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Flameseeker Chronicles: Guild Wars 2's living whirl

Anatoli Ingram

Hi there! I'm Anatoli Ingram, and starting today I'll be your friendly neighborhood Flameseeker Chronicles columnist. Some of you probably know me from my previous life as commenter RingBonefield, but thanks to the kindness and pure heart power of the Massively lead editors, I've evolved into my final form: a guy who not only won't shut up about Guild Wars 2 but gets paid to not shut up about Guild Wars 2.

If you're anywhere near as easily distracted as I am by shiny objects placed tantalizingly out of reach, it's probably been difficult to tear yourself away from the Zephyr Sanctum. But GW2 fans have recently gotten huge chunks of information regarding the future of the game -- biweekly content updates, big plans for upcoming content, a possible lack of expansions, holy cats! -- and there's been no shortage of player concern and controversy to go along with them. Join me after the break, where I'll take a breather from dashing around as an ethereal being of light and wind to talk about what all of this potentially means for GW2's living world.

Flameseeker Chronicles Living whirl
The problems

If the sky really is the limit of what ArenaNet can do with living world content, it's important to quickly start proving that it's also what the studio is willing to do. Players might find it exciting to speculate about content usually reserved for paid expansions potentially being just around the corner (for free!), but the major, permanent gameplay updates that usually come with MMO expansions are a far cry from the temporary toys, no matter how wonderful, that we've had to play with so far. The new Aetherblade-themed jumping puzzle and Belcher's Bluff minigame are permanent additions, but they aren't stretching the boundaries of what an MMO can be expected to deliver through content updates on a regular basis. If reception of ANet's lofty goals has been wary, it makes sense in light of the fact that the recent announcements repeat a lot of the same things we heard about the living story's potential back in January and March, and players have learned to temper their expectations when they're used to hearing that all of the really super cool stuff will be showing up Soon™. ANet's explanation for the delay in getting the ball rolling is completely understandable (restructuring the development team to make it work can't have been easy), but first impressions are hard to shake. The studio may need to be ready to release some of those expansion-worthy features in the next few months to recharge players' trust and excitement.

When ANet began talking about expanding and improving the core game, my personal expectation was that it'd be focusing on enriching the activities and zones we already have. Minigames in cities remain mostly unimplemented, even though NPCs continue to advertise them. Prior to launch, Colin Johanson assured players that the development team would be frequently dropping new events into the world and suggested that we might see an area like Queensdale's event count expand from 100 to 300 by the time the game was three years old. GW2 is rapidly approaching its first anniversary, yet Queensdale, along with most other zones, is in pretty much the same state it was at launch aside from temporary additions for holidays and living story content. Guild missions and puzzles are a good start, but the impact of those are limited if you don't have access to a guild that's unlocked them. Ironically, one zone that has had a crop of new events and a story update added to it is Southsun Cove, the initial poor reception of which preceded ArenaNet's announcement that it'd be focusing on polishing existing content.

The living story updates' temporary nature have been the source of the most fan criticism. It's an ambitious attempt to make the game feel more like a virtual world, with its own real history and progression of time, and I'm sold on the concept. That said, it hasn't borne fruit in the form of many actual changes so far; we've gotten new characters, new events, and new activities, but none of it has brought about a major, permanent impact on core gameplay. After the 200% magic find buff was removed from Southsun Cove, players largely went back to farming Orr and Citadel of Flame. The Flame & Frost story arc's two new areas, Cragstead and Nolan Hatchery, are both instances that can't be visited in the open world. Beautiful Labyrinthine Cliffs will be shut away once the Zephyr Sanctum leaves at the end of the month. Marjory Delaqua's smoky film noir bar, The Dead End, can't even be used as a haunt by Divinity's Reach roleplayers. It wouldn't be fair to say that we've gotten no permanent content from the living story, but the bits that stick around tend to be more like souvenirs than a true evolution of the game world. That's fine for what it is, but it doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the ability of the living story to shake up the status quo, let alone take the place of a traditional expansion.

The story itself has also been the target of plenty of criticism. For my own part, I'm enjoying the hints at an overarching narrative; in that sense it really is like a television series, with regular weekly episodes tying into a broader mythology. Unfortunately, a lot of those hints are being picked up only by dedicated lore aficionados, since many of them are hidden away in sources outside the game. Those extra bits are great, but sometimes the in-game exposition can seem a little thin by comparison, and unless you're the kind of person who combs through every interview, out-of-game story release, and dialogue tree, it's easy to miss the way each chapter connects to previous chapters and existing lore. That's not an ideal situation when these updates are supposedly designed around compelling storytelling.

Another element that makes the story a hard sell is that any newly-introduced character or plot point is vying for the players' emotional investment alongside Tyria's hundreds of established mysteries, many of which have been driving hardcore lore fans out of their gourds since the original Guild Wars. The launch of GW2 gave us a few answers and some greater insight, but we were also introduced to more questions. It's telling that players are constantly looking for connecting threads from new content to previously established canon, and it's no shock that the fanbase collectively has Cantha, Elona, Tengu and Mursaat on the brain.

Flameseeker Chronicles Living whirl
The progress

The good news is that the world is getting more lively with each patch as ANet incorporates feedback and learns what works and what doesn't. The Bazaar of the Four Winds update has been especially reassuring: In one sweep, it brought new life to the achievement point system, gave us an amazing setting to play in with fun movement skills, and even hinted at the possible importance of some characters and events from GW1. We didn't get an appreciable increase in permanent content yet, but I'm going to tentatively say that the living world teams are off to a very good start in proving that they can keep up with both quantity and quality. The best thing the players can do is keep offering feedback, negative and positive -- it almost certainly helps to hear that "click 100 ground-level doodads" tasks aren't especially popular, but speaking up in the official forum is probably also worthwhile if you find hopping into nooks and crannies looking for those pesky sky crystals to be a more engaging alternative.

So what's up for next week? The winds are changing, and it looks as if we the people will be getting a say in which way they blow by voting either Black Lion Trading Company magnate Evon Gnashblade or the newly promoted Captain Ellen Kiel onto the Lion's Arch Captains' Council. I'm going to start printing up my "Vote 4 Kiel" t-shirts in advance, so feel free to post any impassioned political diatribes, questions, opinions and suggestions in the comments below. 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 Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.

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