If At First You Unsucceed - The Evolution of Guild Wars 2's Zones
I've certainly not hidden the fact that I love the new age zone design for Guild Wars 2. It looks as if what we've seen in Dry Top and the Silverwastes will continue in Heart of Thorns, and I couldn't be happier. Well, I could be happier, strictly speaking, but it's not ArenaNet's fault that I haven't won the lottery yet (#&*@$ real-life RNG...).
It's taken us a while to get to workable, entertaining open-world, zone-wide events, though, with several iterations and implementations, success and not-so-successes... unsuccesses... well, I don't know if I'd call them failures, exactly... A lot of what we've seen over the past few years might have been fun but didn't work out quite as well as was intended, and it looks like ArenaNet has used those “unsuccesses” as testing grounds for the new zones and what's to come in the expansion. Let's take a look back at how they, and we, got there:
Big launch events
In the beginning, there were standalone events and the more impressive and lengthy event chains. They were a major talking point in pre-launch interviews and marketing, and hey – they sounded a heckuva lot more interesting than the usual quest hub-based adventuring and exploring we'd grown accustomed to in MMOs.
While they still can be fun, I look back on them now with a kind a quaint fondness. Originally meant to be spontaneous and unpredictable, they've long lost that sense of wonder – maybe that's just inevitable when you've been playing and farming them for years – and are mostly on set timers and last for a limited time. If you're not leveling or doing world completion, you probably don't set foot in Sparkfly Fen, except for 20 minutes every now and then to fight Tequatl. I like to think that, if ArenaNet could completely re-do Guild Wars 2, the big event chains would be completely revamped to include more of the zones and feel a bit more epic than short-term encounters.
The Lost Shores
A few months after launch, we got our first taste of a true zone-wide event. Even though it had its, uh, issues, the final zone-spanning romp against the Karka Queen served notice as to how epic Guild Wars 2 could be when you could pull a whole map full of players together to achieve a goal. It was, perhaps, a little too ambitious an attempt for a game still working to find its footing, but sometimes the only way you learn is by doing and "unsucceeding".
The Secret of Southsun
When we returned to Southsun Cove a few months later, the island had undergone quite a few changes. For the first time, just being in the zone had an effect on your character, via the bonus to magic find or gold fine that you got from a Settler or Consortium Negotiator. There was no player cooperation required, except for the big events, as usual, but the notion of a zone-wide buff for doing stuff in that zone was a novel idea. It was a little thing, but it made you feel like what was going on wasn't just a string of unconnected events but rather part of some larger story.
When this update first appeared almost three years ago, I suggested that the revised Southsun was a kind of “test” for a new kind of zone-wide content, and that's exactly what we got a little further down the road...
While popular with players, Scarlet Briar's invasions probably didn't go like ArenaNet had hoped. Coming on the heels of the “champ bag” patch, it didn't take long before players realized the best way to gain loot was not to complete the event but to clump together and farm the lucrative Aetherblade champion spawns. This was the point at which I think ArenaNet realized that you can't just suggest that players spread out to succeed – you have to force it.
Divided we conquer
That concept came to fruition in late 2013 and throughout the first part of 2014, when we got content that was still set in the open world – or at least a large, “closed-off” area – that forced player separation and cooperation map-wide for completion of a larger goal. The Twisted Marionette, Escape From Lion's Arch, and second incarnation of the Crown Pavilion Boss Blitz were the result of this new philosophy.
Maguuma Wastes... and beyond
All of what brings us to the present, and the implementation of Dry Top and The Silverwastes. I've waxed eloquent on both these zones before, so I won't say too much here, other than to say that, as you look at how things have progressed, it's easy to see how we've arrived at this point. They're a combination of zone-wide, open-world content and, in the case of the Vinewraith, singular big boss fights that require cooperation while also separating players so as to provide a somewhat less “zerg-y” feel.
We already know that the first Heart of Thorns zone will use a day/night cycle to drive gameplay, and I'm really stoked about what other mechanics the other zones will use to encourage players to cooperate to achieve a greater goal. There's still room for improvement – and we could all stand to be a little nicer to each other when, say, Vinewraith fails – but this, to me, is what Guild Wars 2 should be: content that affects an entire zone, that gives you a reason to be there other than just for random encounters, and sometimes culminating in a big boss fight. There's still room for one-off events, but if you really want players to band together – the heart of any MMO, and Guild Wars 2 in particular – you need to offer more, both in terms of gameplay and rewards. It took several years of unsuccesses to refine the formula of how to create a zone, and I, for one, like the shape it's taken.