Flameseeker Chronicles: How to win friends and influence Guild Wars 2's development

By the time this article goes to press, it'll be Halloween in Guild Wars 2. No, not October 31st; a little known fact is that Halloween actually encompasses the entire month of October and is allowed to sneakily take over part of September if you're particularly excited about it or even seep into November if you're having difficulty letting go. Since it's too early to carve pumpkins and expect them to still be around at the end of the month, MMOs are great places to get your scary on without spending a lot of money on perishable gourds or "stocking up early" on bags of candy that will also mysteriously disappear by the 31st (pro tip: blame ghosts).

In the meantime, though, I have one more week before this column can officially turn into the Fearspooky Creepicles and it becomes professionally acceptable to devote at least 200 words to candy corn (note to self: double check with lead editors [Editor's note: /approved! -Bree]). So let's discuss something awesome that's happening on the GW2 official forums under the direction of ArenaNet's Studio Design Director, Chris Whiteside. Let's talk about collaborative development.

Give and take

On October 8th, Whiteside began a thread on the forums about the process of offering feedback to the developers and their desire to talk more with the fans. The post covers many of the same points I also attempted to make in a previous article, although hopefully it means a great deal more coming from someone who actually works at ArenaNet and knows the ups and downs of communicating with the players first hand. Josh Foreman also chimed in with a few excellent tips on giving constructive feedback, which I recommend reading. The short version of all of these posts boils down to ArenaNet's wanting to listen to and communicate with the players as well as being willing to take steps to do so more effectively, but it's not willing to reward tantrums and abusive language. Skeptics popped up in the thread immediately, but it sounds like common sense to me.

The result of the discussion spawned by Whiteside's post is a new initiative that will hopefully allow players to connect with ArenaNet on a more regular and productive basis. The ground rules for engaging respectfully with the developers have been laid, and in return Whiteside has specific plans to create structured discussions on important topics in each major area of the game (PvE, PvP and World vs. World). It's pretty exciting.

Why is it exciting? After all, it might sound like so many empty words to people who are convinced that ArenaNet's failure to implement their suggestions means that those suggestions are going ignored. For those of us who enjoy picking the brains of the people who work on GW2, though, it's a big opportunity. ArenaNet's desire to maintain an open dialogue with the playerbase is nothing new. The company was very transparent about its goals and philosophy during the pre-launch development phase, although the blog that contained many of those posts has sadly been down for some time. The original intent behind the forums was to create a place where trolling would not be tolerated and ArenaNet employees could engage in positive ways with the fans (arguably, this is the goal of most official video game forums; as usual, it worked out better in theory than in practice). Whiteside himself has been in favor of increased communication between ArenaNet and the players for a long time: Some months ago, he appeared in Lion's Arch to chat and talked about wanting to do so more often. The original Guild Wars was well-known for Gaile Gray's interaction with fans alongside the mysterious Frog, who would occasionally drop hints about the future of the game.

If we're willing to get involved in what Whiteside calls "collaborative development" and give it a chance, this could be a huge boon for both ArenaNet and the players. I think people will be more likely to give useful, constructive feedback with some instruction on how best to give it, along with reinforcement of the fact that devs are actually listening. Feedback on feedback can be important, too. As one poster noted, it does feel a little dead-ended to pour your opinions out into one of the designated feedback threads only to see it locked and removed eventually with no other indication that anyone took notice of it. That often leads to people jumping to the conclusion that the threads are just sounding boards for the players to vent into, and so they respond accordingly.

A new hope

Most exciting to me, in light of all of this, are the subjects that have been brought up as possible focuses for discussion. Whiteside suggested a few topics for the PvE branch: ascended gear, raiding, RNG and roleplaying. My reaction was roughly as enthusiastic as it would have been if he'd brought up the possibility of sending us each an actual kitten and the Legendary precursor of our choice because he listed some of my favorite subjects. I'm displeased with the implementation of ascended gear. I'm not a fan of adding traditional raiding to GW2, but I'm cautiously optimistic that ANet could do something different with it (especially after whacking Tequatl a few times). Cash shop gambling, rare item drops, and Mystic Forging have been sources of frustration since the game launched. And to be totally honest, I was not entirely sure that ArenaNet as a company would ever find RP important or interesting enough to devote resources or developer discussion time to; as I said in my previous article about productive commentary, I'm occasionally guilty of the same leaps of logic and baseless cynicism I'm so critical of.

