On the opening day of Gamescom 2015, I crept away from the buzzing hum and dazzling lights of the show floor to sit down with Guild Wars 2 Lead Designer Crystin Cox to discuss Heart of Thorns and the horizontal progression development system we now know as the mastery system. I was treated to a full breakdown of each mastery branch with a live demo, and it was full of great information about the masteries involved and the thought process behind the system’s development. We also hit on specializations, verticality, and the beta weekend during my follow-up questions, so be sure to keep reading for all things HoT.
Deep-dive into the mastery system
The presentation kicked off by explaining the motivations behind the mastery system and Crystin was very keen to talk about her vision for horizontal endgame progression.
Crystin Cox, Guild wars 2 Lead Designer: “We were really inspired by classic games such as Metroid and Zelda and wanted to do something that felt rewarding in that way. When you get an ability in those games it opens up a new world for you, and we wanted to capture that feeling in an MMO. That’s where the mastery system came from. We want our in-game progression to be about earning abilities that actually make a difference to what you’re doing in the game by opening up more of the game for you, especially when it comes to Heart of Thorns and the new area we’re adding. We worked very hard with the content designers to make sure that it felt like the things you’re getting with the mastery system are very contextual and impactful for what you’re doing in that region by opening up new content and abilities that are more meaningful than numbers going up. We want you to see the gliding stuff and think, ‘I wanna do that!’ We want it to be about time investment in an area and achievement, with the two combining to let you master something.”
Gliding through the jungle
We then moved swiftly on with plenty of information about the gliding mastery chain.
Cox: “All the maps within the Heart of Maguuma are vertical, dense, and lush… they’re really pretty and gliding means you can see those NPCs and enemies walking around below, and you can stealth or dodge roll to evade in the air from some enemies that’ll actually snipe you out of the air. There are a lot of places you can’t get to without unlocking higher level gliding, so it pays off as a reward without using random numbers. Once you unlock updrafts, you can fly into pillars of wind that boost you up into the air, which’ll help you get further into the map. There are actually updraft puzzles where you have to hit a whole bunch of these updrafts in a row, and if you hit all of them you’ll eventually get to a reward at the end. We really wanted it to be the case where you unlock a mastery, and then that mastery helps you find another mastery point to unlock another.”
The Itzel mastery line
The presentation wouldn’t be complete without delving into the Itzel masteries, especially since the treefrog-inspired jungle dwellers will feature heavily in the expansion’s story.
Cox: “In the Itzel mastery line, one of the unlocks is the bouncing mushroom, which are completely what they sound like: springy mushrooms you can jump on that can be used for all kinds of things. They can be used for jumping into a fight, or even jumping out of a fight, and they’ll of course help you get to places you couldn’t otherwise get to. We’ll have them in some jumping puzzles too. They also unlock the adrenal mushrooms, which are rarer than the bouncing mushrooms, but when you use them they refresh all of your skills immediately. If you’re doing a big fight, you can push out all of your abilities and then get the mushroom and go again. If you learn to speak the Itzel language through the mastery chain, they’ll open up to you a little more and be a little more trusting of you, and you can talk to their vendors to buy things you couldn’t buy before, and there’s a little bit of lore that comes along with that.”
The breakbar-defeating magic of the Exalted
We don’t know too much about the Exalted yet, so I was very glad to hear more about the strange race’s mastery chain.
Cox: “The Exalted are a more magical race and you meet them much deeper in the jungle. They’ve got all kinds of artefacts and ruins they’ve left around that you can learn to use through the Exalted markings mastery. They can do all kinds of things like teleport you places or let you control a golem or light up a path that’s in darkness so you can get through it. Exalted assistance lets you summon an Exalted warrior to come and fight with you, and they’ll actually res you too if you get into trouble.
Cox: “Exalted honing is pretty cool because it teaches you a technique to allow you to pierce through impenetrable bark, which is what the heavier Mordrem have on them. Once you get through that you get through the breakbar, basically. Once you have honing unlocked, it’ll be much easier for you to tackle combat. I’m not saying it’s going to be super easy – it’ll still be challenging and you’re not going to be able to just solo everything – but it’ll be a little easier for you to get through Champions even though you’ll still want a group. It’ll give you a big combat advantage, especially for classes that do have a lot of breakbar ability… it’ll be a big bonus for them. Exalted purification lets you summon a champion to fight who is most definitely not meant to be soloed! Once you defeat him, you get some very cool loot though.”
