With not much new to do the past few weeks in Guild Wars 2, I finally got around to redoing the Heart of Thorns story on an a second character. I know, I'm probably way behind the curve; one person I struck up a conversation with near the entrance to an instance said he was going through it for the seventh time. But I feel like the larger time gap, my greater familiarity with the HoT zones, and the slower pace I've taken has served me well and helped me gain a better appreciation for how ArenaNet managed the expansion's story instances and pacing.
Short but sweet
When Heart of Thorns first came out, a lot of what I heard about the story was, “It's good, but it was so short!” From a strict time-based perspective, it is – more on that later – but I also think the overall perceived lack of content in HoT contributed to that somewhat. My first time through, I took my time, as I always do, exploring the zones a bit as I hopped from green star to green star, and it took me probably around 40 or 50 hours of total game time to get through the story, if you include all the distractions along the way. That helped it seemed longer than it probably was.
My second time through, it was a different matter. Now that I know my way around the zones, and I don't have to get through the light Mastery gating, I pretty much went from spot to spot with few distractions. The zones did still require some navigation, especially Tangled Depths on a character who'd never been to the zone, so it wasn't an immediate case of “warp to waypoint, do next instance, repeat.”
The instances themselves seemed shorter, too, even as I was taking my time to do the achievements within them. That guy who's on his seventh character could probably complete everything in a single day, as I'm sure many people did their first time around.
The thing is, though, I'm not sure that's a terrible thing. After such a long break from the main story, I don't know how people would have received things if the battle to Mordremoth had dragged on for another 10 instances or so. I wanted to take the overgrown weed down, and I didn't want to have to fight through a million more of its minions to get there.
There's another thing that I'm starting to think is true of all MMOs: that they really aren't great vehicles for developing scripted stories. At the lease, they have a tough time delivering that immersive and rich single-player RPG style of story without detracting from other, more MMO-ish, elements of the game.
How long did you spend in the actual story instances for Heart of Thorns? Maybe five to 10 hours, tops? Now, how long have you spent doing everything else in HoT? A lot more than 10 hours, I'd wager. It's the same way with the older stories and Living World content. They're nice, but they're a really small fraction of the total game. They're (mostly) one-time content that you'll do and then move on from. Even Mister Seven Times has probably spent fewer than 50 total hours on the story, while probably spending hundreds more in the HoT zones themselves.
With ArenaNet's limited resources – and hoo boy, do they seem limited these days – it just doesn't make sense to try and extend story instances beyond what they are, when they'll only capture players' attention for a very brief period of time. Sure, we'd all like the story to be longer, but I'd wager that a typical story instance takes a considerable amount of development time, with the writing, event scripting, voice acting, and everything else that goes into it – probably longer than a similarly sized “chunk” of open world content, and the dev time/time players spend ratio is probably considerably higher for story instances than it is for other types of content. Maybe BioWare can get away with it, with as much emphasis as it puts into SWTOR's stories and its single-player RPG roots, but it's just not a good fit for most MMOs, especially the less they resemble strict theme parks.
I'd rather see that extra effort go into making the “larger” parts of the game work well. I know they have stories they want to tell, and they're good stories, but judging by how the bulk of HoT turned out, I'm OK with briefer stories if it means the rest of the game gets better polish. I'm still looking forward to Living World Season 3, but I've tempered my expectations somewhat and hope that whatever other content comes along with it – whether it be a new zone, new raid wing, new fractal, or whatever – gets the dev time and testing it needs to really shine.
As I said, I'm also taking a crack at the achievements in the HoT story, something I only lightly tried with previous LW instances. I'm on a pretty good pace to complete them, and I like that they're a bit easier this time around. Now that we have raids for the “hardcore” crowd, I hope that will be the trend going forward, especially if they offer tangible rewards, such as precious Mastery points, which I find myself constantly in need of these days – so much so that I've mostly stopped loading up on XP boosts because I'm afraid of filling Mastery tracks without being able to purchase the Mastery at the end of the line.
Going five months between doing the story has also allowed me to forget many of the finer elements of the HoT story, so much so that I don't mind doing the longer instances and sitting through the cut scenes. (Faolain is an especial favorite.) The Heart of Thorns story was really well done, and I'd wager some of that was due to it being more easily tested and receiving more feedback; it's easier to send 100 people through story instances at their own pace than to organize those people at specific times to run through the HoT zones' meta-events.
Along with whatever else it's reworking, I think that will be a challenge for ArenaNet going forward: to balance the desire for well-crafted stories, time-inefficient as they are, with the need for larger pieces of content that players will find themselves doing for most of their time. I can almost believe that the idea of injecting story into the raid was an offshoot of this, but I don't think that hiding story behind such difficult content is the answer. Personally, I'd rather see repeatable zones that take up plenty of our time and have their own story elements within them get more priority than a slew of one-off story instances. Maybe that's the direction that Living World Season 3 will go.