On 23rd October 2015 the first expansion to the successful MMO Guild Wars 2 will be released. One of my favourite games is about to get a load of great new content, but in a world full of games, especially so many MMOs, as well as the seemingly near constant declarations that MMOs are dead, why am I so excited about this one?
A quick introduction for those that know little to nothing about this game franchise:
Guild Wars 1 (GW1) was an incredible game, the mechanics were different having more in common with Magic: the Gathering (MTG or Magic) than EverQuest (EQ) or World of Warcraft (WoW). GW1 did not have a subscription fee, just the initial cost, and they followed this genius move by releasing two self-contained games that opened up different regions of the planet and allowed characters to freely transfer between these regions. Then they released an expansion called Eyes of the North and then later extra free missions. This clever approach to expansions and costing was well received by those that played the game, and I found it confused some people who subscribed to other MMOs, who often thought it was a trick, or assumed it must be a low quality game. GW1 gameplay was interesting, and extremely layered in difficulty, in a way that would take far too long to explain here. Characters progressed through story missions that had a strong and clear narrative in a setting that was not as cliché as most. The missions included cutscenes that could also be skipped, so bonus points there.
Guild Wars 2 (GW2) moved towards being much more like WoW, and whilst I think Guild Wars 2 is brilliant I still think they abandoned part of what made Guild Wars 1 so special. Thankfully GW2 game play is great, combat is interesting and in particular the dodges made it feel much more dynamic and emphasised an alternative to the standard MMO stand-and-hit approach.
The game stepped away from the Holy-Trinity style of: Tank, Healer and DPS, making waiting around for Tanks and Healers a thing of the past. Not having to party to benefit from co-ordinated play and kills, plus other players not being a nuisance to questing or gathering was refreshing. Dynamic events gave momentum to game-play, and another thing to learn. Multiple guild membership was a great feature. A fantastic appearance and clothing dye system. A global trading post and being able to convert gold to gems and gems to gold is great. GW2 story is good and continues the setting of GW1, albeit 250 years later.
However, I am apprehensive about using any adjectives to imply the story was excellent or even great; whilst there are some great events, great missions and many strong characters, it lacked polish overall. Dungeons were mostly basic compared to WoW, rarely good and sometimes poor. Legendary weapons are a great idea, but the incredibly rare precursor drop method makes it a massive lottery, there is nothing more than hoping for a drop, or buying via a lot of gold; allegedly most of the people to get a legendary in the first few months of launch did so via trading post ANet oversights/exploits, or by buying a lot of gold via real world money.
In fact the lottery design dominates so much of special aspects like Black Lion Chests, I personal dislike it, but since there are no stat bonuses at least it is not crucial. GW2 has no raiding, and the world boss fights were initially too basic; compared to WoW and the like, GW2 can be considered to be more of a casual game, whilst skill does make a big difference a lot of the PvE is easy. Maps have a maximum level, and high level characters are temporarily adjusted to a lower level allowing for old zones to still be a bit of a challenge, and allowing for playing with people on low level characters without one-shotting everything. Jumping is something this game does well, as is exploration, and Jumping Puzzles are generally amazing. PvP and World vs World vs World were interesting, and I found them better than most other MMOs. Overall I would give the game 90% at launch, the Angry Joe review gave the game 10/10, and overall the game was very well received.
Since launch a short summary of additions are: Living Story/World (LS or LW) was added, free updates focused around events in the game world story progressing, however the initial LS events were very basic. Some later season 1 LS were good, whilst some could be considered filler. To complicate matters a decision was made by ANet that if you missed Living Story the brief time period then you missed out. Whilst on the surface this may not seem all that bad an idea to some, personally I thought this was an odd design decision, because the reality is that it punishes people who are not able to play the game for that brief time period; debates about story realism in any MMO that includes re-spawning and repeating the same content is not a good use of time. After all people are completing the game, which has a dramatic ending, and then running around in a world full of characters that may still be at the start of the story, and the ending events have not taken place for them. Season 2 LS can be purchased by players that missed it, although I am still not happy with this due to the short time window of each section that was released.
