GW2: Expansion Wishlist

We know an expansion is near at hand in Guild Wars 2–late Summer or early Fall based on what’s coming out of ArenaNet–but we know virtually nothing about it. Yes, there was that leak on Reddit, but I don’t like reading or encouraging leaks (though I must admit I skimmed through the images briefly) and there’s still a lot those don’t tell us. It’s a little ridiculous that we’re supposedly this close to the expansion and we don’t know much of anything, but I’m guessing that releasing too many details, maybe even the expansion name itself, would be spoilers for the end of Season 3. Kind of poor planning if so, but whatever. Regardless, I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to see in the next expansion to Guild Wars 2.

A New Race And/Or Class
Ideally, I would love it if every MMO expansion had a new race or class to experience. Too many expansions are basically just a level cap bump and a continuation of an existing story (I’m looking at you, SWTOR), but Guild Wars 2 doesn’t do level cap bumps, and it gives away Living World story updates for free, so without something more, that would seem like even more of a ripoff than in other games. New classes give me a whole new way of playing, breathing new life into even old content. You may recall that I didn’t really dig into the Heart of Thorns expansion for months because I was having so much fun leveling my Revenant. New races, too, give me an excuse to roll up an alt and see the world from a new perspective. The problem with adding races is that Guild Wars 2 has kind of painted itself into a corner with its personal story; it wouldn’t make sense for a member of a race we’ve never seen before show up and become the pact commander and slay a couple dragons years before we’ve even encountered that race. A new race would either have to start out at 80 and jump straight into the accompanying expansion (which would be kind of lame) or have a full 1-80 story all its own, which would require a lot of writing, voice acting, and several new sub-80 zones, all of which seem unlikely. Sadly, adding new classes also presents a problem. You can’t really add a new class every expansion or it will eventually become overwhelming. As much as I love creating new characters, some people don’t, and new players can be intimidated by too many options, especially if they see that some of those options (maybe the ones they really wanted to play) gated by expansion paywalls. Elite Specs further complicate the issue; assuming we add one new class and one elite spec to all of the existing classes, the new class is always going to be one behind, since it wasn’t around for the Heart of Thorns wave of elite specs. None of these things prevent them from creating new races or classes, but right now it certainly seems like it will get less likely with each expansion.

More Elite Specs
I’m pretty sure this is a given at this point. I really like almost all of the classes in Guild Wars 2 as they stand, but more choice is always better. I love the idea of being able to make major changes to the way my class plays based on what spec I choose. Classes get a new weapon, several new slot skills, and sometimes even end up being able to fill a new role (most notably the ranger’s druid spec). It’s a nice middle ground between the rigid classes of more WoW-like MMOs and the overwhelming amount of customization available in games like Rift and Elder Scrolls Online. Right now there is only one elite spec for each class, and it’s almost universally better–at least for PvE–to have your elite spec slotted, even if you don’t use the weapon that it gives. But very soon that’s all going to change, and I’m excited to see what unfolds.

More Masteries, Less Grind
I like that Guild Wars 2 has chosen to not bump up the level cap with its expansions. Level cap bumps only serve to invalidate old gear and make old content irrelevant, especially in a game with level scaling. The problem is that you really need some kind of mechanic that slows players down, a brake that keeps players from simply binging through the story and coming out feeling unsatisfied. That mechanic should be fun, and Heart of Thorn’s mastery grind wasn’t particularly fun. There were a couple of problems. First was that, if you knew what masteries you needed to progress in the story ahead of time, you could focus on those masteries as you went, and it didn’t feel so much like the game was saying “ok, now stop and grind to an arbitrary level before continuing.” But there was no way for you to know unless you looked up a guide or talked to a friend who had already been through it. The Living World stories did better at pointing out the elite spec before you ran into its gate, so hopefully the new expansion will do the same. Second, I think the system would work better if there were a whole bunch of little masteries that cost one or two mastery points each instead of each tier costing more, up to twelve for the really high end ones. I know that’s probably easier said than done, but I think it would give a better sense of progress and feel less grindy.

