Colin Johanson is a busy man. As the game director of one of the biggest massively multiplayer games on the planet, it's not entirely surprising that his time is limited. I finally managed to grab some time with him to ask questions relating to Guild Wars 2, its current status and its first expansion pack, Heart Of Thorns. Here's how we got on.

Ten Ton Hammer: Hey Colin! To kick us off, how happy are you with the “state” of Guild Wars 2 now that it’s been more than two years in the wild and you’ve finally announced your first expansion pack?

Colin: Hello Lewis!

It’s fun to stop and think about how far we’ve come with the Guild Wars franchise, not just in the last two years with Guild Wars 2, but over the course of the last ten years of the franchise as a whole. As a studio, gauging how happy we are about the state of Guild Wars 2 really comes down to looking back to where we started long ago with the Guild Wars franchise, and then asking ourselves if we’re happy with where we are today from where we started.

Guild Wars 1 was a big hit for us as our studio’s first game – we’re very fortunate to have had a first title that did so well and was so positively received at a time when the established heavyweight of the genre was also storming the beaches of the MMO landscape ten years ago.

Guild Wars 2 has been a monumental next step for us as a studio from the original Guild Wars. Really, it’s surpassed nearly all of our expectations and it has allowed us to grow our studio extensively as well. There’s really no better barometer for a game franchise’s success than to be able to say that we’ve continued to grow the talent around it and the resources that are being put into it. When I started working on the Guild Wars franchise we had around 50 folks, we’re up near 300 now and continuing to grow due to the success of Guild Wars 2.

You only get to grow like that when your game is extremely healthy – which is a long way of saying: I’m very happy with the state of Guild Wars 2 today, and knowing it’s only going to get better with Heart of Thorns is very exciting to think about for our future.

Ten Ton Hammer: How close to your original blueprint do you think the game is now that you’ve revealed Heart of Thorns? Do you think the expansion pack has allowed you to create systems that are more akin to what you first envisaged for Guild Wars 2?

Colin: The features we’re developing for Heart of Thorns are all inspired by the same blueprint we laid out for Guild Wars 2 at the start. We are still out to challenge traditional MMO conventions and find ways to bring truly meaningful experiences to online worlds. A core philosophy of ours is to continue to make Guild Wars 2 stand out in the genre by making it an MMO where the journey is itself the goal.

As you can imagine along the way, we’ve gathered a ton of feedback from players. We regularly look back to seek learnings that come from decisions we made both for good, and things we could have done better.

For example, we didn’t have a clear enough answer for PvE players about what you do when you reach level 80 in Guild Wars 2 and how we’d update that experience to allow for more meaningful progression and challenges. The mastery system in Heart of Thorns is how we’re going to answer that question. This is our answer to end game progression in a way that respects the time players have put in to reach level 80. This system sets the course for how we’ll continue to grow the game after Heart of Thorns.

Progression is just one of area we questioned and are trying to answer with the expansion. You can say the same for how we’re approaching making guilds more meaningful in our world, how we want to grow and expand professions and their abilities, how we will provide a game mode in PvP that can be approachable to a large audience and also create top tier competition, and how we make the large scale strategy in WvW truly matter.

We don’t see Heart of Thorns as just any traditional expansion. It’s our chance to ensure the pillars of the Guild Wars 2 experience are everything we want them to be as the game continues to grow and evolve.

Ten Ton Hammer: Guild Wars 2 isn’t known for being a challenging game and rival products such as WildStar that pushed a hardcore agenda struggled to retain players. Why have you decided to now implement more challenging content with Heart Of Thorns?

Colin: Before directly answering this, let me start by saying - I think one of the things about Guild Wars 2 that really stands out is the combat system. What makes the Guild Wars 2 combat system something both unique and fun to play is the action-based and movement-and-positioning-based skills, the ability to swap roles while in combat, the ability to combo and work proactively with other players, and that players aren’t solely reliant on healer(s) to overcome encounters.

As you fight against the creatures that live in the world of Tyria, your minute-to-minute combat experience is going to be defined by how much the creatures of our world make you use all the tools our combat system provides. For content to be challenging, the creatures and encounters you face need to provide challenges that make you use the tools our combat system offers. Our players have been very clear this is an area they want to see more from out of Guild Wars 2.

