Guild Wars's Heart of Thorns Expansion: Avoiding the MMO Progression Problem

Guild Wars's Heart of Thorns Expansion: Avoiding the MMO Progression Problem

ArenaNet continues to march to the beat of its own drum with Guild Wars 2's upcoming expansion.

The magic of Destiny is that it's brought MMO action to the mainstream. Players who would never touch World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, or Wildstar get to participate in loot grinds and precision raiding. As Kat pointed out last week, the problem is each expansion acts as a new beginning. Did you grind for hours upon hours for the best Exotic gear? Too bad, because any expansion increases the level cap and introduces brand-new gear, invalidating most of your hard work. That's the MMO treadmill long-time WoW and Everquest players have gotten used to; for those who didn't previously play MMOs, it was a rude awakening.

Kat wondered if Bungie had learned from the issues created in Destiny's first DLC expansion, The Dark Below. Today, the rumored answer is "not really". A poster on Reddit leaked information and screenshots pointing to gear with a maximum light level of 39. Again, this is still a rumor, but it's entirely possible Bungie hasn't had long enough to really reverse course on the classic MMO-style progression it already established with vanilla Destiny and Dark Below.

Blazing a Different Path

It doesn't have to be this way though.

Enter ArenaNet, a company that's known for doing things a bit differently. At PAX South, they announced Heart of Thorns, the first major expansion for Guild Wars 2. Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2 are already a little bit different from their MMO brethren: both titles have no subscription fee, but they're also not free-to-play. You buy the initial game and then ArenaNet makes money on microtransactions via its Gem Store. The items you can purchase include alternate looks for your characters, or convenience items like unbreakable tools. If you want to excel at Guild Wars 2, you still have to get in there and play.

ArenaNet has been improving Guild Wars 2 with new free content drops since launch. These are all bundled on the "Living World" moniker, updating the game's extensive story and adding new NPCs, instances, and events. The last Living World update was Point of No Return, which dropped last month and leads right into Heart of Thorns. The expansions introduces a region to explore, a new profession to play, and new profession specializations. What it doesn't introduce is new levels.

Heart of Thorns takes you to some place new.

"Guild Wars fans have been waiting for an expansion pack, but they have very specific ideas as to what they want in an expansion pack," said ArenaNet president and co-founder Mike O'Brien told me in an interview. "We have a lot of fans who feel abused by the process of other MMOs. MMOs have the assumption that you're supposed to dedicate your life to it. Each expansion pack is going to invalidate all the work you did before. It's going to be a constantly moving goal post. Because we have a lot of people coming to Guild Wars 2 who have done that kind of thing before, they don't want to be doing it again."

"Obviously we want to provide people with new challenges and the ability to keep evolving their character, but we have to provide these in a way that's true to why people play Guild Wars 2. This is a mission that we've been on for a while, to create our version of end-game character progression."

Who's the Master?

Instead of just beefing up the level cap, Heart of Thorns adds the all-new Mastery System. These are items you can collect and events to complete that will improve your character, allowing you to traverse the expansion's new zone, The Heart of the Maguuma Jungle, and survive the encounters within. Learn a new language and you can open doors that were once locked or find new lore to take your adventure in a different direction. Improve your survivability by stealing the hard outer bark of the plant-based Mordrem minions spread throughout the jungle.

"The Mastery System is additive," said Guild Wars 2 game director Colin Johanson. "It's taking the core concept that we live by in Guild Wars 2: the journey is the goal. Characters who have reached level 80 will have access to the Mastery System. We're not adding new levels or tiers of gear. Whatever progression you've earned is still valid."

New region, new races.

"As you play and defeat content in the game - completing exploration of maps, defeating challenging content, completing collections - you're rewarded with Mastery points. You spend those points to purchase abilities and those abilities allow you to overcome and defeat bigger obstacles."

Johanson gave me an example of the Mastery System in Heart of Thorns: the brand-new hang-glider.

"Right now in Guild Wars 2, if you climb to the top and jump, you're going to fall to your death," he explained. "You can spend Mastery Points and purchase the ability to hang-glide. The more you invest in that line, the farther you can glide. You can learn to ride air currents. When you first arrive in the jungle, you're going to see all of these places above you. As you progress, more and more of the map will become available to you."

Yes, there are still points within the Mastery System, but otherwise, the team at ArenaNet has tried to make progression more organic. Think of it like an attunement system or playing your favorite Metroid game; you need X ability to access Y content. It's still progression, but it's more than just increasing an abstract number. Johansson calls the Mastery System a "core, fundamental feature that we can use to grow the game through all future expansions, instead of having to add more levels."

The Maguuma Jungle is more vertical than what came before.

Welcome to the Jungle

The addition of these Mastery abilities shared across all professions also means new possibilities for the team at ArenaNet. They can bet on most high-level players having hang-gliding, meaning there's new options for building the levels in Guild Wars 2. The Maguuma Jungle is Heart of Thorns' primary setting, but it's also designed with more verticality in mind than previous regions.

