As any person on the hype train (or within a hundred mile radius of it) will tell you, Heart of Thorns is on the way. It’s the first expansion, bringing new features, new areas, and new reasons to hate sylvari who take over the plotline*.
*Achievement Unlocked: Outdoing Trahearne at his own game. That’s like 50,000 AP right there. I think Mordremoth already won…
But Heart of Thorns is more than simply an expansion with new features. In interview after interview, ArenaNet keeps stating that its entire purpose is to build a new foundation to keep building upon going forward.*
*Thanks Standard PR Speak for making me always hate using those two words, even if they’re the right ones to use.
And changing a game’s foundation is going to cause a lot of shakeup. Consider the large amount of open-world changes following World of Warcraft‘s Cataclysm expansion, or the wholesale reboot of Final Fantasy XIV, or the myriad changes that accompany a game going from subscription to free-to-play (e.g., Rift, Star Wars: The Old Republic).
With massive shakeups come just as large opportunities to “question everything” once again, to see how to one-up Guild Wars 2 at its own game. The existing feature list already does this, as I will show, but I also see the opportunity to change even more to bring Guild Wars 2 closer to its design ideals.
An Avalanche of Changes
As has been said time and time again, masteries are a long-term progression system akin to additional levels, but without negating the work and capability rolled into having a level 80 character.
Right now, Guild Wars 2 doesn’t really have long-term progression. One could argue Achievement Points are, but with so many points tied up in content that isn’t available (Living World Season 1, festivals), or in repeating fairly simple tasks each and every day (dailies), that’s a shaky argument. And while looks are a large amount of the endgame, 90% of the looks boil down to acquiring enough gold/gems to purchase the desired look.
Obviously, movement from nothing to something is huge, but ArenaNet is also wrapping in two other changes that alter the status quo.
First, trait acquisition is getting adjusted to fit into the mastery system paradigm. I’m willing to bet that “Pact Tyria” is going to have all of the trait-based challenges turned into mastery points, and unlocking be a simple “points per tier” approach. With masteries being account bound, it eliminates the concern of “doing the same thing over again,” and with retroactive progress, accounts that did stuff on grandfathered characters aren’t going to have their alts at a disadvantage.
Second, skill points per level are going away. Rather, high-level events will hold skill points, putting another economic advantage into difficult content that raw gold can’t match (not to mention that skill points don’t cause inflation like raw gold does). Implemented fairly, events that wouldn’t have even been considered beforehand might be worth it for the skill point at the end.
Adding new skills and professions to an MMO is guaranteed to upset the balance of it*. Back during Guild Wars, each campaign broke the meta over its knee and let it heal in a cauldron of chaos.
*Well, unless those new skills are terrible and not worth taking…like those “new” healing skills.
Heart of Thorns will be no exception. In addition to adding a new profession with unique mechanics, it and the eight existing classes will gain a specialization. What exactly that means we still don’t know, but knowing that at minimum new traits, utilities, a weapon, and a mechanic are replacing old ones proves that the meta is going to go out the window for a bit.
Add in the stability change, the alluded-to “player break bar,” slow, and taunt, and a “settled down” meta will be taking an extended vacation at the Battle Isles.
Precursor Crafting and Map Bonuses
This section rewords a lot of my arguments from The Gold Standard, but rather than it being “what ArenaNet should do,” it’s what ArenaNet is actually doing.
Precursor crafting is going to shift the existing economic balance around precursor acquisition, both from random drops and RNG. Even though each account is limited to one of each precursor, that’s still well in excess of what all but the richest TP barons (or the most hardcore players) can reasonably turn into legendaries this side of the next decade.
In other words, potential supply will exceed demand, especially for the first year or so the expansion is out. Depending on the “tedium level” of crafting one, precursors could go in any direction at all. We don’t know until it’s actually here to play.
Even if the exact effect of precursor crafting is an economic unknown, the map bonuses system going in alongside it is anything but. Map bonuses make directed, non-diminishing returns farming not just possible, but preferable.
Materials that were ludicrously rare not just on account of drop rate, but on account of how few things dropped them, are suddenly going to have reliable, rotating supplies. Prices will plummet to the level of acceptable farm. Weapons that have been insanely expensive because of holding such components will drop in value as things get cheaper.
