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This concept art for Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire showcases Balthazar, the god of war, gripping a large sword by both its hilt and its blade. He is covered in fiery armor and horns. ArenaNet/NCSoft

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Guild Wars 2: the journey to Path of Fire

ArenaNet reflects on how its MMO has grown and what’s changing for its most content-packed expansion so far

“Expansion packs are like punctuation.”

ArenaNet president and Guild Wars 2 game director Mike O’Brien has a very specific approach that he wants his game to take toward paid expansion sets. It’s not that they need to be completely different from the consistent stream of content being added to the game in patches; rather, they need to be big.

“We’re shipping content all the time,” O’Brien says. “Hopefully it all flows together, live releases and expansion packs. But sometimes you want to accomplish something big, and you’re going to accomplish it in an expansion pack. You can’t really release it piecemeal.”

The just-announced Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire is the next of those expansions (full details here), the next punctuation mark in the story of Guild Wars 2. In fact, it’s only the second in the game’s five-year lifespan. But in five years, and after a rocky first expansion, ArenaNet has learned a ton of lessons.

The developer is now setting a breakneck pace for creating new content. And with Path of Fire launching just a month and a half after being announced, it’s ready to turn some heads again.

Early days

When ArenaNet began working on Guild Wars 2 10 years ago, the company was a mere 60 people. Owned by Korean publisher NCSoft and based in Bellevue, Washington, the company had made a name for itself with the original Guild Wars. But that first game was much smaller and much less ambitious than what it had in mind now.

“For Guild Wars 1, we were a tiny team making a game that was really pure at heart and very small,” O’Brien says. “It was very limited by what we could accomplish as a team. A lot of the goal of Guild Wars 2 was just realizing that we had grown and we could now take on what we wished we could have been building with the first game.”

Given the success of its first game and grand visions of something bigger, ArenaNet more than doubled its size to 135 people as development of Guild Wars 2 ramped up. The growing team knew it wanted to create a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, but it also knew that it wanted to separate itself, to stand out from glut of MMOs on the market and in development.

Building off of the first Guild Wars, ArenaNet laid out two major tentpoles for how this game would be different from the competition. Firstly and most importantly: no endless upward progression.

“We love the fact that Guild Wars 2 is not a treadmill game,” says O’Brien. “We really tried to distance ourselves from MMOs for a long time, because so much of it is — you get in, and you’re just on this treadmill. You know the developer is going to just keep adding new runway in front of you. You’re never really gonna get to the end.”

Where most MMORPGs keep players hooked by increasing the level cap and adding new and more difficult-to-get sets of armor, ArenaNet vowed to take a different path. They call their approach “horizontal progression.” The game would launch with a level cap of 80, but that level cap, they promised, would not go up. Instead, once you reached the endgame, you could focus on learning new abilities, exploring new areas, mastering new sides to your profession. There would be no grind.

The second tentpole for Guild Wars 2 was to improve player interaction and cooperation, an issue MMOs have always struggled with. In classic examples from the genre, like EverQuest, players would often compete for the same kills. Whoever tagged a monster first or got the last bit of damage in would get loot, which led to frustration, anger and generally not always liking it when other players were in the same area as you, despite that also seemingly being a core draw of an online experience.

“We really wanted to make a game where any time you see another player, you’re happy to see them,” O’Brien says.

With that in mind, ArenaNet built a very different game with Guild Wars 2. Players could share tags for creatures, and loot would be evenly distributed between everyone. And the huge open world was built around the concept of events happening all the time that multiple players could jump into and out of and work together to accomplish things.

Oh, and on top of it all, Guild Wars 2 was to avoid a subscription fee. Despite being much more ambitious than its predecessor, it was to maintain the original game’s “buy-to-play” model, where players paid for the boxed game and received any updates and additional content free of charge.

Guild Wars 1 fans and MMO veterans alike reacted to these unique spins on the genre. Guild Wars 2 gained a ton of buzz during its many betas and leading up to is August 2012 launch. That launch met with continued hype and rave reviews.

