The Thorny Situation: Why Heart of Thorns Must Deliver

Heart of Thorns is on the way, and with it comes tons of hype, anticipation, and speculation. But the upcoming expansion has a lot more riding on it than simply “new stuff to do.” It’s a dramatic shift from the way Living Story has developed over time.

Furthermore, it’s an expansion that boasts features that themselves are radical departures. On the one hand, they aren’t “typical expansion content,” and on the other they shift from the existing systems in the game.

As if that weren’t enough, the player base has gotten more and more vocal about phrases like “lack of content,” “nothing to do,” and “bring back <temporary content>, that was fun!” A vocal portion of the community is expecting a lot from the expansion to make up for a perception of very little content in recent months.

I’m going to look at the entire situation to show exactly how much is riding on Heart of Thorns being an unmitigated success, starting first with a look at the recent past.

The Hype Train Isn’t New

Rewind to August of 2009. ArenaNet had been silent about Guild Wars 2 for two and a half years, then this happened:

Initial Teaser Trailer

I bought a three year ticket on the hype train, one that gained a lot of steam as a trailer turned into class reveals and feature rundowns, then Beta Weekend Events, and finally launch.

Innovative Ideas…

The prime driver of Guild Wars 2 hype was (and still is) the feature list. Dozens of time-honored MMO traditions were thrown into the cold, dark night and replaced with what in hindsight are common sense solutions.

While we take them for granted now, things like shared nodes and experience, downleveling, and event scaling were unheard of before Guild Wars 2 made them frontrunner features*. They’re so obviously helpful toward a cooperative experience that many other MMOs have the same features now.

*And if they were heard of, they certainly weren’t all put in the same package.

These features were stated most clearly in the Guild Wars 2 Design Manifesto. Hype went from train to spaceship in the wake of that, especially when it was backed up by all the various features, beta tests, and hands-on opportunities.

…Tainted by Flaws

The momentum of awesome, common-sense-by-hindsight features has continued for the most part, but since launch more and more things that appeared to contradict the manifesto. These took several forms:

Shades of Other MMOs

The debut of ascended gear screamed “gear treadmill,” especially with the various pieces attached to a scaling dungeon or requiring an absurd amount of materials. The same gear treadmill that the manifesto had said wouldn’t exist in Guild Wars 2. This never improved as each method of getting ascended gear became more and more time- and gold-intensive.

Incomplete Implementations

Over the course of the game’s release, some truly awesome features and content have been added. This has been offset by a lot of it being “the first part” of many, and parts 2-8 have never arrived. Both dungeon revamps and world boss revamps started with a single example (Ascalonian Catacombs, Tequatl), then were never revisited.

This becomes even more glaring when looking at World vs. World and Structured PvP. Features have been added with the promise “more coming soon,” and “more” shows up much closer to “later,” if at all.

Add to that the number of features stated coming out at some point, but never have, with no mention on whether the feature was abandoned or pushed back, and the feeling of things being “incomplete” is more acute.

Seeking the Common Denominator

Most of the update content is geared toward as broad of an audience as possible. This has created a “Jack of All Trades, Master of None” feel to a lot of content. Niches have tended to be overlooked in favor of what everyone can play with a minimum of effort.

(This has also had the nasty knock-on effect of whenever the difficulty does spike, it’s unexpected for many players because there has been no reason to become more skilled. Content that’s genuinely not that difficult gets complained about endlessly because of its unfamiliarity. Consider that the Ascalonian Catacombs revamp was considered an unacceptable difficulty increase on release)

While this has stopped being a problem in recent content (Living World Season 2), Season 1 was riddled with examples like fixing signs, killing a small army of specific mobs, and visiting certain locations over and over again. Otherwise enjoyable content felt like a checklist to complete before being allowed to enjoy it.

Combine these three, and the original “Second Coming of MMOs” Guild Wars 2 seemed primed to fulfill has steadily waned to a “refreshing change of pace.” Granted, hype always exceeds reasonable expectations (hence the term “hype”), but the game’s marketing was geared around lines like “we do things differently,” “this is the first of many,” and “challenging new content.”