"The jungle is the largest vertical space we've built by far," said Johanson. "Each map of the jungle is deeper and has more complexity from a standpoint of the amount of space that you can use and enjoy. The jungle allows you to go all the way from the roots deep below, up into the canopy. You get to explore and play in all of that area."

Without hang-gliding, Johanson believes leaping from the canopy to your death will take 15-20 seconds. If you have a hang-glider, you be floating for quite a while.

Specializations expand your repetoire.

Keep It Professional, Ladies and Gentlemen

Heart of Thorns' new profession specializations allow you to take you chosen profession in new directions. Yes, that means new traits, skills, and weapons. The announcement trailer for Heart of Thorns shows a Mesmer using a Shield and an Engineer with a hammer, while the PAX South panel detailed a Necromancer specialization that can wield greatswords.

"The specialization fundamentally changes that profession into something new," Johanson told me. "A ranger can become a druid. They're going to get access to a brand-new weapon, in this case, a staff. They're going to get access to new skills: a new Elite skill, a new Heal, new utility skills, and new traits. Their core profession mechanic will change."

What would an MMO expansion be without a new class or race though? Guild Wars 2 will be adding the brand-new Revenant profession with Heart of Thorns. The profession fills out the game's armor classes, adding another heavy armor class to the mix. (Previously, there were 3 light armor and 3 medium armor professions, but only 2 heavy armor ones.) Within the game's story, the first Revenant is Rytlock Brimstone, who disappeared into the Mists in Season 2 of the Living World, only to return with a new look and new powers.

The new Revenant.

"The concept behind the Revenant is it's our new heavy armor class," said Johanson. "The new profession channels the powers of the Mists to grow its abilities. They can channel great legends from the history of Guild Wars, like the powers of King Jalis Ironhammer, who was the great dwarf king in the original game. When they're channeling his abilities, it changes the way the Revenant plays. Your character becomes very tanky; you can really hold down the frontlines in combat. Or you can channel the demon Mallyx, who has the ability to control conditions."

"We're really trying to theme each of the different legends around different playstyles. The Revenant is a profession we think everyone is going to love. You're going to pick legends that fit the game style that you enjoy the most. It's the deepest profession that we've ever built."

Become a different kind of Jungler.

Just The Tip of the Tree Tops

And that's only the beginning of Heart of Thorns. There's the new guild halls within the Maguuma Jungle; you'll find them by exploring the jungle and your guild can then claim them. These halls will match different environments and themes within the jungle, and you can grow and expand your claimed territory. There's the new PVP Stronghold mode and the new World vs World map, the Borderlands.

All of this is delivered without raising the level cap. Without getting rid of the hard work and effort Guild Wars 2 players have already put into their characters. Combined with the the extensive visual customization system, players will be able to find new looks for their favorite mains and alts. They'll be able to do new things without losing their previous accomplishments; your Incinerator dagger, Twilight greatsword, and Bifrost staff will still be pretty damn awesome.

Guild Wars 2 isn't the first MMO to do alternate advancement; Dark Age of Camelot and Everquest have both implemented their own versions in the past. It just seems to be an idea that developers simply forget in lieu of raising the level cap. I appreciate that ArenaNet is willing to try something a bit different; since I have to cover a number of MMOs for USgamer, the progression treadmill can be rather draining. Heart of Thorns is something I look forward to, instead of dreading grinding through 10 more levels to reach end-game content.

There's darkness and light to explore.

We don't have a release date or price point for Heart of Thorns yet, but ArenaNet will be revealing more about the game at PAX East in March. Expect more information of the next evolution of Guild Wars 2 then!

Sometimes we include links to online retail stores. If you click on one and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. See our terms & conditions.

Mike Williams

Reviews Editor

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.

Read this next

ArenaNet "In Mourning" After Suffering Layoffs

ArenaNet has laid off "a number" of employees as part of a bigger restructuring effort.

GOG Reportedly Hit With a Dozen Layoffs

The CD Projekt-owned digital distributor lays off approximately a dozen people.

Guild Wars 2's Latest Episode Offers Players a City They Can Build and Evolve

A new sanctuary in Jahai Bluffs gives player more choices.

Former ArenaNet Writer Says She Had No Chance to Argue Her Case Before Firing

A report from Polygon includes new details about last week's ArenaNet controversy.

ArenaNet Fires Two Guild Wars 2 Writers After Heated Twitter Exchange With Streamer [Update]

ArenaNet's President took to the Guild Wars 2 forums to address the situation.

More Previews

For Honor Preview: A Whole New Sword Game

Jaz plays Ubisoft's upcoming sword fighting game, and talks to creative director Jason Vandenberghe about how it was developed.

Dragon Quest VIII 3DS Preview: New Characters, New Dungeons, New Challenges, Black Sabrecats

Though Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King for the Nintendo 3DS isn't a ground-up overhaul the way Dragon Quest VII 3DS is, there's still tons of new stuff to get excited about.

Will Final Fantasy XV's Big Twist Ruin The Game?

Early details about about FFXV's endgame have emerged, to much consternation.

Final Fantasy XV Travel Diary, Final Day: Stray Thoughts and Observations

There's still plenty to see and do in Duscae, but it's time to close the book on this massive RPG (until November 29).