Over the last 3 years ANet have made attempts to rectify the game’s shortcomings: the character’s trait and skill system have been radically altered, Fractals were added, Super Adventure Box, improved world boss fights, Ascended gear, plenty of cosmetics, Living Story, PvP and World vs World have all been improved. Several new large zones gave people fresh places to explore and grind. So with things being better, and continuing to improve, why would ANet announce an expansion? For many people Guild Wars 2 feels simultaneously great but lacking. Sort of like a half marathon, running a half marathon is still very impressive, but it’s just not as good as a full marathon; linguistically the word half just gives it that underwhelming feel.
A bit of community backstory: the Heart of Thorns was announced in January 2015, but this news was met by some harsh responses, why was that? Besides the fact that in a world of information overload it is easy for official news to be drowned out, plus all speculation and negativity starts hijacking the message, ANet the developers of Guild Wars 2 have not exactly had the best record in communicating. Personally I think that the majority of game companies are poor at communicating, that’s why the ones that do it well deserve such respect, like Grinding Gear Games.
Discussing game companies’ communication is an article all to itself, so getting back on target, I thought some clarification is in order. In an interview with Robert Purchese for Eurogamer on 03/07/2013 GW2 designer Mike Zadorojny was asked about expansions and said:
“If we do this right,we will probably never do an expansion and everything will be going into this Living World strategy.”
This quickly became discussed by players as being a fact that there would never be any expansions, so obviously when an expansion was announced some people overreacted. This also led to debates about whether the Living World/Story approach was dead. I think this confusion is mostly ANet’s fault, because they did not clearly discuss their game plans, nor have a summary that is easy to look up; ideally an in-game summary that a player can look at whilst playing, plus reference to others. Having worked at a games company, which is very small in comparison, I found that discussion with players was a crucial part of the job. I had to learn this over time since the culture there was not to discuss things with players, especially game direction. Keeping players informed in a way that makes it easy for them to find out information, was my main take away from that job.
Back to the question: why announce an expansion? The answer is money, but crucially that is not the only reason. ANet have been making such a massive overhaul and adding so much more that they wanted to get as many people aware of this as possible. From a marketing point of view expansions are a known method in MMOs for not just raising capital, but crucially to also get old and new players interested in trying the game out.
To a regular GW2 player it may seem counter-intuitive that so many people would consider an expansion to be a new thing, and that the GW2 brand is considered tainted by so many people but unfortunately it is. Expansions do normally add a lot to a game, as well as change existing things, to the extent the game could be considered new. So I personally agree that ANet are not being despicable, like some more famous companies and in particular publishers are famous for doing, more that ANet have experimented and so of its ideas have not been as well as done other ideas. For example I consider Season 2 Living Story to be overall great, but as Season 1 was so poor, particularly at the start I knew players that left and consider the whole LS to be a failure.
I think it is worth noting that considering the practices of so much of the gaming industry, particularly these days, I think ANet’s actions and business model to be one of the best overall, since I have not had to spend any money for the last 3 years on a game I initially like, and has improved massively! Although really this is less of a compliment to ANet, and more of a sad statement about the games industry overall!
The main Heart of Thorns website is worth checking out. I won’t list off the expansion features in detail, see GW2 wiki. Of special note is that the core game will be free to play! An overview of account differences can be read here. It sounds like a very well thought out system, so people cannot abuse free accounts.
I think this expansion will give ANet a chance to redeem the GW2 brand to those that grew disgruntled. It has allowed them to change their business model to include free accounts, and maybe even that vaunted E-Sport status with PvP. The expansion Heart of Thorns could actually be ANet not just winning more metaphorical battles in the campaign to make Guild Wars 2 better, but maybe even the overall war, becoming the game Guild wars 2 should have been all long. Finally a full marathon, maybe something even more!
The community has many great contributors, WoodenPotatoes is my favourite. I think he is well informed, goes in to the lore and other less talked about things, but crucially is fair and not a fanboy, which is proven by his numerous criticisms of GW2 when bad design happens. You can check out his great lore series, and he also has Living Story summaries, plus so many other informative videos.