Setting a New Foundation

Starting at the first reveal of what Heart of Thorns at PAX South, ArenaNet has stated the expansion is all about laying out a foundation for systems to expand going forward. It’s an expansion to expand the ability to expand. Expanception.

Further, the various interviews and reveals have focused on similar “sound bite taglines” that made Guild Wars 2 expectations fly beyond the realm of reasonable.

First of Their Kind

Any new system is judged by its first examples. This is both good and bad. If the first examples end up being a great direction to take the game, they are held up as design standards. If the first examples are bad, irrelevant, or encourage the wrong things, then the system as a whole gets judged by that initial failure.

Content Diversity

The term “really challenging group content” has been mentioned in several interviews, enough so that RCGC now stands for it (props to The Casual Heroes for using the acronym). To even mention such a phrase with the implication that open world is involved gets me raising my eyebrow.

Very difficult open world content has a terrible track record, as I said above in the side note of Seeking the Common Denominator. Too often people fail at the mechanics of a given encounter, then sit around dead. When this is applied to dynamic scaling, it creates a rage-filled push/pull of people who died and won’t leave vs. those who are still alive and trying to complete the encounter.

RCGC could be gated by soft-gate mechanics like masteries (you can only reach the really tiny platform with a wyvern on it if you have this many points in Gliders). But RCGC has its work cut out for it, because it has to both be challenging, and encourage players to get better rather than lying face-first in the dirt and waiting for event credit.

Realigning the Meta

Based on a recent Ten Ton Hammer interview, the combat in PvE is known to be weak by ArenaNet. They also express a desire to require more active use of a player’s entire skill bar and encouraging more gear sets.

As I covered in the post reacting to the interview, the proof’s in the pudding. Encouraging full use of a skill bar and additional gear sets has been a design weakpoint for over two and a half years. Only by negating one source of damage entirely has anything other than berserker’s come to the top of the stack.

Further, realigning the meta to require more out of players will cause plenty of hate and discontent even if the realignment is successful. People are used to going zerker for everything, sticking the same build (plus or minus a skill or trait) at every bit of content. There is no short-term right answer; only the long-term holds promise (more diverse meta, more reasons to know a profession inside and out).

Broken Trust

Between the original game’s track record and the difficulties of the upcoming expansion, the community regularly feels left out of the conversation. Whether this is true or not, perception is reality, and it has been bolstered by consistent trends.

Abandoned Niches

Guild Wars 2 is what is called a “theme park MMO.” It’s all about the attractions. At launch, there was a little something for everyone, PvPers, WvWers, casual PvE, hardcore PvE, you name it. Most of the niches were catered to with the launch content (raids and other organization-required events weren’t, though).

But as updates came out and content released, more and more the niches got shoved to the side. And people who preferred those niches felt the lack of updates, and made it known they wanted something. Over time, with the niches still unsatisfied, it’s turned into most feedback and ideas getting the disappointed response “They don’t care about <activity>, quit wasting your time.”

Under-serving on Content

There’s been a metric ton of content developed and released for Guild Wars 2 since it launched. One look over the Releases page is all the evidence one needs.

But when it comes to available content, things are much skimpier. Season 1 added plenty of things, but just as often took them away when the story moved past them. Season 2 added two entirely new zones, but almost ignored the world beyond them.

And when armor and weapons get into the mix, it’s not much of a contest: the gem store has gotten the vast majority. Dozens upon dozens of skins of all flavors have been released, with the only requirements either farming gold or pulling out a credit card.

MMOs are all about progression, and having very little to show for progression rankles. When the best way to show it is really good-looking skins, and all the latest ones are available at any time to anyone with the gold or gems, those good looks cease to mean anything beside “whoa, lotta money this person has.”

This disappointment has fed back into the feeling that there is very little new content, because the cosmetic proof of doing all that the game has to offer doesn’t exist beyond legendary weapons and ascended armor, and even those are debatable*.

*Titles can count as well.

“Going Forward, It’s on the Table For When It’s Ready in the Future”

ArenaNet has used the exact same public relations lines so many times that it’s become a meme. And while there is truth to them, they are no longer taken seriously*. They aren’t taken at face value, because they get used that much.

