Philosophy Shifts in Heart of Thorns, And Why They’re Wrong

If you follow the Guild Wars 2 community at all, you’ve probably noticed a lot of chatter about the fact that the design philosophies behind the game seem to have shifted over the last few years. The changes have their good sides and their bad sides, but either way a lot of people (myself included) have seen the changes as a concession that some of the ambitious concepts around which Guild Wars 2 was designed may not be the best for an MMORPG. Let’s take a look at what some of those are.

No Trinity -> Kinda Sorta Trinity(ish)
Part of the Guild Wars philosophy has always been that you can throw any random group of characters together and have a dungeon party. You don’t need to find a group with the traditional tank/healer/DPS group makeup because those don’t exist. As long as everyone knows not to stand in fire you’re good. But with Heart of Thorns came a lot of terminology that sound a lot more like Azeroth than Tyria. Most notably the inclusion of raids, but also a few little things like a “heavy healer” (the ranger’s Druid elite spec) and tanks with taunts. That said, this is still a Guild Wars game. There may be taunts, but all they do is force the target to attack the taunter for a given period of time; they don’t actually generate extra threat. And it’s not like your raid is going to wipe every time because you didn’t have a tanked out Guardian in the mix. You may have a designated healer, but they’re going to be spending a lot more time doing DPS than they would in another MMO. In other words, kinda sorta trinity(ish).

Everything is Soloable -> Group Helpful
I almost labeled this section “Group Required,” but then decided that that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I’ve successfully soloed all of the content I’ve done so far, aside from occasionally wandering in on a group event in progress, but I’ve definitely spent a lot more time on the ground while soloing in the expansion content than I ever did in the base game, even in the notoriously frustrating Orr zones. Designing a zone that requires players to help each other sounds good on paper, and honestly, right now, while the content is new, it works fairly well. But what happens two or three years from now when the vast majority of players have completed all of the zones and aren’t interested in going back? Interestingly, this seems to be how Orr was originally designed as well, and ArenaNet has had to go back and nerf the whole zone several times, thinning out mobs and making quests and events easier, even creating a solo version of the story’s ending dungeon. Apparently they didn’t learn from Orr, because I predict they’ll be doing the same thing with Heart of Thorns within two years of its launch.

No Grind -> Masteries Grind
One of the more notable design promises that ArenaNet actually delivered on quite well in vanilla Guild Wars 2 was the idea that leveling wouldn’t feel like a chore. This was accomplished by handing out XP for, not just combat and quests, but just about every activity you could think of–crafting, gathering, events, PvP, and literally just walking around places you’ve never been. The one-to-cap leveling time is shorter and easier than any other game I can think of (there’s a reason why I have three 80s in Guild Wars 2 and in most game I’m lucky to even have one). Perhaps if the game hadn’t done this so well with Central Tyria it wouldn’t have felt so jarring to be presented with such a grind when we got to Heart of Thorns in the form of masteries. And it doesn’t help that many of them seem so contrived. Some of them, like the various improvements to gliding, seem like natural progression, but others, like Exalted Markings or Itzel Language, are clearly just barriers to slow you down so you can’t blow through the content too fast on your first time through. It has been argued that all games do this, and those that don’t get complaints that there isn’t enough to do, and, while that’s true to a certain extent, the difference here is that they didn’t do a very good job making it feel interesting.

I’m sure others could come up with more, but you get the idea. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “But you like some of those things in other games! You’ve complained before about the lack of trinity in GW2! Why would you call these things ‘wrong’ now?” The answer is that they’re making these changes too late. If the game had launched with these philosophies, it would be great. But it didn’t, it launched with the philosophies on the left, and now it’s trying to backpedal. The problem is that all of the content made under the new philosphy is gated behind 80 levels of content designed under the old philosophy. In other words, short of a radical retooling of the content that was made before (i.e. dungeons, fractals, and all of the zones in central Tyria), which we all know isn’t going to happen, people who like the kind of content in the above right column will have to dig through 80 levels of stuff that isn’t made with their preferred game style so they can get to the stuff that is. What’s even worse is trying to force the two styles together. For instance, one of the fundamentals of Guild Wars 2 that still holds true in the expansion is that there’s none of this dreaded gear treadmill stuff you hear so much about in WoW clones. Since that’s true, why would I want to do raids? While I haven’t even set foot in any of the new raids, the only reason I’ve heard so far is to get gear that’s just a new skin for gear with stats that I could have gotten before the raids existed. Furthermore, what about all of the established players who liked Guild Wars 2 because of the philosophies that it was originally built around? Sure, none of that old content went away, but you can only go so long on old content before people start to get bored and leave.

So while, personally, I’m really ok with the philosophy shifts above, I know a lot of people who aren’t. The changes aren’t “wrong” because I don’t like them, they’re wrong because they don’t make sense with the game as a whole.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in the followup, Things Heart of Thorns Is Doing Right.

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One thought on “Philosophy Shifts in Heart of Thorns, And Why They’re Wrong

  1. There’s not much of that that I’d disagree with and yet I’ve found myself enjoying Heart of Thorns way, WAY more than I ever expected. I have been critical of most of the philosophical changes of direction the game has taken over the last three years and I was very skeptical indeed about the chances of the expansion being in any way an improvement but against all odds I think it has improved the game considerably.

    Not, I should stress, from the conception of the game as it was in the five year build up to launch. That’s the game I’d prefer to be playing still. Unfortunately it turned out that not all that many other people wanted a non-competitive, free-form, unpredictable open-world MMO after all. The last two and a half years have largely been about ANet flailing around trying to come up with a way to remake their failed concept into something commercially viable and stable. Finally they seem to have something approximating to a workable model and, surprise surprise, it looks a lot more like a traditional MMO than they originally intended.

    Whether they can now build on this new platform and establish a structure that will sustain the weight of their stated intent to make this their only Guild Wars property in development for a decade or more we will have to wait and see. I have my doubts whether that’s feasible with no level increase and no new gear tier, two things they have categorically ruled out. On the other hand, as we have seen with Masteries and Legendaries, they can simply use the same mechanics that Levels and Gear Tiers use but spin them under new names. GW2 players as a class seem entirely content to put in equivalent effort to Raiders and Farmers and Grinders in other games just to unlock new looks and abilities so I guess it could work.

    All I can say is that I enjoyed doing my Masteries, Hero Points and Class Ascended Weapon Collects so much that, having done them all on more than half a dozen characters already I am not only now leveling up new characters just so I can carry on doing the same but I’m even considering getting HoT on my second account for the fun of doing all the Masteries a second time. I am not at all sure that’s a good thing but there it is.

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