The no-gear-grind philosophy of Guild Wars 2 has been called into question, so developer ArenaNet has responded on Reddit.
Brief recap: a brand new Ascended armour type statistically more powerful than other end-game armours has been added to the game. ArenaNet said hardcore players needed more to do and more progression to chase. But the Guild Wars 2 community interpreted this as signs of an end-game gear grind - a mechanic ArenaNet chastised in the lead up to Guild Wars 2's launch. Did ArenaNet contradict itself?
"I hope we've been clear that GW2 is not a game with virtually no stat progression in it like GW1 was," ArenaNet co-founder and boss Mike O'Brien wrote on Reddit. "That's why GW2 shipped with a higher level cap, and with a hard separation between PVE and PVP.
"In GW1 we never advanced the level cap through four campaigns/expansions. The game design didn't allow for it. But GW2 was designed without those restrictions, and we've always expected that we will someday raise the level cap in GW2."
I put that last part in bold because it's the first I've heard of plans to increase the Guild Wars 2 level cap.
"That's why we've always said that GW2 rewards players through both progression and collection," O'Brien went on, "whereas GW1 primarily rewarded through collection. Presumably players aren't shocked that GW2 rewards through progression, since it has a level 80 cap.
"I would ask you to judge us by details and not by making slippery-slope arguments."
"I wonder if the core sentiment is more this: It's only been two-and-a-half months! We don't even all have Exotics yet, and already you're introducing another tier. Is this the start of a power progression curve that I'll never be able to keep up with?
"I certainly appreciate that worry," he wrote. "I myself don't want a constant struggle, as exists in some other games, to keep my equipment viable. Then we're left with a balancing act: some progression is OK, but pushing players onto gear treadmill isn't OK and isn't what the game is about.
"So I would ask you to judge us," he concluded, "by details, and not by making slippery-slope arguments. We introduced a ton of new content in November, and the sum total of new progression rewards we added to go with it provided a 5-10 per cent stat increase in two of 12 slots. I hope you'll agree that that kind of very shallow and gradual progression does not force people onto a gear treadmill."
O'Brien said it was "important" for Guild Wars 2 to have that kind of "gradual" progression. And although "we made some mistakes with the way we introduced Ascended gear", he added, "I don't think they invalidate the fundamental concept that GW2 can have gradual stat progression without being a gear treadmill game".
So what "mistakes" were made with the introduction to Ascended gear?
Studio design director Chris Whiteside said "we did not intend for the information to come out this way, referencing a jumped-the-gun article on MMORPG.com [thanks Sirrush on Twitter].
Bizarrely, ArenaNet was apparently "acutely aware of what the reaction was going to be". "Yes, the response was definitively expected," Chris Whiteside admitted. So, err, why do it?
The first revelation was that "in retrospect it would have been better to have included Ascended gear at launch", wrote Whiteside. As we know, Ascended gear was designed to sit between Exotic and Legendary items. "It was not specifically designed before launch," Whiteside added. "However, the concept of progression rewards with a shallow curve bridging other rewards was." The whole debate about a new tier of armour being added post-launch to placate goalless hardcore players would have been avoided, too.
The second revelation or declaration, if you like, is that "we have no intention of adding a new rarity gear such as Ascended".
"Instead and as we evolve," Whiteside wrote, "the game's existing rarities will evolve over time. However, these will not be common occurrences. For example, full Ascended gear will be introduced over a long period of time ["throughout next year" he said later] and will be earned through lots of different parts/activities of the game."
On a time-frame for rarity evolution he said: "The opportunity to enhance existing tiers of loot will not be through a regular cadence of monthly updates instead it is more likely to come from expansions or very big drops of content."
"We have never said there would be no vertical progression."
Whiteside also reiterated that "it is absolutely not intended that Ascended will make a discernible difference in world versus world [battles]", but said players in these server-versus-server-versus-server battles will be able to acquire Ascended items "within that area of the game soon".
On the general topic of vertical progression - i.e. going upwards in power rather than sideways or horizontal: being as powerful but different - Whiteside said Guild Wars 2 has it and "we do intend to keep moving forward with this philosophy".
"We have never said there would be no vertical progression," he wrote. "We do intend to focus on horizontal but we will have vertical progression moving forward with the focus on zero grind and a very low power curve.
"Please understand that we see the community as a 'whole' and therefore are not intending to design again for one specific type of player over another. This is a misconception and one that is not promoted by the team. We will continue to develop the game for the community as a whole, offering gameplay that caters to lots of different types of players in a unified approach that will evolve over time based on feedback and the direction the team as a whole wants to take.
"Personally," he added, "I do not feel that the latest changes are against what we said in the manifesto. I do however feel that we do have to be very careful in regard to progression design turning into grind and I believe there are some instances of this kind of grind that pre-date the launch of the game. It is for this reason that we are looking to revamp some aspects of the game whilst connecting other parts increase the overall experience of fun in our progression mechanics."
Concluding, Chris Whiteside described all of this as "an exciting problem, but one that has been poorly communicated and handled". On the flip-side, the debate "helps us to answer and navigate larger questions we have in terms of the direction of the game moving forward", he said.
Whether or not you're appeased by ArenaNet's reaction here, at least you got one. It's uncommon in the world of MMOs for developers to frankly address the community's questions in this way, let alone pledge to do something differently because of them.
This is not Guild Wars 1 and was never intended to be, but what Guild Wars 2 was meant to be was different - different to other MMOs. Its test will be how well it resists the dangling carrots used to elongate those other worlds: the level-cap raises, the additional progression paths (PVP ranks) and the ever-more-powerful-loot grind. Perhaps such mechanics are unavoidable.
Question is: do you trust ArenaNet?