During the Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns beta weekends, we were given the opportunity to test out several of the new progression systems. Naturally, the one system we weren’t able to test was the one that would prove to be the most controversial: elite specialisations.
While it was clear that there was going to be some effort required to unlock the elite specialisations and that ArenaNet was not simply going to allow players to fully unlock an elite specialisation instantly simply by having a big stock of hero points, many players were unpleasantly surprised at how steep the climb actually turned out to be. On release, fully unlocking an elite specialisation required a hefty 400 hero points. For reference, a character who had map-completed Tyria could be expected to have around 210 hero points, leaving about 190 to go. Since many of the hero challenges involved either difficult champions that often required a group to defeat, or were simply gated behind a mastery requirement, it was entirely possible for a character with Tyrian map completion to complete the main Heart of Thorns storyline without fully unlocking their elite specialisation.
The player outcry against this state of affairs led to what was possibly the fastest backflip in ArenaNet’s history. The requirement for fully unlocking an elite specialisation was reduced from 400 hero points to a much more manageable 250. This meant that a character who had Tyrian map completion could unlock most of the specialisation except the elite skill and final utility skill right away. After four or five of the new hero points (allowing the player to pick the low hanging fruit), collecting more hero points simply becomes a matter of Heart of Thorns map completion… resulting in an even bigger stockpile for the next expansion.
While the lower requirement is certainly welcome, I believe it may have sidestepped the real issue.
The Question of “Unlocked” versus “Viable”
The elite specialisations were promoted as “horizontal” rather than “vertical” progression – not intended to make your character more powerful in absolute terms, but to give them more options. The problem is that ArenaNet had the skills and traits unlock in a linear fashion with the most powerful traits and skills at the end in a classic vertical progression model. While skills were something that you could take or leave as you chose (even the herald could be run using other legends), this meant that you generally wouldn’t have access to the grandmaster traits until you’d unlocked roughly three-quarters of the specialisation.
In the short time before they turned around and reduced the hero point requirement, ArenaNet presented this as an opportunity to learn how to use the new skills and specialisation in increments rather than being overloaded with choices right from the start. In practice, however, it presented a significant mental block for some players against slotting the specialisation at all until they’d unlocked at least one major grandmaster trait. After all, if you assumed that the elite specialisations were reasonably balanced with the core specialisations (yes, I know, but we hadn’t realised just how strong they were in that first week), then it stands to reason that playing with empty trait slots would be putting yourself at a disadvantage… and few would want to put themselves at such a handicap, particularly when exploring unfamiliar areas with a higher difficulty than the core game. As a result, people felt that they weren’t able to play the specialisations until the point where they had an opportunity to come back and explore… preferably with a group that could handle the champions. While people wanted to be able to explore the new maps with the new specialisations, the high requirements made this impractical until they were halfway through.
Reducing the hero point requirements has effectively sidestepped this issue in the short term. However, it may create a headache for ArenaNet later. The hero challenges in Heart of Thorns were finely balanced so that hero points earned through full map completion would compensate exactly for those points required for unlocking, allowing a player to go into the next expansion with the same 200-ish hero point surplus. Now, however, it will be possible for a player to go into the next expansion with close to 400 excess hero points already. This means that ArenaNet will either need to increase the costs again (and possibly face outcry from the people who haven’t collected them all), find some way to bleed away the surplus of hero points, accept that some players will be able to instantly unlock the whole specialisation, or some combination of the above. Assuming that it’s unlikely ArenaNet would be happy about instant specialisation unlocks becoming the status quo, it’s likely that this issue will raise its head again in the future.
So, how can the system be improved?
Start Simple, Then Introduce Choice.
One of the key differences between a game oriented towards horizontal versus vertical progression is that it’s fairly easy to get one build that is, at least in theory, as powerful as the others. From there, further progression entails unlocking additional options. Thus, the solution may be to rework the order in which skills and traits are unlocked.
An obvious expedient that would likely do the trick is to abandon the ordered progression entirely, and allow players to choose in which order they unlock skills and traits. This would allow the player to choose the build they’re most interested in to start off with, put that together reasonably quickly, and then branch out further. However, presumably there’s a reason that they don’t want to do that since ArenaNet went from a relatively freeform system to the linear system of unlocking skills and specialisations we have now,
An alternative solution is to keep the linear system, but rearrange it. Have it start by unlocking the minors and one major from each category so that a basic build can be formed fairly quickly. Skills are unimportant in the beginning – the trait line and the new weapon should be enough to give a player the feel of the new specialisation while using the core utility skills. Once this basic build is established, skills and additional traits can be mixed in to give the player additional choices. (For revenants, it would be best to have the set of legend skills start unlocking right after the first set of traits, allowing the player to use the legend associated with the specialisation in relatively short order.)
As an example, consider the dragonhunter. The first unlock would obviously be the minor adept Virtuous Action, granting access to the longbow and the altered Virtues. For the first major adept, Piercing Light would be a bad choice since it relies on traps (which you wouldn’t have yet), and Dulled Senses is highly sensitive on build and circumstances for effectiveness. With that in mind, let’s go with Soaring Devastation. Defender’s Dogma comes up next, and then, for PvE purposes, let’s go with Bulwark as the major master trait. Add Pure of Sight, then Big Game Hunter to keep to the theme of traits that can suit any build. At this point, without having any trap skills yet, the player can start to get the general feeling of playing a dragonhunter: they’ve got their bow, and a full set of traits that encourages them to use, and thus develop a feel for, the new virtue active effects. Further unlocks will start mixing in the traps along with further major traits that allow for more build specialisation.
A system like this will remove the flaw that remains in the current unlock system, where it often isn’t desirable to use an elite specialisation until you’re most of the way through the unlocking process. The reduction in the hero points requirements has lessened the impact of this flaw, but it remains nevertheless. This will likely become even more apparent as future elite specialisations will be competing directly with those that already exist. In contrast, a system that allows for a basic but complete build to be achieved, using hero points from an existing stockpile, would allow players to use a new elite specialisation right away, and unlock additional options with further exploration. As a result, players could start playing the elite specialisations of the future as soon as they become available, while mastering them fully could still require a greater journey.