by Preston Dozsa
previewed on PC
The Usual and not so Usual
On a warm January morning in San Antonio, Guild Wars 2 developers ArenaNet announced what fans and press have long anticipated: Heart of Thorns, the long awaited first expansion to the popular MMO. It contains the usual features one would expect from an expansion pack: a new area to explore, a new class, new monsters and dungeons and more weapons and gear than you can possibly hope to collect. Watching the announcement in person, I could tell that the crowd was loving it, soaking up every detail and cheering loudly when long awaited features were announced back to back. A typical press conference with a typical fan response.
Until ArenaNet President Mike O’Brien announced that there would be no level cap raise, with player progression in the expansion being tied to a new system called Mastery instead.
The crowd was silent for a moment. And then the cheers came back louder than before. This was something unexpected. This was something game-changing.
Problems of the Old
The easiest way to convey progression in any role playing game or MMO is through the level system: You start off at level one, earning experience by killing monsters and completing quests in order to level up to the second level and so on and so forth till you reach the highest attainable level. It can take anywhere from a few days to several months for players to reach that cap, but when they do it is generally understood by every other player that they understand at the very least the basics of the game and have some knowledge as to how the systems work. The higher the level, the more experienced the player, mostly.
Levels are a simple numeric value that conveys so much about a players power in a game. Using Guild Wars 2 as an example, a level 10 character will not be able to easily survive in a region that is listed as level 70 on their map. As such, weaker players know well to stay away from the region until they reach at least level 70. Equipment can say that you need to be level 60 to use or wield it. Levels and the act of leveling are easy to understand and act as guidelines through which players know what they can and cannot accomplish.
Expansions for MMO’s commonly increase the level cap so that players can feel stronger and more powerful with their purchase. The increase unlocks new equipment for the player to craft and use, along with signalling that the places you’ll go to will be tougher than the places you have previously visited before the expansion was released.
Out of what I consider to be the three largest MMO’s in the American market (World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XIV and Guild Wars 2), both WoW and FFXIV have/will be releasing expansions that raise the level cap. In WoW’s case, expansion increases in level cap have raised the original cap of 60 to 100, increasing the damage players can do and the health of enemies to astronomical levels.
There has frequently been complaints with WoW that the release of a new expansion heralds the loss of relevance to everything that came before it. The rare equipment you have spent hours obtaining becomes useless, as that gear cannot stack up to the new monsters in the released expansion. The old monsters and dungeons become significantly more trivial; when you used to die repeatedly to the undead Lich King with over twenty people by your side, you can now defeat him in under three minutes with a small force of 5 or 6 people and barely break a spacebar.
This has been a problem that WoW has struggled with for years: keeping past content relevant in the face of newer releases. The newest expansion in November, Warlords of Draenor, tried to remedy that by revamping older content from the game’s earlier days, yet it still raised the level cap by 10 points in order to fulfill the requirements for the newer zones. It’s been 11 years, and Blizzard has been unable to come up with a workable alternative to level caps.
In with the New
Which brings me back to the Mastery system. Mastery is an account wide bonus for level 80 characters in Guild Wars 2 that will be the new form of progression in Heart of Thorns. Instead of completing quests and events or killing monsters for experience, Mastery points will be unlocked for completing certain actions such as entering a new zone for the first time, earning certain achievements or finding hard to reach locations among others. These points can be spent along different tracks in order to unlock new abilities, new dungeons and new ways to maneuver around the world.
What the Mastery system means for players is that they will not have to partake in level grind in order to begin experiencing the new content available when the expansion is released. That’s not to say that the entire expansion will be up for the taking at launch, as the new system needs to be explored in order to unlock movement up and down the treetops of the jungle, as well as abilities that allow players to fight new monsters. But it does indicate that players will have more freedom from the start of an expansion rather than reaching the level cap to experience most of the new features.
The absence of an increase to the level cap in Guild Wars 2 solves plenty of problems related to modern MMO expansions. Instead of gear becoming useless at the onset of a new expansion, your gear will be just as effective as it was before, and the new equipment will only serve to increase the variety of weapon skins and possible weapon traits that are available. Old dungeons that provide tokens and weapon rewards will still be relevant, as they will continue to provide the same level of rewards as any newer dungeons. Bolstered by the game’s zone level system, where high level players are brought down to an average level in weaker zones, old content will remain just as viable to play in as the new content in Heart of Thorns. The Mastery system will even be in place in the vanilla content, so the progression system will change as a whole instead of working solely in the expansion.
That’s not to say that the Mastery system will be a perfect fit for the game. I’m worried as to whether it will require players to invest in traits in a certain order in order to progress through content. Arenanet has also yet to reveal how expansive the system is: for all we know it could consist of fifty traits that can be unlocked within ten hours, with no incentive for new progression beyond the current routes in game. Details are lacking, and I hope that Arenanet is aware that what they are attempting could revolutionize progression in MMO’s. If they fail, we may not get a new progression system for a long time as developers fall back on the tried level cap system. But if it succeeds - and I certainly hope it does - Guild Wars 2 will have altered the MMO landscape once again.