With any MMO, however, launch is only the beginning. ArenaNet got people interested and got them into a new virtual world. But now the developer needed to figure out how to keep players invested, especially without the aforementioned gear and level treadmill.

This screenshot from Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire shows the middle of a desert town. Adobe houses line the streets and an ornate palace can be seen on the opposite end with brightly-colored flags and banners flying nearby. A few people are in the dusty stre ArenaNet/NCSoft

Bringing a world to life

The excitement around Guild Wars 2 had begun to die down a little bit by the start of 2013, as more and more players hit the level cap and searched for something to spend their time on in the fairly thin endgame. ArenaNet didn’t yet have a firm vision in place for what the perfect Guild Wars 2 endgame should look like, but it did have a plan for keeping players busy.

In the summer of 2013, ArenaNet launched an aggressive new campaign called “Living World.” The goal was to update the game regularly — initially every two to three weeks — with events, mission, story progress and other new content for players to take part in.

What was especially gutsy about the original iteration of Living World is that the content was all temporary. An event would be around for a few weeks and then gone — for good. If you weren’t playing Guild Wars 2 actively and hopping in regularly to check for new stuff, you could completely miss an event and never see it again.

While the overall quality of Living World Season One updates varied widely, Guild Wars 2 players were largely impressed by the consistency of releases and the eagerness of the developers to keep adding stuff for them to do. They wanted more. But they also wanted more game in general.

By 2014, players were clamoring for an expansion — a full-size add-on that would bring major additions to Guild Wars 2. ArenaNet wasn’t in any rush, however, and instead launched Season Two of Living World in summer of 2014.

While continuing the first season’s goal of regular new content, Season Two of Living World had bigger aims. First off, it introduced new open-world maps in some of its eight updates. While events in the first season left changes on existing maps, they had not actually added new maps into the game.

Secondly, episodes were actually replayable this time. If you logged on as they were happening, you unlocked the ability to replay them at any point. If you missed them live, you could purchase them using Guild Wars 2’s real-money currency, gems. Unlocking the full season’s worth of content would cost around $16.

Living World Season Two was met with a strongly positive response, but as it wrapped up in early 2015, fans still remained anxious for a full expansion.

“In those first years, we were in a rush of seeing how much we could add to the game live,” O’Brien explains.

But in January 2015, ArenaNet was finally ready to give players a first look at Guild Wars 2’s first expansion. It wasn’t going to be quite what a lot of players had in mind, though.

This screenshot from Guild Wars 2 shows the remnants of a pyramid-like structure that seems to have crumbled. However, some of its stones are being held in shape by some unnatural force, and a swirl of dust can be seen squirming out of the top of the stru ArenaNet/NCSoft

Fully featured

When Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns was announced in late January 2015, O’Brien reiterated many of the tenets of the game to an excited live crowd that had come to hear the news. ArenaNet wouldn’t be increasing the level cap, he assured players. They wouldn’t be adding more powerful tiers of gear.

Instead, O’Brien said this add-on would focus on “real character progression that you can keep using to evolve your characters long after you hit max level and have the best gear in the game.” ArenaNet planned to accomplish that through two huge new systems being added to the game.

The first of those systems is Masteries. These provide new skills that players can use in each new area they journey to. In the case of Heart of Thorns and its setting of the Maguuma Jungle, masteries would teach players how to use hang gliders, how to bounce on mushrooms and even how to talk to native species. Masteries essentially provide more bars to fill up, a new place to put all of your experience points when you’ve already finished leveling up, but all of those upgrades would go to new skills rather than more power.

The second system added to Heart of Thorns is elite specializations. Guild Wars 2 launched with eight professions, such as the tanky guardian, the bow-wielding ranger and the undead-raising necromancer. The game’s trait system allowed players to take those classes in several different directions. Now elite specializations would, essentially, turn a profession into a whole different class.

“We don’t want to create grind,” says game designer Irenio Calmon-Huang, one of ArenaNet’s leads on elite specializations. “We don’t want to invalidate people in the way they play. By creating elite specializations, we give them horizontal and lateral progression. We give them more tools to work with that aren’t necessarily strictly more powerful tools.”

