Flameseeker Chronicles: Guild Wars 2’s 2019 year in review, from Icebrood Saga to the future

The first half of 2019 was a rough time to be a Guild Wars 2 fan. It wasn’t without its bright spots, but it left a lot of players feeling uneasy about the game’s future. Don’t miss our recap of the first half of the year in last week’s Flameseeker Chronicles. Today, however, we’re going to explore the goings-on of the rollercoaster second half of the year.

Icebrood Saga announcement event

After a lot of silence and uncertainty about the future, ArenaNet finally began teasing what was coming next for Guild Wars 2. It rented out a theater near PAX West and invited players to join for an exciting event that would reveal what was next for the Living World. It was a buildup similar to the ones we saw for the game’s two expansions, Heart of Thorns and Path of Fire, leading many players to believe this was in fact an expansion announcement in disguise. What ArenaNet actually pitched was something between an expansion and a living world chapter, what it is calling a “saga.” “It’s bigger than a season,” the developers on stage said. “It’s a saga!” ArenaNet promised “expansion-level content” in a format similar to the existing Living World, but on a faster release schedule.

It also revealed Strike Missions, new “entry-level,” raid-like content. These 10-person instances are sort of like a bite-sized raid with only a single boss, or like a world boss event that doesn’t take place in the open world and therefore can’t simply be zerged with little to no regard for mechanics.

The promises were grand, but a lot of players were really hoping that this event would be to announce an expansion, or that it would at least end with a tease for one in the future. Not only were they disappointed, but we soon heard that there wasn’t even one in the works. This was disheartening for many players who really prefer the excitement and large chunk of content associated with an expansion.

Mike O’Brien’s departure

In October, we got the news that game director and president of ArenaNet Mike O’Brien was leaving the company to form his own studio, called ManaWorks. Mike was one of the original masterminds behind the first Guild Wars, and he had been the face of the studio since its founding, though we later understood NCsoft had already taken over management of the studio much earlier in the year.

We confirmed soon after that O’Brien had once been tasked with exploring the potential of making Guild Wars 3, but his project was never given the green light from NCsoft. I wrestled at the time with the pros and cons of that decision and came to the conclusion that I do not believe that this is the right time for Guild Wars 3, as ArenaNet has too many issues to work through before it considers a sequel. I stand by that opinion, but it’s really unfortunate that O’Brien left during that process.

It’s always sad to see the original creators of a property move away from it, especially someone high-profile like Mike O’Brien. He wasn’t always the most popular figure with some members of the community, but I know he will be missed by many.

The Icebrood Saga begins

Finally it was time for the launch of the Icebrood Saga, starting with the Prologue, Bound By Blood. Grothmar Valley is a fun map with a lot of memorable moments, and it’s steeped in nostalgia. The story was a little light, but it was a prologue, so we always expected it to be a lightweight teaser of things to come. This map also gave us our first taste of what a strike mission was really like.

Two months later — right on schedule — it was followed by Episode One: Whisper in the Dark. Sadly, this chapter’s story was of similar length to – or maybe even shorter than – Bound By Blood (I even did a small experiment to confirm this), and its map events were much less interesting, making this feel more like a prelude than the actual prelude. Is this the standard story length that we can expect from now on? Only time will tell, I suppose.

Build templates

At the very end of the year, we finally got a long-promised feature: build and gear templates. For years, players had been asking for a way to quickly and easily switch between build and gear setups without having to carry every piece of gear in their inventories or remember which traits were best for their DPS spec versus their support spec, etc. A popular player-made addon, ArcDPS, had this feature built in, but since Guild Wars 2 doesn’t support interface modding, it had to be installed by modifying game files, which was workable, if a bit clumsy.

Players were excited to see this feature added natively to the game, but their excitement quickly turned to ire when it was revealed that only two gear and three build slots would be granted for free, and additional slots would have to be unlocked, per character, from the cash shop. Furthermore, the developer of ArcDPS was asked to cease support of the build swapping function, and ArenaNet isn’t being forthcoming about whether or not using the addon will be considered cheating in the future.

Personally, I’m satisfied with the system we got, but I’m the type who is always looking for an excuse to make new characters, so just a couple of templates is plenty for me. I can definitely understand, though, that not everyone feels the same, and how players who want to play a single character in PvP, WvW, Open World, Fractals, and Raids, perhaps with multiple unique setups for each depending on the situation, would be frustrated by what could easily be seen by those players as killing off a free, fan-run service in favor of an opportunity for ArenaNet to extract cash from them.