This is not a bad thing. Consider that due to the inability to directly farm desired materials, players were better off simply farming gold. Dungeon tours, chest farming Silverwastes, flipping on the Trading Post, champion trains, all of them focused on generating gold.
And an economy that is predicated purely on generating and spending gold is guaranteed to inflate at a regular rate. The fact that “just farm gold” has been the answer for virtually everything rare for the entire lifetime of Guild Wars 2 is bad for the game, not good. Map bonuses tackle one side of that problem head on.
The Desert Borderland
In addition to throwing brand new terrain at players, the desert borderland is bringing unique, actual asymmetry to “real World vs. World,” something previously restricted to the imbalanced and irrelevant Edge of the Mists.
Every objective will have a different flavor to it, generating different offensive and defensive tactics to adjust to the changes in terrain, area bonuses, and unique NPCs. That’s a far cry from the sameyness of taking any random tower in a borderlands, or the subtle changes in siege placement between keeps.
And this is on top of the overall balance changes that specializations and the revenant will cause. WvW is mass PvP, so the meta there will be just as wrecked as the meta elsewhere, with an extra dose of crazy as 20 or more people throw themselves at you instead of just 5.
Stronghold adds more fuel to the meta reshuffling fire because it’s a completely different mode. In addition to the shuffle from new specializations and the revenant, Stronghold will force changes on the existing things in the game. Things that are extremely effective on Conquest aren’t guaranteed to be that on the more mobile (and larger) Stronghold.
As a result, sPvP will get a double dose of upset to the status quo, and potentially two different metas between Stronghold and Conquest. Whether that will work well with the planned combined queue is another topic, though.
Waves Crashing Together
Every single feature that has been covered in an official blog post so far has shown that ArenaNet is altering the very core of the game in as many areas as possible. That leaves out the undefined scope of “really challenging group content”, the new guild progression system (and the guild halls thereof), and any other changes that don’t fit neatly into the above features.
From a game meta and structure viewpoint, it’s going to be complete chaos. That doesn’t mean it won’t be fun chaos (it most certainly will be), but it means that the community’s tolerance of things being “not the same as they were before” is much higher than it would be with something as “small” as a Living World release or a feature pack.
As a result, this is the perfect time to consider large changes, and not just in the game but in the philosophy surrounding the game. Heart of Thorns offers a clean slate of sorts, a fervor of “it’s got new stuff” providing excellent cover for things that couldn’t be easily done during the standard release cycle.
Hiding Amidst the Whirlwind
Skills and Traits,Take 2
With the arrival of a plethora of new options for skills and traits through specializations, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at the many skills and traits in the game and rebalancing them. Many traits are complete garbage for all but the most niche builds, and several skills fall into the same boat.
Further, the “new tech” that Revenant skills bring offers an immediate way to change the functionality of skills that can’t be made appealing because of limitations in the way they function. Add in the new conditions of Slow and Taunt, and many options exist for making compelling options.
A handy advantage of incorporating rebalancing and functionality changes with the expansion is it dropkicks the worry that the new specializations and the revenant will simply outclass the “old” options by virtue of newness and better implementation. There’s no outclassing if the original skills and traits are brought along for the ride from the start.
Also, it makes creating a “full package balance” with the expansion comparatively simple. Rather than adjust specializations and the revenant around a mass of barely-tweaked existing options (and later tweaking existing to be fresh again), both old and new get shifted to best match each other, resulting in a stronger balance and a better starting point.
Splitting the Balance
I’ll go into more detail on this in a post all its own, but in the midst of the turmoil of the expansion is the best time to completely split balance among sPvP, WvW, and PvE. Splitting already exists for certain items, conditions, and skills, but as I’ll go into in that future post, the advantages of a genuine, permanent split outweigh the disadvantages.
Rebalancing the Reward Curve
The economy is going to be a topsy-turvy mess. Gold generation will be wonky as people stumble through the new expansion and figure out how to take the best advantage of things. New materials will spar with old ones for what’s valuable or worth investing in over the long term.
What better time to adjust rewards? One of the most grating flaws in Guild Wars 2 is how messed up the reward curve in comparison to time taken and skill required is. For example, opening a bunch of chests and killing not a thing is more lucrative than clearing Fractals 50 (unique loot excepted)*.
*I could go on, but The Gold Standard covered this.
Harness the wealth of metrics that the game generates, and feed it back into the overall rewards of the game. Rather than having to make a lucky stab at the proper amount of reward, let the players themselves determine that by their own play.
