Flameseeker Chronicles: Cultivating positive growth in Guild Wars 2

Standing in front of the Nightmare tower
Guild Wars 2's Tower of Nightmares release has been with us for the past week, transforming formerly beautiful (if centaur-populated) Kessex Hills into a toxic wasteland. The source of the devastation is a massive, thistle-topped structure in Viathan Lake, which was built and defended by the Krait and Nightmare Court. A whole lot of mystery is tied up in that thing, from Krait religion to Nightmare ambitions to the involvement of Scarlet Briar, but Marjory Delaqua and her partner Kasmeer Meade are on the case. The Pact has also gotten involved by aiding with research and demolishing the tower plant's offshoots, which are spreading on the wind like dandelions, only I wouldn't recommend adding them to salads, and they're not fluffy.

The ArenaNet team responsible for this release has made some praiseworthy improvements over previous releases, which supports the idea that GW2's living world is still a work in progress with lots of room to grow. Combined with some interesting developer responses from the collaborative development initiative, I think it paints a promising picture of where the story is going in the upcoming months.

A date with the Krait (and that's great)

Logging into post-update Kessex for the first time instantly delivers your character to a short solo instance. I found this to be a great way of introducing the changes, since it makes it feel as though you're in the middle of something happening instead of wandering around in the aftermath of something that's already taken place. The instance is still post-infestation, but it's set in the stage where none of the NPCs knows much of what's going on or how to handle it. Although it lacks the immediacy and multiplayer aspects of one-time events like storming Southsun Cove to open it up, an instance like this still feels special and avoids most of the problems that come with massive, semi-live one-time events.

After devoting a column to being disgruntled over the emphasis on enemy teamups in Scarlet's story, I was happy to see a great deal of narrative emphasis placed on the unusual behavior of the xenophobic Krait as well as confirmation that the toxic Nightmare Courtiers don't represent their entire faction. Scarlet is involved, but she doesn't overwhelm this part of the story; after the Krait got their hands on some obelisk shards, their primary concern became the possible imminent return of their prophets. I'm still not sold on Scarlet's villain alliance, but it's nice to see the Kraits' traits (say it! it's fun!) worked into their reasons for joining up rather than being conveniently explained away. The appearance of a minor character from the very beginning of the human starting experience was a nice touch as well, tying the whole thing more closely to the continuity of the existing lore.

This release was also refreshingly character-focused. One of the long-standing complaints about the living story is that the story parts are brief and not particularly compelling, and after thinking about it for a while my feeling is that much of it comes down to redundancy. This is true of the personal story, too -- a lot of dialogue and text is wasted on explaining what needs to be done in a given mission, after which your character sets out to do exactly what was just discussed. Some of that is necessary, but action and excitement are usually best expressed through our characters' own hands, while dialogue is great for establishing why we should like and care about our NPC companions.

There's a reason Braham and Rox (and Frostbite) are so popular; not only are they likeable characters, but their dialogue with each other sparkles and is almost entirely given over to establishing who they are and what their relationship is. Similarly, a bunch of us are now all a-titter about how married Kasmeer and Jory are, and even though the characters are used to describe what's going on in the area of the tower, their dialogue is peppered with character-defining tidbits and development. Dedicated fans tend to be shameless gossips; juicy details about NPCs' love lives or family connections or morality or history can sustain our interest in a story long after the explosions have faded and this week's bad guy has been vanquished.

My interaction with Tower of Nightmares has still followed the same pattern of the last few months: devour the story and then fiddle around with achievements for a few hours before falling back to do other stuff and waiting for the next installment. In this case, though, I'm a lot more excited to see what comes next -- it feels less like getting a spoonful of story with my achievements and more like the achievements are there to bridge the gap to the next part of the story. It's a good step in the right direction.

Necromancer underwater combat
All together now

I'd like to bring further attention to the progress of the collaborative development initiative on the official forums, since many of the developer replies so far provide valuable insight into why the above changes took place and what we might see in the future. I think it's important to add that one of my first thoughts while playing through the Tower of Nightmares solo instance was how much feedback the living story team had managed to incorporate, and I maintain that ANet is one of the most responsive development studios in the industry. Not all of the responses can be implemented quickly enough to satisfy the playerbase -- something that the devs readily admit -- but it's better to know for sure what the potential turnaround time is on big changes than to have no idea when or if they'll ever be implemented.

The entire general discussion thread is fascinating and full of good suggestions from players as well as commentary from many of the developers. Bobby Stein talked about technological limitations and upcoming improvements as well as ways in which the story's pacing could have been handled better (and yes, dragons are still a big deal). Chris Whiteside posted a three-part response to the thread covering feedback on rewards, achievements, and the evolving nature of the living story. Jonathan Sharp chimed in on future game modes in the structured PvP forum thread, while Devon Carver provided some insight into the parameters of what's possible for World vs. World in the dedicated thread for the discussion of world population. Sharp also posted a list of upcoming profession balance changes in order to obtain feedback on them; this is the second time ArenaNet has offered an advance look, and it seems to be working out well.

So far, I think the CDI has had a positive impact on the forums and player morale. It's neat to see developers and fans bouncing questions back and forth and to witness the sort of brainstorming that can happen when both parties are looking for real solutions. I've also noticed an increase in the amount of constructive forum posts, even outside of the collaborative development threads. People tend to respond well to positive reinforcement, and in the end I think one of the great strengths of this undertaking -- even in its infancy -- is how it's framed the developer/player relationship in a cooperative light.

Female Phalanx set and male Trickster set
Garterbelt Garrison Volume Two

In other news, we finally got a male light armor set that shows a touch more skin than the female version! I bought the Trickster set for my main almost immediately. Unfortunately, ANet made up for the progress in that area with the Phalanx heavy armor, which doesn't look even remotely like the same set of armor when worn on male or female characters. The gender disparity is so huge that it's mind-boggling; we've had sets before that mysteriously lose material in dangerous places when female characters wear them, but at least most of them obviously originated from the same idea as the male versions of the sets.

This was also an issue with the Phoenix set. It's easy to see why fashion-forward players were begging for the opportunity to buy it from the moment Kasmeer showed it off: Even though it's skimpy, it's gorgeously designed and has several unique touches, such as the train of floating feathers. It was a letdown when the male version turned out to be a standard-issue neck-to-ankle robe with none of the elements that make the female Phoenix set so eye-catching.

ArenaNet is a relatively progressive company, and it has said in the past that it wants to provide lots of variety for both male and female characters and to make sure that players are comfortable with the available choices. I've got a hunch that the gender discrepancy in these armor sets came down to art resources -- the Phalanx set in particular seems like a pairing of two designs that didn't actually ever have opposite-gender counterparts -- but the effect is to make it look as though male and female characters are being deliberately placed into strictly gendered style categories, even if it means covering up male characters at the expense of interesting design or putting together two sets that look nothing alike. It seems like more and more of the gem store armor sets lately have made neat details gender-specific (how many Aetherblades do I have to kill to get the male version of the Magitech boots on my female Engineer?), and that's disappointing. It's not even that the armor looks terrible or that sexy armor is a bad thing itself, but we've got more than a handful of sets now that uphold the stereotypes of cool, severe fantasy men and sexy, fashion plate fantasy women. A little more of the opposite -- or better yet, more sets that maintain a theme across genders rather than offering an either-or split -- would be welcome.

How do you feel about the Tower of Nightmares release? Do you think it's improved on previous living story chapters? Are you following along with the collaborative development initiative? And what on Tyria is Scarlet standing in front of in the preview art for the next release? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below, 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.