Things we never saw

There were a number of things that we got teases for or heard rumors about in 2019 but never actually materialized. For instance, we were promised Swiss-style tournaments and 2v2 matches in SPvP, but they never happened. Given that ArenaNet never truly gave us an estimate of when these features were coming, and given that PvP has been much less of a focus for ArenaNet of late, we suppose that’s not really surprising, just disappointing.

We also had rumors and sources suggesting that a mobile and/or console game was in the works, both before and after the layoffs. We know that some of these projects were among the casualties of the layoffs, but we have gotten hints that at least the mobile project is still alive in some form. Will we hear more about this in 2020? Perhaps, but if this project ever even sees the light of day, I would guess that it is still a ways out. Maybe by 2021?

The final thing we anticipated but never saw in 2019 was Icebrood Saga’s “expansion-level” features. When I think of the features that Guild Wars 2’s two expansions gave us, I think of hours of epic story, elite specializations, a new class, raids, fractals, and legendaries. I think of masteries like gliding and mounts that changed the way I play the game, not just in the expansion zones, but all over the world.

Thus far in the Icebrood Saga, we’ve gotten a couple of weak drips of story and a set of masteries that have no usefulness outside of the map they were designed for. To be honest, they aren’t even that useful on the map they were designed for. Are any of the above features coming in 2020? I can only hope so, but until ArenaNet announces them, its players are going to assume they aren’t.

2020 and beyond

If you’re having trouble being enthusiastic about the year ahead for Guild Wars 2, you’re not alone. I’m not worried that the game is going to shut down or go into maintenance mode in the next year, but I do think that barring unforeseen circumstances, the game is going to dwindle this year. I’d love to be proven wrong, but it seems as if NCsoft and ArenaNet are putting fewer and fewer resources into this game, and when that happens, they can expect less and less in return.

How could Guild Wars 2 turn itself around this year? Well, an expansion announcement would be a great first step. It doesn’t take more than a cursory glance at past NCsoft financials to realize that expansions bring people back and keep them engaged much longer than smaller, incremental updates like the Living World.

Also, Guild Wars 2 has a lot of different audiences, and it isn’t doing a very good job playing to all of them (or even any of them). For instance, I talked earlier about the lack of updates to PvP. Similarly, fractal and raid players are starting to feel neglected, and strike missions are only going to keep them around for so long. There are also many more casual players that only really care about solo content like story.

The sad fact may be that ArenaNet is now too small to cater to all of these audiences at once. If that is so, it needs to pick one audience, maybe two, that are the most likely to keep it alive long term, and play to those strengths. I don’t have the studio’s metrics, obviously, so I don’t know what these audiences look like. I’m sure that even with those metrics, this is a hard decision to make, given how much crossover there likely is in these audiences (players who play a lot of both WvW and raids, for instance). But ArenaNet needs to pick its battles if it is to survive long term.

ArenaNet upping its communication game in the coming year certainly wouldn’t hurt either. Far too often fans are left to wonder where the game is going or what’s coming next and when. Players rarely give studios the benefit of the doubt when left with ambiguity, and naysayers have been claiming that this game is going into maintenance mode all year. I’d love to see ArenaNet put out a substantial 2020 roadmap in the early weeks of the new year. Even if it’s rough and vague, at least let us know that you’re still planning on doing something with the game in the long term.

All of that said, I think we can have a little positivity for the future. After all, we’re still getting regular updates with story and map additions, strike missions, and masteries. It may not be as much as I would like or in the form that I would prefer, but I’m still happy to have it. And while it’s in smaller quantities, it’s hard to make the case that the production value has suffered recently. Bjora Marches has a wonderfully crafted atmosphere of dread, Grothmar Valley feels exactly like an all-Charr rally should, and I don’t see any reason to believe upcoming zones will be any less finely crafted.

Despite some disappointments and missteps in 2019, I’m still having a lot of fun in this game, and I look forward to continuing that fun in the year to come. Have a merry Wintersday, and we’ll see you in 2020 for the continuation of the Icebrood Saga!

Flameseeker Chronicles is one of Massively OP’s longest-running columns, covering the Guild Wars franchise since before there was a Guild Wars 2. Now penned by Tina Lauro and Colin Henry, it arrives on Tuesdays to report everything from GW2 guides and news to opinion pieces and dev diary breakdowns. If there’s a GW2 topic you’d love to see explored, drop ’em a comment!
Update 12/20/2019 1:00 PM EST
Two days after this article ran, ArenaNet finally dropped something resembling a roadmap for January, along with news on the next episode, so there’s a ray of hope.
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