Now take it a step beyond that. What if events and open world were based on the same data-driven approach? Though it would be a lot of data parsing, defining “the limits” of activities and adjusting player reward based on things like difficulty and length of time would balance the economy and the reward curve at the same time.
If data drove the rewards, the community would self-regulate the economy purely based on what they play and how they do it. As ridiculously pipe-dreamy that sounds, with sufficient metrics and appropriate levers (read: number of things that can be changed) to balance around, it’s possible for something like Guild Wars 2 with its open, no-one-competes approach.
Reducing RNG Reliance
Too many things in the game rely on ludicrously low RNG, including rewards that are account-bound and locked to specific content. In these cases, it’s point blank: stop relying on RNG entirely.
For account-bound, unique rewards, at the very least a token system should be implemented, where each successful completion of the content gives a set number of tokens, and a vendor offers the exclusive rewards in exchange. Keep the RNG for that moment of “Awesome!”, but gating the entire reward set behind RNG only breeds hate and discontent.
For openly tradable items, only precursors hold the “second option” of a long quest and account-bound result*. Offhand, though, I can’t recall if there are any other super-expensive items that aren’t either built from cheaper parts (Mystic Forge-made) or generated from Black Lion Tickets.
*Though there’s a fair amount of confusion for whether crafted “old” precursors are tradable or account-bound on craft. The language in the blog post wasn’t clear.
That said, introducing a “second option” approach to a lot of weapons and armor skins that are otherwise lore-less and prestigious by expense alone will have a net positive effect on the game experience. It’ll be another way to “Play How You Want”, without everything coming down to how much gold has to be farmed.
Changing the Communications Policy
I recently saw a great turn of phrase that I fully agree with: “ArenaNet says a lot of things, but communicates very little.” Thousands of words are written and spoken, and very few of them mean anything. More often meaning is garnered by what isn’t said, or what can be readily inferred between the lines.
The clearest way to illustrate this is my own joking turn of phrase: “Going Forward, It’s on the Table For When It’s Ready in the Future.” ArenaNet’s PR-speak is so consistent that everyone makes jokes about it. The “ever-expanding table”, how “going forward things will be done this way”, and “we can’t talk about that yet” are lampooned endlessly.
Having the communications policy being a laughingstock instead of a respected and appreciated aspect of the developer/community relationship is not a good thing. Even if it seems to create “fewer waves”, it’s because most of the people who would make waves* have given up on learning anything until the supply of torches and pitchforks must be exhausted and a mob assembled at the gates of the subreddit and the official forums.**
*And trying to avoid “making waves” is a flawed approach to begin with. Engagement is engagement, and impassioned feedback by players who care is far more valuable than the murmuring silence of people who don’t care.
**Bonus points if MMO news sites are involved.
The “we don’t want to be perceived as making promises we can’t keep” rationale needs to go. Some people will always feel they were promised something if absolutely anything is said, and those are the people who really aren’t worth spending time appeasing. Effective silence (especially word-filled silence) breaks down communication and dialogue and drastically shortens how much faith and patience the community has with the developer.
Heart of Thorns is the ideal place to change the communications policy, leaning more toward general roadmaps (e.g., “We’re going to add new guild missions sometime soon”), ideas that got tried and failed (“Our first few ideas for fixing condition damage didn’t work out, still testing”), and stating how much effort is required for something (consider the explanation of the charr backwards footprint issue).
Bring players on as partners in your overall plans, with the understanding that Iteration is in ArenaNet’s DNA. Ideas might not work, and the best people to keep in the community are the people who understand that. Being honest and specific, like it was before the game released, should be the way going forward as well.
Heart of Thorns is going to stare the status quo in the eyes, then punch it in the throat. And while the status quo is writhing in pain on the ground, the expansion is going to redecorate the entire apartment and act like nothing changed when the status quo finally struggles to its feet.
Knowing this, now is the perfect time to add some additional redecorations that if we’re all honest, should have happened a long time ago. And while we’re at it, throw out that terrible music selection and replace it with the albums everyone actually likes.
Or, since I’m done having fun with metaphors, taking a good look at reworking existing skills and traits, formally splitting game mode balance, adjusting rewards and RNG to reasonable (and actually rewarding) levels, and most importantly, adjusting the communications policy.