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Heart of Thorns One Week In with Colin Johanson

William Murphy Posted:
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A little over one week into the launch of Heart of Thorns, and we caught ArenaNet's Colin Johanson napping long enough to coerce some answers out of him about the current state of the Guild Wars 2 expansion and how things are going inside the walls of the Bellevue, Washington based developer.

MMORPG: Well, where to begin? First, I want to thank you as a player for listening to your users and “nerfing” the amount of Hero Points needed to fully unlock Elite Specializations.

Colin: You’re welcome! We’re really happy to see the positive reaction that change has received from everyone.

MMORPG: Have you guys found any similar instances where you might need to iterate since launch? I know folks were decrying the XP needed for Masteries at first before they realized they were account wide, and before you took out the requirements for the one blocking people in the story missions.

Colin: At this point the big bullet point features and content for the expansion all are functioning as intended and we’re really thrilled with the feedback we’ve seen, folks seem to be just having a great time playing Heart of Thorns right now.

There are plenty of small things we’ll want to keep working on, for example the other day we added a bunch of the crafting materials to the material storage to just streamline that experience a bit more. 

One of the current places we’re discussing iterating on is fractal dungeons. The reaction to the core changes to make fractals more approachable by playing one at a time has been really positive – but there is some work to be done still in the smaller details like balance, XP, and reward rates. We’ll continue to evaluate all the areas to look for other things we might need to make some tweaks to, but in general we’re just really happy right now with the reception and stability of the launch.

On top of everything the expansion has already provided, we’ve still got more features of the expansion activating here soon as well! Raids, new legendary weapons, our enhanced squad UI, PvP leagues and our professional PvP league are all coming shortly. So we’ll keep an eye on those as they activate and look to what kind of iteration might be required early on based on the feedback we see on those features as well.

MMORPG: How does it feel to finally see Heart of Thorns in the wild? Are people reacting the way you expected? I imagine it’s got to feel a lot like releasing the game all over again with how people’s desire for it was pent up.

Colin: It feels amazing to get this game out the door! Its been three years since we launched a major product to market and as a game developer, there really isn’t anything better than those final moments before launch – and the first moments after launch when everyone pours into the game to play. I love this time in game development where every detail is new to players and they are all sharing their discoveries with one another. I just want to stay in game all day and talk with people and play the game! It really does feel like the original release week all over again- though this time infinitely less stressful with how smooth the launch of Heart of Thorns has been so far.

We took some risks on this expansion, and ultimately no risk was bigger than saying we’re going to step away from traditional gear and level progression and chase something more uniquely Guild Wars in our mastery system. That risk has absolutely paid off and I think we delivered a system that’s both resonating with players and gives us a bright future for meaningful progression for Guild Wars 2’s PvE in the future. Masteries is just one of many systems we focused on in HoT to build a true foundation for which we can regularly expand Guild Wars 2 in the future and solve one of the biggest complaints about Guild Wars 2 (the lack of a real end game) – the reaction we’re seeing to all of those features tells me we made the right choices and we’re exactly where we want to be. We can now focus on building content on the stable foundation we’ve built for our future.

MMORPG: There’s a long thread on the forums right now about the way Fractals are now set up, and how players believe that they’ll be abandoned once folks hit level 100 in Fractal progression. Are there further plans to adjust fractals to keep them as the game’s primary source of small group “dungeon” content?

Colin: Fractal dungeons will absolutely not be abandoned, no! We’re just getting started with the work we want to do with Fractal of the Mists as our end-game five-player dungeon experience. The most important part of the update with Heart of Thorns was getting them to the point that Fractals can be consumed in smaller “bite-sized” amounts of time so they are more approachable content-wise, which makes them available to a much larger audience of players. We’ve already seen a really positive response to this change and a much larger array of players stepping into Fractal dungeons which was absolutely our goal.