With Heart of Thorns, we’re focusing on building creatures and AI for those encounters that ensure players will get to use the tools provided to them by our combat system more often. That’s part of the increased challenge we want to bring max-level players. When the creatures in the game allow you to explore and master the depth of our combat, the minute-to-minute gameplay experience becomes more fun and exciting, and ultimately the entire game experience gets even better because our combat allows for that kind of depth.

So why more challenging content now? Simply put – it’s what our players have been asking for – and we agree with them that it will make Guild Wars 2 a deeper and more compelling game experience. We don’t have issues retaining players, and we think providing more content they are excited about will only be better for us in the long run.

Ten Ton Hammer: Back in 2013 it was stated by ArenaNet that Expansion Packs weren’t on the table for Guild Wars 2 because with Living World, you could do what expansions would have done but do it on a more regular basis. What changed between then and now? Has Living World failed to meet player expectations?

Colin: If I remember correctly there was some misunderstanding around a quote we put out that said something along the lines of ‘expansions are on the table but it’s not something we’re focused on’. We never removed expansions entirely as one of our options for growing Guild Wars 2—as proof of that, here we are with Heart of Thorns on the horizon!

We see our living world and feature release strategy as another opportunity for us to innovate and challenge traditional MMO conventions – in this case trying to innovate on what it means to do live game development. Over time it became increasingly clear that players also wanted big “check in with me” moments where we grow and expand the game all at once – they wanted expansions.

That doesn’t mean live development is going away, I think a good number of our players would now point to some of those live releases among their most memorable moments in the game. Overall, we see our living world strategy providing the perfect complement to expansions by regularly continuing the story and growing our world between expansions. The combination of regular live releases and expansions are going to provide a value and experience for our players that they’ll find in few other games, and in particular in an MMO where there are no monthly fees.

Ten Ton Hammer: I’ve heard from many pessimistic players who state that Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns is potentially too small to be considered an Expansion Pack and should have instead been a Feature Pack. What do you think differentiates the two, besides a price tag?

Colin: Fortunately much of the feedback we’ve seen from players following our announcement and recent demo tour has been very positive. And we’ve still got a lot of exciting details to cover between now and launch. I think when folks know all the details and each feature coming with the expansion, they’ll see why we’ve been saying that we waited to unveil Heart of Thorns only when we felt we had an expansion worthy of Guild Wars 2.

Ten Ton Hammer: Does the release of Heart of Thorns spell the end to Feature Packs in the future?

Colin: Right now we’re really focused on the development of Heart of Thorns. Later on, we’ll discuss our plans for future live content.

Ten Ton Hammer: It’s clear that ArenaNet has worked very hard on Heart of Thorns and it no doubt took a great deal of resources to create all that you have. How difficult was it to balance the development of this expansion pack, while attempting to satiate the needs of players currently playing the game?

Finding a good balance between expansion and live development will always be an interesting challenge for us. We learned a lot across living world season one, season two, our release in China, and all the features we’ve delivered between our releases and feature packs. Ultimately our hope is we can use all of that knowledge to craft the perfect blend for our players of live and expansion development as Guild Wars 2 continues to grow and mature as a game. For now, making sure we get the expansion right is where our focus is going, since it gets at the heart of so many of the core fundamental systems of Guild Wars 2 – with those systems in place I think it will be easier to find a balance in development overall.

Ten Ton Hammer: Specializations feel very reminiscent of Guild Wars 1’s multiprofession system. As I understand it, you’ll only able to be one profession at any one time (i.e a Druid or a Ranger). Why did you choose to make it a “one or the other” system?

Colin: To answer this question we’d need to delve into a deeper understanding of how specializations work overall. That’s something we’re planning on doing soon….but not today! What I can say right now is that the goal behind specializations is to provide more meaningful and exciting ways to grow and expand our professions than simply adding a handful of new skills.

Ten Ton Hammer: How difficult has it been to develop specialisations for each profession without overlapping on design and profession roles? Were any particularly challenging to create?