Nuhoch masteries and a new swarming enemy
The main enemy of the bullfrog hylek tribe, the Nuhoch, was detailed during the presentation.
Cox: “The Nuhoch fight these guys, the new enemy army called Chak, who are an insect army that swarm and also throw goop. The goop gets stuck on you, slows you down, and deals damage. This stacks as more goop piles on, and eventually you get too much on you and will be encased in it. Since these guys swarm you tend to run into a lot of them, so one of the things the Nuhoch can teach you to do in their Masteries is to clear the goop by using your heal skill. As soon as you unlock that mastery, any heal skill can be used to instantly clear all the goop off you. You should use it at the right time to avoid building too many stacks, and this makes the Chak fun enemies. The Nuhoch have a whole system of tunnels they use to get around that you can get access to, and they also help you with your hunting. This lets you loot special collection and crafting things from creatures you kill in the jungle.
Central Tyria masteries ensure the original world stays relevant
The ArenaNet team hasn’t abandoned Tyria, and the presentation included a great rundown of the Central Tyria masteries.
Cox: “We don’t want to leave behind our original content and have people stop playing it, so the existing world, which we call Central Tyria in the Mastery tab, has its own set of masteries. We haven’t really shown them before, but we’ve got the Pact Commander Mastery which is a line that’s all about being a mentor. These are all about encouraging you to play with the lower level players and helping them come up, and the first mastery actually gives you a special commander icon that is a Mentor’s Badge that lets you tag your chat with “Mentor” so everything you say is designated as being there to help. Eventually you can actually revive much faster; this gives you a little bit of a speed boost to reviving players who are level 80, but if a player is much lower level than you, you can revive them very quickly and you get rid of the downed penalty.
Cox: “We’re very much encouraging you to play with new players and help each other out. There’s a bunch of other quality of life improvements in this line: You’ll get a Swiftness bonus when you’re in cities and also auto-looting, which is something I’ve wanted in the game for a very long time! We want you to go out and explore, be friendly, and get people to come with you to have fun.
“We also have a fractal mastery line to tie in with the overhaul of fractals, so we have a whole lot of new rewards. You can unlock new dailies to go along with your fractals, you can actually craft a bunch of new infusions, and there are these little contextual buffs called singularities that you can pick up inside specific fractals that’ are unique for that fractal.
“We also have the themed legendary precursor crafting mastery; each journey for a legendary is themed, so if you’re doing The Moot, the theme is food and parties. It’s a three-step process and in the end you’ll have your precursor. Now there’s a fourth tier in here, because for the new set of legendaries we’re putting in, you’ll be able to go all the way to the full legendary item. Three new legendaries will launch on the day with HoT, and then we’ll add three more in updates over time.”
Cox: “The new legendaries are a little different in that they’re not tradable, so we really want this to be a prestige achievement for you, and not just something you can buy from the Trading Post. We think it’s much more rewarding that way… I understand that people have historically spent a lot of gold and I appreciate that, but legendaries are legendaries and we really want them to be special.
“There are 39 masteries, but it is a very easily extendable system; after all, we’re still GW2 and we’re still that living world MMO, so we’re dedicated to bringing you new updates and content and that’ll include new masteries.”
Some follow-up questions
Massively Overpowered: So how would you summarise the mastery system to someone who hasn’t much GW2 experience?
Cox: It’s meaningful progression that gives you exploration perks, quality of life additions, and all sorts of meaningful abilities that actually affect the way the world works and make you feel that you’re actually gaining mastery over it while learning. Rather than just watching numbers go up, you’re perfecting your game and interacting with that world to do that. At the start of the game, you learn by levelling to 80, and then when you get to 80 you really do now gain that mastery over your environment and learn to do things that are very contextual and rewarding.
What’s the biggest selling point for the new mastery system?
People continually ask whether the Heart of Maguuma masteries will ever possibly extend to outside the region. It’s a massive ask and may be impossible with the current Tyria zones, but are there any other region-specific contextual masteries that could happen in other zones?
