If there’s one thing I can count on, it’s that the ArenaNet developers always give out some meaty answers to the questions they recieve. A collective that loves their craft and their work, it reflects not only in the end results but in the enthusiasm of their answers. I’ve tried to edit down the following transcription, but it almost seems impossible to omit any of the details. So buckle up for a rather colossal ride, filled to the brim with interesting morsels of information.
Via a video conference call, me and several other journalists had to chance to attend a Q&A session with some of the key personal involved with Guild Wars 2. Lead Game Designer Eric Flannum, Lead Content Designer Colin Johanson, Writer and Lore & Continuity Designer Ree Soesbee, Character Artist Kristen Perry, and Lead Engineer Josh Petrie were on hand to answer an barrage of questions on the upcoming MMO, starting with perhaps the most obvious one…
Is there a release date yet?
Eric Flannum: It’s still what we said [before], which is sometime this year, but other than that it will be ‘when it is ready.’ It’s getting closer, but we still don’t have a release date for it.
You’ve said that you want to build a social community based on respect, that is friendly and inviting. How have you achieved this in-game?
EF: So the main way we wanted to make the game all about respect and user friendliness is we had pretty everything in the game designed to provide a co-operative experience for the players. So, a lot of MMO’s in the past. Players would see other players and immediately think “Oh, this player’s here to steal something from me,” and I’m not just talking about games that have player vs player combat. So because of the way quests are structured where I kill 10 of these creatures, and there are only 8 of them spawned, [the other player] is going to kill some of those and they are going to make it longer for me to accomplish what I want to do.
So everything in our game, from the dynamic events system which gives player-shared goals, through the way we share experience amongst players and the way we allow players to harvest resources from the same resource nodes, is designed so that when you see another player they cannot negatively impact your gameplay experience. In fact, all they can do is help you. It is faster for you to kill a monster with another player involved whether they are in your party or not, and you would have gotten the same reward if you had killed it solo, so those are all the game mechanics. Then we structured our guilds so you can belong to multiple guilds, because we believe that is a more natural social structure than forcing you to only associate with one of friends. We recognise that people might have multiple groups of friends that they might want to play the game with.
Kristen Perry: I have a personal story [relating to this]. In one of the playtimes that we had, I was playing a character trying to take out these centaur catapults, and I was pretty much alone in that area, other people doing something else and it was pretty rough time. I have to sit there and try to grab [an enemy], kill them separately and try not to agro everybody and run away without dying, and end up respawning! But I was so determined to get these catapults, and in the end one of my co-workers came over the hill like cavalry, and it was so nice to have relief from seeing other people trying to participate and not get in our way, [and to me] it’s a welcome part to our game.
Will the User Interface be customisable and add-on friendly?
EF: As far as the UI goes, we tried to design a very clean UI that is very unobtrusive, and also a UI that does have some customisability, but we don’t allow tons of UI modding. The reason we don’t allow unrestrictive UI modding is that we feel it gives a bit of an unfair advantage to players who go and download those mods, because they have a better play experience. So what we’re interested in doing is just making our base play experience a really good one, and try to design a UI that is very user friendly and very clean.
In regards to the rumoured iOS app, how is GW2 going to make the most of the opportunity and stand out from similar companion apps?
Colin Johanson: We’re really not ready to talk about the features we’re going to have in the extended experience, as it’s something that’s still in active development so we don’t want to talk about it too much to set your expectations too much in one direction. So, unfortunately that’s all I’ve got about that right now.
(NB: It was briefly mentioned afterwards that a ‘proof of concept’ has been shown to select members of the press at some point, but nothing concrete had been unveiled so far.)
While the game appears to be very near completion, what areas of the game are the development team currently pushing to get finished?
EF: I think every area of the game! [laughter] So for design, the big areas we are focused on right now are numbers balance, such as difficulty of features, balance of economy, making sure rewards are appropriate and come at the right rate. Numbers balance is one of those things that can be the difference between a great game and just a good game, so we’re really focused on that on the design end right now.
