TL;DR, Rewards suck, and cannot improve, because of the Gold Standard. The Gold Standard must be broken.
Heart of Thorns has finally released, after months of anticipation and a seeming promise to provide increased rewards across multiple sections of the game, while demanding more skill from the player base to acquire those rewards.
Only, rewards are less than they were before release. Far less. Amidst all the changes a consistent trend is emerging: loot still sucks.
This begs the question “why?” Why, after an expansion marketed, pitched, and executed (at least on the skill side) as “building a foundation for endgame progression,” does loot that rewards beating difficult content functionally not exist?
It all chains back to gold, and its lockstep relationship with gems and the money that buys them.
Several forms of content in Heart of Thorns have been intentionally re-tuned to retain scarcity and the resulting value (read: cost) of particular items. Ultimately, it all boils down to nerfs to the rate of gained value*. Of the types I’ve seen, there are three ways that rewards have been reduced in actual value:
- Direct Nerfs (e.g., dungeons)
- Convoluted RNG-esque mechanisms (e.g., fractals)
- Lack reward for success in the first place (e.g., new open world events)
*Getting all economic here, but the gist is that while gold is the main currency, items of value that a player acquires (T5/T6 crafting materials, rares, ectos, etc.) can be turned into gold by using the Trading Post. It’s all ultimately gold, and it’s all much less valuable than it was.
However, there has been a good case of reward utilized several times in the expansion: account binding the reward. Let’s go over each in turn.
ArenaNet was upfront about this: dungeon gold and experience, the most liquid forms of reward in dungeons (and what made them popular with a large section of the player base) was getting nerfed. Per the wiki, it’s an average 50% nerf those rewards.
It can be argued that dungeons were extremely easy for the gold reward they provided, and to an extent that was true. Which wouldn’t be that big a deal to the player base, economically speaking, were this statement not in the same paragraph announcing the nerf:
The shift in rewards is a direct representation of our focus on raids and fractals and our commitment to make them the best they can be. – John Smith
Fractals are viewed “as our infinitely expandable, endgame version of 5-man dungeon content” by the developers. Coupled with the quote above, there is a reasonable expectation that Fractals should have gained a lot of the value that dungeons deliberately lost, with the best rewards gated around increasing difficulty.
But they didn’t. They got worse. Ascended gear drops of all flavors are massively down, and the gold reward, such that it is, all but requires a convoluted approach. And due to 10-level tiers being replaced by 3 expanding tiers of casual, core, and master, the “increasing difficulty” expectation is completely gone.
The Open World
The new zones of Heart of Thorns are maps with purpose and constant activity. While interlocked metas occur, the skill required to accomplish most events has drastically increased over the majority of original Tyria.
Just like Fractals, this builds the expectation that rewards will match the skill required. An expectation that isn’t reflected in the rewards. Instead of genuinely rare loot to align with the difficulty of organization and execution, it’s a slightly higher number of bags that may or may not provide anything noteworthy.
Of special note, if poorly represented*, is the generosity of the account bound rewards in Heart of Thorns. Success at the difficult events carries with it a proper reward. It is faster, and more worthwhile, to attempt and succeed at the hard parts than to repeat the easy things over and over. But only for account bound rewards.
*Poorly in that the number of ley line crystals awarded does not change between success and failure (Or at least didn’t when I read this post). From a crystal standpoint, it’s more intelligent to deliberately fail the event and start the meta over again then to spend a lot of time possibly failing.
The common thread of most of these poor rewards is their connection to the economy. Bags or not, the vast majority of bag contents dumps into the economy in the form of materials, or valuable gear.
This thread breaks down, in a positive way, the instant rewards are account bound. Take the specialization collections, where a bunch of account-bound things (and a couple of unbound) are combined to give the achieving player a cool weapon skin of the type the elite specialization unlocks*.
*This is also generally true of the legendary backpack track, the merchant rewards from mastery tracks, and other account-bound-on-acquire elements littering the expansion.
With these, a player has set in stone, but relatively simple guideposts. Acquire some items by completing specific content that’s related to the end item, and it’s yours. Minimal grind*, specified reward, and no need (nay, the inability) to jump onto the Trading Post and buy all the elements for completion.
*Can’t discount the possibility of extremely bad RNG.
Though I can’t reference any specific feedback, this is an approach much more in line with expected progression and reward systems. Put in the time to check off a few items that individually don’t take that long, and a good reward comes out the other side.