Flatter Zones
My biggest annoyance with Heart of Thorns was not the mastery grind, it was getting around those awful zones. There are so many sheer walls and layers on top of each other that the map is practically useless for navigating. Auric Basin isn’t bad, Verdant Brink would be tolerable if there weren’t random mastery- and hero points that you have to glide to from a boss fight in the sky, but Tangled Depths is the absolute worst. I basically only go there for the story and if I’ve absolutely run out of reasonably doable hero points in the other zones. Add to that the fact that the number of waypoints per zone in these areas is about a third was it was in the vanilla game, none of them near where you’re likely to die, and it’s just an overall frustrating experience getting around in the newer zones. Masteries make it a little easier to get around, but even with them it’s incredibly frustrating. I think ArenaNet has learned their lesson from Heart of Thorns, as the Season 3 maps have been a lot easier to get around in. Draconis Mons is the only zone with a lot of layers, and with the grappling hook-like Oakheart’s Reach mastery, it’s actually fun to get around.

A Story About Something Other Than Dragons
Two stories in a row about dragons is fine. Whatever. But there’s so much more you could do! If the living world story is any indication, I may be getting my wish, but I’m still not convinced they won’t throw a random fight with Kralkatorrik in there just for good measure. Oh, but [minor spoilers] don’t kill him, because apparently killing dragons is bad for the environment or something.

Things Heart of Thorns Is Doing Right

HoT City
Recently I wrote about the philosophy shifts in Heart of Thorns and why they’re wrong. The TLDR version is that, while some of the changes actually bring the game more in line with what I would have designed the game to be, the fact remains that eighty level’s worth of content is still in front of it. I still believe that, but I didn’t want to leave you with the impression that I absolutely hated Heart of Thorns, so I wanted to share a few of the things I’ve really enjoyed about Heart of Thorns.

The Revenant
The revenant (the class, not the recent movie) has been everything I love about a Guild Wars 2 class. There really isn’t a weapon combination that I hate; on the contrary, I actually hate that I can only have two weapon combinations slotted at a time. I like the way legends work, changing my role with a touch of a button. Best of all, there are decent group healing options available. But perhaps more important is the fact that they added a new class. As someone who loves nothing better than creating new alts, I hate it when games refuse to add classes. I get it, balance is hard, especially in PvP, and adding a new class will inevitably throw off that delicate balance for a while, but for me it sells the expansion better than a new zone or a level cap bump. I don’t expect games to add a new class every expansion, but if you don’t, you either shouldn’t charge full price or you should give me something really big and interesting to do with the characters I have, not just a handful of new zones.

Elite Specializations
In addition to the new class, Elite Specs have renewed my interest in several classes. The chronomancer’s shield is cool and has some nice support mechanics, the scrapper’s hammer and drones are a nice addition to the engineer’s already varied arsenal, and the thief’s daredevil spec is just fun all around. I’m not sure if it counts, but the additional defense and healing shield with the revenant’s herald spec has saved me on more than one occasion. It’s a great middle ground between the simple WoW-style skill trees we’ve seen in so many games and some of the more intimidating systems like the original Guild Wars’ dual classing or Rift’s soul system. I just hope we don’t have to wait a couple of years for another expansion before we get another set of elite specs for all of the classes.

Guild Wars 2 has always tried really hard to be story driven and fallen flat every time. Aside from some dubious decisions regarding gating areas behind (admittedly, one time) mastery grinds, Heart of Thorns has done a much better job in that department than either the base game or the living world story. It has been a lot less predictable and trope-filled than the original story (despite still revolving around slaying a magical dragon). The best move is replacing the weird looking-past-each-other (which I’ve complained about many times, so I won’t reiterate it here) with actual in-world cutscenes, and, perhaps more immersive, voiced conversations that don’t take you out of gameplay. For instance, early on there’s a moment where you meet up with some Hylek, and you talk to them as you walk to their village, rather than talking first and then walking in awkward silence as you did in many of the base game story instances. Similarly, there are times when you find NPCs outside of instances and have to stop and chat with them to find what you’re looking for.

