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Heart of Thorns' Balancing Act

By Jason Winter on October 19, 2015 | Columns | Comments

Heart of Thorns' Balancing Act

Soon – and not even Soon(TM), but actual SOON – we'll be barreling through the Maguuma Jungle, battling Mordremoth's minions at every turn. We'll explore every nook and cranny of the elder dragon's domain, uncover great secrets, and, most likely, experience great triumph at the culmination of our campaign.

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The big question facing us – and one that strikes at the core of Guild Wars 2's progression paradigm – is, “Will that be enough?”

This ties into one of the game's core philosophies: the lack of an endgame level and gear grind treadmill. Guild Wars 2 is different from other MMOs in that it won't raise the level cap every year or two and require you to acquire more powerful statistical gear with each major release. Additionally, downleveling, with rewards to (mostly) match your level keeps old sub-80 content fairly relevant, giving players even more options for what to play, even once they've reached max level. This is what made the Queensdale champion farm an option for a while, when max-level players wouldn't normally go anywhere near a “starter” zone.

There's a reason why most MMOs don't do things this way. When you introduce new content and essentially require players to complete it, by making the old content less relevant and rewarding, you can be certain that the new content will get played. Players essentially have no choice. And, with leveling zones typically being “dead” by that point anyway, what's wrong with consigning the old max-level zones and instances to the same fate (though dungeon scaling is more of a thing nowadays)?

While there's certainly a market for that, and I'll sometimes admit to enjoying that kind of direct progression in other games, in the long run, I think I prefer GW2's system. It makes it easier for me to simply enjoy the game and do what I want, rather than what I feel like I need to do to stay competitive. I think a system like this can work, as long as the game is built to accommodate it from the ground up (which is why I think level-scaling is not a great idea for Star Wars: The Old Republic, even though I like the concept in general).

So as long as ArenaNet never raises the level or power curve of GW2, you never have to do the new content. We all will, of course, at least for a little while, because hey, new stuff. But will we stay? That depends on what we get out of it.

That's the downside of not forcing your players to play new content due to an ever-increasing power curve, as well as making your entire world's content available to everyone, regardless of level. MMO players will always gravitate toward whatever gives them the greatest reward vs. time and effort spent. In a traditional MMO with vertical progression, there are few options for achieving those rewards for max-level characters; you have to do the new zones, new dungeons, new raids, etc., because it gives you XP and gear at the new level cap.

In a game like Guild Wars 2, there are tons of options, but you can pick and choose the ones that suit you best. That's a nice level of freedom to have, but it makes it harder on the developers, challenging them to offer worthy rewards. If they don't, all the time and effort they spent making that content will be wasted. Alternatively, new zones could offer unquestionably better rewards than old ones, but then the old ones won't get played much, if at all, and that's also undesirable.

Right now, we have 25 explorable dungeon paths, yet only a few see regular play, owing to their strong rewards/time ratio. Up to this point, Guild Wars 2 has typically had just a few similarly profitable options for non-instanced play. When the game launched, Cursed Shore was the best place to go, and the addition of champion loot bags made the Frostgorge and Queensdale champ farms similarly lucrative – so much so that the Queensdale one had to be nerfed.

Later, we got Dry Top and Silverwastes. As much as I like them, once I “completed” them and got what I needed, either in terms of Mawdrey or Luminescent Armor, I didn't feel a tremendous incentive to keep doing them, not when Cursed Shore offers more generalized rewards and less commitment to an hour-long series of events (or dependence on those darn shovels...).

In effect, most zones in the game are like the majority of dungeon paths, in that they only see occasional play from experienced players. Megaservers help keep populations up, and dungeon finders can help us with the less-traveled paths, but they don't make unenjoyable or unrewarding zones any less so.

This is the challenge facing the new zones we'll get in Heart of Thorns, and beyond. With a new batch of max-level zones being added to the game, as well as other new stuff, like the raid, ArenaNet will need to balance all of it precisely enough that we have incentive to run them, but not make the rewards too good that we ignore the game's previous content, as tends to happen in MMOs with vertical progression.

Alternatively, maybe ArenaNet's OK with that, figuring that those zones “did their job” while they were new and hoping that megaservers will keep them populated enough to still be enjoyable enough for new players or nostalgia-seekers. While that can work in the short term, in the long term, it leads to an insidious power creep – or, this being Guild Wars 2, glowy-cosmetic creep.

This is a path that ArenaNet has some experience with, considering all the content it produced for the original Guild Wars, though there have been some miscalculations during Guild Wars 2's life span. Nerfing dungeon rewards was probably done to “force” people into the newer stuff, and might be a path to take in the future for zones like Cursed Shore, but I'm hoping that future attempts to make new content relevant bring more addition than subtraction.


Jason Winter is the semi-proud owner of an underwater legendary weapon. You can find him on Twitter @winterinformal. Also, make sure to check out his girlfriend's adorable Guild Wars 2 charms on her etsy shop!

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