Flameseeker Chronicles: The Guild Wars 2 expansion blues

Flameseeker Chronicles The Guild Wars 2 expansion blues
It's the beginning of autumn at last. In the past few months, Guild Wars 2 fans have cleaned some clocks, gone back to school, and beat up on Tequatl the Sunless. At the moment, we're trying to kick Scarlet Briar out of Twilight Arbor. We've been busy! ArenaNet has continued to toss content our way at lightning speed, and unlike many of the previous releases, much of the content in the past month has been in the form of permanent adjustments to the game.

It might seem nuts to complain about lacking an expansion for a game where content releases happen every two weeks, but for some reason the GW2 community seems to be feelin' that vibe lately. Popular YouTube personality and lore expert WoodenPotatoes created a video about it. Threads criticizing the living story and arguing for expansions are common on the official forums. Admittedly, I'm feeling a little restless for a change in the air myself. But what's so important about an expansion, and what isn't the living story offering?

Dramatic structure

At first blush, the idea of replacing expansions with the living story created mixed emotions in the cocktail shaker of my soul. I love the idea that major content such as new playable races, new skills and new zones can appear organically at any time instead of being bound to an expansion pack -- not least because it means I might not have to wait up to five years to roll both a Tengu and a Largos (I know, I know. Let me have my harmless dreams). In practice, though, the things I like about the idea aren't in evidence much -- or at least, not yet.

Personally, I'd be just as glad to see the announcement of an expansion as I would be to have Scarlet suddenly and improbably gain the attention of the Tethyos Houses, prompting the Largos to join the alliance of playable races. I'd be as overjoyed to plunk down a further $50 for a boxed release as I would be to see the living story lead to the players stealing airships from the Aetherblades and flying away to Cantha. It's entirely possible that I feel this way because I'm too used to expansions to know any better; free expansion-level content would be a pretty big deal in an MMO of GW2's size (for certain values of "free"; I've got a crippling makeover kit habit that regularly drains me of both gems and dignity). For me, though, the big draw of living story releases instead of expansions would be seeing content released as it's ready, without the need to wait to get a chunk of huge, game-changing stuff. However, we're pretty much waiting on big stuff for the foreseeable future anyway, which makes the difference matter a lot less to me.

I've written a couple of times on the direction of the living story, and my overall conclusion is that a lot of the problems people have had with it -- mostly temporary activities and a thin amount of actual story content -- come back to ArenaNet's decision to get reoccurring events designed, built and out of the way while restructuring the live teams to deliver updates on a two-week cycle. That probably contributed quite a bit to the somewhat disjointed feeling of it; the developers needed to create a bunch of festivals, but the story team also needed to introduce the major characters and villains, and that led to a summer in which it started to feel like the people of Tyria were constantly and brazenly throwing parties in an attempt to taunt bad guys into attacking them. This was, I believe, a direct result of the plot having to keep time with frequent content releases, and trying to maintain a connection between story elements while swapping through wildly different game activities and settings. Expansions aren't likely to suffer from that as much since they're designed and released as a whole, but I'm a little concerned that the living story might always have to contend with it. I'm sure the writers have a narrative in mind, but it's hard to know how much balance ANet is intending to maintain between story and gameplay, and how much the lore might need to bend, twist or retcon its way into providing explanations for eclectic bits of update content from week to week.

ArenaNet has compared the living story to a TV show, with plans for a defined narrative. We know that the four living world teams are a small part of ANet's overall development force, and that there are other teams working on long-term projects behind the scenes. We have absolutely no idea what most of those projects are, or when we might hear about them. In the meantime, we've hit a full season's worth of rising action in the story with no idea when we can expect to see the climax or what the resolution might lead to. As of right now, the pace of the story is on the slow side (although the writing team is in the process of addressing that), and the size of content releases have been on the small side. Don't get me wrong; as non-expansion updates for an MMO go we've gotten a huge amount of balancing, quality of life additions, cosmetic doohickeys, and general awesomeness. But making the mental leap from that to imagining the capacity of these updates to open up the path to Elona, or to provide a brand new racial capital and personal story is a little more difficult.

Flameseeker Chronicles The Guild Wars 2 expansion blues
The waiting game

Every MMO I've played has gone through slumps where player interest in the current content and story arc has been mostly exhausted, and it's usually excitement over an upcoming expansion pack that carries people through and keeps them playing (or at least coming back). ArenaNet's goal is to create that kind of excitement every two weeks, but we haven't gotten the level of buzz yet from the living story that an expansion -- or expansion announcement -- typically creates. At the start of the living story updates, lore-based speculation was rampant; that's dropped off quite a bit as the content we've gotten has consistently introduced new story elements and shown every sign of concentrating primarily on Scarlet and her crew. ArenaNet is focusing on polishing the core game, which is awesome, but it's very hard to shake initial impressions after the fact. If fans have to wait another 5 to 6 months for the living story to bear fruit in the form of major expansion-level features and dragon-based plot progression, it's going to seem more and more as though living world content and expansions are mutually exclusive.

The biggest reason for players to feel let down is that ArenaNet and NCsoft's comments on the subject of an expansion have reinforced the idea that many of the expansion-level features fans are looking forward to aren't even close to being on the horizon. A popular theory is that ArenaNet is only saying they don't have an expansion planned, but I don't put much stock in that. It's far more likely that the simplest answer is true: that the developers do have some new landmasses, races, or systems in development, but that those things are so far out from being ready that ArenaNet can take their time in deciding which form they'd like to release them in.

I think players are assuming -- and not without reason -- that we won't see much of that stuff until Scarlet's story arc has come to a conclusion, and that probably explains some of the impatience with it. We've already been told that we won't be encountering new Elder Dragons this year, or trailblazing our way to any new major zones. It's not too much of a stretch to assume that new playable races, new personal story chapters, and vastly different game mechanics are also pretty far down the line, since those are things that typically involve a lot of time and resources. Adding a new race in particular seems like the kind of undertaking that would demand its own story arc.

In short, ArenaNet has convinced players -- certainly without meaning to -- that we have nothing earth-shattering to look forward to in the immediate future at just about the point where we've collectively started to get hungry for a big upheaval of scenery and pace. And whether or not it's true or warranted, it's still having an effect on morale.

Flameseeker Chronicles The Guild Wars 2 expansion blues
In case you're thinking that I've decided to be an irascible cynic for Halloween, that's not true at all. I'm an irascible cynic all the time, and for Halloween I'm going to be a vampire. My Necromancer dresses in black, carries a focus called Bloodseeker, and uses a lot of blood-based magic, so I don't even have to buy a costume! In other words, I'm being lazy for Halloween. It's ironic.

By the time this article goes to print, we should have some information on what the ghouls and ghosties of Tyria are up to this year. Early speculation is that the upset-looking gentleman on the release page preview art might be one of Mad King Thorn's relatives, which would be very interesting. He also looks kind of like a werewolf from where I'm sitting, so between me and him we've got the setup for a questionable romance novel.

Are you hoping for an expansion, or would you rather see updates released entirely through the living story? Got plans to dress your character up in spooky colors and creepy armor sets for Halloween? Would you like to demand an apology for that terrible, overused Twilight joke? Let us know in the comments, and I'll see you in the Mists!

Anatoli Ingram suffers from severe altitis, Necromancitosis, and Guild Wars 2 addiction. The only known treatment is writing Massively's weekly Flameseeker Chronicles column, which is published every Tuesday. His conditions are contagious, so contact him safely at anatoli@massively.com. Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.

This article was originally published on Massively.