Josh Petrie: From the engineering perspective at this point in the project, we’re really focused on optimisation and bug fixing. We’ve gotten lots of great feedback information from all of the tests that we’ve been doing recently. We’re looking all over that, collecting things that are useful and focusing on fixing high priority bugs with the really serious performance problems that players seemed to have, so what we should have when the game ships is the smoothest experience possible.
Ree Soesbee: For writing, we’ve got most of the placeholder text done, in fact we have still have tons of recorded stuff that we have to go through and use the best takes, but there’s still a whole lot of writing in the game that is not in a permanent state so we’re going through as fast as we can and trying to make sure the text is up to a high quality.
KP: For the art department, as far as I believe we have all of our features in [the game], so for example all the armours are built, so we’re taking the time to really make sure everything is fine tuned, sorting out bug fixes, so we’re pretty much looking at every single nook and cranny in the time we have left to improve what we can. It’s art, you’re never really finished right? [laughter]
CJ: Content-wise, Eric mentioned that balancing being a lot what we’re doing, and the other thing too is that we’re trying to refine a lot of the hidden places in the world where we add new content and new stuff to discover that the game doesn’t necessarily send you too. So we’ve been adding a lot of little mini-dungeons and jumping puzzles to the open world, and other places so the player can explore by looking at the map and explore the nooks and crannies, jumping through waterfalls and going to the bottom of lakes. They may find stuff that no one else has found before that has been untouched, so we’re taking a lot of time to add those fun, memorable moments to our maps, and spread them around the game to make our world very diverse and really pay off for those that want to explore.
What have you learnt, positive and negative, from the beta tests so far?
EF: As far as the feedback that we’ve gotten, I think it’s generally been really positive. I think that in the case of every game everyone’s got little nit-picks and things that they would like to see changed, so what we’re doing right now is that we have time built into our schedule for what we call qualitative feedback, which is feedback we get from fans. One of the biggest examples of something we’ve done, if you look at changes between our first and second beta test, we added an eye colour selector to character creation. We hadn’t originally planned to do that, but we got a lot of feedback that people really wanted that, and Kristen really wanted that too, [she throws her arms up triumphantly] so we ended up adding that. We expect to do things like that where we’ll look at the feedback and try to figure out what is issue number one for everybody and then we’ll see what we can do about it. Sometimes there it’s not realistic, but there are times there are things we can do… it’s something we hope we can continue to do after the product is released.
KP: As an example, even from reading forums for the Sylvari work that I did, a lot of the different skin tones you can choose have been expanded due to community feedback. The greens that I originally introduced the race with everyone thought were neon. If you actually take them in the context of the rest of the world they blend in and actually feels slightly desaturated, but because of that I wanted to make sure everyone was content with the colours so I ended up adding a lot of desaturated greens and other tones too. We’re always reading the forums, we always reading about what the community wants on every aspect of the game.
What features do you feel would tempt players to switch from other MMOs to Guild Wars 2?
RS: I would say that our story isn’t the standard “kill 10 [ememies]”, it is something that actually feels like an evolution; you won’t go back and see the same story again and again. When you do something you feel like it changes. I know we always say that a lot in our trailers, but you do build and develop a character, and you really do develope your area and the NPCs you meet, and they come back in various stories later on. You have entirely different text depending on when you met them in the first place or if you hadn’t, and you can make decisions where you have the option to go recruit someone early in the game because you made the right choices earlier on. A lot of games don’t go into that kind of depth with the story, and I know that not everyone is a story person, but when you put that much care into the NPCs in the game and the things your character can do, it’s going to impact the entire game so no matter what kind of game you’re looking for in Guild Wars 2 it’s going to have a lot of depth that a lot of other games don’t.
