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How Ready Is Ready?

Jason Winter Posted:
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The reason we don't know more about Heart of Thorns right now is because ArenaNet doesn't think it's ready to reveal more information yet. We will find out everything, of course... when it's ready.

But why does ArenaNet – and to an extent, many other developers – take this approach? Sure, some spacing is required between big announcements. Cool as it might sound, we'd be overloaded if the next three months of Heart of Thorns blog posts all showed up tomorrow, drowning each other out. But why can't we know more, now?

Since the big reveal at PAX South, we've gotten a pretty good look at revenants, seen about half of the elite professions, have an idea of how precursor acquisition will go, and have seen at least one of the new zones.

Still, there's a lot we don't know about yet. Some of it certainly isn't ready to be shown; I don't know how long it takes to fully create an elite profession, but between programming in the skills and animations, testing and balancing them, recording voice actors (especially for those shouts!), figuring out what traits work with them... those all take time, and I'd wager the ones we haven't seen yet are in a half-completed state.

But surely there are some details that could be revealed right now, just to build up some hype and rekindle the dwindling excitement a lot of players are having for Heart of Thorns. I'd wager it's a near-certainty that all their names of the elite professions are known right now, internally at ArenaNet, and it's a definite that their new weapons are known, since that's a big part of the design pretty much from day one. It would be nice if we could get some inkling of what they are, maybe something similar to the silhouettes we got during the initial profession reveals.

It's in game companies' nature to be secretive, and that's not just limited to video games. We carefully and meticulously doled out information related to new CCGs and new CCG expansions at the companies I worked for, and Blizzard does the same thing for its new Hearthstone sets.

But Hearthstone fans aren't in near-revolt and didn't threaten to burn everything down when pricing details were revealed for The Grand Tournament. Certainly, good public relations dictates that reveals should be spaced out and arranged for maximum effect, but how “ready” does something have to be before it's shown to the public?

When it's ready enough

One school of thought is that anything you reveal must be in its perfect final state, because showing off something that's unfinished cements it in the mind of the viewer who will always believe that's how it “should” be or was “meant to be.” Anything less burns an indelible image into the first-time viewer's mind, an image that is nearly impossible to dislodge even if the product changes/improves over time.

We see this all the time with early access games, where a game, in its alpha, buggy, unstable state, is rushed by thousands of players, who see all the ugliness – and who likely paid a pretty penny to experience it – and quickly dismiss it as a dismal failure, despite every attempt by the publisher to inform the players that the game will get better. (Whether it does or not is another question.) This is the sort of thing that scares developers into revealing anything “too soon.”

This also happens when individual features are promised, or sometimes just mentioned in a “We'd like to do this, maybe, someday” sense and then not delivered in the final product. Developers have to fight the urge to talk about all the amazing ideas that are in their head with what can realistically be done in a reasonable time frame. After they've seen the backlash from expressing these ideas one too many time, they'll get understandably cautious about making promises about what will be in their product before the feature is “locked down.”

Not every kind of “broken promise” is a disaster, though. When a non-critical part of a game is shown off or discussed and then changed or not delivered, the backlash, if any, is less severe. Take Colin Johanson's reveal at PAX South, when he told us the ranger's elite spec would be called a “druid.” The ranger elite spec will unquestionably be in Heart of Thorns, but what if we found that ArenaNet has decided to go with a different name than “druid”? Would that be a “lie” that we would excoriate ArenaNet for?

For the most part, I think that there's a difference between deleting or indefinitely postponing promised content and just making changes to it. One is a big no-no that's going to get you into trouble, while the other is relatively harmless. Yes, I know, there are people who would flip their lids if the ranger's elite spec was suddenly named something other than “druid” – because they've been working on the concept for their perfect sylvari druid for so long and they made him just for this expansion and how dare you ruin it! – but I think most of us would just shrug and move on (as long as they didn't make it something totally silly, like “tree-hugger” or “dragonhunter”).

“But what about precursors?” you might say, remembering that the “precursor hunt” was mentioned all the way back in late 2012 and again a time or two in later years without ever being implemented. ArenaNet took a lot of heat for that, and I'll agree that there should be some kind of actionable plan to implement something in the semi-near future before bringing it up with the public. I'd even be willing to believe that the reason ArenaNet's playing things so close to the vest this time around is because of the negative reaction to the promise, and then delay, in implementing this much-anticipated feature.

I think precursor crafting fell into that “Something we'd like to do but don't have any solid plans for at the moment” trap that can encompass literally anything an MMO developer dreams about. Those are the sort of things that shouldn't be mentioned unless they are accompanied by about a thousand disclaimers – and even then, maybe not, at least until it's part of some internal planning/scheduling document.

Something that's already locked in for the expansion, but not quite fully fleshed out, like the druid or other elite specs (or the different zones or “challenging group content”)? That's the sort of thing that it would be nice to hear about a little more often. There are different levels to how and how much should be revealed at any given time, and recoiling back into an absolutist policy when something goes wrong is rarely the right answer.

Promises, promises

Right now, the flow of information is a trickle, in part due to stuff not being 100% ready, but also, one has to think, due to fear that a too-early reveal will create expectations that can't be delivered upon, even if it's for something as simple as a name or skill. Believe me, I've been there, and the fear of backlash should things not measure up is real. You do have to be careful about just what you show off, but you also shouldn't let a few irrational, half-informed people dictate your policies and frighten you from serving the vast majority of your eager customers.


Jason Winter