Heart of Thorns Might Take a While, and That's OK
I don't know when Heart of Thorns is coming out. My guild ran a contest shortly after the announcement where everyone could bet five gold to pick a date, and I chose on in late July. I don't think that's accurate any more, though signs point to us learning something at E3.
If I had to make a revised guess, I might thing August/September is more realistic at this point. It's been tough having virtually no new content since January, but I think the wait is for the best, and not for the usual reason you hear – that everything needs to be just right, there needs to be more time to improve content and squash bugs, etc. Those things are important, but there's another cost to keep in mind: the human cost.
We all have deadlines, whether it's for school, work, or personal reasons. (“Your room better be clean by the time I get home!”) Most of the time, those deadlines give you a reasonable amount time to the required work done. When they don't, you either negotiate for more time or do the best you can in the time you're given.
In the video game industry, “the best you can in the time you're given” can be a perilous approach, leading to a bad product, with the poor reviews and sales that often come with it. We've all seen that a hundred times, especially in online gaming, instances of games released weeks or months ahead of when they really should have been. I don't have to name examples.
So why is it done? To prevent missing deadlines – and the cost in marketing dollars that comes with blaring “Coming (Date)” and then missing said date – a lot of companies utilize “crunch,” which is the practice of requiring long hours for an extended period to get a project completed on time. We all expect to work a little overtime when something important is due, but crunch in the video-game industry goes well beyond “a little overtime.” Some cringe-worthy horror stories can be found here.
This probably isn't telling you something you don't already know; most gamers are familiar with the concept of crunch and how it hurts both the quality of games and the lives of the employees it affects. We can all say, “Those crunch stories are awful and we don't want our favorite developers to do it” when hearing about products after they're released and we've played and enjoyed them. But when we're anticipating something that hasn't yet come out... gee, can't those guys work a little harder and just get it done already?
I don't work at ArenaNet, but from what I've seen and heard from my interactions with employees, it seems to be a pretty good place, in terms of how they treat their employees. It rates as a 3.8 out of 5 on Glassdoor, with Work/Life Balance at 4.1. That's a sharp increase over how it rated (2.9) when I did a comparison of about 50 companies nearly two years ago, and it would rate in the top five if I re-did that list today.
(Yes, standard Glassdoor caveats apply: Ratings can be dragged down by disgruntled former employees, or boosted by a company that “encourages” its people to file glowing reviews. In fact, ArenaNet's leap from 2.9 to the high 3's came just a couple of months after I posted that article, and ArenaNet is listed as being an “Engaged Employer” on Glassdoor. Still, it's the best we've got, and at the very least, I don't think I've ever heard of any major controversy regarding how employees are treated there.)
I'd rather have a happy and healthy ArenaNet team that puts content out a little later than I'd prefer than one that is strung-out on 14-hour days for months on end and leaves the company en masse – voluntarily or not – after a project is completed. Sure, there's some reasonable limit as to how long it might take before it becomes more about people being lazy or unskilled rather than just trying to avoid crunch-related burnout, but unless Heart of Thorns is pushed back to 2016, I don't think that's the case here.
Time is (just a little bit of) money
With all that being said, is three years too long to go before an MMO has its first expansion? I'd say “yes” in most cases, but as we've seen from the NCSoft financial reports, it's not as if GW2 is limping along in terms of revenue. It still turns a tidy sum every quarter, and we'll all be lining up to fling our money at our computers when HoT finally is available. It's probably not costing ArenaNet any real sales to take as long as it does (again, within some reasonable limit), so why not take longer to avoid turning your team into mush?
It's not on the same level as World of Warcraft, numbers-wise, but that's another MMO that, listening to its rank and file players, seems to take excruciatingly long to put out new content and expansions – and even has a monthly fee to boot, thus depriving Blizzard of revenue when it goes through dry spells – and it keeps chugging along just fine.
It's certain that ArenaNet has internal deadlines for when they'd like to get things done, and maybe even a tentative release date for Heart of Thorns scribbled down somewhere. But for now, it's got the flexibility – and, in all likelihood, the trust of NCSoft – to put content out on its terms, in a way that's best for its employees and best for its business – even if it does make for restless customers.