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Flameseeker Chronicles: Is 2015 the Guild Wars 2 expansion year?

Anatoli Ingram
01.06.15
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Way back in the ancient era of 2013, I wrote an article about why I thought Guild Wars 2 could use one of those fancy expansion doodlehoppers MMORPGs tend to get after they've been running for a while. You might not be surprised to learn that my opinions have changed only slightly since then, and mostly in the direction of, "Yes, GW2 really does need an expansion pack."

If GW2 fans have sounded a little like hungry baby birds repeatedly peeping, "Expansion!" for the past couple of months, it's not without reason: The most recent NCsoft financial report conference call reportedly contained hints at expansion plans, and ArenaNet seems to have something mysterious in the works for PAX South this year. But are there any real reasons to think that we might be getting an expansion announcement in 2015 when we've gotten our hopes up to no avail before?



How soon is now

Analysts from Korean securities firm KDB Daewoo previously made news by predicting that a GW2 expansion was imminent, and talk of an expansion being "prepared" has even cropped up in previous NCsoft earnings reports conference calls. One possibility is that something ArenaNet was working on at the time looked very much like an expansion but ended up being scrapped, changed, or pushed back.

The interesting thing about the timing of 2013's false alarms is that several major planned features also failed to materialize in 2013. Game Director Colin Johanson's roadmap blog posts in January and July were ArenaNet's final attempts to offer players a glimpse at GW2's long-term direction, and while most of the listed quality-of-life improvements, reward system tweaks, and general gameplay balances have since made it into the game, highly anticipated features like new Legendary weapons, precursor crafting, and the regular addition of new skills and traits fell off the radar. In a followup interview I conducted with Johanson about the roadmap, he also mentioned that ArenaNet planned to expand existing weapon types to more professions, although there was no promise that it would happen in 2013. That hasn't made it in, either.

On top of all of that, in 2013 ArenaNet certainly made it sound as though it didn't intend to develop or release a traditional expansion any time soon or possibly any time at all. While a traditional boxed expansion was never entirely ruled out, ArenaNet reiterated plans to concentrate on polishing the living world concept for the foreseeable future. It's certainly done that, but over time the living world has moved even further away from providing expansion-like content than it did in season one. Although the storytelling has arguably improved tremendously and we've even gotten two new zones, the current living world format is highly compartmentalized: Features go to feature packs, while regular releases are much more predictable in the sort of content they'll contain. That content primarily consists of story instances and open-world PvE play. What happened?


This young woman has been doing the Carlton for over two years. Free her.
And this is where I'd put my expansion, if I had one

My strongest criticism of the living world as a potential replacement for expansion packs is that it's been a potential replacement for an expansion for years without provably acting in that capacity. When Mike Zadorojny's comments about ArenaNet possibly never releasing a GW2 expansion hit the internet, his explanation was that the studio could use the living world to "do what expansions would have done but do it on a more regular basis." That so emphatically has not happened that the statement looks a little surreal in retrospect.

What ArenaNet was attempting to do with temporary release content at the time was so huge and ambitious that even when it didn't quite hit the mark the attempt was pretty damned impressive, and yet a lot of players didn't like it and vigorously criticized spending resources on content that would eventually vanish. Despite the attempt to create a changing world, GW2's base game remained fairly static: A frequent complaint was that fans asking friends to return couldn't list off many significant changes that hadn't been cycled out at the end of a month-long run. As an experiment, it was tremendous, but as a reliable method of performing major content updates to a popular MMO, it quickly wore thin.

If I had to hazard a guess, it's that it became apparent in the latter part of 2013 that the living world was not a viable strategy for releasing major expansion-level content and ArenaNet switched gears rapidly. I don't find it remotely likely that ArenaNet abandoned all of those planned features or that it's simply decided to never do major content drops at all or that it somehow can't handle developing anything bigger than what we've gotten so far. It's been steadily gathering feedback through the collaborative development initiative and making some really exciting hiring decisions; it was also the only studio spared in a wave of NCsoft layoffs. This does not seem like a company spending its time exclusively on minor projects.

Maybe content originally intended to be dropped in piecemeal through the living world took too long to develop, and player reactions when the content didn't materialize made it clear that we wouldn't be satisfied with that timetable over the entire life of the game. Maybe the studio looked at bigger content in development and began to see the outline of something that just didn't fit the living world model at the time. Maybe feedback from players regarding the story, gameplay, and reward systems of both the living world and core game led to a realization that GW2's base needed a better fundamental grounding before more was piled on top of it: Consider how precursor crafting was reportedly delayed from the first feature pack because it would have clashed with the new reward systems being developed.

What I think we've seen in season two of the living world is a role shift, and that the biweekly updates -- which are, admittedly, now more semi-biweekly -- have been tightened in scope because they're no longer expected to carry the game indefinitely. Rather, they've done a decent job at moving the story forward, which season one's more dynamic releases had a weaker grasp on. There's been more of a focus on long-term goals and developing the reward system, which may not be flashy but does enrich the core game. Some players grumble about the Chinese release taking up time and resources, but I find that shortsighted: Expanding the game is a good thing, whether or not it directly affects us right now. I was disappointed at the limited scope of the second feature pack compared to the first one, especially since much of the content had already been seen in the Chinese release, but it's been framed often as "we got leftovers" instead of "ArenaNet developed universal game improvements and both versions of the game got them," which is pretty obviously the case no matter what you might think of the new player experience.

