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Flameseeker Chronicles: Taking Guild Wars 2 job specialization to a new level

Anatoli Ingram

Have you been missing something in Guild Wars 2? Do you wish your character had a way to unlock new abilities that was more involved than spending a handful of skill points? Did you ever dream of subclasses?

If you've wanted any of that -- or, conversely, if you haven't -- it might interest you to check out the progress of the horizontal progression collaborative development initiative thread on the GW2 official forums. Colin Johanson and Chris Whiteside have both been involved, giving feedback on everything from reward systems to ways in which subclasses might be unlocked and helping direct the discussion. If ArenaNet were to implement anything similar to what's being proposed, it would mean a massive shakeup in how GW2 plays, so let's break down how it could be implemented and why it might be useful for enhancing character progression.

Be who you are

First off, it's important to clarify that subclasses as they've been proposed are not the same thing as secondary professions. The idea is more like a specialty within a profession, which would then possibly be given its own name and unique effects or mechanics. Johanson mentioned a Ranger becoming a Druid; while this should probably not be taken as anything more than an offhand idea, it's a good example of the subject under discussion.

A few weeks ago, I talked a bit about subclasses and why I like the idea. I enjoy GW2's current character-building system, and I hope that any implementation of subclasses would expand on it rather than switch it to something very different at max level. We already have the beginnings of distinct identities within the existing professions in the form of trait lines: Each trait line within a given profession represents a different style of fighting or school of thought. Most traits within a line are named in such a way that you get a basic idea of the type of character you're building, and they add some nice flavor. By choosing weapons and trait lines, you define your character's fighting style -- and that's pretty darn cool.

Subclasses would give ANet the opportunity to take this a step further. The lore team has talked a bit about how the use of magic has changed in the 250-year gap between the original Guild Wars and GW2, and while nearly everyone uses magic now in some fashion (even Warriors and Thieves), the ability to pull from more than a single profession's abilities has fallen out of vogue. Word of God states that this increased refinement has made our characters more powerful, not less, which makes sense; GW1's player character heroes were pulling as many disparate elements together as they could handle and cobbling them together to make them work. GW2's heroes have the benefit of greater knowledge, and the powers of individual schools have advanced. I'm going to run with this also being the reason that we can't fill every single ability slot with signets in GW2 and immediately die two feet outside the city gates.

Still, it feels to me like something is missing. In GW1 it took special builds and gear (or even specific professions) to handle enemies solo, yet somehow I think of my GW1 characters as individually being cooler than my GW2 characters, and for reasons unrelated to my GW2 characters being huge nerds. After some reflection, I think a large part of it comes down to build identity. It was easy to identify a minion master Necromancer on sight because she'd have an army of freakin' skeletons. An Elementalist's preferred element was often apparent through his build, and Elementalist profession trainers snarked at each other over their own personal preferences. You knew a spirit lord Ritualist when you saw one because she'd be farming ectos solo in the Underworld (I kid, I kid! We had a lot of spirits).

You can still find unique builds with doofy names in GW2's metagame, but the builds themselves aren't quite as iconic. There are still minion masters running around the world with a bunch of corpse monsters, but any Necro can fill his utility slots with summons. An Elementalist might prefer air magic, but unless she's kept the gem from character creation that reflects her biography choice and decked herself out in lightning-themed accessories, who would ever know? Ritualists are sadly no longer with us, but the professions that have taken on some of their mechanics -- Engineer and Guardian -- can't really get the same effect from turrets and spirit weapons (spirits were arguably Ritualist's primary mechanic and therefore were much stronger).

Some of this can be attributed to the changed role of elite skills, which saw more active use in GW1 to the point that builds were often named after them. This role has been taken by traits, which are primarily passive effects. Another culprit is the shift in story focus from professional identity to racial identity.

ANet would face a lot of challenges in creating a subclass system. The developers can't just wave their magic styluses and bring over mechanics from GW1 unchanged, and any system that puts a damper on player theorycrafting probably won't be received well. We know that we'll be seeing new weapons for existing professions in the future, and we've already gotten access to a few new skills. My starry-eyed hopes for subclasses would incorporate both of those in more interesting ways than just handing them to us.

Sylvari being abducted by aliens.
Upward bound

Wait. You know what? I don't like the term "subclass." It sounds too limiting. For the purpose of this article let's call it Ascension and tie it into the lore, since that was a big deal 250 years ago.

