In this edition of Flameseeker Chronicles, I’m going to explore ArenaNet’s radical choice more thoroughly as I look at the rationale behind a level-neutral expansion and the general perception-shaking outlook behind the decision. Heart of Thorns is most definitely a playground, readers, and ArenaNet is well-accustomed to surviving in the heat of the MMO jungle in the least expected ways.
We all know the usual MMO drill by now since most of us have been the hungry consumers of vertical progression before. I wrote an article about it before on Massively-of-old, and I described how, in the traditional level climb and gear grind, players are placed on a treadmill that never stops. Gear or levels become the carrots that dangle in front of the player, keeping them going for long enough to be financially beneficial to the developer. Eventually, though, fatigue kicks in and many players invariably hop off the bandwagon, sometimes needing just a little rest in order to get back into the game, and sometimes permanently retiring from the stationary race.
Players keep going for much longer when the stakes are made higher, which is why traditional MMO expansions mean new levels and gear tiers. Many players hop back on to get expansion-ready before the new content even releases, gearing up and collecting materials to ensure optimum results in the new cycle of gearing and levelling. Watch me on any shopping day and you’ll see how exciting new shinies can be: Most people love all things new, bright, and sparkly, and MMO players are no exception. Even when you’ve hit the level cap, chances are that you’ll have a long way to go before you have a full set of top-tier gear.
The sense of fulfilment gained when you finally get there is pretty compelling, which is largely why drop allocation and loot rules can be such a hot topic in gaming groups. Players are more likely to fall away from an MMO only after they have earned the “been there, done that” tee shirt (I have more than one of those in my wardrobe) when they can’t see the advantage of continuing to run the stale content. This is the blessing and curse of vertical progression: Once new content comes out, the MMO gets a second wind — or third, fourth, or fifth for that matter — and becomes enlivened once more, but that content has a shelf life since it’s consumable. When it’s done, it’s done, and this cycle of mass consumption and burnout is exactly what ArenaNet has sought to avoid in Guild Wars 2 and now Heart of Thorns.
Guild Wars 2 was carved out as a wee bit different from its more traditional competitors right from the beginning, especially since the title is neither subscription-based nor free-to-play. It also doesn’t feature the holy trinity of tank, healer, and DPS and instead sorts professions by armour type and general combat style. Selling base copies of the game and then keeping players engaged enough to drop some cash in the gem store without making that spending mandatory has proved to be a successful business model for the game. Episodic content was added in the form of the Living World additions, causing full maps to be altered or even broken and remade. Right now we’re waiting patiently for a beautiful new rendition of Lion’s Arch to unfold, and if the concept art is anything to go by, it’ll be breathtaking.
The team at ArenaNet has always been very careful to minimise redundancy across its content, as seen through GW2‘s level-scaling features that contrasts with the more traditional level-banded zonation and MMO content. At PAX South when the expansion was announced, studio founder Mike O’Brien made a commitment to GW2 players: Original content would not be invalidated by HoT. The vision for the expansion is that each existing zone, boss, or map will still be just as enjoyable and challenging as it was before HoT, and that the expansion’s new content will simply offer more options. It should feel seamless, especially since its lore picks up right where Season 2 of the Living World left off. Evolution rather than replacement will be the order of the day in the jungle.
Levelling in Guild Wars 2 feels different to me than it does in other MMOs I’ve enjoyed. It seems as though that number represents smaller and smaller training wheels tacked onto my toons, a visual indicator that my character is a quickly developing work-in-progress. Rather than feeling the need to grind my life away in order to see the endgame, I enjoy the experience of developing my character through exploration and the perks it offers. As I venture out on my travels, the experience gives my character just that — experience — and my characters also become more skilled as they face off against the challenges Tyria puts before them.
Levelling is growth, and when that chapter ends, characters start to refine the basics developed throughout that period of growth. It feels natural, mirroring the typical pattern we follow in the real world: We grow in education and holistic life skills before finding a career or lifestyle path in adulthood that necessitates the continual refinement and redevelopment of that base skillset in order to maintain its relevancy.
GW2‘s virtual world is positively alive and ever-changing, and the path to its first expansion has been paved with the building blocks needed to facilitate such a significant addition to the game without making it a grind or a climb. Progression of some description is important in terms of satisfaction and return for hard work, though: How will HoT manage to feel progressive and expansive without the verticality some MMO fans have come to expect?
HoT will be an extension of this philosophy: Many more details about the new elite specializations will continue to pour out over the next few weeks, but we can already see that the refinements and additions will change how we play our characters. New mastery mechanics will encourage players to literally remaster their characters by developing their toons’ knowledge, but we’ve barely broken the surface of what that entails. We’re still waiting to hear more about the Revenants and what the new profession will bring to the game, yet I know I’m not the only one who has a free character slot ready and waiting for the expansion to roll out so I can check it out.
New mechanics have been promised. and The Heart of Maguuma is set to be quite a unique map with plenty of navigational quirks. Even I cannot wait to hang-glide my way across the lofty canopies of the Hylek and burrow down into the jungle’s root system, and I’m not the biggest fan of vertical navigation. Guild halls will enhance the game incredibly as players share the space together and become even closer as a group. Lets not forget Stronghold, the new PvP mode for HoT, or the Borderlands for WvW for that matter. GW2 will undoubtedly be rejuvenated by the expansion because of the reiterative approach ArenaNet has taken to its development; for me, the ramifications of these changes are much more far-reaching than a new gear tier or five more levels could ever be.
All in all, I am incredibly impressed with the quality that HoT will add to GW2 without adding any more vertical progression systems or extending its existing ones. The team at ArenaNet may not be the first to use horizontal progression techniques in MMO development, but the application is fresh and exciting. Are you as enthused as I am with ArenaNet’s direction for GW2‘s first expansion, or were you hoping for more levels or a new gear tier? Will you be pre-ordering HoT, or are you holding back for now? Are you buying any of the expansion date rumors that are leaking out onto the internet? Let me know in the comments!