance and the Break Bar

Defiance in its current all-CC-is-created-equal state is going away completely. Cue rejoicing from people who find the mechanic dumb.

In its place is the “break bar”, which at a minimum will stun the boss if broken. Main difference is that the break bar regenerates at a steady rate, forcing players to coordinate CC until it fully breaks. Further, the “harder” the CC (duration, condition inflicted), the more damage it does to the break bar. Chain CC builds aren’t a waste of cooldowns anymore.

They’ve also already said that what the break bar does when broken can be pretty much anything, but only giving the specific examples on the Wyvern (interrupt it when it’s about to fly, it stays grounded and takes triple damage) and generic (long stun).

What This Signals to Me

  • Encounter design is at the forefront of how they’re doing PvE in Heart of Thorns. Why go through all the effort of recrafting defiance and highlighting a specific enemy that shows its power if it’s not going to be pretty much everywhere that has a boss?
  • The base game is making gains, too. The break bar is being implemented on all champions. It might be a generic stun on a lot of them, but it’s still better than the current “shave off stacks so we can hit them with Ice Bow 5.”
  • They are actively trying to make control a more important part of the game, rather than the current situation where it’s all about the longest, hardest CC, and everything else is defiance fodder.

Stability Stacks

At the same time defiance is changing, so is stability. Instead of being an infinite CC soak for a set, extendable duration, stability will gain stacks on top of duration. Each CC effect takes off a stack.

All existing stability skills will be rebalanced around this two-step system, hopefully keeping things meant for long-term stability (Balanced Stance, Hallowed Ground) in their same thematic niche while nerfing the raw strength of a zillion guardians screaming “Stand your ground!”

What This Signals to Me

  • First, what it doesn’t: the end of the world vs. world as we know it. I feel fine about this change, because it will make certain sources of stability “less equal” than others. Again, rather than spamming everyone’s favorite shout and soaking so much CC it looks like a dosage amount, engaging across a field of red is now a tactically terrible decision. Which it should be. Positioning will matter more, and while “bigger zerg = more CC” is a true statement, no amount of CC matters if it’s thrown down too soon and on cooldown*.
  • I fully agree with the rationale of making stability something that has counterplay beyond boon strips. Boon stripping/conversion is very rare, and some professions don’t even have it. Having a fight decided before it’s even really started due to the blanket strength of stability is not good for the game.

* I’ll get into World vs. World more in depth really soon. I’ve held off because I have a lot of thoughts on it…and I might not stop.

Challenging Group Content”

Based on the recent interviews I’ve seen/read, “challenging group content” in the ArenaNet context is raids…without the gear treadmill, repeat-until-you-can-do-the-next connotations*. And Heart of Thorns will be littered with it.

*I think that’s why they’ve studiously avoided using the term, despite the organized challenge, high reward aspects of raids they are certainly maintaining. They don’t want an immediate association with the very things they say Heart of Thorns doesn’t have.

In the context of the clear emphasis on encounter design that the wyvern (and the break bar) represent, challenging group content sounds more like taking down a hyped-up Silverwastes Breach boss with tons more mechanics than zerg-check approaches like Tequatl and Triple Trouble.

What This Signals to Me

  • The greater emphasis on guilds (mentioned in Angry Joe’s interview with Colin Johanson, though no details were given) is no coincidence. Guilds drastically decrease the possibility of “PUG frustration” when it comes to completing a difficult boss. Emphasizing guilds alongside content that directly incentivizes their existence is two sides of the same coin.
  • Faceroll-dumb bosses are being left behind. The most insulting thing about most world bosses to me is how much they were pitched as epic foes, but generally boil down to a bunch of players exploding them in a minute tops. Making the game casual-accessible and friendly is one thing, but having outright great rewards for something that takes no skill whatsoever diminishes the reward for anything that does take skill.
  • The Mastery system is still likely to be used as a soft gate to keep people away from bosses they have no business attempting due to lack of skill or interest. Nothing like a bunch of zeroes to demotivate those looking for a quick payday.

Release PvE Combat was Lacking

This is best illustrated with a quote:

“Part of this is that the creatures have to come after the combat and when we were shipping the game and the combat came in, we really knew what we wanted out of it nearer to the end than we would have liked.” – Jon Peters

Enemies are one-dimensional buckets of HP easily removed because their design lagged behind the overall combat system, then release happened.

What This Signals to Me

  • ArenaNet is taking a hard, honest look at what did not work with the existing combat system. This is good, because if the developer is claiming the Combat Baby was ugly, then they’re going to work to fix it.
  • Heart of Thorns is going to demand far more out of players than the original game ever did. Enemies will be designed better, challenges crafted more consistently, and faceroll likely won’t exist.

What I Speculate

Heavy Trinity Focus in Heart of Thorns

First, another quote:

“When we wrote the original combat blog post, a lot of people assumed we didn’t want the trinity. It wasn’t an anti-trinity, it was more of a case of “this is how we want to do this type of combat and we want these roles and we want them to be flexible.” not “Hey, we don’t want people supporting!” and so, we want to design creatures that make you want to use Immobilize or design creatures that make you want to use Portal if we can. We have so many tools in our combat system that we want players to think about when they use them.” – Jon Peters

This one quote filled me with so much hope for the possible PvE future that Heart of Thorns represents. That 50% of a Trinity problem? Known, going to be actively addressed in the expansion. The baby steps stand to be thrown aside in favor of giant leaps that fully use the deep combat system that PvE has been unable to tap.