In this concept art for Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire, an armor-clad figure is riding on top of a raptor, holding it by some reins. Pyramid-like structures can be seen in the background, as can the vague shapes of other travelers. ArenaNet/NCSoft

As Calmon-Huang says, elite specializations aren’t necessarily better than other profession builds. They’re just fulfilling a different play style and providing more strategic options for players.

They also help fulfill player fantasies, according to game designer and elite specialization team lead Karl Mclain.

“Even before we invented elite specializations, players were thinking of them,” he says. “They were like, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be great if my thief could use a staff? Or wouldn’t it be great if my thief could use a rifle?’ So even before we developed them, players have always said they’d like to play their class in a different way. Specializations are ArenaNet’s way of answering that.”

While all of these additions were exciting, there’s one thing fans watching the Heart of Thorns reveal couldn’t help but notice: It all felt very heavily focused on features and systems and not on what players would actually be doing within those features and systems.

O’Brien, for his part, readily admits to Heart of Thorns being a “more feature-focused expansion.”

“We were trying to put ourselves in a position where we could ship a lot of high-quality, endgame content,” he explains. These new systems and structures were necessary, in his eyes, to allow the studio to ship all that new content.

While it may have been necessary for the long-term health of Guild Wars 2, it ended up being disappointing to many fans. Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns launched in October 2015 to largely favorable chatter, but players found themselves burning through the expansion’s limited content much faster than they expected.

From the end of 2015 to the middle of 2016, Guild Wars 2 players experienced that most difficult of times in any MMO: a content drought. The most dedicated players found themselves with little to do in the game besides pushing for hard-to-get legendary items or clearing out collections.

“What I would most loved to have done for Heart of Thorns was to follow it up with Living World Season Three right away,” O’Brien says, looking back. “Heart of Thorns laid down some systems that we could absolutely extend and did ultimately extend. It’s just hard. Because Guild Wars 2 is this broad game, it needs content. It’s not like you ship an expansion and now people are going to be on the gear grind for the next nine months or something.”

Luckily for fans, the long wait for Living World Season Three would be worth it.

In this concept art for Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire, two heavily armored soldiers can be seen riding raptors through a desert. The soldiers carry huge spears. Large clouds of dust cover the area, and huge rocks and barren plantlife can be seen around them. ArenaNet/NCSoft

Content is king

The first episode of Living World Season Three launched in July of 2016, and once again ArenaNet’s vision for Living World had only grown bigger and more complex.

For Season Three, the studio got into a new rhythm. New episodes would be released every two to four months, but this time each of the six episodes would include a new open-world zone.

“Going into Season Three, we thought we could try to replicate what we had done in Season Two,” says O’Brien. “Or we thought we could do these bigger, meatier episodes that were more replayable and had deeper story.”

The focus on going bigger was a huge hit. Players who had found themselves struggling to maintain interest in Guild Wars 2 earlier in the year were now flooded with new things to do every few months. And best of all, both the story and the content of the zones themselves were some of the best ArenaNet had created so far.

“Ultimately, I wanted us to take a step back and commit that anything we were going to do, we were going to do at high quality,” O’Brien says, comparing Living World Season Three’s cadence to the pace of the first season. “I don’t think you can be focused on frequency and quality at the same level. One of those two has to give. If frequency is too important to you, you’re going to end up making tradeoffs in quality to hit frequency. In the end, I think quality is what matters.”

Living World Season Three’s sixth and final episode, titled “One Path Ends,” released last week, on July 25. With it, ArenaNet wrapped up a season of storyline pushing toward a major shift in direction. That shift is the game’s second expansion: Path of Fire.

Path of Fire is aiming to be sort of the opposite of Heart of Thorns. Where the first expansion was all about putting big new features in place, O’Brien says Path of Fire will be “very content-focused.” The developer is aiming to deliver what sounds like a meat-and-potatoes MMO expansion; lots more of what you love to leave you full.