Why "Ascension"? Well, in GW1 an Ascended character became more powerful through her ability to access more abilities. In GW2, an Ascended character becomes more powerful through equipping a full set of gear with bright pink text, which makes it a meta thing and not a story thing; Ascended gear to accessorize an Ascended character sounds a little more fitting. And if specialization has in fact made our characters more powerful in the present, it makes sense that a modern version of Ascension would allow us to specialize even further and gain access to skills and abilities that are at the height of a specific field of study. We need to be more powerful than Ascended GW1 characters, since we've fought things that made the Mursaat pack up and nope straight off of Tyria -- and as we can already travel through the Mists and no longer depend on the Six Gods, it also seems reasonable that modern Ascension would take a different form.

I'm not a fan of game stories that immediately crown the player character as an extraordinarily powerful Chosen One, but progression systems that don't use in-world methods to acknowledge the work we put into growing our characters feel equally hollow. The new skills we've gotten access to so far have appeared in our skill panels with little fanfare and simply required 25 skill points (or gold) to unlock, which is a great way of siphoning off some of the gazillions of little blue arrows many of us have accumulated. Unfortunately, it's also pretty bland. When each profession gets new weapons in the future, we could also just see them unlocked along with an announcement in the patch notes, but I don't think that would be half as much fun as earning them -- after all, progression is the point.

"But Toli, wait!" I can hear General You saying. "I don't want my weapon and skill choices limited by the Ascension path I choose! What if I'm a Warrior who wants to learn to use something crazy like a staff, but I'm locked into Ascending up the Defense trait line to do it? What if my Ascension path locks me out of certain future skills? That sounds really rigid, especially since we can currently use any weapon or skill with any build!"

That's entirely true. It's important to consider, though, that we're probably going to be limited in some way for balance reasons and to preserve profession identity. If we're not as limited in what we have access to, we'll need to be limited more severely by how powerful it is or what it can do. We already need to spend a number of points in a given trait line to gain access to higher tiers, and we don't have GW1's secondary class system in GW2 due to balancing concerns. Every time a new skill or profession was added to GW1, the developers had to take into account the fact that anyone could use it, and I don't think it's too much of a stretch to imagine GW2 becoming unwieldy in the future as our lists of skills and available weapons grow.

If the developers can be reasonably sure of certain absolutes, my guess is that it would give them more freedom to give us more power. Let me use my own character as an example: A Necromancer who Ascends the Blood Magic trait line might have access to all of the currently available skills and weapons, but he'd also unlock swords and the ability to equip powerful skills unique to that path. Various paths could even have access to the same weapons with different abilities attached or gain the much-requested opportunity to equip new and different abilities onto current ones. For skills, I can dream about wild stuff like Inventions or Tools-based Engineers getting to summon watchwork robots into battle because how cool would that be?

A system like this would, if implemented well, still give theorycrafters room to play -- and a lot of new things to play with -- in a way that naturally evolves from and complements the trait-based method of leveling progression. By possibly adding unlockable cosmetic rewards to Ascension paths as well, ArenaNet could combine gameplay progression with cosmetic progression. I know I would probably spend however long it took to unlock every path (which I think should definitely be possible, for the sake of flexibility).

How would we go about accessing these new skills and weapons? A very popular suggestion in the CDI thread is the return of GW1's Signet of Capture. These were blank signets that allowed a character of the appropriate main or secondary profession to copy a skill from a defeated boss and have access to it forever after. Since MMO players love collecting gruesome trophies from our dead enemies, it's only natural that skill hunting should make its triumphant return.

Thinkin' in a field.
Local man knows big secret; mostly spares readers obnoxious gloating

This article probably gives the impression that I have enormous rose-colored shades on when looking back at GW1. I don't. I sincerely enjoyed the game, but I was a casual player at best and I feel that GW2 improves on it in many ways. I do think that GW2 in its current state lacks the depth of continuing character advancement that GW1 had at max level, and I like the idea of taking concepts from the first game and adapting them to GW2's mechanics. It makes the worldbuilding more cohesive, and since we've already started Ascending our clothing, I think the rest of us may as well follow.

How would you like to see subclasses (or Ascension paths or advanced professions or whatever you feel like calling them in their nebulous state) implemented? Would you like to see them at all, or does the whole idea make you want to burn Tyria to ash? Have you hugged everyone's favorite -- and only -- stone Dwarf priest today? 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 Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.

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