Now that the development community at large has decided re-making the WoW formula might be a bad time investment, Guild Wars 2 seems like this year's logical reaction for where to go next. I'd go as far as to say ArenaNet's second push into the Tyria universe is the most significant event for MMOs since the player exodus from Cataclysm last year. I say that because it's one of the first times we've seen a major iconoclast in the genre, which itself has been on an exodus from the Blizzard method since Guild Wars 1. This is one of the only games since WoW that offers legitimate answers to questions almost every MMO post-WoW failed to successfully attack head-on. Guild Wars 2 might still rely on the same medieval fantasy tropes that we've been wandering through for over a decade - actually it's probably even a few years behind the likes of Star Wars: The Old Republic in terms of how it characterises NPCs with its oddly panto voice acting - but it's an overall re-thinking of how to approach MMO design from the ground up.
The business model it's keeping to is still partly what impresses. ArenaNet is sticking with its buy-the-box-play-for-free strategy that worked for their first go at Guild Wars, and are incorporating microtransactions in some manner that's still left relatively vague. While Blizzard, BioWare, and even Trion Worlds on occasion still hold the belief that subscriptions buy you AAA quality, Guild Wars 2 is a shrieking warcry against the norm.
The same can be said for how it manages character creation. Alongside the basic physical changes you can give to an avatar, the game poses you a few basic questions that will determine their background - whether they were raised on the streets or in a palace, and so on - and in doing so change how NPCs react to you in conversation. Your character's personality isn't necessarily as much of a focal point to the game as it would be had this been worked under BioWare's knuckles, but it allows for the structure of a character-driven story to take place while giving the MMO room to breathe in a way that is often lost in TOR.
There's an internal logic to the game that can take a period of getting used to after long periods playing games under the Blizzard school of design. While some NPCs are marked when they have quests for example, others will call you over to ask for help, while other times simply entering an area will trigger a quest to be added to your growing quest list. But there's a structure to it that adds a level of simplicity to the game despite the occasionally daunting first steps.
Heart quests make up most of the work: basic tasks which are indicated on maps with heart symbols. These are your usual help-a-friendly-NPC tasks where work varies from feeding cows to hunting down bandits, but unlike the usual Kill 10 Rats regime there are often extra elements to bring complexity to what can be a mindless grind in other games. A quest to help a local farmer feed and water his animals and crops coincides with another public mission that triggers as you enter the area, in which waves of bandits attack the farm and set haystacks alight. Now the quest has you simultaneously putting out fires, killing off the remaining bandits, and finishing off your initial farm-hand task. Finishing these quests off will turn that NPC into a Karma Vendor so you can acquire new items or sell to them, cutting down the time-waste of trekking back to a big city to sell items.
So Guild Wars 2 offers you a kind of pacing that you can't easily find in the genre, and this kind of fast-pace multitasking extends to the game's dynamic events. The game owes more to the likes of Warhammer Online than it does to WoW, and like WAR (and WAR's other distant descendent RIFT) it gives you pop-up missions that are open to anyone within the area to join in, and where difficulty is scaled based on the number of users in combat. Like most of the modern ilk of MMOs the game allows users to solo their way through most of the content - NPCs are available to fight through instances in a simulated co-op experience, and heals are granted to all classes which makes grouping less of a necessity. While class-specific heals exist - the Mesmer profession for example carries with it abilities like Chaos Storm which gives you certain boons, and the Guardian gets a minor AoE heal - all users can heal or even revive anything from themselves to the odd fallen NPC . However dynamic events offer regular opportunities to work alongside other users regardless of the soloable content available.
Similarly cooperative questing is encouraged even without establishing traditional-styled grouping. If you stumble on another user in the middle of completing the same task you're on, the game credits you for participating alongside them without taking away from their XP or loot.
But perhaps one of the more interesting re-thinks for MMO design is how ArenaNet attacks abilities. For years MMO lore had characters mastering new abilities by finding a class trainer and picking up new spells or skills through gold or whatever currency, making it more an economic trade than anything. In Guild Wars 2 we get a slightly more (and I use the term loosely here) realistic interpretation of how magical abilities would be gained. Now you get new moves by regularly using old skills, like flexing muscles until you increase your physical strength. Greyed out skills that you will gain in the future are shown on your abilities bar, and increasingly fill with colour as you fight until they are usable.
Even death is re-interpreted slightly. Downed and rallying combat keep the users in-game without kicking them into a complete death-state. When the player's health reaches zero they enter Downed mode and are given four abilities to continue fighting the enemy for a chance to Rally, by killing them.
One beta weekend in and ArenaNet already proves in three days that it has successfully re-thought the genre from its foundation upwards.
Guild Wars 2 will be released later this year.