Update: There's been a bit of confusion about the Heart of Thorns beta and my interpretation of what Colin Johanson said.
Here's what he said to me: "What we're going to do, we're going to bring the playable demos to the shows in March. Shortly after that we're going to open up beta testing and we're going to let people play the features and play the content and tell us if the things that we built live up to what we said when we announced."
He's since clarified that he didn't specifically mean an 'open beta' but that beta testing will begin after those game shows in March. It sounds like - judging by what NCSoft said in an email as well - there may be beta events for testing Heart of Thorns. It's not clear whether they'll be open or closed.
What does raising the maximum character level in a persistent online world really achieve, other than allowing people to take on new, higher-level content? When did that become the norm for an MMO expansion anyway? Here you go, progression-starved endgamers, here's a race to a new progression-starved top level.
I accept that new content can be brilliant fun, but it also has a weird effect on everything that came before it. It makes it all seem a bit worthless, all that stuff you spent hundreds of hours collecting. You can't shake the feeling that if it can happen once then it can happen again, so why bother?
That's why it's good to have a bit of chaos - something radical - to shake things up. Radical might seem like a strong word, but ArenaNet and Guild Wars 2 shook the MMO totem pole hard when it was released. We have no group holy trinity of tank, healer and damage-dealers! We have no subscription fee! We walk around the office in our socks! But I worried that the revolutionary spirit had petered out, become flattened by the day-to-day practicalities of keeping an MMO going.
That's why I watched the reveal of Heart of Thorns - the game's first expansion - with particular interest last weekend. What kind of developer is ArenaNet now, and how on earth can it offer new progression without raising the level cap? Cue studio founder and boss Mike O'Brien walking onto the PAX stage.
"I know when people announce a new MMO expansion pack, they talk about what's the new tier we're bringing into the game," he began.
"That invalidates all the work that you put into your existing characters; that ramps up the power-curve leaving behind a wasteland of old content that's no longer challenging enough and rewarding enough to be worth playing.
"The endless gear treadmill," he sighed, "it is such a cheap solution to a problem."
Then he made a commitment, and MMO communities love a good commitment - a piece of scripture to refer back to in times of need. O'Brien said: "I will commit to you that your max-level characters with your top-tier gear today are still going to be your max-level characters with your top-tier gear tomorrow."
Heart of Thorns will not raise the level-cap or add a new tier of gear, and thus, he had backed up his fighting talk with action. But that fighting talk made me wonder about the future, and whether Guild Wars 2 would ever cave in and conform? When I get game director Colin Johanson on the phone a couple of days after the reveal, I press him about it. And then he makes another statement worth remembering.
"Correct," he answers. "We will never add more levels to the game, we will never add more tiers of gear to the game. The tiers and levels we have today will be the tiers and levels we have for the rest of the life of Guild Wars 2."
Go on, bookmark it.
Watch live video from GuildWars2 on Twitch
Next, we dive into Heart of Thorns and the other announcements he made at PAX. The big thing to know right off the bat - short of him revealing any kind of release date for the expansion on stage - is that there will be an open beta for Heart of Thorns sooner than expected.
How soon? The expansion will be demoed at game shows in March, and beta testing will open up "shortly after" that, Johanson tells me. That could mean April, or it could mean spring, or it could mean summer. And it probably means beta testing in batches rather than a full-scale open test. But it's not miles away. It also sounds like many of the final features of the expansion will depend upon the community's feedback as well. He mentions that more than once in our discussion, which makes me believe it's more than simply fan-pleasing words.
How long will the beta testing last though, and when will the expansion actually come out? "We're not going to release the expansion until we're at a point where we're really comfortable that we've accomplished those goals [which were promised]."
Hmm, that sounds like another way of saying 'it could be a while' to me.
"Honestly we don't know - it could be really fast," he reacts. "We've been working on this for a long time in the background, and we came out to talk about it only because we're at a point where we're confident enough in all these features that we believe what we're building matches the vision we talked about.
"We want to give people the chance to agree that we have accomplished that before we commit to anything. But the timeframe is totally malleable. Obviously it's in our players' best interests that we put out an expansion, first and foremost, when it actually lays the foundation for the game going forward.