Specialization Skins
I know I’ve complained about cosmetic fluff being the only incentive for certain content, but I love the idea that each elite spec has a themed weapon (and, in the case of the Revenant, an armor set). The scavenger hunt to collect all of the random items could only feel fun in a game where cheap quick travel points dot the landscape, and it gives level 80 players a good excuse to visit a lot of the pre-expansion zones.

All in all, despite a few annoyances, I think Heart of Thorns is a solid expansion. ArenaNet can’t help it that they made some choices when developing the base game that didn’t pan out the way they had hoped, and now they’re doing the best they can to stay faithful to the original vision while forging ahead in the direction that the majority of players want. Also, as discussed in a recent episode of the Massively OP Podcast around the 17:30 mark (I promise I’m not just linking that because they answered my question about LotRO in the mailbag section), ArenaNet has always been good at trying something new, and, if the players don’t like it, admitting it was bad and scrapping it. And for that, if for nothing else, I have to give them a lot of respect, because that’s really hard for a lot of companies to do, MMO developer or otherwise.

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.

GW2: A Lament for the Scroll of Knowledge

Mourning the Scroll of Knowledge
I really miss skill point scrolls, aka Scrolls of Knowledge. The thing is, I understand completely why they were removed, but I still miss them.

This past summer, as part of the changes to the way skill points and specializations worked in preparation for the new elite spec system, ArenaNet saw fit to change skill points to “hero points.” Hero points allow for a progression of skill points that honestly makes more sense and allows players to customize their class to their liking earlier on, with less wasting points on skills you don’t want just so you can unlock the next tier of skills. It also meant you had to spend hero points on unlocking your specializations, but again, now, if you’re really just interested in one specialization, you can dump all of your points into it and have it earlier on instead of having the specialization tiers unlocked as you level.

There are pros and cons to both systems, but we have the new system now so there’s not much point in worrying about which is better. The point is, when they made the switch to hero points, they removed the Scroll of Knowledge and converted them all to Spirit Shards, and made all activities that gave a Scroll of Knowledge now give Spirit Shards. Previously, players could continue to rake in a continual stream of skill points, which meant that, at some point, they became worthless for unlocking skills. Players could either transfer scrolls to another character, or exchange their unused skill points at a special vendor for Mystic Forge crafting ingredients. Honestly, it was weird that you could spend your skill points in the first place, so I’m not really upset about that. What I am a little annoyed at is the fact that, when I use Tomes of Knowledge to level my characters instead of mapping, they’re now at a disadvantage because, while you get a lot of hero points as you level, you’re still short a bunch. Maybe that’s the point–don’t let people skip the leveling process entirely by grinding a lot on other characters, just the hard part–but it’s still frustrating. Not only that, but my high level characters don’t have nearly enough hero points to train up their elite spec (my mesmer didn’t even have enough for the shield proficiency before they lowered the cost). This sounds like my fault–if this change was made over the summer, clearly I didn’t prepare for the expansion well enough–except that ArenaNet did a really bad job of communicating the fact that elite specs would cost hero points, and a lot of them at that. They did the right thing in reducing the number of points it costs to train you elite spec, previously 400, now reduced down to 250 (for reference, I had maybe 50 extra points at best on any given level 80 character). This solution means you still have a use for those leftover hero points, but those of us without near total map completion won’t have to spend hours in old content just so we can use our shiny new spec.

Revenant Rush

I will forever be mystified by the fact that that a cloth blindfold is considered heavy armor. Or, y’know, why they’re a thing at all. I guess it’s like the Miraluka in Star Wars; they don’t need to see because they have magical something-or-other-sight-beyond-somesuch powers. It must be a thing, because WoW’s new Demon Hunter class is getting heavy armor blindfolds as well.

