Raph Koster's post-mortem on Star Wars: Galaxies is making the rounds these days. At the heart of it is how, once the secret to becoming a Jedi was unlocked, virtually everyone grinded away at it, not necessarily because they wanted to, but because they felt compelled to to stay competitive. Jedi are, after all, supreme ass-kickers – not to mention the heart of the Star Wars universe.
The thing is, though, once Jedi were added nobody had to create one. Before the path to Jedihood was known, says Koster (and many others that I've heard, having never played SWG), people were content to do their entertaining, doctoring, and whatever else. Several players went right ahead and played their “weaker” characters however they wanted, without ever seeking out how to become a Jedi.
In terms of power progression, there's nothing really comparable to creating a Jedi in Guild Wars 2, which I'm thankful for. I never feel like I have to do something I don't want to stay competitive. I probably identify more with the “play how you want” crew than the “grind to Jedi” types. That said, I like having some structure and some reference materials for long-term tasks, but not so much that it feels like work.
Consider legendary weapons and the process for acquiring them, which is probably the closest GW2 has to the Jedi grind. I always knew legendary weapons existed and had, in the back of my mind, the notion that I'd want to create one, but for the first four months or so of the game, I didn't care. I leveled a couple of characters to 80, explored some, did some dungeons, a little of this, a little of that... and, after I thought I'd hit an “enjoyment plateau,” then I looked up everything that would go into creating a legendary. And cried a little. But the key was that I was happy to play the game for a good while and just enjoy it before I looked into specific “grinds.”
This is how I plan to tackle Heart of Thorns. I'm sure some people will develop plans for exactly what they're going to do – if they haven't already – regarding story content, exploration, their new revenants, mastery completion, and so on. I'm just going to take my existing character, jump into the new zones, and do what there is to do, without burdening myself with the expectations of having to get certain things done in a certain order within a certain time frame. I'll acquire stuff naturally without having to worry if I'm doing everything in the proper order.
My only exception will be to see what I need to craft my chosen precursor. I've waited long enough to do that, and, possessing 75% of what I need for the legendary I'm trying to make, I want to get it out of the way as quickly as possible. But I'm struck by what an odd case that will be for me, the notion that I have a “plan” for completing a specific bit of content. It feels weird and very much unlike how I normally go about things. My feeling is that if I'm not going to get another expansion for a few years, I might as well make the fun from discovering everything there is to do in this one last as long as I can.
Even with GW2's lack of a rigid structure, some people will still be hardcore achievers and grinders, though. That's not an indictment against that particular play style, as long as that's what you like. I suppose that, for an achievement-focused player, my “play as you go” approach would feel weird, too. But I feel like, as what happened with SWG, that people won't do something because they want to but because they feel like they have to, and that, in the long-term, once the thrill of achievement is gone, they'll feel a little disappointed that they turboed through the game and didn't take the time to enjoy it before turning it into “work.” I feel like that's the way a lot of MMOs go, that games that emphasize “freedom” and “play how you want” still tend to try and channel players into specific roles or content because they know that's what the vast majority will actually do, even when other options exist.
With most MMOs, granted, you need to take that approach so that you have the best stats in the game, but GW2 doesn't require that of you. Yes, it's still tempting to try and “keep up” with other players, whether you're trying to get that cool appearance, max out your achievement points, or whatever. It's probably inevitable that in any MMO, people will feel that subtle need to be the best, whether that means best stats or highest point total, but if you're the type who rips through MMO content and then become bored that there's nothing else to do... maybe try something different so you won't be bored?
For Heart of Thorns, I think masteries are a good compromise between a kind of hard, “on rails” progression that the path to Jedihood seemed to be, and the need to have some kind of extensive way to advance one's character. I was a little worried at first that masteries would be “Do specific content X to gain access to specific content Y,” a little like how ascended gear and agony resistance was done for fractals, but seeing that you can acquire mastery points in a number of ways and then advance mastery tracks through any activity that grants XP puts me more at ease.
It's a little like if Star Wars: Galaxies had allowed entertainers to become Jedi by... well, entertaining, rather than by having to pick up a weapon and kill lots of things or hunt down artifacts to learn secret lore. Granted, that might not have fit into the lore – you don't see a whole lot of Force-sensitive dancers or musicians in Star Wars – but that's the price you pay for leveraging a hugely popular IP. True, it may not make much sense to learn how to speak a hylek language by killing random monsters, but sometimes you have to make some compromises to lore to produce good gameplay. People are going to game the system and try to achieve the “highest score” in any case, so you might as well make it fun.