Cox: We never say never, and we’re not cutting ourselves off from that. What we have said is that we don’t want to create a situation where, as the game progresses it gets harder and harder to get in, so you will not be required to complete all the Heart of Maguuma masteries to play content that comes later on. Maybe you will see gliding in another map in the future – maybe, who knows – but you would never have to have it in another zone first or anything like that. Masteries are very regional and contextual, for instance, jumping mushrooms don’t exist anywhere else! Things such as legendary precursors an happen anywhere, though, so we’re not going to stop you from doing those on any map.
Verticality is something you’ve been playing with for a long time. How did it grow from Dry Top and Silverwastes to what we’ll see in the Heart of Maguuma?
Cox: So much of it is owed to the artists. We knew we wanted the new zone to be a jungle, and we threw the words “make a jungle!” at them and to their credit and because they’re amazing, they really thought about what it’s like to be in a jungle, and what it’s like to be inside its depths. They have lots of threats, lots of things hanging over you, you can fall down into things, and they really took that and made the zone dense and crazy. You go and cut a line through it as you explore, and they made these wonderfully dense and vertical maps to make it really feel like a jungle. They sort of lead you where you’re supposed to go, and there is that winding path element to the map to help you see where to go. A lot of it is down to the map design… the environment artists we have are really incredible.
I have to ask about the challenging group content we keep being teased with. Will there be some new dungeons and world bosses dotted around the Heart of Maguuma?
Speaking of the r-word, fans are very happy to have access to the future beta tests running up to release with their pre-orders. Can you tell us more about those beta plans?
Cox: Masteries are one of those things you’ll get to play with in the betas… you’ll get to glide, explore a piece of the new map, and run our adventures. Those are little single player challenges we give you and they have leaderboards that will show you the scores of all your friends. They’re proving popular and are a lot of fun! The announced specializations can be played in beta too, and you can also take them out into the existing Tyria locations to test against whatever content you like. I’m really happy that you can make a Reaper or Chronomancer and run out to Orr or wherever you like, even PvP.
While we’re touching on specializations, one of the gripes I’ve seen is that the new system may be too simplistic. What would you say to allay that fear?
Cox: I’d say it’s still very deep. The previous system was very deep and we did like that about it, but it was difficult to understand and to actually interact with, so our focus wasn’t really to remove any depth and there’s still a load of build you can do, perhaps more than any other MMO I know of, and we have 8 classes that can do very many roles with many ways of playing. That’s still very much true, and we just wanted to make it easier to understand and know what you’re getting out of that. I understand that maybe our hardcore players don’t need that, but ease of use is always important even for those experienced players and we don’t want to bog anyone down. It’s so much faster to get in there and get your build ready for playing.
Would you like to comment on the mastery system’s focus on rewarding exploration and the thought process behind that?
What spurred on the decision to go with beta access to everyone who preorders?
Cox: The beta process for us is actually really important, and I know a lot of companies use it as just another marketing tool. We really do need it for testing, and we rely on systems where we can get people in, get tests ran, get feedback and data, and start iteration cycles. We are asking people to play stuff that isn’t done and we need that feedback to get it to the finished stage. We do have marketing stuff to try and encourage players to test it out and ultimately play Heart of Thorns, but the most important thing is this interactive cycle where players who are wondering about the product and the nuts and bolts can get in to test it.
The proof will be in the pudding to a large extent. We love this game and we worked so very hard on the expansion to do ourselves proud. We know that players have sunk hundreds and thousands of hours into the game, and we’re not going to pull the rug from under them. We want to make more GW2, we want to make it cooler, and we want to keep expanding on it as a living world. All can say is that we have a track record of supporting our games and giving great value, so we’re focused on making this the very best expansion we can make. Fence sitters can sit on the fence until the party comes, and that’s okay. We’re not running a closed door policy, and they can still come with no judgement after release.
What would you like people to really take away in terms of the impact of the mastery system on both the Heart of Maguuma and Central Tyria?
Cox: The mastery system really is our take on what endgame is, and it’s a big departure away from advancement of stats and numbers. These are meaningful abilities that you’ll train to progress your whole account and will open up more possibilities for you. This is what we see as true progression in an MMO.
Thanks to NCsoft and ArenaNet, and especially to Crystin Cox, for arranging and facilitating this meeting.