Anyways, this post isn’t about how my character would be totally OP at Major League Pin the Tail on the Donkey, it’s about how I’m loving Guild Wars 2’s new Revenant class. From launch day to today the lower level zones are pretty much wall to wall revenants. Normally it bothers me a little to see a lot of people the same class as me, but right now playing a revenant feels like being a part of the expansion launch hype. Like just about everyone else who preordered Heart of Thorns, I first played the revenant in the beta weekends, and honestly, at first glance, I felt like the class was overcomplicated, specifically the legend system. Why not just give me a mana bar instead of this weird thing that goes to 50% when out of combat and then fills while in combat? And it seemed like each legend had exactly one slot skill that was worth using and that was about it. Well, like just about everyone else who preordered Heart of Thorns (déjà vu), come launch day I rolled a Rev and used a level 20 boost on him. Meet Purifier Unit.
Purifier Unit 35
If you’re among the 99% of gamers who won’t get the reference, the name is a nod to the underrated (and recently re-released on PSN) Mega Man Legends. I thought it was a fun play on words without being terribly immersion breaking. Anyway, I probably should have expected this, but leveling a revenant more naturally, it works a lot better. I still don’t regularly use more than one slot skill per legend, but I’ve come to realize that that’s because they aren’t really meant to be used the way other classes’ slot skills are. In general, two of the skills are situational, and the third is something you can use to burn energy when you don’t need the situational skills. For instance, on the assassin legend, there’s a backwards roll/stun break and a gap closer. The backwards roll is nice since the 2 skill on my favorite weapon, the hammer (which is a ranged weapon for some reason), does more damage at greater distance, and the gap closer is great for melee weapons. But for times when those skills aren’t useful, revenants have a toggle skill that slowly burns energy to speed up both their movement and cooldown timers, meaning they can use those hard-hitting, long cooldown attacks more often. Same story with the dwarf legend: a skill to taunt (that’s right, taunts in GW2, tanking fans rejoice!), one to give stability, and one that drains energy to make a big AoE DoT appear around the revenant in the form of orbiting hammers.

So now comes the dilemma. I really like playing my revenant, so do I level him normally, or use my forty-some tomes of knowledge (“level in a can” items) that I have in by bank to get him most of the way to 80 right now? Or should I use them on a class I don’t like as much? And is it even worth it to level with tomes, since I’ll have to go back through zones anyways to gather tons of hero points if I want my elite spec?

The Waiting Metagame

With Heart of Thorns drawing ever closer, the anticipation is tangible among the Guild Wars 2 community. There has been a lot of speculation buzz from my friends and guildmates about every teaser image that pops up on social media and every elite spec breakdown Twitch stream. But the looming expansion doesn’t just get players talking about the changes to the game, it also changes the way we play.

Perhaps the most obvious expansion-related change to my playing habbits is that I’ve brought my mesmer, Perception Filter, one of the first characters I made, out of retirement because the Chronomancer elite spec looks really cool. Yes, I know, I was getting really close to having an 80 warrior, but she’ll be next, I promise. The mesmer is possibly the strangest class in Guild Wars 2. You have illusions, which seem like pets but they’re more like DoTs. It’s sort of a mage class, but it’s also kind of kind of a tank class, and my preferred weapons are sword/pistol and greatsword. I think that’s a lot of the reason why I abandoned her; I didn’t even get the nuances game yet, so adding a class with a strange playstyle on top of that really discouraged me. It’s also a late blooming class, so maybe I just needed to stick it out longer. Either way, I’m enjoying the class now, and hoping the Chronomancer spec makes it even more enjoyable.

Inasmuch as my low level characters are progressing rapidly, my 80s are equally stuck. My favorite class so far has been my necromancer, and the build I fell into was very bleed-centric. Currently, with the current bleed cap at 25 stacks, condition builds are of limited utility. I was just thinking I was going to have to bite the bullet and find a new playstyle when the announcement hit that ANet was looking at removing the cap on bleeds. As excited as I am about that, it means that I’m now unsure if I should be looking for condition damage or other sources of damage when gearing up for the endgame. Also, there has been talk of new precursors, but is there going to be other new endgame gear to go with the additional endgame progression that is the meat of the expansion? It would seem to be against the Guild Wars philosophy of never invalidating low-level content, but only time will tell, and until then I’m sitting on my gold and karma.

While I’m powering through the levels on Perception Filter, there’s one shortcut I haven’t taken advantage of that I normally would, and that’s the XP tomes and scrolls. Those have gone straight into my bank for use by my future Revenant. I have far from enough to jump straight to 80 on launch day, nor would I want to cheapen the experience that way, but I do have just enough to skip the boring low level stuff. I’ve also had some angst over whether or not I should save my skill point scrolls or use them all on one of my 80s to buy Mystic Forge recipe materials.