JP: For me, one the things about GW2 that I think is awesome is emphasis on populating every corner of our world and making it really interesting and engaging, to reward players that just want to explore everything that we’ve put in that world. There’s stuff out there that you’re not necessarily going to see if you just follow along your personal story or even if you just follow in the directions of the dynamic events. Some of this stuff you have to go out there and wander around the world looking at all the cool places that our level artists have built, and that our content designers have then populated with really interesting characters.
CJ: The really big one for me is community. Guild Wars 2 is a game that is built directly behind building a sense of community in the player-base, and the effect that has on players playing the game and the way you view other players in the game is just a profound difference from traditional MMOs. [For example] “That guy’s going to steal my kills” or “has he tagged boss yet?” and you have people form a line to kill a boss one at a time. None of exists in Guild Wars 2, every other player is there to help you play the game. That’s something that exists from PvE all the way to World PvP, where you entire world is fighting against two other Worlds out there, for the pride of your community, your world, and I really think it’s a dramatic change in the way MMOs are played. I think MMOs were meant to be games where players play together, and I think Guild Wars 2 is the first game where that is actually true.
EF: So Colin pretty much stole what I was going to say [laughter] but I think one of the things that is going to be great for players, and this is that people will see after the game is released, is how much we’re going to support the game for a game with no monthly fee. A lot of companies that say “well, the monthly fee is there to support the game” [but] we really plan on supporting the game with a lot of content after the game releases with quite a lot of content that is free to players as well. We plan to support that with box sales and sales from the [microtransaction] Gem Store, but the nice thing about that is players can get to pick and choose what they want, as well as having the benefit of a bunch of free stuff, so it will be possible for players to just buy the game, never pay another cent if they don’t want to, be able to play the game and get a full experience that’s the same if not better than in any triple-A MMO you ‘re paying a subscription for.
KP: For me, I really like the variety you can have in the character customisation. For example, the dye system; it frustrates me in games when you have to completely quest for that one item in that one colour and there’s never any choices for dying it a different colour, you actually have to find an item [that matches]. So the fact that our dye system allows different areas on the same piece of armour to be unique to that avatar is really exciting to provide that kind of choice for the player. But related to that, it’s the layering of how you create you character as well, with the layering of the different armours [both in-game and character creation] with all the different races and combinations you can do. For example, with the Charr, one of my favourite things you can do is [having] a variety of fur tones and cat-like patterns on top of that. For the Norn you have tattoos and for the Sylvari you have the base tone and similar type of pattern you can put on there and all the different facial constructions with all of the sliders that alter each one of these races. There’s just so much choice that the player has to create a very unique look… it’s really exciting to me!
What was the reason for putting the max level at 80?
EF: One of the common comments we got from Guild Wars 1 where the max level was 20 were things like “With the expansion will there be a level increase?” or “Well I really like the game, but once I hit level 20 it felt like it was over”, and so we were kind of fighting against this concept of hitting the level cap halfway through the game, or even earlier than that in some of our expansions. We were fighting against this training that players have gotten from not just other MMOs but any RPGs anywhere; they expect the level cap to take them throughout the entirety of the story. So we started looking at the reasons why we did that, and [we felt] we didn’t want the game to be all about levelling. We decided to do it another way, which was ‘give the player lots of levels and use levelling as a nice measure of progress that you make along the way, but do a lot of other things in the game to make certain that it de-emphasises levelling. I think we’ve accomplished that to a great extent, as we’ve had a lot of comments that players don’t even notice levelling as they play the game, as we do that in multiple ways.
First off, as you level up through the game, you will be able to go back to areas that you are higher than and the game will automatically bust your level downwards so those areas are still fun to play in, so unlike most games where as you level you are invalidating content for yourself, that’s not true in our game. As you level up in the world you’re just opening up more and more of the world to yourself. The other thing that we do is we don’t increase the time it takes to level, so in most games it takes you much longer to get from level 60 to 61 than it took from level 30 to 31. In our game that’s not really the case; it’s basically a curve that goes up and then flattens off, as we did that because we wanted to make it very clear that levelling is not the main goal. So that’s the main reason why there are so many levels. That’s why we have so many levels, so it becomes a nice short-term progress marker but isn’t the end-all, be-all. I hope that made sense!
