We Played Guild Wars 2’s Heart of Thorns Expansion, and Chatted to Lead Designer, Isaiah Carwright

by on April 30, 2015

Most of us all have that one game that keeps pulling us back for more. For me it’s Dota 2, for quite a few of our team it has been Destiny over the last few months, and for my friend Gary, it is Guild Wars 2. So when ArenaNet offered up the chance to go play the upcoming Heart of Thorns expansion, I took Gary along to give his expert opinion and quiz Isaiah Cartwright, the lead game designer, on all things Guild Wars.

Our thirty minute hands-on session with the expansion starts off with a conflict to resolve: Laranthir is a Sylvari commander, but one who didn’t turn. He is trying to convince his troops to go out and find survivors in a shipwreck in order to have enough people to mount an assault. The problem is that no one seems to trust him due to the actions of the other Sylvari.

“Inside the stories we are going to give you a lot more choice about what you’re going to do while the story is going on, instead of the choice in between each story,” Cartwright tells us, “this is really because we want it so that you can replay the instance and see both sides to the story”


It’s here the Gary mentions the conversation interface looks different to that of the original game. “We stopped doing the side by side characters talking and we just made it so characters talk right in the open world. It really gives us some new tools for story telling. An explosion could happen over there and the characters could react, where you couldn’t do that before. It really allows us to do more immersive story telling and a little bit more storytelling through action rather than purely through dialogue”

Back in the demo Gary is fighting some enemies using the new Revenant profession that allows players to summon legendary characters from the Guild Wars lore in order to have different sets of abilities. In our demo, only the legendary dwarf King Jalis Ironhammer and the legendary demon Mallyx the Unyielding are available to summon, although we were assured that more will be revealed in due time.

The encounter itself has a somewhat different feel to that of the standard game, something that Isaiah explains further as Gary isn’t doing overly well in the fight. “Another thing we have been working on is some new tools to develop better encounters with. These creatures have a bit more intelligent targeting now and they are trying to close off the space and really force you to move around. This is done in a bunch of different places where there is this intelligent targeting that we have. It makes encounters feel a bit more alive and different.”


By this point Gary is on his last legs in the fight, until it is pointed out that with the two legends he is using as a Revenant, so he can heal with one ability, then switch to the other skill set and heal with another ability. The move puts him back to near full health allowing the fight to continue.

“Another fun aspect of the Revenant is there’s a bunch of built in combos so you can create fields. That’s a field that moves with you, it’s a dark field and as you attack you gain life stealing as you throw your hammer through it. It really allows him to do a little more self combo-ing , as we emphasise some of those abilities.”

After the fight the pace slows down a bit, giving Gary a chance to ask a question he has been particularly excited about asking. Should he create a new Sylvari character to play through the expansion with? Isaiah fills him in: “You will definitely have a different experience playing this as a Sylvari than you will everything else because a lot of the story is going to be centralised around that fact that the fleet was decimated form the inside by Sylvari turning. The world all of a sudden is now very distrustful of Sylvari and as a player you’re going to have to experience that first hand. You’ll still experience that as non Sylvari but it will be different as persecution won’t be towards you it will be towards others and so there’s definitely going to be a lot of difference between the Sylvari and the other races playing through this expansion. If you are really into those nitty gritty details of how this conversation is different to that conversation I think a Sylvari is probably a good thing to have so you can see the comparison.”


As with any expansion, a lot of content seems to be heading to Guild Wars 2 with the Heart of Thorns update, but just how big will it be? “We are still in the works of building a lot of it so it’s hard to try and size it up entirely but it will be a big meaty chunk of story. We are going to get to see a lot of resolutions to what’s going on and we have a lot of threads going, so there is definitely a lot of story’s to tell and a lot to get through and explain. We are having multiple paths inside of a story, so it’s hard to kind of wrap that up in a size comparatively because it is a little different.”

“You will see some new weapons and armour and some skins. You know with anything we do we want it to be rewarding. Usually this comes in the form of visual progression or things you show off. We will have a new precursor system that’s coming in, as well as some new legendaries. But we haven’t talked about which ones.”