"We'll get to see very soon where it's at, in these demos and beta tests, and then they can judge for themselves how far we are off from release once they actually play it."
What, then, does that mean for base content updates between now and whenever Heart of Thorns launches? "We won't be doing any more Living World updates," he reveals. Living World Season 2 ended where Heart of Thorns will pick up, "[it] literally rolls right into it", so no new big story drops until then. Game updates, though, will continue as you'd expect.
Fixing traits is one item on the agenda - and it's an urgent item according to a many-paged thread on the Guild Wars 2 forum. Johanson waded in after the expansion announcement at PAX, writing: "We're going to be removing the current trait unlocking system currently on live and replacing it with a more simplified system that supports where skills-traits-specialisations are going in the future."
As traits are interwoven with those other new systems, they'll be beta tested as well - and the final outcome will depend on that experience.
The big idea: Masteries
We move onto the meat of the new expansion: Masteries - the solution for adding progression in Heart of Thorns without leaving behind everything that came before. There are other, complimentary systems tied in as well, but Masteries are the main attraction.
They represent new lines of abilities to be used in a specific context, often in specific areas of the world, in order to overcome new challenges - the same result raising a level-cap has traditionally achieved. It's worth nothing here, as Johanson clarifies to me, that Masteries will have no effect on PVP [player-versus-player] battles. "They do not at all," he states. "None of the abilities are things that say 'use this against another player', because we don't have that in PVE [player-versus-environment], and so none of the abilities have context in PVP."
"This is just for PVE," he repeats. "These are abilities that help you play, master and explore the content of our PVE world."
Masteries are only for level-80, max-level characters, but they are account-bound, meaning once you unlock them they're usable by all level-80 characters on your account.
So, what exactly are they? They're abilities housed in region-themed lines and you unlock them by spending Mastery Points earned through completing activities within that region. Mastery abilities can also become more powerful the more Points you invest into them. Once unlocked, those Mastery abilities affect more than just combat, and tie into areas like exploration, lore and collections as well. The major example of a Mastery, shared at PAX, was hang-gliding in the massive new, multi-tiered (and very challenging) Maguuma Jungle. Spend more Points in this Mastery and you'll be able to ride gusts of wind across the map to reach even higher and more obscure places.
Another example was a lore Mastery that helps you understand the languages of ancient civilisations living deep in the Maguuma Jungle. By understanding these languages, you'll gain access to history and secrets, and maybe even to hidden areas they've buried away. Yet another Mastery focuses on collections to attain something called a Precursor weapon - literally a precursor to a Legendary weapon.
How many Mastery lines and abilities there will be Johanson won't commit to, but he does say this: "There'll certainly be more than one per region - the Jungle's going to have a bunch." And that includes regions in the existing game world too. "We're going to add Mastery Points back into the existing core Guild Wars 2 world, and you'll be able to earn them all over that world," he confirms. "There will be new Mastery lines that you can spend, purchase and train in that world."
You unlock Mastery Points by doing things like completing story elements in a region, reaching hard-to-get-to locations, defeating content, and exploring entire maps. But while Mastery lines and their goodies are tied to regions, the abilities themselves may be usable elsewhere. Remember, Masteries are an idea for the future, and a groundwork that will be expanded upon.
Take hang-gliding, for example. "We will more than likely only be able to do that in the Jungle initially, because it would break a lot of maps in the core world we have today," Johanson says. "It will expand beyond that though as we add more maps and content to the game - all of those have the capacity to include hang-gliding as well."
The complimentary idea: Specialisations
Backing up Masteries are Specialisations for existing player classes, or professions as Guild Wars 2 calls them. Specialisations aren't designed to make you more powerful, but instead add versatility, making you different - specialised in other words. And they're not permanent transformations. "You can choose to enter into it at any time outside of combat, [and] once you enter into it you can go back to your profession any time you want outside of combat," Johanson says.
Specialisations will give you new tools to help you tackle the Maguuma Jungle. In this way Heart of Thorns can give Guild Wars 2 players the expected MMO expansion delivery of new abilities to beat a new area with. But it can do so without devaluing what came before.