A Look Back
My first post as the Tough Love Critic was The Gold Standard. In it, I noted the problem of having total gold equivalency. In other words, balancing rewards and loot around gold’s ability to functionally buy everything.
This gold standard makes the most efficient farm the driver of the overall economy. If a player does not use the most efficient farm, or put in more time than those who do use it, they lose pace getting to the reward they want.
At the time, I said that account binding is the only way to remove the “most efficient farm” as the gatekeeper of a player’s rewards. As shown above, that is still very much true in Heart of Thorns. And it still has the negative reaction from a sizable portion of the player base that there is no sense of reward in the game.
The Unmentioned Wrench
If the gold standard removes the sense of achievement in favor of homogeneous “farm enough gold,” why is it still being held to in the “new foundation to build upon” expansion? Because as I didn’t mention in that post, gold is itself driven by gems and the money that buys them.
NOTE: The following data was pulled off of gw2spidy, using the moving average of all data, and for items only tracking sell listings. Missed dates are a result of missing data on gw2spidy that occurred for some of the gems to gold conversion data. It is not presented as a complete set of data, but as an illustrative sample. I do not have the means to scrape the data en masse, and realize that the data is not as strong as a result. I excluded data prior to January 2013 from the graphs because the economy had not settled yet. My source spreadsheet is available here.
The Weakening Gold Coin
Gold within Guild Wars 2 has been increasing since release. Generally speaking, that’s a necessity to prevent rare items from retaining practically no premium value over simply uncommon ones. Sinks to remove gold from the economy have been known to be too few for a very long time. Even the hefty 15% “TP Tax” hasn’t stopped the increase in gold cost of most high-end items in the game.
Aiming to slow down or stop inflation is a worthy goal, and if the economy was self-contained to just the game, pushing deflation, as stated by John Smith*, is just as good. This push is most clear with dungeons, but shades of it are in the various reward systems mentioned earlier.
*Stating an intent to reduce demand points to a deflation mindset. As do the phrases “adding scarcity to items that have none (and therefore no value), those items will now gain value” and “less often, but they’ll be worth much more.” Shifting the actual value proposition to the item, rather than the resource that can purchase the item (gold), is what points to deflation most clearly.
Based on a selected set of precursors (see graph), deflation is already in progress. While pre-expansion release reduction in value can be attributed to fewer people playing (no new content), the net reduction in the value of precursors is sizable over the previous year.
This deflation aspect is less clear when legendaries are considered, due to the vast number of materials, all separate “markets,” that are required for their creation:
More telling is the fact that legendary value, despite the ever-increasing amount of gold in the game and unchanging desirability of legendaries, has more or less stabilized. Some of the highest-value items in the game, driven by dozens of items, are at about the same price today as they were 4 months ago. A trend that hasn’t been replicated on the exact same items previously in Guild Wars 2‘s history.
The Strengthening Dollar
Guild Wars 2‘s economy is not self-contained. The currency exchange between gems and gold functions both as a large sink* and an interface between real money and game currency. Because it is an interface, it reflects the overall size of the in-game economy based on the value of the exchange itself:
*Gold exchanged for gems always takes money permanently out of the economy, on the order of 35% of the transaction, based on the current exchange rate.
It’s not a perfect reflection, as is visible in the massive spike at the start of September, at the tail end of the 3rd anniversary sale. But the overall trend is up.
In other words, real money turned into gold is worth a lot more today than it was 3 years ago. At first glance, this is fine, as the in-game economy has likewise gained value at more or less the same rate.
Exchanging (Too) Favorably
Except it hasn’t:
Compared to the existing, “inflated” economy, it’s cheaper than ever to buy a legendary or precursor, and by extension any other high-cost or rare item. Gold has lost its value already against real money, on the order of 3 to 4 times today compared to January 2013.
Pair the intended deflation of the economy with the increasing value of real money, and a perverse incentive emerges: it’s easier to pay cash than farm the gold from the game itself. An equation that is swinging more and more in favor of cash.
It’s perverse because making cash more valuable is a terrific method of monetizing the game. At the same time, reducing the in-game reward rate drains a sense of progression and accomplishment. To keep the game running players have to literally get less from it.
Aye, There’s the Rub
This incentive has existed since release day, always phrased as the choice between spending time or money to acquire desired rewards.
