With the end of Season 1 of Guild Wars 2's sprawling living world story, ArenaNet decided to look at what it had wrought and make some changes. Those changes will all come together in the game's April update, which marks the first major update of the game's systems. Heading into the rest of 2014 and beyond, ArenaNet will be doing separate releases of these Feature Packs and continuing updates to the living world story. Oh, and all of this is still free.
USgamer turned on the charm and sat down for a chat with ArenaNet game designer Colin Johanson and game systems designer Jon Peters glean more information about the upcoming overhaul of Guild Wars 2.
Freed From The Shackles of Respecs
The first big change is in the Traits System. The entire interface for customizing your character's skills has been streamlined and 40 new Traits have been added. Like Guild Wars' Skill Capturing system, these Traits will be unlocked out in the world of Guild Wars 2; players can explore the world and complete quests in certain areas to acquire new Traits. And while older players will only unlock the new Traits, new players will get all their Traits through this new feature. The in-game map will show you where this new content is, so there's no having to wander around for days and hope you stumble across it.
ArenaNet has flattened the points side of the Traits system as well. You get fewer points, but you get a tangible return on spending each point. Respecing those Traits is also much easier. Whereas before you had to return to town and pay to respec your traits, now you can change them at any time you're not in combat.
"We built this game that's about having all these different builds and changing your build based on what content you're trying to do, and then we put a system in place that meant every time you wanted to do that, you had to drop what you were doing, go back to a city, pay a guy, and change it," said Johanson. "People weren't changing their builds as much as we wanted. We said 'forget that', got rid of that barrier to entry and let them play the game. Fight a boss, die, and change your build so you can take him out."
Style Over Substance
The Wardrobe System will probably be the biggest change for players and the most exciting one for those who care deeply about their characters' look. Anything you can do to change the look of your character is now shared across your entire account, so the look of any armor you've acquired and any unlocked armor dyes are available to all your characters. Changing your armor and weapon skins requires transmutation charges that you find throughout the game.
One thing that will be unique to Guild Wars 2 is you're not limited to just the armor your character can wear; your stats will still be determined by the armor you're wearing, but skin of that armor can be freely changed. If you want your Thief to look like a Heavy Armor-wearing knight, you can do that.
And the system extends to all parts of the game, including PVP and World vs World.
Other games have shied away from that due to tactical transparency, the idea that players need to understand what they're up against in PVP via character silhouette. Being able to determine abilities from look is useful in PVP, but in Guild Wars 2 that tactical transparency is built into the class abilities. ArenaNet has attached colors to each class, so if you see these colors in the abilities, you have a good idea of what you're up against. And it works. In a demo arena battle, I snarled when a Mesmer appeared (damn Mesmers), despite the fact that this Mesmer was wearing what looked to be Heavy Armor. It's the familiar purple hue of their abilities that clued me in.
"It's a fundamental thing that we talk about," said Peters when asked about tactical transparency. "The Wardrobe isn't a problem. We already had that problem. It's true we want to solve it, but this game has a lot of flash to it. It's always in the back of our heads and always being worked on."
There's a new armor catalog interface that helps you keep track of all the armor and weapon skins you have available. It also shows you all of the available weapons and armor in the game, so you can plan out a future look. When it comes to spoilers about new armor and weapons in future updates, ArenaNet has a system to hide items, but the company doesn't believe its necessary.
"We have the capacity to hide them," said Johanson. "That's something that we might play with in the future, but for now we'd really like to expose players to everything that exists. It's probably better for the game."
Stabbing Your Enemies Is Rewarding
PVP in Guild Wars is also getting a few big changes. World vs. World spec points are now shared across your entire account. Unlock 40 points on one character and they're available on another.
"We felt like this system is so deep and has so much progression in it, that it isn't great to ask people to do it on every character. We want to encourage people to make a lot of different characters and play them," explained Johanson.
Another addition is PVP Reward Tracks, which offers PVP players a way to unlock the items and material you'd normally only find through PVE. In my demo, each reward track was based around a different area or dungeon. You select a track and it levels up as you compete in PVP, offering up items you'd find in that dungeon or area at certain intervals. The dungeon-specific reward tracks actually cycle in on a two week basis, so they're only available for a limited time, unless you decide to complete the story mode of that dungeon and unlock them forever. The idea is to give PVP players PVE loot, while also incentivizing them to try out PVE. And PVE players are incentivized to try out PVP through the Wardrobe system and the special PVP-only armor sets.
"Most of the rewards are things you want to get a lot of. Many of them are also random drops. It's almost as if killing players is giving you the loot monsters have," said Johanson. "We wanted to bring all the game modes closer together."
One thing ArenaNet noticed was players were running deathmatch games in their conquest-style PVP maps. So they built a small deathmatch-style map for those players. The new map required slightly different thinking for the design team, but still fits within Guild Wars 2's more active gameplay. ArenaNet is watching how players use the new map and what rulesets they're picking. Depending on the reception of the new map, it and any resulting rulesets could be included in official tournaments. ArenaNet is also open to the possibility of similar maps in the future.
Let's Play Together
The final big change is the new single Megaserver, similar in theory to EVE Online's single-server world, but different in practice.
"Everyone is collapsed together and playing in one single server structure," said Johanson. "When you go to a map, the people that you are sorted with are based on things about your character. Who's in your party, who's in your guild, what are the common interests you share, what language do you speak."
The system sorts players and then makes sure that you see like-minded individuals around you. The system means you're more likely to see the same players as you're leveling up or exploring, which should lead to a stronger community. In places that aren't as full, the megaserver sorting system prevents the game from feeling like a no man's land. No matter where you are or when you're playing, you'll see other people. You'll also never see the dreaded overflow server again. And while the megaserver system sorts by social groups now, the sky is the limit in possible sorting categories.
"The possibilities of how we can choose to sort are anything we can think of," said Johanson. "Those are the kinds of questions we're starting to ask next. We could let you input what city you play in and then try to sort you with players from the same city. I don't know if we'd ever do that, but that's an example of the kinds of things we can do."
Pay Once, Play Forever
It's a pretty big list of changes and it's all available to Guild Wars 2 players today for free. Combined with the beginning of Season 2 in the living world story, it feels like it's enough for a paid expansion. A host of gameplay changes and a world that has literally been torn apart by the events of Season 1. While Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2 don't have subscription fees, the former game did have the occasional paid expansion. I asked both gentlemen why this wasn't a full boxed expansion.
"We're really trying to do something different," began Johanson. "This idea of living world, where the game is constantly evolving through these updates. What happens is a game goes a year or two years with very little updates or small patches and then BAM there's an entirely new world for you to go explore. That's awesome and there are some compelling things about that, but it feels like the story jumps. We're trying to make our story feel like a living world, and that means having content that constantly rolls into the game for free."
"We haven't ruled out the possibility of doing expansions. The things we're doing now is this big feature pack and the living world content. We have some other projects cooking as well," he said. "Everyone should ask in this day and age, where server bandwidth is not very expensive, what are you getting for your money? There are certainly games where you get a good amount of stuff for your money. We just want folks to know there's a game out there where you don't have to pay for any of that."
"It's a challenge to ourselves, " added Peters. "Can we give you more than everyone else and have it be free? We believe that resonates with players."