In the short term, we need to take a look at iterating on some of the issues with rewards, XP, and potentially some scaling issues on the higher tiers of fractals. Longer term, we have a lot of plans for our fractal dungeons – but we’ll talk more about that when we’re ready to discuss our plans for the live cadence for Guild Wars 2 in 2016. For now – we still have raids, legendaries, squad UI, PvP leagues, and Guild Wars 2 pro PvP league to kick off!

MMORPG: For small guilds, the grind to unlock and have their own guild hall seems really daunting. I don’t personally have to worry about this, but I have more than a few friends in smaller close-knit guilds that feel like they’ll never be able to have their own GH. Is this being looked into?

Colin: Acquiring a guild hall isn’t terribly difficult for a small group of players to do at all. To purchase the expedition you need to do one guild mission of any type to have enough favor, save up 100 gold combined between all your friends, and get together five or more people to do the expedition to claim it. We balanced the cost for a ten player guild to be able to do in a week or two if they started from scratch and had almost no real cash in their bank. Assume it’ll take a little longer for smaller guilds – but also take into the account the reality that almost everyone in Guild Wars 2 has some amount of gold/silver already in their accounts, or that they could clear out of their bank on the trading post.

We’ve seen numerous small guilds already claim a guild hall. Shoot, a commander tag costs 300 gold, I think the cost for a guild hall is very reasonable to acquire for small guilds by comparison. For guilds of say two players, we offer a home in Lion’s Arch at the guild HQ for them to operate out of for free, generally we feel guilds that small really aren’t large enough player communities to own a guild hall – though if they really want to they can acquire one as well, they’ll just take a long longer and need to get some friends to help them run the expedition. We designed guild halls assuming around 4+ players is a guild, and anything less than that is really just a small group and can use the Lion’s Arch HQ hall. With all that said, we have no plans to change the cost structure to acquire a Guild Hall at this time.

MMORPG: A side effect of having all this new open world content to do is that it seems World V. World is a bit dead for some folks. Did you expect this?

Colin: We generally see a rotation where when a lot of stuff is going on in the PvE part of the game, the amount of folks actively playing WvW tends to take a bit of a dip – and likewise when WvW has a huge event going on like a tournament, populations actively playing PvE take a bit of a dip. This is because there is a lot of overlap between players in Guild Wars 2 who actively play both PvE and WvW. We expect over time we’ll see the populations in WvW even out a bit more as mostly right now it’s predominantly the folks who only play WvW that are battling it out in the mists. We gave people an awful lot of stuff to do in this expansion, and even more is coming still.

That being said, I’d also add one of the goals of Heart of Thorns was to address every major game system to ensure they had all the core components we need for the future of the game. Our goal was to ensure we didn’t really need to tweak any major game system again after this expansion and our focus could be entirely on adding new content, and building on top of – rather than expanding outward systemically. WvW is the one major feature I’d say we didn’t end up accomplishing this goal, the project is so large it didn’t end up fitting into the scope of the expansion and we still have work to do to address core fundamental issues like population balance, rewards, scoring, night capping, etc. As always we don’t discuss features in development until they are far enough along to share meaningful details, so for now we’ll just say WvW is the final big game system on our radar – and we’ve had a lot of great conversations with our players about what they’d love to see from epic large scale PvP combat.

MMORPG: Will you all ever consider doing “weekend” events like “2X ranks in WvW”, “Double XP in the Jungle” or something like that to help drive people around where you might want to see them?

Colin: We do occasionally do events like this in PvP when major PvP competitions are going on, and we did this with WvW tournaments as well which are currently on hold until we’re able to resolve the core issues with WvW I mentioned earlier. We’ll continue to think about how we might be able to expand this concept more where it makes sense. Ultimately I think things like our new upcoming PvP league feature ends up being a more robust and exciting version of this same concept – so we’re excited to see how that goes for us, in particular with the explosive growth we’ve seen in Guild Wars 2’s PvP population.

MMORPG: Just one more for now then… when can we expect to learn more about what the Living World holds for us this season?

Colin: Right now we’re focused on making sure the remaining expansion features to be activated all go smoothly – we’ll discuss what to expect out of live and living world from Guild Wars 2…when it’s ready!


William Murphy

Bill is the former Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.