And it works fine when gold generation stays roughly in step with the increasing value of gems. Purchasing power is functionally constant, and a player can vote with their wallet whether time or money is more important to them.
But deflating gold flips that on its head. Gems never lose their value relative to the economy, because they always cost the exact same in real money. And due to the exchange, they also hold the previous value of gold in the economy.
The worst part of this approach is that it disproportionately affects the majority of the player base, while functionally exempting a small portion.
Market Magnates and Industrial Farmers
There are two types of people who, while few, through sheer force of effort, exempt themselves from all effects of less gold available.
On the one hand are those who take the time to patiently and steadily gain money on the Trading Post, extracting money from players who are uncaring of their profit (those who fill buy orders) and impatient to receive an item now (those who fill sell orders).
Due to the percentage-based nature of Trading Post profit, “gold per hour,” a reasonably fixed metric for all types of content, doesn’t apply. With enough time, a person willing to play the economy rather than the game can have more money than they could reasonably spend.
On the other hand are those that find the most efficient farm in the game at a given point in time, and farm it up until another farm replaces it. Rather than the farming necessarily being toward the typical goal of an item, it’s for the goal of having as much gold as possible. For some, that is enough.
Because of this, these “industrial farmers” outpace the rate of gold gain of all but market magnates. When the economy rebalances around the gold gain of the median, everything is cheaper for them. And the longer they don’t “cash in” to an item, the greater the gap between their raw wealth and the items they may want.
Playing (Only) for Fun
High-end rewards don’t interest everybody. Some people are happy with their “cheap but close” skins, and still others play for the enjoyment of playing the game, no reward required. Their playtime might be short, their “efficiency” nonexistent, but they don’t care. If they end up with a high-end reward as a goal, they’ll be more than happy to stick it out for the extreme long term.
These people will almost never be affected by major changes to the overall economy, damaging or otherwise. If it takes longer to get something, they might not even notice.
The Majority Middle
Between these two extremes is everyone else. This includes those who like investing time, want rewards, enjoy playing the content, and all manner of other descriptors. This is the majority of players that not just play the game, but are interested in spending money on it.
And these are the people who are always affected by economic changes, who have to constantly weigh the time and money choice. They also notice when the economy shifts the goalposts on them, moving a previously difficult reward further away. They are simultaneously the hardest to please, and the most lucrative to do so.
The reliance on gold for nearly all rewards, and the intended decreased rate of getting said gold, combines to shackle the majority of the player base to boring rewards that take far too long to turn into something they want.
Breaking the Shackles
The Gold Standard cannot continue to be the way that rewards, the economy, and most importantly, the exchange interact. It reduces the sense of reward to a gold grind, a fact all the more evident (and grating) in a deflating economy where gold now is harder to get than gold acquired previously*. Furthermore, it makes the choice between time or money a false one for many, as money is far more efficient.
*This is its own problem that I could go on at length for, but this post is long enough.
At the same time, simply ending the Gold Standard, when it undergirds the entire economic foundation of the game, will not work. There are three ways to go about it, two with disadvantages for either players or developers. The third I believe strikes a center balance that most people can be satisfied with.
Bind it All Up
My original solution to the Gold Standard was to increase the amount of account-bound options for similar, high-value items. The example I gave of precursor crafting released…with all old precursors sellable. This removes any possibility of it breaking the Gold Standard, especially since it required making sure the collection-gained precursors had equivalent cost to avoid crashing the RNG-gained precursor market.
This solution can be extended, rather than avoided: account bind everything that’s not simply high value for high value (e.g., Black Lion weapon skins), but has a value. This would include legendaries and precursors, but also prestige skins acquired by doing specific content*, like Aetherpath weapons.
*Or having lots of money to afford the exorbitant costs.
To an extent, this approach is already coming into the game en masse, with new precursors (and legendaries) account bound from the start, and most of the weapon and armor sets within Heart of Thorns attached to specific achievements. Not to mention the Ambrite weapons of Dry Top and Carapace/Luminescent armor of the Silverwastes.
However, saying the “old content,” which is still a large part of the game, has to stay under a bad reward scheme because it’s always been that way, continues to keep the player base shackled. The long term health of the game can’t wait until enough new, better-crafted content is around to offset the original, poorly rewarding content. The original game needs a fresh start as well.
