Thursday, May 4, 2023

Same Time Next Year?

In a comment on a recent post, Shintar asked whether I was still interested in Guild Wars 2 and what I thought of ArenaNet's new update cadence. The question made me think. What I mostly thought was "Oh yeah! GW2! I used to play that!"

I can fairly honestly say that was the first thought I'd had about the game for weeks. I'm not even sure how long it's been since I last logged in - must be a couple of months - and even then it would only have been to claim some freebie I got through Amazon Prime. I'm not sure I've played the game in any meaningful way since last year.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Actually, more than a couple. I could probably do bullet points.

  • A decade is a long time to play any game without a break.
  • I probably would have stopped well before this if Mrs Bhagpuss didn't still play.
  • Mrs Bhagpuss doesn't still play.
  • We got a dog. That's why she stopped. Dogs eat time (And anything else they can grab.)
  • GW2 can be pretty boring. It's very, very grindy. You really have to have Stockholm Syndrome not to see that.
  • Other mmorpgs give much more back, much more quickly and much more easily.
  • GW2 got a bit more popular than it used to be and my latent Hipster gene kicked in.

Beyond all of those, though, I think the fundemental issue I have with GW2 is the same one I've had since about October or November 2012, which is that it's not the game I was told it was going to be, which was also, coincidentally, near enough the game it was at launch. I loved the free-form, do what you like, go where you want, nothing matters any more than anything else feel of the original maps, something I felt was well iterated upon in Heart of Thorns, but by and large that has proved neither a popular nor a commercially successful path for the game and has been progressively bred out of the game in favor of zonewide metas that suck the very life out of everyone who experiences them more than a handful of times. 

I accept that may be the minority view. It seems most players like a lot of direction and relish very long-term goals that require a huge amount of time, effort and repetition to achieve, whereas these days I like to be able to complete an entire project in no more than one gaming session and preferably in about ten minutes. Consequently, GW2 and I haven't really been a good fit for a long time.

Other than it being Mrs Bhagpuss's game of choice, what really kept me on board for the last few years was the jump in and have fun chaos of World vs World and the excellent worldbuilding provided mostly by the art team, supported by the writers, when they were on form which, sadly, they weren't, or not as often as they could and indeed should have been. 

I should probably log in and feed my dog...


As an explorer archetype, I usually found something to keep me engaged every time new content dropped but as I commented many, many times, it didn't drop often enough and when it did, there was never enough of it.

GW2 also famously has appallingly bad rewards, quite possibly the most disappointing in the genre. I nearly said the worst "risk vs reward" there but of course GW2 offers no risk whatsoever and never has, which is presumably why the rewards for doing anything have always been so abysmally poor. For most of the run of the game, ANet's solution to this has been to emphasize quantity over quality which, for me, has just meant an unconscionable amount of time spent organizing my bags. If I can blame any one game for finally making me agree with the common consensus that inventory management is a chore not a pleasure, it's this one.

None of this in itself would make me walk away from the game and truthfully I didn't and I haven't. It's been more of a drift. For the reasons listed and probably some others I've forgotten, I gradually found myself playing less. And I didn't miss it. I fact, the less I played, the less I thought about playing, until I reached the point I'm at now, where it takes someone prompting me to remember the game exists at all.

Obviously, I will go back and play again at some point. I go back to most mmorpgs multiple times after breaks. Sometimes the return takes, as has happened this year with EverQuest II and sometimes it doesn't, as with Lord of the Rings a few months back. 

One thing that always gives a game a fighting chance of regaining my attention is the release of a new expansion. I love expansions. They're like new games only bite-sized. When I say "expansions", though, I mean the real thing, not just some glorified update. Something that literally expands the game by a measurable percentage, somewhere in the order of 25-50% of the original base release, either by adding land mass, systems or mechanics, but preferably a combination of all three.

Thanks, but I'll pass.


Since the runaway success of World of Warcraft, I think there's been a widely accepted idea that mmorpg expansions arrive about once every two years or so. For me that's always been way too slow. My expectations were formed by EverQuest, which for several years put out two full-sized expansions every year, then after that proved to be too much of a good thing, switched to a minimum of an expansion every twelve months and always just in time for Christmas. 

EQII followed suit and I've come to believe that once a year, supported by a couple of major updates inbetween, is the ideal cadence to keep players busy and engaged. It allows sufficient time to assimilate and appreciate each expansion before anticipation builds for the next, which arrives just as people are beginning to tire of the last one.

