Guild Wars 2 director discusses Heart of Thorns, Revenants, Guild Halls, and more

Following the recent PAX South announcement of a new expansion called Heart of Thorns, Shacknews reached out to Guild Wars 2 game director Colin Johanson to get more details on some of the new features that players can expect, while also attempting to nail down a more precise release window.


Warning: The following interview contains light spoilers for Guild Wars 2's The Living World: Season 2.

Guild Wars 2 recently wrapped up the second season of its Living World story arc, leaving off on somewhat of a cliffhanger. When Arenanet returns with the next chapter, it'll do so with a major bang, announcing at PAX South that the game's first expansion, Heart of Thorns, was in the works.

Heart of Thorns promises to add a slew of new features to the game and further flesh out the lore, as well as add some new content to PvP and its acclaimed World v. World (WvW) modes. To learn more, Shacknews quickly got on the phone with Guild Wars 2 game director Colin Johanson to learn more about what players can expect to see in GW2's upcoming expansion.

Shacknews: How did the end of the Living World's most recent arc set up the reveal for Heart of Thorns?

Colin Johanson, Guild Wars 2 game director: This has been a long time coming for us and a relatively secret plan that we've been hiding for a long time to build up to all the events leading to the announcement. About 12 days ago, we released the final episode of The Living World, Season 2 and the end of that episode, I won't spoil too much, but at the very end of that episode, the combined armed forces of the world boarded all the airships and sailed into the jungle to find and destroy the Elder Dragon, Mordremoth. And as they fly into the jungle, the jungle comes alive, rips them all apart from the sky, and in a matter of minutes, destroys the entire army. As that moment came to a close, it looks like the season ended on that point. Players completed it and were dropped back into the world, they left the end of the season, and as they loaded back in, a new trailer kicked in. The new cinematic teased the experience in the jungle and ended with a myserious image called "The Heart of Thorns." That opened up about 10 days of rampant speculation about what that meant, whether that was The Living World: Season 3 or remasters of The Living World: Seasons 1 and 2, all kinds of crazy speculation about what it could mean.

We went on stage at PAX South, live on Twitch, for the largest audience we've ever seen on Twitch, we told the world that it was an expansion. That's the exciting couple of weeks that we've had around here at Guild Wars, just a little piece of the puzzle of an entire story that played out over the course of two years to set up this expansion.

Shacknews: The expansion is set to introduce some new mechanics. Can you explain more about Mastery and Specializations?

Johanson: Specializations is a new system that allows you to take each of the professions we have in the game and grow them almost into a new sub-profession or secondary profession. An example of this is, a Ranger can become a Druid. Once a Ranger becomes a Druid, they have the ability to use the powers of the jungle and that gives them new skills, new traits, they can use a new weapon that a Ranger could never use before, and they get new profession mechanics that fundamentally change the way a Ranger plays when they become a Druid. Each of the professions will be getting one of these Specializations and this also is a framework that we'll use to grow the professions in the future. This will be the way we add more skills, traits, and abilities to the game moving forward. That's how we're growing our existing professions.

There's also the Mastery system. The Mastery system is really our answer to our players' feedback from the launch of the game that they wanted more meaningful challenges and more meaningful progression in Guild Wars 2. They wanted things they could do when their characters got to Level 80 that gave them new abilities that could overcome new challenges that we regularly add to the game. What we realized over the course of our development was that we didn't really have a system that allowed us to do that and we didn't want to take the easy way out by just adding more tiers and gear and invalidating all your hard work that you put into your character by having you start over again. So we picked a system that would take longer for us to build, but in the long run, a system that's perfect for what Guild Wars 2 is a game and that's a system that's based on making the journey more fun and more exciting by regularly expanding your abilities.

As you complete challenges, complete stories, and discovery hard-to-reach places, you'll unlock Mastery points. You can spend those points to purchase abilities that you can use to master different parts of our game, from exploration, to lore, to combat, to crafting, and building. And each of those open up new abilities to all of the characters on your account. It's an account-based system that we'll use to continually grow out and expand the game in the future.

Shacknews: What can you tell us about the brand new profession coming to the game? How would you describe the Revenant?

Johanson: Rytlock Brimstone is the first Revenant. He is the famous hero of the Charr and during the Living World's second season, he disappeared into the mists, chasing after an incredibly powerful magical sword. Through his journeys in the mists, he has mastered the power of the mists and he is returning to teach everyone how to be a Revenant. The Revenant effectively is a heavy armor profession that can channel the power of the mists. What that means is that you can channel the power of great legends from Guild Wars history to define the skills that they have available to them. So you can channel the great Dwarf king, King Jalis Ironhammer, and it makes your character much of a front line, tank-y character with abilities to help him survive fighting face-to-face with your enemies. Or you can channel the demon Malik and get the abilities to control the conditions in combat and become much stronger in DPS, supporting your party by removing conditions from them to protect them. Those are the examples of the types of things that a Revenant can do when channeling a legend and each legend that's going to be available to a Revenant really defines a different play style that's available for that profession. I think the Revenant is going to be one of the most diverse professions that we've ever made in Guild Wars history and it'll allow for a lot of different, fun, and unique play styles as you master each of the legends.

Shacknews: You've added a new profession, however you did hold off on adding a new race. What led to this decision?

Johanson: For this one, we looked at what we would get out of adding a new race and what benefit it actually brings to the players from a gameplay standpoint. It's very limited in Guild Wars 2. A new race adds a racial skill or two and a little bit of story, but it doesn't give that much meaningful gameplay in the grand scheme of things. The race is more context for the early story that you experience. So we wanted to focus things that would provide a lot more gameplay and address parts of Guild Wars 2 that we felt like we really wanted to be able to make a better experience and grow. So right now, we didn't feel that a new race was a key need for the game, whereas the other things that we're adding really provide fundamental building blocks for the future.