Based on this quote, and a lot of the statements in the interview, damage, support, and control will be vital pieces of the expansion.

Encounters that play to a specific class’s strengths

Recall the quote in the previous section. I’m heartened by the specific skill mention. There are many unique skills that honestly have minimal use in PvE combat encounters, portal among them. Providing a reason to slot some of the odder things on the bar to overcome challenges broadens the player base’s knowledge of what’s available, and removes the “uselessness” of many skills.

More Encounters Utilize Puzzle/Unique Mechanics

Look no further than the wyvern itself. It’s a terrain-denial-based boss, with separate phases and different ways to attack and defend against it. Presently, only Fractals (and Season 1 releases of Living World) do effective area denial*. It’s a mechanic that emphasizes positioning over raw stats, because a dead body contributes nothing to the fight.

*Correct me if I’m wrong, please.

I’m pretty sure that a lot of the new content is going to be based around puzzle elements, or different twists on how bosses have been done in the past. Think Fractals…for the entire expansion. (The thought makes me giddy)

What’s Still Missing

Compelling reasons for most stat sets

Currently, there’s a strong min/max case for Berserker’s (95% of all PvE content), Sinister (Condi-weak enemies like in Silverwastes), and Soldier’s (world boss killing, particularly Tequatl).

But what about the other 18 or so stat sets? Sure, virtually all of them are viable (some more than others, like Knight’s, Cleric’s, Dire, and Rabid), but not using the three above is gimping.

There’s a possibility that other stat sets will be looked at, but with the terrible payoff of defensive stats (don’t buff skills short of conversion traits, still don’t prevent one-shots), I’m not seeing all of these different choices having a reason to be picked short of a hefty overhaul for how stats are apportioned and making defensive stats more powerful in PvE only.

Bringing the awesome back to the base game

The overall frame of the expansion looks really good. There’s good hints (that keep being corroborated) of ArenaNet as a whole looking at what seriously needs work in Guild Wars 2, the PvE balance among them.

But with all of these lessons learned clearly making it into the expansion, the danger exists that the base game won’t get the same love. Stale encounters that offer no challenge will persist in the majority of the game world. Players will leave the base game in favor of always being in the Heart of Maguuma and the better-implemented challenges therein.

There’s no confirmation that a lot of the encounter design changes will ever make it back to the majority of Tyria. Tyria becomes a desert for people not stuck doing world completion, leveling, personal story, or the pittance of things in the open world worth the time spent.

I know that this is bordering on fearmongering, but there’s been a consistent trend of Awesome New Thing coming out, and rather than have the same approach put elsewhere in the game, it stays there alone, an island of awesome amidst a sea of meh. Dungeon revamps (Ascalonian Catacombs*), world boss revamps (Tequatl), better reward approaches (Dry Top and Silverwastes compared to…everywhere else), the list goes on.

*At initial revamp release it required much more skill than the release dungeon, but multiple downscaling stat changes have made its challenges invisible.

I don’t want that to happen here. Revitalizing PvE to resemble its initial potential should not be an expansion-exclusive thing. The entire game needs the benefit of it.

I realize that revamping the entirety of PvE would take quite a while, but I’ve got some ideas for how to roll it out bit by bit, eventually erasing the boring sameyness that plagues the world of Tyria. I’ll get into them soon.

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9 thoughts on “Building a Better Balance: The Future of PvE (As Far as We Know)”

  1. The “challenging group content” point is interesting. While I personally am looking forward to it, I think it’s probably prudent to note that this will result in a portion of the player base being effectively ‘locked out’ of content – whether that’s through lack of skill, fear of unknown content (and afraid to ask for help), etc. GW2 ‘s broad accessibility of content is one of it’s appeals, and one of it’s weaknesses.

    You need only look at Triple Trouble and Fractals. Large swathes of the player base never do this content, and never will. That is the cost of going down the path you outlined – the non hardcore players will just avoid it. Like they do now.

    I’m torn. I like the idea of more challenging content, and HoT sounds great in that respect, but I also like the fact that the game is sometimes ‘dumb’ – it’s less pressure and I can just enjoy the story, lore and characters. I don’t want challenge – I just want to absorb the GW2 universe. Without some creature wanting to smash my brains out. 😛

    The casualness has it’s own appeal. I hope they don’t mess up the balance too much.

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    1. The problem about there being so little hard/exclusive content (and said content is terrible for risk/reward) is that there’s nowhere that can push a player to grow in skill beyond those.

      If the entire game takes a bare minimum of skill to be successful in, there is no depth and no sense of progression. People quit because it’s the same thing over and over again with no reason to go beyond the basics.

      I think ArenaNet is realizing that no depth in PvE cripples it forever. It’s okay to have semi-exclusive content if that’s a difficulty/skill gate, because it gives players something to aim for when killing random trash gets boring.

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  2. Being part of a Triple Trouble Guild I can tell you that soldiers gear is not what you want here. You actually want 3-5 condi players per head, 1-2 egg blocker per head (berserker gear with reflects) and a berserker ps zerg (because once beheaded the worm can be critted).
    Solid thoughts lets hope for some awesome dungeon/raid content =)

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  3. I love your analysis here, and this whole improving PvE series. Let’s hope Anet is aware of the issues, and if not, that they see these posts. 🙂

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