This approach favors players. Sure, many people will get a raw deal by having to have gotten something “when it was harder,” but never changing anything because people might get angry is a recipe to satisfying nobody at all.
On the other hand, it reduces a major incentive to buy gold for some of the well-off among us: you can’t buy pretty much everything with a sufficient deposit of dinero. This could reduce the amount of money the gemstore generates, but it could also not affect it as much if players continue to want Black Lion skins and other gemstore-based cosmetics.
The Gold Standard relies on gold maintaining essential parity to the real money that can purchase it. As previously covered, switching to a deflation approach to the economy prevents that from happening, and actively amplifies a growing disparity already present before deflation became a priority.
In this approach, simply reverse the intent to deflate. Shift rewards where they are desired by ArenaNet, which based on communication is Fractals, raids, and open-world challenging content like Heart of Thorns has in spades.
This keeps things reasonably balanced between gems and gold, and since the mentioned forms of content are major priorities, won’t create a disconnect between the most rewarding content and what’s getting development love.
The downside is on the players’ end. Over time, the inflation inherent in this will make players who aren’t willing to jump on the “new content” bandwagon unable to catch up. Real money turned into gold will always retain its value, so ArenaNet doesn’t “lose” income with this approach. This isn’t “solving” the Gold Standard so much as mitigating its effects.
Data-Driven Economic Honesty
NOTE: This is a greater scope, but shorter version of Data-Driven Dungeon Rewards.
Rewards are more or less static for all forms of content. The only difference is how favorable RNG is. This stands in marked contrast to the rest of the game, where everything scales to match the number of people participating.
If the point of economic control is to balance gold vs. real money, static rewards will not work. A couple years of badly-balanced dungeon gold rewards is proof enough. Static rewards mean there’s a most efficient farm that isn’t going anywhere short of specific, patched changes to nerf that farm, or buff another. The update history of Guild Wars 2 is littered with such changes.
Instead, convert all forms of direct reward (e.g., event credit, dungeon completion) to a dynamic system, based on two forms of data: average time required to complete (difficulty), and number of times completed (popularity). These work together as two axes on a graph, with the line between being reward gained. A highly popular, fast event will reward much less than a rarely completed, slow event.
For each type of content, minimum and maximum ranges of reward should be defined. Then, using the data generated from the previous time period (I suggest weekly), adjust specific rewards to be a percentage of the range between minimum and maximum. So something at 90% reward when the event can reward between 1s and 5s would render 4.6s at completion*.
*Ideally, all results from completing content, to include karma, experience, gold, special currency, and quality and number of items, would be affected by the dynamic system.
A data-driven system like this is self-balancing. As players figure out the most efficient farm for a particular kind of content, they’ll mob it, increasing the popularity, decreasing its average time to complete, and dropping its reward next week. Then the cycle repeats on something different. With modest data analysis, what’s rewarding from week to week can be something different, with difficult-by-design events always getting top billing.
Further, it rewards explorers who find that out of the way event, or that rarely-completed mini dungeon. Because almost nobody does it, their payoff for finding the outer edges is way higher. It fixes Fractals because higher scales will take longer to complete and be done by fewer people, rendering a higher reward on its own.
It’s also easy to modify. To adjust how much the economy is growing, or shrinking, all that needs to be done is adjust the minimum and maximum reward ranges. Data analysis will readily create a picture of where the average reward is, and whether it’s above or below where the ultimate goals are.
A system like this is a win for developers and players alike. The out-of-whack reward curve gets dynamically fixed, and “problem child” farms either get balanced by the system itself, or softly nerfed while keeping other areas in line. Players get to experience the vast majority of the world ArenaNet has created, and developers have near-assurance that few parts of the world will be completely ignored because they “aren’t rewarding.”
Heart of Thorns was intended as a new foundation for Guild Wars 2. Most systems got updates or outright overhauls because of the expansion. The lone exception is the Gold Standard-based economy and the poor rewards that come along with it. This won’t work for a long-term foundation.
Instead, shifting off of the Gold Standard is desperately needed. Rewards still aren’t rewarding, and by intention are supposed to be less rewarding post-release. While those with tons of gold, or no care for it, aren’t being affected, the majority of the player base is.
The shackles need to be thrown off, and the lack of reward replaced. This can be done by account-binding high-value items, by reversing the deflation approach, or most ideally, dynamically adjusting the entire game’s rewards based on how people complete the content.