Happy second anniversary, Guild Wars 2! We've heard news on the September feature pack, did a cupcake run for ArenaNet to celebrate (I heard that there were bacon cupcakes, but why would you do that), and got some previews of the profession balance changes we can expect to see soon.
As happy as I am about that cleave on Necromancer's mainhand dagger, updated axe animations, and being able to resurrect others while in Death Shroud -- and I think the other professions got some stuff, too -- it's been a rocky few weeks for GW2. We've had the privilege of having an unusually close relationship with the developers behind our favorite game, and unfortunately that can lead to tempers running hotter when things go awry. Nevertheless, I think most of us would like to see that relationship continue to flourish and improve. So what went wrong?
The sound of silence
If you missed the recent wave of discontentment, it went down like this: ArenaNet headed to Gamescom, where the studio showed off some of the new living world content and talked about what had been announced so far for the upcoming September feature pack. We didn't have any reason to expect a big reveal, but the lack of new information was still received with some disappointment. After the convention, GuildMag released an interview with World vs. World lead Devon Carver and Endgame Systems Head Matt Wuerffel. Topics of discussion included frequently requested camera options and returning content like Super Adventure Box. Unfortunately, the questions chosen had some discouraging answers: SAB likely won't be making a return in the near future, and while camera features are being looked into, that's about it. The possibility of a first-person camera feature was said to be unlikely because it would make combat confusing, although most of the people who have asked for it seem to want it for screenshots and machinima. The release of a second interview touched fire to tinder when players were told that dungeons probably won't see changes along the lines of Twilight Arbor's Aetherpath any time soon due to the amount of work involved.
Some fans absolutely flipped their lids, inferring things from the interviews that were never actually said and generally predicting the impending death of the game. Let's get a few facts straight before going on: Saying that ArenaNet isn't working on big content changes to existing dungeons is entirely different from saying that dungeons are cut from the development pipeline, and it's not surprising since Aetherpath isn't terribly popular. The news about SAB was more troubling, although it still isn't confirmed to have been cut completely; probably the biggest issue there was the selling of the 800 gem infinite continue coin for content that is now a "maybe returning someday" thing instead of stable cyclical content. I'm in the camp which supports just opening up the first two worlds of SAB and letting them stand on their own as repeatable content, since the challenging nature of World Two and Tribulation Mode was more frustrating than fun as a temporary event.
With no real surprises, no good news regarding frequently requested features, and feature pack announcements that so far haven't been as meaty or surprising as those from the start of the year, players started to very vocally ask: If ArenaNet isn't actively working on the stuff we want, what is it working on?
Last year, I wrote an article during a similar autumn of discontent about the importance of respecting game developers as human beings, especially if we want to encourage communication and transparency. Putting aside crazy stuff like empathy and social skills, it's simply unrealistic to expect devs to stoically take blow after blow on the chin while players pick apart their statements looking for perceived slights and minor fluctuations in tone. Thanks to a forum post by Colin Johanson, we know for sure now that it is ArenaNet's official internal policy to not talk about anything until it's nearly ready to ship. Players have been very harsh on the developers when it comes to missed deadlines or delayed features, so this is a completely understandable stance to take.
The good news is that things have calmed down, largely because Johanson and CEO Mike O'Brien stepped up to talk about ArenaNet's policies and allow that more communication needs to happen. Studio Design Director Chris Whiteside also announced the restart of the collaborative development initiative and spent some time discussing communication on the official forums. Developers have been more forthcoming about the technical limitations, reasoning, and hurdles involved in getting some stuff to live, as well as explaining why certain older features were cut before launch. Even though these haven't been positive announcements, they've been honest and transparent and have done quite a bit to reassure players that things are OK.
