Don't get me wrong; hitting the level cap is significant. It's cool. Your character strikes a pose (you know, the same one he has struck literally scores of times before at each and every level-up). Your character says a catch-phrase. You feel good. But in terms of actual gameplay, I can think of very little that is less significant.
Hitting 80 means almost nothing for my gameplay. When I hit 80, I won't be done with my personal story (in fact, I'll probably still have a fair bit of my personal story to go, thanks to a progression-halting bug in my level 62 story step). I won't have defeated the ultimate big-bad. I won't have hit map completion (I'm sitting pretty at about 53% at the moment). I will barely have touched Orr. I won't have finished the dungeon progression. Heck, I won't have started the dungeon progression. After I hit level 50 without making my way into the Ascalonian Catacombs dungeon, I decided that dungeons would just be a thing I did once I was done leveling. That is one of the many reasons that I'm glad of down-leveling. I would be sincerely stressed if my best chance to experience dungeons was gone within the space of a few levels. There was just too much to do to take time for the dungeons, and I'm very glad I get to go back for them.
That on its own is a staggering amount of content. All the story and explorable modes of the dungeons? Plus enough runs of whichever dungeons whose armor sets I fancy to get myself geared up? Gosh. And that's on one character. I'm not a fan of most of the light dungeon sets, but by golly, do I like a great deal of the heavy armors. My Warrior is in need of real advancement, and I'm considering making one of the side-challenges of leveling her be keeping her in (predominantly) dungeon-earned gear through her progression from 30 to 80.
I can't even get started on PvP. Every time I get into WvW, I consider making it my new permanent home. I realized how deep a hole has been dug for me in the world of sPvP after I got a few ranks and decided it was time to see what I could do with my Glory. I opened a couple of gold Rabbit chests and experienced a sensation of joy and foreboding as I realized that, on top of just wanting to play more sPvP for its own sake and the bitter fun of getting better, I wanted more of these skins. There's an alarmingly large number to be collected.
And that's without taking into account the amount of visual customization, prestige-gathering, and general vanity-chasing that can be looked forward to.
That's about 3% of the total cost of a set of level 80 cultural armor. At a whopping 119 gold per set, the third-tier cultural armor items represent a significant dedication to fashion. With characters at higher levels and the amount of time I play, it's not unreasonable to imagine that I'll be earning somewhere in the vicinity of two gold per week (just through gameplay; this is ignoring selling 1337 crafted gear or otherwise getting involved in the economy), which means if I were relying just on that, I'd be all saved up for cultural armor in a little over a year.
I played fairly fast and loose with my karma in the lower levels, specifically when I hit mid-level maps that offered a new armor set. Since then, I've been relatively stingy and put out a very begrudging pool of karma to buy gold inscription recipes for crafting, but I have otherwise been hoarding it. At level 72, I've got about 21k karma banked, glowing faintly and waiting -- begging -- to be used. That sounds like plenty, but I want me some cultural weapons. I can hear the Asura Peacemaker set of weapons calling my Elementalist's name, and I'm not sure how my Warrior could hold her head high without an Adamant Guard greatsword. However, 63,000 karma isn't anything to spit at. So, mark that down as several weeks (fewer, if you're dedicated to one character and have hours of time each day to play) per weapon.
This is a good time to mention anti-farming mechanisms in the game. Reports vary, as gamers' reports tend to do, about the strictness of measures that folks have encountered and when those measures kick in and what's going on. The potential of diminishing returns on invested time and effort is something to keep in mind, certainly. Most items that people are saving up for require multiple components, so there should be plenty of variety of things to kill and remains to gather, but it's never fun to be settled in for a long day of bat-slaying only to find out, after the 300th-or-so bat, that they no longer bleed upon death.
There's a lot to be done. Hitting max level or max craftsmanship or max anything means almost nothing in terms of what your gameplay can or cannot mean from that point forward.
Elisabeth Cardy is a longtime Guild Wars player, a personal friend of Rytlock Brimstone, and the writer of Flameseeker Chronicles here at Massively. The column updates on Tuesdays and keeps a close eye on Guild Wars, Guild Wars 2, and anything bridging the two. Email Elisabeth at firstname.lastname@example.org.