*With the exception of “When it’s ready,” which for the most part the community respects.

A good portion of the reason why is because the responses are used to be cagey about things in a “can neither confirm nor deny” way to avoid anyone ever saying they were “promised” something. It’s broken down the feeling of communication actually happening, even if ArenaNet is responding often.

Meanwhile, frank statements of how things are shaking out are practically applauded. The recent announcement of the next patch’s delay got some of the usual griping, but the majority of people were happy that

  • It was announced point-blank
  • The reason why, gamebreaking bugs need patching out, was stated

No PR speak, no “marketing-approved stock statements”, and the community took bad news well. But that has not been the historical approach to communication.

All three of these factors combine to create a feeling of broken trust between the developers and the community. It’s not universal, and there are plenty of people perfectly happy with the game and how it’s updated, but the vocal portion of the community often influences the non-vocal portions. And non-vocal members of the community will de facto never give direct feedback.

Trust, once lost, is hard to regain. Distrust twists motives, darkens good intentions, and dampens the desire to give things a fair shot. It takes a lot of fulfilled promises, met expectations, and most importantly frank and clear communication to regain that trust.

Heart of Thorns Must Deliver

Looking at how Guild Wars 2 has developed so far and what Heart of Thorns boasts to add, the expansion is between Arah and a hard place*. It has to keep from falling before its own hype like the release game did. It has to lay down the “foundation going forward” that it’s supposed to be. And most importantly, it has to do its part to rebuild the broken trust many portions of the community feel towards ArenaNet and Guild Wars 2.

*I’m sure you can draw a line between Orr and some other landmass, so it’s a true statement!

As a result, I’m hopeful for the expansion, but by no means hyped. It has too much to live up to to be crazy-excited right now. But if it pulls it off, then we’ve got one of the best expansions ever.

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6 thoughts on “The Thorny Situation: Why Heart of Thorns Must Deliver”

  1. Really wonderful post, I just discovered this blog and I will be returning. I think you touched on one the of the most important aspects of a good consumer-producer relationship: trust. Too many MMO developers (or at least their PR departments) focus on the short term sales produced by marketing hype prior to the release of a new launch or expansion but undervalue the damage done to the consumer’s trust when the hype is not met (and it never is), and lack of confidence translates to a loss of sales in the long run.

    This reminds me of Blizzard’s repeated promise of releasing expansions faster. No one takes the comment seriously anymore and that’s not how a studio wants its playerbase thinking about its promises. Corrode away enough trust and players will no longer believe statements about future development and instead will withold support until the product is delivered (although perhaps that’s one of the problems to begin with, early access and preorders have a way of putting a studios trustworthiness unnecessarily to the test).

    I think this is one reason why Final Fantasy XIV has been so successful, what Yoshida and SquareEnix promise they deliver and in a timely fashion which tells me they have a good sense of their capabilities and limitations and plan content release accordingly. If anything, they have used a steady 3 month patch cycle to build confidence, adding major systems like a new class, the golden saucer, and housing on time during interim patches rather than waiting for an expansion as a way of communicating the studio’s reliability to their consumers. If as a company you only publicly set goals you are guaranteed to reach, you will build brand loyalty on trust and that’s the way you build a sustainable and profitable franchise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, and it’s the steady erosion of trust that you can’t help but pick up when you read how the community reacts.

      There are people who love the game and are happy with it, but those who aren’t get more and more distrusting and vehement as time goes by.

      Hype only stalls distrust, doesn’t eliminate it. Only clear communication and steady results (like FF XIV is doing, apparently, I’m not familiar directly) builds trust back.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And I forgot this because I didn’t play FFXIV before the relaunch as A Realm Reborn, but they too had to earn back lost trust. It is possible but you cannot misstep by over promising and when you do you have to get ahead of it fast and with humility if you want to regain loyalty.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yeah, I recall that FFXIV’s launch was a complete flop, and they had to “rebuild” the entire thing to make it good again.

        Liked by 1 person

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