“This isn’t the time to be reinventing Guild Wars 2 or changing the game out from under our fans and make it some other, different game,” says O’Brien. “We all went into Path of Fire thinking that this expansion pack shouldn’t be about reinvention. It would be a disservice to the community and to the fans if this expansion pack were a reinvention of the game.”

Instead, ArenaNet is focusing on what fans love about Guild Wars 2 and delivering more of it with Path of Fire. That philosophy is on display in what’s probably the biggest mechanical addition to the game in the expansion: mounts.

One of the many quirks that helps set Guild Wars 2 aside from other MMORPGs is that it has always avoided mounts, a staple of the genre that helps players cross huge expanses of virtual land faster. Path of Fire will finally see mounts added to the game, five years after launch, but they’ll be handled differently from any other MMO.

In most games in the genre, mounts become sort of like pets or cute outfits or achievements: It’s another thing to collect and hoard. Not so in Guild Wars 2, at least at the feature’s launch. Path of Fire will feature just four mounts, and players are more or less guaranteed to collect all of them naturally by progressing through the expansion.

However, each of these four mounts will control and operate completely differently, opening up new venues of exploration.

“We want them to be awesome tools for exploring the world,” explains game designer and mastery team lead Roy Cronacher. “Even moreso than that, we really want them to feel like toys for the player to play around with. They should inherently be fun while just moving around and messing around with them.”

As an example, in Path of Fire’s first zone, Crystal Oasis, players will receive the raptor mount early on. In addition to being pretty fast, the raptor has a long jump that allows it to cross huge gaps.

Eventually, players will be able to swap among all four mounts on the fly. The developers have used this knowledge to craft some intense exploration puzzles, places where players will have to change from creature to creature depending on the situation and slowly explore their way through harsh new terrain.

It’s supposed to provide players with the satisfaction of figuring out little navigation puzzles, but it’s also supposed to just plain feel fun.

“The joy of movement is the gift that keeps on giving,” O’Brien says, grinning. “When you really just enjoy being in the world and moving through the world, 10 hours later, 20 hours later, you’re going to be just having fun exploring.”

In this screenshot from Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire, two tiny, blue creatures are seen running down a wooden walkway. Behind the creatures is a huge rock quarry or mine of some sort, with lots of machinery lifting up wooden pallets. ArenaNet/NCSoft

No brakes

ArenaNet started as a company of 10 employees, including Mike O’Brien. It grew to 60 as it released its first game, then 135 as it worked on a sequel.

Now, five years into the life of Guild Wars 2 and more committed to the game than ever, ArenaNet employs more than 400 people. And as the company has slowly learned lessons about its own game and figured out how it needs to be structured to succeed, those employees have shifted into two groups: a live team, working on updates and patches and events, and a smaller separate team working on the Path of Fire expansion itself.

In spite of the studio’s clear ambition, there’s a humbleness to ArenaNet’s story so far that’s compelling — a recognition that mistakes are inevitable, but also that they can learn from those mistakes rather than just pretending they didn’t happen.

If the problem with Heart of Thorns was that it didn’t have enough content, the studio intends to overload players with content in Path of Fire. “These five zones are larger than Heart of Thorns plus Living World Season Three in terms of all the new landmass,” O’Brien brags.

And if the problem with the period immediately following Heart of Thorns’ launch is that it took too long to get the Living World additions coming again, well, ArenaNet is hoping to dodge that bullet as well this time around.

Most developers would take a breather after a big release, but ArenaNet shows no signs of slowing down. Instead, O’Brien says the goal is for the studio to deliver the beginning of Living World Season Four around two to four months after the launch of Path of Fire — almost as though the expansion were just another episode.

“Our goal is to do this with no breaks in content delivery,” says O’Brien. “What players have been expecting and should expect from us is that we release living world episodes every few months. Episode five. Episode six. And then Path of Fire. And then the season premiere for Season Four. Each with two to three months between them.

“We certainly intend to continue with the path that we’ve been taking. I think we’re hitting a really good stride here.”