How could things have gotten so far out of hand? A great deal of the backlash came from people Savage Leaping to conclusions and there's really no excuse for it, but it was fed by having few recent clues as to GW2's overall direction. Since ArenaNet can't even reveal yet whether expansion-level content is being developed, players are left to guess; on top of that, as I mentioned last column, features that were requested along with very detailed feedback are sometimes implemented in baffling ways. The trait revamp made getting traits more difficult for new players and characters but hasn't provided much in the way of increased fun. Commander tag colors will now all be unlocked with a single purchase, so it's great that ArenaNet made that change according to feedback, but it's troubling that it was even going to be implemented in a way that completely missed why players had asked for the feature in the first place. If ArenaNet is only able to tease stuff that's a few weeks out from release, there's much less time to get feedback on implementation -- and when even small features are kept under wraps before a big reveal, it can lead to what I really would like to avoid calling "hype burnout." Since I don't have a better term for it, there it is.
The output of the living world releases are consistent with a team working with less than the studio's full resources. This is another issue where greater transparency would go a long way toward reassuring players because the distinction here is huge: If the living world is meant to take the place of an expansion, it's not living up to that job and the fact that ArenaNet's resources seem stretched thin by it is worrying. Conversely, if the living world content is meant to tide us over between expansions, it's not only working well but is pretty damned impressive. The problem is that we don't know which it is, and the vast expanse of uncertainty between those two possibilities explains a lot of the hostility toward the living world in general.
The living world has not, so far, provided the sort of content output I would expect from a game only two years into its life cycle. It's more the level I'd expect from a game five to eight years old, at a time when so many regions, major gameplay changes, and systems have been added that a new player probably couldn't hope to experience it all without investing a great deal of time. It's more akin to War in Kryta and Winds of Change in the original Guild Wars than anything else, which, after all, was primarily story content to set the stage for GW2. It never got the chance to do that fully, which is a shame, but it was the last big content infusion before the game entered automation. I don't think fears that GW2 is on its last legs are remotely founded, but they're also not particularly surprising since similar things have happened in this sometimes-volatile industry. ArenaNet has said several times that major projects are in the works, but we don't know what the studio considers to fall into that category or whether we've seen any of it already. For all we know, it means technology like megaservers.
I'm not repeating all of this doom and gloom to lend credence to it, which I want to make perfectly clear. But I think it's important to explore exactly how players are coming to conclusions that might seem confusing or downright outlandish to people who know exactly what's coming but can't say anything. ArenaNet is doing unusual, experimental things, and this makes communication of the game's overall stability more important than it otherwise would be. I think Square Enix could have thrown endless money at the relaunch of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn and it still might not have been a success if not for the personality and communication skills of producer Naoki Yoshida. As risky as FFXIV's rebirth was, being able to see a steady hand at the wheel made it much easier for players to extend trust.
After two years, whether or not we can expect to see a GW2 expansion at all should not be something players are in the dark about. Plenty has been said about Blizzard's slow content updates for World of Warcraft, but WoW fans can at least bide their time with a pretty good idea of what they can expect to see coming down the pipeline. As ridiculous as it might sound, we're gamers: If you're going to ask us to grind (or to do other things that require patience), we need a carrot every now and again.
At the risk of putting my size seven boot in my mouth, I think an expansion is in the works. ArenaNet's hundreds of non-living world employees are working on something, and while not all of those people are developers, it stands to reason that most of them are also not janitors, administrative staff, caterers, secret agents, not-so-secret agents, cat-sitters, dinosaur wranglers, or the faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home. This feature pack is doing a lot to (hopefully) polish up the leveling system; as others have pointed out, that's unusual since most regular players probably have at least one level 80 character by now, if not several. While GW2 does frequently see new people picking up the game, it's also curious that this stuff is getting priority if ArenaNet doesn't expect an influx of new players and characters at some point.
What do you think? Are players just being reactionary, or are the complaints on the nose? What are you looking forward to most from the upcoming feature pack? Is it the backpack with the bear on it? It is, isn't it. 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 biweekly Flameseeker Chronicles column, which is published every other Tuesday. His conditions are contagious, so contact him safely at firstname.lastname@example.org. Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.