I ought, therefore, to be very happy to hear that ArenaNet have belatedly decided to go with exactly this cadence from now on. The studio released a couple of "Updates" on the official website this year, one in February, which I confess I hadn't even seen until today, and another this week. Both talk at some length about how the game's content release model is set to change:

"Rather than launching an expansion every two to four years with a season of Living World in between, we’ll be releasing smaller expansions more frequently at a slightly reduced price and adding additional content for those expansions through quarterly updates, meaning that the next big release is only ever a few months away."

The Spring Update gives chapter and verse on what constitutes "an expansion" under the new regime. Or at least, I think it does...

 "In this new model, the first release in an expansion cycle will introduce a new story arc and setting, two new open-world maps, two Strike Missions, new gameplay and combat features, new Masteries, and new rewards."

Typically with an ArenaNet press release, it's a bit wooly. Is "the first release in an expansion cycle" what I would call "the expansion"? The thing you pay for? Unclear.

Let's assume it is. That means that, on the new yearly expansion cycle, we get two new overland maps, which is there or thereabouts half of what we were getting in the 2-4 year cycle xpacks. That makes sense. We also get a storyline and new Masteries, as you'd expect, plus a bunch of unspecified "features" and "rewards". And some bloody strike missions, god forbid, but we won't mention those.

The "What have you done for me lately?" emote. Well, that's what I'd call it.


That sounds quite a lot like what we were getting under the last Living World cadence to me, possibly minus the Masteries, although maybe not. I haven't really been paying that much attention to the details for a couple of years. 

Still, it sounds like a decent chunk of content. Not as much as Darkpaw manage to produce for two mmorpgs every year with a combined team team that's probably about a tenth the size of ANet's, but I'll be generous and allow it as "An expansion". I'll likely come back and play through the story and see the maps, provided the release doesn't clash with something more interesting.

There is, as there needs to be, a scaffold to support the game between these new, yearly expansions:

"In the following quarterly updates, we’ll add story chapters, an additional open-world map, challenge modes for the Strike Missions, a new fractal dungeon and challenge mode, new rewards, additions to the new systems introduced in that expansion, and—depending on the release plan for that expansion—new gameplay and combat features."

If I'm reading that correctly, they're committing to a specific number of new maps each year: three. I'm not about to go back and count up what we were getting under the last set-up but I'm fairly sure it was more than that, so this is an effective reduction in the speed at which the world-map expands. That may not be a bad thing. 

There was a sense that some previous Living World maaps were getting a bit samey and as other long-running mmorpgs can attest, the bigger you make your world, either the wider you spread your playerbase or the emptier most of it feels. Three good maps a year is better than four mediocre ones.

Other than that, I have to say it sounds remarkably similar to what came before. While I can't argue that the change to a fixed, yearly, paid-for expansion cadence doesn't appeal directly to my own preferences, a decade of experience with ArenaNet's propositions and plans tells me not to take any of this at face value. The company has a consistent history of devising and floating plans like this, trying to stick to them for a while, failing and then dropping them for something new.

Still "in development" after, what, five years?


If they can stick to this cadence and if players accept it, I think it could be a good change for the game. Annual expansions with new settings and storylines could keep the game feeling fresher and more lively than it has for much of its run. There should be fewer longeuers, fewer content droughts, less overt timewasting.   

All of this, though, we've heard before. Every new release cadence was supposed to provide stable throughput of content to keep everyone entertained but none of them was judged to have succeeded well enough not to be retired and replaced within a year or two. Other mmorpgs truck on steadily, year by year, with much the same release schedules and don't seem to do too badly by it but Guild Wars 2 has never been able to settle down to a comfortable routine.

Not playing the game regularly any more and having no real plans to return any time soon, I have never had less invested in the outcome of one of these lurches in direction, which makes it somewhat ironic that, on paper at least, it looks like one more suited to my preferences than most. All the same, I do hope it's a success. I very much approve of the concept of annual expansions. I just don't entirely trust ANet to keep pumping them out the way Darkpaw does.

I'm sure they'll at least manage one this year. It would be excruciatingly embarassing to miss that target. If nothing else, it'll provide an excellent opportunity for me to return to GW2 for another run. I'm pretty sure I won't be able to resist. Whether there'll be another such opportunity the year after that, I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Or maybe there'll be a new cadence model by then. If there is, I certainly won't be surprised.

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