The thorny truth about Guild Wars 2’s Heart of Thorns

, | Games

Far be it from me to second guess what Arenanet is doing. 99% of the time, I just sit back and let them work their fabulous magic. But then there’s the other 1% of the time. Now is that 1% of the time.

After the jump, what’s going on with the release of Heart of Thorns?

Heart of Thorns adds a new specialization system. This is really just a fancy new branch on each character class’ skill tree. It’s obviously designed for the end-game. You can’t buy into it until you’ve bought all the skills on all the other branches of the skill tree, something you’re not likely to do before you’ve hit the level cap and maybe even grinded a bit. With my main characters, each at the level cap and then some, I was able to buy only a little way up the new branches. And really, not even enough to justify actually playing with the skills on this new branch. You select three branches to be active for your character at any given time, and if the branch doesn’t have all its skills unlocked, you’re playing less than optimally. So I’m not using the new specialization branch yet. Who wants to use a stunted branch.

So I obviously have a long way to go before I can specialize my highest level characters. Which is fair enough. Isn’t this supposed to be a feature for the long haul? I’m assuming there’s enough content in the expansion to sustain the distance. I’m assuming Arenanet carefully calculated how quickly a player should progress through this aspect of the endgame. I’m assuming I should trust the experienced developer of a game as carefully tuned as an MMO with competitive player vs player modes.

So much for assumptions.

Last night, mere days after releasing Heart of Thorns, Arenanet dramatically reduced the cost to progress through each skill tree’s new branch. Literally overnight, I had suddenly unlocked half of the new skills. I’m not necessarily complaining. I have choices today I didn’t have yesterday. More stuff is always good, right?

But what surprises me is that Arenanet shifted the calculus so abruptly and so dramatically. You’d think something as crucial as the pace of new content is the sort of thing you figure out before you release that new content. Instead, it seems like certain members of the community complained vocally about the cost of some of these endgame skills [citation needed]. Is Arenanet listening to those vocal community members instead of their own developers? I wouldn’t know. I just know that someone’s mind was changed since yesterday. That doesn’t bode well for this new content being carefully calculated to sustain the distance.

Another alarming aspect of Heart of Thorns is actually a change that’s been implemented for at least a month. As of an earlier update, characters stop progressing when they hit level 80. Previously, you could still earn experience points by doing all the things you used to do: killing things, crafting, exploring, remaining well fed. When you “leveled up” by filling your experience point bar, you didn’t go to level 81. But you did get a skill point and the bar emptied so you could fill it again for another skill point. And Arenanet made sure there was a use for these extra skill points. It was a nice compromise between a level cap and open-ended progression.

All this has been replaced with a new system called “masteries”. I don’t really know what those are yet because they’re locked for me, as I have deduced from the fact that my masteries screen has a big icon of a padlock and not much else. To unlock masteries, I have to do story missions I haven’t heard of yet because I haven’t reached them. And if I wanted to jump ahead and unlock masteries, I wouldn’t even begin to know how to reach these story missions. So it’s a good thing I don’t want to jump ahead. I’m several months behind in the story progression because I haven’t been playing for a year or so. Naturally, I’d like to pick up where I left off.

But this means I won’t make any progress toward mastery points. And I won’t earn skill points because they don’t even exist any more. So here I am, working my way through the story in an MMO, which is about 30% satisfying and 70% awkward. And all the while, my experience point bar no longer budges. It is wedged securely in a full position, waiting for me to unlock a new feature that I won’t reach for many hours. Meanwhile, I’m watching my experience points disappear down a hole instead of going into my eventual masteries.

This is partly my fault for not doing the homework of reading Arenanet’s frequent updates about new features. It’s partly my fault for treating Guild Wars 2 as a game instead of a community. If you’re a member in good standing, you’re most likely well informed about what’s going on. You know what’s new, what’s outdated, and what you’re supposed to be doing to get where you’re supposed to be going. You know about masteries. You know you should have gotten caught up on the storyline by now. Those of us coming back after a long absence, hoping to get up to speed by actually playing the game, aren’t so lucky.

This is a recurring problem in videogame development, and not just MMOs. Many developers assume everyone is as constantly interested in their game as they are. They assume people watch their videos and read their development blogs and play their betas and follow their message boards. They assume their games take on a life outside the game itself. Many developers are like the guy who doesn’t understand why you wouldn’t want to read the novel he wrote. Because he wrote it, so it’s inherently fascinating, right? Why wouldn’t you want to read it?

Games need to exist within themselves. They need to be capable of being self-sustained and complete entities. They need to be playable by tourists like me as well as long-term residents like the die-hard community. They can’t lean on wikis, or YouTube channels, or message boards. The moment you have to alt-tab out of a game to figure it out is the moment it has failed. Game developers — especially the ones who have created games as special as Guild Wars 2, Kerbal Space Program, and Minecraft — need to pull their heads out of the linty navels of their immediate communities and look farther out. Do you see that? Do you see that guy wandering along the walls of your perimeter, wondering how to get in, confused about why you don’t have a front door or at least some sort of a sign? That’s me and a thousand other potential players who aren’t already community members. We won’t be there long, because there are other places — other games — that are far more inviting.