Colin: The high-level concepts for what each of the specializations would be came together pretty quickly. However, the details of how the abilities work with those specializations has taken a lot of time to get right. In particular, we had to weigh what the abilities do against the various roles and abilities we already have across all professions. The specs tend to lean more towards a specific role that they are more defined at filling, which I think helps keep them a little more focused and in many ways easier to craft than entire profession from scratch like the Revenant.

Ten Ton Hammer: It’s brave in this day and age to release an expansion pack without adding further milestones for characters (levels, item progression). Do you think the fact that the game is becoming even bigger at level 80, that it makes joining Guild Wars 2 a daunting experience for new players?

Colin: I think in many ways Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns is about establishing more meaningful milestones in Guild Wars 2. We’re not taking the easy way out of adding levels and items, but that doesn’t mean we’re not adding end-game progression or different milestones. As just a few examples with our pillar features: we’re giving our most dedicated players meaningful end-game progression via masteries and challenging content, a way to build on their professions through specializations, and introducing milestones for guilds through our new guild progression system. The decision to not add levels or new tiers of gear is simply about us keeping to the core blueprint and roadmap of what Guild Wars 2 is all about. We are very excited to have the opportunity to challenge those traditional conventions of what expanding progression in an expansion for an MMO can mean!

As for new players, these new abilities aren’t required to overcome any of the challenges between levels 1 and 80 in the game, and so I don’t think it will be daunting, no. In many ways, the new progression system we’ve chosen helps keeps the game accessible for players. The core game world doesn’t become an empty wasteland of content that no one wants to play because it has been left behind in the level and gear grind treadmill. Instead, the existing world remains relevant, ensuring you have other players with which to play, grow, and experience the world of Tyria.

Ten Ton Hammer: The Mastery system sounds great for the type of player who is a completionist and who already pursues every achievement possible. How do you view Masteries for players who have no care for achievements? Besides the Glider, do you envisage all players will want to complete them?

Colin: Mastery lines should generally have a broad enough mix of interesting abilities—exploration, lore, combat, and more—that players of any type will find things to pursue and earn that interest them. A focused ability line like gliding, something that’s very specific to exploration, is pretty unique in our mastery system. Nearly every other line will provide a wide array of different abilities.

Mastery points can be earned from doing a great deal more than just completing certain specific achievements. I think in general players will find a wide array of different things they can do to earn them, and will enjoy the journey along the way as they do!

Ten Ton Hammer: It’s interesting that you chose to add Mastery levels directly onto players, so we’ll likely see a level 200 player running around. What do you think this adds to the game? Do you think people will form groups based solely on Mastery level?

Colin: Masteries are not a level based system, so the level 200 comparison isn’t entirely accurate. Players earn mastery points for their entire account. The number displayed next to their name on any character on their account that has reached level 80 is the total number of mastery points the entire account has earned. This system is intended to replace the traditional expansion concept of adding more levels that give relatively little meaning other than unlocking new tiers of gear. Masteries instead introduce a system that regularly provides new abilities and experiences, complementing the concept that the journey should be part of the fun in an MMO.

As for what it adds, I think it will give players who wish to show they have mastered all components of the Guild Wars 2 PvE experience a chance to show off some of the prestige associated with that. Having a large amount of mastery points will mean you’ve completed a wide array of different types of content and challenges across the game. This is somewhat similar to the hall of monuments concept from Guild Wars 1, which gave players a number to help correlate to the progress they made.

It won’t be common for players to form groups or filter out other players based on the number of mastery points an account may have earned. You have no visibility into what abilities other players have acquired and trained within the mastery system, so you’re really not making a party decision based on any real information more than the overall number.

Ten Ton Hammer: Lastly, now that you’ve implemented Guild Halls and Guild versus Guild (sort of) can we expect a change of heart and the arrival of capes?

Colin: This isn’t really a “change of heart” kind of deal. I haven’t met anyone yet at ArenaNet who is against the concept of capes! It’s just that capes currently don’t work with our animation and armor system. Hopefully someday that can change – cause capes are awesome.

Ten Ton Hammer would like to thank Colin Johanson for taking the time out of his busy schedule to take part in this interview. You can read more about Guild Wars 2: Heart Of Thorns over on the official website

To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Guild Wars 2 Game Page.

Last Updated: Mar 29, 2016

About The Author

Lewis is a long standing journalist, who freelances to a variety of outlets.