It isn’t just new story content and items that are being added with the expansion. There are lots of new mechanics and gameplay tweaks being added as well. One of the flagship new additions is the masteries system that offers up the chance to give your character new abilities. “Masteries is our new system that we have added to the game. We look to the progression in games especially in other MMO’s and other expansions and saw that progression usually comes in the form of increasing levels, adding new items, adding new tiers of gear and things like that. We saw some negative side effects to it, we saw that it left behind some old content and made it way easier and it kind of removed some of the prestige. It’s also something you can only update on an expansion and we like to do a lot of updates so progression like that doesn’t work with updates and kind of invalidates some of the things players have done. We didn’t like that so we tried to come up with a new system. Masteries is that system.”


If you complete a particularly difficult challenge you will be rewarded with a mastery point. These points can be used to unlock and improve new abilities. In our demo, Gary added the glide ability to his character, allowing him to glide almost like Batman when he jumped off a ledge. With the new ability in tow, our man heads to the Wyvern fight, something that wouldn’t be possible without this new ability.

While the fight rages on Isaiah explains the system a bit more. “Masteries is kind of harking back on some older games like Zelda, Castlevania and Metroid those style of progression systems where the abilities and the content were very interlaced with each other. As you played the content you gained more abilities that then lets you go find and play other content. We really like this system because it allowed us to add progression to the game constantly throughout all of our updates and allowed us to make interesting and challenging encounters by adding these new abilities and new ways to interact with the environment.”

As the Wyvern fight continues, Isaiah mentions a new bar that appears under the enemies health bar. This is the new defiance system that is affected by CC abilities that are used during the fight. After enough CC abilities have been used in the fight it will open up the enemy to a moment of venerability allowing a few attacks to be thrown their way with no threat of taking damage. Gary mentions that if this were to be added to old content such as the Great Jungle Wurm it would make the fights a lot easier.


“There is always this tension between reworking the old content versus putting out new content. We are definitely going to do a little bit of that when these new systems come in but we found that with all of our updates players really prefer that we focus our time and energy on new things rather than constantly reworking old things. There are always things where we might have to fix some issues with something or the story is rolled back and we have to rework an area. That’s okay so we will continue to use those new tools in the old world but it will be more sparing as most of our focus will be on new things.”

The defiance system is just one of many smaller features that we touch upon during our short demo. There are also languages that can impact the ability to access certain areas or defeat certain enemies along with many new outposts and activities to keep you busy. Activities such as jumping puzzles and vistas will also return in the new content.

“The activities will be some of the more explorer fun based activities like you saw in the old world. Which is some jumping puzzles or little mini dungeons or mini games, but we are going to warp it all up into a leader board system so you can play those things and see the leader board of your guild members and friends to compete with them. There will be rewards for meeting certain challenges.”


After a few more minutes of play our time with the PVE element of the demo comes to a close. But the real question is just what did our Guild Wars expert think of his time with the demo? “The new revenant profession played pretty sweet. It’s a nice heavy armoured class with control of legends, calling upon King Jalis Ironhammer will turn the character into a beefy tank for a while or calling upon Mallyx the Unyielding will allow the player to control conditions. I can see this being a major class in World v World.”

He continued to point out that while what he played of the profession was great, and is something he would probably try out when the expansion launches, its overall effectiveness really depends on what other legends will be included.

The masteries system was something that left him divided. In theory it is a good idea and it should work really well for creating new ways to play. But one concern is that those familiar with GW2 might not like the Glide ability and the extra skill challenge it brings to the game along with the more vertical maps. He did however say that it is a good way of keeping max level players interested in the game.


Weirdly, the defiance system that was shown off in the Wyvern fight is something that he seems really excited about as it offers up to potential to change big fights and make them more tactical and require coordination between players. The promise of new jumping puzzles and new legendaries also left him excited and wanting to play more.

Overall Gary assures me that while he has some concerns, what he played left him wanting more and even more excited for the expansion than he was before the demo. Perhaps the most exciting thing he told me, however, is that the new expansion offers up the best opportunity for new players to try out the game since the first launch three years ago.

Thanks to Isaiah for taking the time to talk us through the demo.