Shacknews: What can we expect to see in the Heart of Maguuma and will we be introduced to more of Mordremoth's minions?

Johanson: We are going into the very heart of Modremoth's land and we are going to encounter interesting creatures that live there naturally and those that our friend Mordry has created. From an environment standpoint, this is the largest amount of vertical space we have ever built in the game. Our map spans huge distances up in the air. We are actually able to climb to the very top of the jungle and look down on everyone below. We're adding hang gliding, so you won't have to fall to your death every time. We're adding a lot of abilities that will take advantage of the amount of 3D space that we'll make use of as part of these adventures in the jungle.

Shacknews: Let's turn to PvP. What can you tell us about Stronghold?

Johanson: Stronghold is our brand new game mode. It takes inspiration from the GvG game mode and from the Fort Aspenwood game mode from the original Guild Wars. It draws a little bit of inspiration from MOBAs and from what make Guild Wars 2 such a great PvP game.

The fundamental concept behind the game is to find and kill the enemy's Guild Lord in their stronghold and, along the way, your team will fight for and gather supplies. You can spend supplies to hire troops that march towards your enemy's stronghold, you can man a trebuchet to defend your own stronghold, and occasionally Heroes will appear on the battlefield that you can fight for control over. Whichever team wins them over, the Hero joins their side and joins the assault on the enemy stronghold. Within the stronghold, there are gates you need to bash your way down to fight your way inside and when you're all the way in the heart of the stronghold, you can kill their lord and win.

Shacknews: I've spoken to some of our readers and they're concerned that interest in World v. World is starting to wane, but you are adding new content to it. What can you tell us about the Borderland map and how do you plan to build further interest in WvW?

Johanson: World v. World is one of the most unique experiences we have in Guild Wars 2, with hundreds of players fighting these epic sieges. It really is like being a troop inside an RTS game. There are amazing moments when you have battles to control towers or when you have armies facing off and we want to ensure that that's the bread and butter of the World v. World experience. So we're doing a lot of work to ensure that holding objectives through all of World v. World is a more important part of the experience. We're going to make that a bigger part of victory, a bigger part of the strategic decisions that you and your army makes, and you really need to defend and hold your objectives. That leads to great battles between two sides when they're strong and struggling to hold them.

The new Borderland map certainly has a lot of that built into it. Al of the key, strategic locations provide strategic benefits to your world. Everything from providing abilities when you're near your keep to preventing players from getting through chokepoints. The towers are the chokepoints of the map that prevent enemy army movement if they're not able to break through. We're really trying to place more strategic emphasis on that and, as part of that, we'll be dealing with a lot of things that World v. World players are excited about seeing. That includes truly awesome battles and more strategic decision-making, the kind you would make in an RTS game, where you're splitting your troops to attack different places, you're bringing the army together, you're scouting to determine where to go next, and we want to make that rewarding. The new Borderland map will feed into that, as well as the fundamental changes we're making to the World v. World experience.

Shacknews: What does Guild Halls add to the game?

Johanson: We're not going to talk too much about Guilds today. We're going to come back and reveal more details on Guilds when we get to that point. What I can say, from a philosophical standpoint, is that we want to put the "Guild" back in Guild Wars. We feel like that's an area of the game that we can really grow the experience for our Guilds and your Guild Hall will be a base for us to do that.

It's a place where we'll add Guild progression, the ability to grow your Guild out, grow out your Guild Hall, progress your Guild as a community, and a place for you to gather and host events. You can launch missions for you and your Guild to do together or you can organize to jump into World v. World together. It's a place for you to form your teams before you compete on our new ladders and PvP with your Guild members or go into the jungle to face all of these brand new challenges that we've built. These Guild Halls will become something that we're regularly updating going forward after the expansion releases, as well, and will become a core pillar of the Guild Wars experience.

Following the interview, I asked Johanson about nailing down a potential release window. However, the team at Arenanet was not exaggerating when they said there is no release date on the horizon. For Guild Wars 2 players, the first opportunity to go hands-on with the new Heart of Thorns content will be at PAX East in Boston and EGX Rezzed in London. From there, the development team will determine plans for a beta to gather player feedback, at which point they'll piece together a release window. Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns is coming soon to PC and Mac.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

From The Chatty
    • reply
      January 26, 2015 10:12 AM

      The Horadric Cube

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      January 26, 2015 10:29 AM

      The question I really want answered is what are they going to do between now and the expansion? There is a balance patch coming tomorrow. But after that there are no other updates planned. I understand they can't do another Living story since the expansion picks up right after this one ends. But even an event or two like Dragon Bash, or SAB would help break up the fact there is not much left to do in the game currently other than grind pvp rank points.

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        January 27, 2015 5:16 AM

        Yah I considered that too.. but then we don't have a release date yet, so hopes are it's sooner perhaps?

        I hope not, since I have all LS2 + achievo's + catching up on all the changes in the last 3 months to do :D

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      January 26, 2015 7:52 PM

      WHERE ARE MY TENGU AT??????? People want the Tengu yet we don't get the Tengu!!!! i hope they do add at least one new race!!!!!

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      January 26, 2015 8:53 PM

      One of the main issues I have with the game is technical. The engine is simply horrible, it's dx9 only and runs like dog crap of just about any machine, even SLI ones. I've seen no plans to update it to dx10 or 11 and performance wise, it's way long in the tooth.

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