"For Heart of Thorns," he says, "each profession will be able to gain and master a Specialisation." That means one Specialisation for each profession - including the new Revenant profession - at launch. Over time that number will grow.
"This system," he declares, "is the framework we're going to use to grow every progression in the future, so we're going to continue to add more Specialisations to professions after the expansion, and give you the ability to select between more and more of these."
The Specialisation revealed at PAX was the Druid Specialisation for the Ranger profession, which enables use of a new staff weapon and also grants new heal, elite and utility skills - apparently a fairly typical Specialisation transformation. As Johanson explains to me: "You have pretty much all the depth of the core class available to you, and then the Specialisation opens up new mechanics on top of - or - replacing some of the base mechanics of that profession.
"It allows you access to a weapon the profession could never use before to change out the beginning of your skillbar. It allows you access to new utility skills, and new traits that are specific only to people who have that Specialisation - a new elite and a new heal skill as well. Fundamentally, it can allow you change your entire build and the entire way that you play, from the front to the back of your skillbar, to your trait bar if you want it to."
But it doesn't work favourably vice versa - you can't access Druid abilities while playing a Ranger, he says. The other snippet of Specialisation information shared at PAX was that the unnamed Necromancer Specialisation will be able to use a greatsword.
The new profession: the Revenant
The Revenant is a heavily armoured profession that, as Colin Johanson announced at PAX, "channels the power of great legends from Guild Wars past, and uses those to help power the skills it has available to it". The two Legends he mentioned were King Jalis the dwarf, who brings with him "the powers and abilities of the great dwarves of years passed", and the demon Mallyx, a manipulator of Conditions (debuff and damage-over-time abilities).
Johanson explains to me: "[Channelling a legend] actually changes out the entire back-half of your skillbar, so your heal skill, your utilities and your elite are all determined by the Legend you are currently channelling." Apparently there are traits that "play off" these abilities and combo strongly.
How many Legends the Revenant will be able to call upon hasn't yet been decided. A few more or many more? "We'll just have to see," he says squirming a little. Johanson was similarly coy about how the Revenant would actually mechanically channel Legends and switches between them.
The rest: Guild Halls, WvW, PVP
Back to PAX, where the loudest cheer of all was reserved for the announcement of Guild Halls: a place for you to build and organise events and progress your guild. An animated piece of conceptual art was shown depicting a grand, almost Colosseum-like area that changed and evolved. But nothing much else was mentioned at the time, and so I press Johanson on it now.
"There are actual mechanics directly built into the Guild Hall for progressing and building your guild and your Guild Hall," he says, apologising that he can't go into further detail. "We really want to put the 'guild' in Guild Wars 2."
And Guild Halls, like Specialisations and Masteries, are part of the progression groundwork for the future, so they will evolve and expand over time as well.
As for World vs. World PVP, there's an apparently impressive new Borderland map just waiting to be added to the rotation. But it will have a deeper effect on Guild Wars 2 than simply freshening up the combat. It signals a change in WvW focus towards holding objectives, and organising armies so that you feel - as Johanson put it at PAX - as though you're inside a real-time strategy game.
The new Borderland map has bizarre and unique keeps that dynamically defend themselves, or offer certain benefits if you're able to hold the requisite objectives. There's even a floating earth keep that raises parts of the ground in order to smash away attackers, as well as a fire keep that creates magma pools that, rather oddly, let you whiz around the map.
This shift in thinking will eventually apply in some way to the existing WvW maps too. "We're going to be making changes to the core WvW experience so that holding objectives is a bigger part of victory across the board in all components of WvW," Johanson had announced at PAX.
For general PvP there's going to be a new Stronghold game mode, one where you'll fight for control of supplies so as to hire troops that will help you assault an enemy stronghold - destroying their gates and storming in to eventually destroy their lord. You'll also recruit heroes to your side along the way.
Again, within that, there's a deeper meaning for the game - the ability to compete as a guild.
"When you battle in our brand new Stronghold game mode you're going to be able to form guild teams," Johanson said at PAX. "Guild teams are teams of players that represent a certain guild, and they register on a guild leaderboard, and as they battle against one another the guild teams move up a leaderboard, so you can once and for all prove who are the best guilds in the world."