Those things might not be chosen for discussion by the community -- or at least, not right off the bat -- but I found it interesting and encouraging that they're the topics Whiteside suggested. Those are very specific issues covering a wide range of PvE activities, and they're topics many players feel strongly about. Maybe they're things he's personally interested in, or maybe it's a way of demonstrating that ArenaNet doesn't intend to shy away from topics that have caused some ill feeling in the past.

In addition, Whiteside responded to a few posters to confirm that several topics of interest were up for discussion. Among those topics were the state of currency, permanent content vs. temporary content, and -- most importantly, I think -- how the gem store is perceived to impact game design and progression. He said that it's something he considers frequently, which makes me incredibly happy because it's so utterly important. No matter what ArenaNet does to reward players for completing activities or to give us free content updates, GW2 will always be fighting the free-to-play stigma unless it sets itself apart significantly from the popular image of F2P games in how it manages monetization. It's very easy for players to jump to the conclusion that game design decisions have been made with gem store purchases in mind; the common perception of cash shops is that they're predatory, encouraging devs to make their game less fun or convenient so that players will feel compelled to spend more. It doesn't matter if that's not the case; if it appears to be the case, coincidence can be just as damaging as intent.

A good example of this was the Infinite Continue Coin, which was purchasable during the latest installment of Super Adventure Box. According to SAB designer Josh Foreman, the monetization team and the content development teams have very little impact on each other, which sounds great, but that may be part of the problem: If the monetization team is creating things for the gem store by looking at content after it's developed and filling in the cracks with convenience items, then of course players are going to wonder why they're being asked to pay for activities to be less grindy or more user-friendly when for the good of the game they should get fixed.

On a related note, have you guys noticed something missing lately? I don't want to get prematurely giddy, but the past several updates have featured a distinct lack of very cool weapons that are extremely hard to get from boxes that you need to spend real money to open. Even the information we've gotten about the Blood and Madness update seems to indicate that we'll be trading in-game resources for the materials to craft weapons, unless I'm misinterpreting things and we'll need to buy actual candy corn to ship to Bellevue and redeem our prizes. I'm not sure where I stand on real candy trading, even if it's officially sanctioned... especially since those pesky ghosts keep raiding my candy corn stash.

There may still be an unannounced Black Lion Halloween weapon set lurking around, of course. I don't expect that we'll never see lockbox-based weapon skins again -- they had to have been bringing in some kind of money, or else I think ArenaNet would have scrapped them instead of trying to iterate on them. But it's nice to see them fading out a bit in favor of more rewards from playing the game, especially when new weapon skins appearing outside of RNG boxes used to be the exception and not the rule. The next time they make an appearance -- and I'm betting that's a when, not an if -- I hope some significant changes will have been made to the design. The guarantee of getting something worth the gems spent on opening a lockbox would be a good start.

Speaking of boxes that contain things you don't want: Edrick Thorn! Aw, I'm just messin' with you, Ed. Please don't lay waste to everything I've ever known or loved.

Edrick isn't an entirely new character; he was mentioned very briefly in passing during last year's Mad Memoires scavenger hunt, and it seems that he and Mad King Thorn's latest wife were slain by the same angry mob that exacted brutal vengeance on dear ol' Dad. According to the teaser video released yesterday, his death was full of the creativity and malice we have a good chance of seeing when a population is terrorized, starved, exploited, and killed by the rulers who are ideally supposed to be responsible for them. What you put out into the world will come back to you in the end, kids, and when you've spent most of your life thinking of ways to murder people using Halloween-related items, well... he who lives by the candy corn dies by the candy corn, that's all I'm saying. Then again, he who lives by the candy corn might also die by the tooth decay and diabetes, so hold a good thought for me, too.

Do you plan on getting involved with the new collaborative development initiative? What are the biggest issues you'd like to see discussed, and most importantly, how would you like to see them fixed? Let's brainstorm in the comments, and I'll see you in the Mad King's realm!

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.