One of the pitfalls of experimentation is that you don't always get the results you were hoping for. This is especially perilous in game development: If players enjoy your experiment, it could shake up the entire industry and become a standard. If players don't enjoy your experiment, the entire game could become a footnote. It isn't as though ArenaNet hasn't successfully experimented with GW2 in the past, since polishing concepts like dynamic events and cooperative PvE play proved that they could work and they're steadily making their way into other games. I'd argue that a studio that can experiment freely, weather a few storms, and then right itself and carry on if necessary is extremely valuable to the MMO industry, but when those experiments fall flat, it's not exactly fun.

If several experiments didn't quite work out in 2013, then I think 2014 was dedicated to maintaining while a new course was safely set. I believed in 2013, and still do believe, that player requests for a traditional expansion reflect a desire for stability. Innovation and experimentation are likely to be thought more highly of when a game has a strong base to fall back on, and in early 2013 GW2's core game was still providing that base. Had the living world proved itself viable as an alternative to expansions, we probably would have already seen that base being, well, expanded. ArenaNet has already shown how it's changed its approach to the living world and to adding features, and I'll be very surprised if that hasn't resulted in a need to rethink how the company will release expansion content as well.

I'm ready for my Necromancer to get a new blindfold, that's what I'm ready for.
Roll up, roll up for the mystery tour

ArenaNet will be at PAX South on January 24th, where CEO Mike O'Brien and Colin Johanson will head up a panel titled Beyond the Point of No Return. The panel blurb on the official website describes "a new framework for how an MMO can grow its universe" and promises that the living world was "just the beginning."

I think we may have been getting hints on this through the latter part of 2014, although it flew under fans' noses for a while because we had no idea what it was about. For all we knew, putting a new logo on official screenshots and calling them something different was just a marketing flourish to catch attention; it wouldn't have been the first time ArenaNet tried something head-scratching that never quite took off.

The marketing screens were especially strange since several of them had only a tangential connection to the current living world plotline and didn't act as the straightforward previews of the next week's upcoming content we were used to seeing. Scenes of Rytlock Brimstone -- last seen disappearing into the Mists -- wandering around through flames and jungle settings wearing a blindfold and new armor were the biggest clue that something might be up, but some of the other images, while more vague, still haven't been explained through in-game releases. In October ArenaNet teased "the road to war" in conjunction with the "point of no return" phrasing. I think there's a very good chance that season two of the living world has acted as a prologue for whatever the Beyond the Point of No Return content turns out to be, and furthermore, that we were told that up front with hints the size of a barn door. Ironically, though, the controversy over ArenaNet's policy of limited communication may have made them less impactful and able to generate excitement and speculation than they otherwise would have been. Until Rytlock stepped out fully in his new duds, many fans, including me, seemed to dismiss the possibility that the images contained anything special on the grounds that ANet wouldn't hint at anything it wasn't ready to announce.

If ArenaNet is in fact almost ready to announce it, what could "it" be? The panel description wording makes it seem like something other than a traditional boxed expansion, which worries me somewhat, but ArenaNet's branding for GW2 strongly emphasizes shaking up the MMO status quo, so I'd also be surprised to see a boxed expansion without a twist put on it. I will bet decent money on it being an expansion in everything but name and possibly structure.

My somewhat tongue-in-cheek predictions for Massively's 2015 prognostication bowl included a GW2 expansion set in Elona, but the story appears to be leading us ever further into the Maguuma, and the Point of No Return screenshots frequently portray a jungle setting full of mordrem that doesn't resemble the current Maguuma Wastes at all. Vines continue to spring up around the Silverwastes, actively claiming more ground even as the Pact does battle against Mordremoth's forces. If we're currently traveling the "road to war," then it seems likely that it will lead straight into the dragon's territory. We have the setup for many, many plot threads hanging loose in the wind, and I think once we know what our destination is on a meta level, the story will be free to start bringing more of them into play.

Wherever we're headed, my greatest hope is that ArenaNet has learned enough from both season one and two of the living world to bring together the greatest strengths of both in the next step; I still believe that major, world-changing events have a place in GW2, so long as they leave something meaningful in their wake apart from rending the landscape asunder. The opening of the Maguuma Wastes, the push into the desert, and the progressive changes we've seen to their content and topography may be a taste of bigger things to come, and if we do get an expansion, you can mark me down as being (almost) absolutely sure that we'll finally see some -- if not all -- of those missing features we've been looking forward to since 2013.

Do you think an expansion is on the way? If not, what do you think the PAX South panel will be about? Are you in favor of an expansion at all? Did Toymaster Tixx bring you anything nice for Wintersday, or was your stocking full of seaweed from Drooburt, the Quaggan of Regret? 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 anatoli@massively.com. Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.

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