I usually keep MMO Mechanics quite general by looking at several games as examples to highlight my point regarding the mechanics of choice in each article, but I have a different format in mind for this edition that I hope you’ll enjoy. I’m going to flip things around, instead using one game — and several mechanical examples — to construct my argument.
It’s no secret that I have Guild Wars 2 on the brain anyway, and with the recent April update being such a reformative hit, I felt inspired. I’ve always believed that innovating mechanics is the secret to MMO longevity and the recent quarterly update for Heart of Thorns is an excellent case study to show how mechanical tweaks specifically can refresh MMOs. In this edition, I’ll outline some of the changed mechanics that gave ArenaNet a newly invigorated playerbase and wide praise for the update.
There’s nowhere better to begin than with a brief history of ArenaNet‘s development of its first GW2 expansion, Heart of Thorns, for those who aren’t familiar with the title. HoT introduced several new mechanics that significantly improved the endgame of GW2, including a new mastery system that allowed player experience and dedication to be reflected in-game and several combat mechanic enhancements that made characters more fluid in terms of role while also allowing each class to gain an improved skillset at endgame.
The expansion’s launch didn’t come off without a hitch or two, though, and I documented in my launch diary back in October that ANet had even then started to iteratively correct some of the most pressing gripes of the community. It started within a week of launch, when the development team scanned complaints and feedback on the official forums and the game’s Reddit to shape the most immediate pipeline for fixes after the expansion launch. This sweep highlighted that personal story prerequisites were immersion-breakingly difficult to obtain in the natural exploration of the expansion zone and its story, and also that the new specialization point system needed reforming in order to make elite specializations easier to obtain.
The job certainly wasn’t over there, especially since the expansion left a vocal proportion of players feeling dissatisfied with the direction the expansion took the title in and believing that the studio’s priorities weren’t aligned with their own. Frustrations mounted over time as players perceived that development in new areas, such as raiding, happened as development slowed in other key areas, seeing delays and cancellation of some highly requested improvements to WvW, fractals, PvP maps, and the new zone. Fast-forward to the recent April update that started to smooth over the issues: Mike O’Brien recently took up the Game Director role again and used the opportunity to refocus on reactive and iterative development that was lighter on the promise front yet weightier when it comes to delivery.
What GW2 players are experiencing with the April update is the result of responsive development, and I was particularly interested in how both old and new mechanics were reforged due to player feedback. Every area of the game was impacted, and although the changes varied in scope, most of them were very welcome and warmly received. Access to the new HoT mechanics has been made instant too with the introduction of a free level 80 booster for every expansion owner, unleashing the best mechanics that GW2 has to offer immediately to those who have purchased the access rather than putting them through the admittedly short grind to 80. The token can be trailed on as many characters as a player wishes, so players gain a solid understanding of how endgame might function with any given profession before committing too, which is an excellent mechanic to encourage lapsed players to have a fresh look at what certain builds can do.
I was particularly taken with how iterating on core mechanics has opened up the game and made fun that much easier to find: The newest level 80 zone that was a fundamental part of HoT‘s launch has had a major mechanical overhaul. The inbuilt reward systems are less rigid and railroady, giving players more frequent and attractive rewards for the effort they put in. ANet’s anti-farming diminishing returns mechanics have been axed in the expansion content because it was getting in the way of the natural running of the content and affecting rewards that could be earned by players. Making these areas much more explorable and rewarding has had a visible impact on zone population from my perspective, making the content in turn that bit easier to run because it’s simpler to find some company to do so.
One of the most contentious content types in the game is WvW: Players have been waiting for a significant length of time for reform in this department. Improved reward mechanics that equally benefit secondary support roles have been introduced, incentivising a much higher uptake for WvW as one part of a two-prong plan to improve combatant populations. A new ability line has introduced mechanics that make looting and preparing for WvW much easier too, allowing players to stay in the action with far fewer distractions. These small mechanic improvements precede the reintroduction of Alpine Borderlands: Desert has now become a live testing ground for some of the changes players have been urging ANet to make, meaning that continued feedback is available to the WvW dev team to help this long-neglected content.
I’ve hit on only a few ways that ArenaNet has used direct player feedback and clever mechanics to make the expansion much more palatable to GW2 fans. Staying on the pulse is one thing, but proactive, reactionary improvements to mechanics are key to healthy MMOs. It hasn’t been a smooth first expansion for the game by any stretch of the imagination, but focusing on the grievances of players and adding in a generous helping of good old-fashioned incentives in those mechanics is proving to be a good recipe for the team moving forward.
I wonder if lessons have been taken on as the company proceeds to develop its next expansion: Players have responded well to ArenaNet’s iterative approach not just because it proves that the company is listening but also because the resultant mechanics are much smarter. MMOs naturally benefit from encouraging logins and incentivising active play, so I hope that ANet keeps improving the mechanics that switch off significant sectors of the playerbase to create the version of HoT that the bulk of players want to play. Often, expansions are hard-pressed to deliver plenty of newness and excitement, but I hope that this expansion has shown that improving existing mechanics should never be forgotten in the pursuit of meeting scheduled delivery expectations and meeting financial expectations.
One thing that I would love to see continue is the current news delivery format that ArenaNet is using. Reddit AMA threads are great ways to content drop interactively, allowing for hard-hitting, immediate feedback before development is totally committed to a set path. I prefer the recent lack of hard promises because it allows the team time and reasonable scope to deliver a sensible, largely timely update rather than rushing through checklists by a set date. The focus is on iterative development pairing alongside the new developments to keep up a stream of new surprises and hooks that are well supported by updated mechanics that don’t bog a player down or disincentive play.
It’s not at all surprising that fans have reacted so much more positively to this expansion than they had previously. When outdated and unwelcome mechanics are improved to remove long-standing barriers to play, players can actually appreciate the content that’s regularly delivered to its maximum potential. I’m hoping that this approach continues, that ArenaNet grows as a result, and that other development teams take note of how the vocal population has so quickly changed the beat of its drum as far as the expansion is concerned.
What do you think? Should developers focus more on delivering new content or improving existing mechanics? What puts you off in terms of mechanics, and do you think a developer could win you back with some iterative changes? What constitutes iteration and what is mere reactive panic? If you’re a Guild Wars 2 fan, what do you think of the update? Have your say in the comments.