Archive News

Editorial – Alan Pottasch Hits MAX Level: Thoughts On Heart Of Thorns’ Design Philosphy

Editorial by Jesse “Radiophage” Mackenzie

I’m watching ArenaNet people on the main stage at PAX South detail the features of Guild Wars 2’s upcoming Heart of Thorns expansion, and they keep using phrases that pop out at me.

Let’s look at a few.

“I will commit to you, your max-level characters with your top-tier gear today are still gonna be your max-level characters with your top-tier gear tomorrow,” said ArenaNet president Mike O’Brien.

“This is all part of our no-grind philosophy for Guild Wars 2.” Colin Johanson, game director for Guild Wars 2.

“Ah, the endless gear treadmill. It’s such a cheap solution to a problem.” O’Brien again, with a grin.

New tiers of gear “invalidate all the hard work you put into your existing characters” and “ramp up the power curve”, according to O’Brien.

The new Masteries system “builds on the no invalidating your hard work, no-grind philosophy in Guild Wars 2.” Johanson again, specifically mentioning “no grind” again.

You don’t say these sorts of things if you’re not positioning your game as an alternative to a market leader. If you’re not the Pepsi to someone else’s Coke. And it’s pretty clear to me that GW2 is the Pepsi to World of Warcraft’s Coke. The question for me is, will Heart of Thorns be their “Pepsi Generation” moment? Are Johanson and O’Brien together the Alan Pottasch of the MMO world?


For those who don’t know the admittedly apocryphal story, here it is, as best I can remember it: Pottasch is a young suit at Pepsico in the early ‘60s, trying to devise an ad campaign that’ll eat into Coca-Cola’s enormous market lead. He’s worked himself up to go talk to his boss, he’s got four pages full of slogans scribbled everywhere, he’s got a few he thinks are great but he might as well throw everything at the wall and see what sticks, right?

Pottasch sits down with his boss and goes over what he thinks is his best stuff, but it’s not going well. Boss is shaking his head, boss is doing the 1960s equivalent of looking at Facebook. At the end of it, Pottasch, exasperated, asks, “Is there anything on here that’s worthwhile?” Boss leans over and circles “Pepsi Generation”, a throwaway idea written upside down in a corner on one of the pages. “There. That’s your best idea.” Pottasch had almost forgotten he’d written it.

The “Pepsi Generation” campaign would launch in 1963 and revolutionize both the soft drink wars and the world of advertising. By selling their drink based on the lifestyle of their customers, rather than qualities inherent in the liquid itself, Pepsi took a huge chunk of market share away from Coca-Cola and cemented their position in the market for decades.

Now, O’Brien and Johansen are game makers, not ad execs. And they’re certainly talking about qualities inherent to Guild Wars 2 along with the lifestyle points—gamers demand no less. But it seems to me like the MMO world is littered with the remnants of Coca-Cola competitors grindy World of Warcraft clones staggering on in free-to-play unlife, and you have to do something different in order to succeed. And one of the things you can do is sell a lifestyle rather than a product. One of the things you can shoot for is a Pepsi Generation moment.

So you trash the gear grind and the level cap as ways to maintain player interest. You take all the cool things you’re going to give your players, and you spread it out through maps and collections and dynamic events and things that they will do rather than roll need on. You figure out a vertical progression method that doesn’t invalidate years of play. You take the design principles you’ve already applied to your main game—no subscription fees, no gear treadmill, instanced loot, everyone can rez, mob tagging that rewards everyone equally, things are always more fun when you see another player—and you double down on it in your expansion.

And you see if it clicks. Which is, I guess, where we’re all at now. Guild Wars 2, like its predecessor, has carved out a place as one of the top MMOs in the West based on their Pottaschian design philosophy. It’s refreshing to watch it at work.

BaseLAN 2024: Strikes Back - 60% Sold Out! Register Today!