I know that Guild Wars 2 is something special when, despite the general lack of current content due to most of the developers being busy with the expansion, I haven’t been that tempted to leave it for greener grass on the other side. Just about every MMO I’ve ever played got to that point a lot longer ago than Guild Wars 2. Yes, I’ve been playing LotRO, but I’m probably averaging less than one play session per week. Yes, I flirted with SWTOR and Rift for a while. Something about Guild Wars 2 kept me coming back, and I really hope the expansion makes me glad I did.

Heart of Thorns: An Expansion Beats DLC

Recently there has been a rash of MMOs announcing that they are ditching the traditional expansion pack model in favor of smaller DLCs. In a way, this really shouldn’t be surprising; the game market as a whole has been doing this for years now, so MMOs seem a little late to the party. But I don’t really think this trend is in players’ best interest. While I was brainstorming this post, Justin Olivetti over at Bio Break posted a great article on this trend, so go read his post because he probably summed it up better than I would have anyway. I wanted to echo his thoughts and talk specifically about why I’m glad Guild Wars 2’s Heart of Thorns is an expansion and not just a DLC.

Back in January, in the days when all we knew about Heart of Thorns was an ambiguous teaser at the end of Season 2 of the Living World story, I wrote about why I was hoping HoT was an expansion. The main gist of the post was that, although ArenaNet repeatedly claimed that the Living Story would, by the end, add up to an expansion’s worth of content, it simply didn’t. Eight chapters of roughly half an hour of questing each with roller coaster difficulty and two bland zones does not equal an expansion. Put all of the Living World content together and you have at best a mini-expansion, what some marketers are calling “DLC.” (Isn’t the whole game technically downloadable content?) A DLC which probably isn’t substantial enough for me to pay for (I missed at least one episode of Season 2 and I don’t plan on going back and buying it). I admittedly haven’t read up on the scale of the DLC/frequent chunk updates planned for games like LotRO and EQ2, but when I hear the idea I immediately think of the Living World and how mediocre it felt and am a bit turned off by the idea.

Also there is, of course, the fact that an expansion sounds a lot better than DLC. I’ve tried to explain the Living World updates to friends who play other MMOs, and I’ve almost always been met with something along the lines of “Oh, my game does content patches sometimes too.” No, that’s not the same thing. Well, kinda, but not really. MMO players in other games can relate to a game dumping a bunch of new features and content in an expansion, and players within the game can rally and get excited about it, but a handful of quests and a couple of new zones, regardless of what other features it may or may not come with, doesn’t sound that enticing to someone outside the game. Also I (and other gamers I know) have judged a game’s activeness by how recently they released an expansion, not by how recently they’ve released a smattering of new quests. If a game hasn’t had a real expansion in two or three years and there’s no sign of one in the future, it comes across as a sign that the developers are losing faith in their product.

Perhaps the worst part of the Living World’s reign is that I felt like Guild Wars 2 was in limbo. It seemed like the developers were constantly rushing to keep up with the every-two-weeks pace of content releases, and improvements to other aspects of the game only got squeezed in while they were taking a short break from the Living World. I’m afraid that a game whose business model is to constantly push out small DLCs will be perpetually stuck in this state. With an expansion, the dev team gets to take a big chunk of time to work on meaningful class changes, new dungeons, and, most importantly, balance them against the rest of the game. We’re already seeing evidence of this with Heart of Thorns, most obviously with the new Revenant class, but also some of the smaller changes like the promise of removing the hard 25-stack bleed cap (my necromancer and thief will be so happy when this change sees daylight). Even better, the player base is usually on board with waiting for this, especially if you tease them with things like dev diaries and closed betas, whereas if you break your advertised release schedule players get restless, even if you assure them it’s for QA purposes.

I know a lot of people favor the DLC model and the promise of new things to do more frequently rather than wait for a truckload of new content to be dumped on you all at once every year or so. What do you think? Is your experience that it’s a struggle between quality and quantity? Or do you see it, as Bio Break puts it, as the same pie cut in smaller pieces? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!