Will the player story quests be a linear affair, and how big an impact will it have on players later in the game?
RS: You can play GW2 and really not do any of the story quests; you can totally skip it if you’re not interested at all. If you’re not interested in PvP you can also skip it and it’s just part of the game that we’ve put a lot of effort into, but as a player you can choose what you like and what you pursue in the game.
Will the story quests be linear?... Sort of. There’s a story to the game, there are dragons destroying the world. If you don’t do something about that, there’s no world. That’s bad, so you should do something about that. [laughter] Everyone has this one basic goal, and we deliberately wrote the story to come from all of these [races] perspectives, the Asura perspective and the Charr Perspective, and then there’s the various order’s perspectives, and all of them live in the same world. It’s where they keep their stuff, so all of them have something invested in trying to save it. No matter what choices you’ve made that’s the goal that you’re reaching for and though the path might go in a lot of different directions to get there, when you get to certain points in the game in comes together before branching out again. Everyone gets that piece of the game, but your perspective in who you’re fighting and what you’re fighting for can be different by how your character got there and what choices you made, so it has a linear path in that there are larger events you can participate in or see in story chains, but you’re going to come at it and go away from it in different directions to get your own personal story.
What was the origin of the watercolour art style?
KP: Oh, that’s a BIG question! [laughter] Well, that actually spans over a lot of different departments and goes higher than me, all the way up to Daniel Dociu [Art Director for GW2]. I guess the overall summary of this art direction, as we said in the original Manifesto video, that we wanted to take what was in the concept art be able to put it into a fully realised feel for the game. So in playing the game, there’s attention to detail to all these different things coming through the UI with all of the different icons, even in the casing of the UI, in the loading screens, and in the backgrounds. It’s in the way the characters are put together. Yes, there’s some mention to making this very beautiful aesthetic that’s stylised, and we wanted to ensure that any plate armour didn’t look like it was made out of plastic, so it does allow a very broad scope of details to be put forward towards the main art direction. I think it was just that a unique look for GW2, and we have some of the coolest artists in the industry, I love working with my co-workers, and they have such inspiration paintings, and we wanted to play a game just like that… so we did!
Which was the hardest race to create?
KP: I would have to say the Sylvari was, just because it was so unknown, and we were trying to do something that on the surface carries a lot of understanding but complete translates differently.
RS: [In GW2] We had this archetype that was missing, and we didn’t have the sort of Fae beautiful creature, but we didn’t want to make a druid, we wanted to do something a new as we could get, but we didn’t want it so new that people would look at it and go “I really don’t know what a eight-armed-jelly-monster is” or whatever. So we built the Sylvari whilst looking at these other archetypes and go “there’s too much of that, too much of that” by trying to pick parts of things and put them together without it looking like some sort of patchwork quilt. In that it was difficult to make something cohesive and beautiful that filled the archetype whilst still very new. When we say they are a unique race, there are no unique ideas. That’s just the nature of the world, science will tell you that, but we wanted to make it as uniquely ours as we could and very evocative of the game we make that provides the story we tell.
CJ: Content and story-wise, the Sylvari are very nuance, more so than another other races in the game. There are a lot of levels to their story, a lot of layers to their lore, and just the concept of this dream that they have before they awaken in a game that’s harder to display instead of tell them what they are. It’s definitely been harder to tell their story and build their world, how the dream affects them, and how they’re learning to adjust and understand a new world that they’ve been born into. It’s definitely been more challenging than the other races, but in some ways more rewarding too.
KP: That’s actually one of the things I like most about them. We wanted to be sure that [players] had an understanding that this was a grown plant that was almost mimicking being humanoid. Given that it’s coming from the plant world that brings in so many more details than I can normally do for any other humanoid race. I can combine so many other things to make up their faces, like this one is based off a cactus, maybe this one’s based off an aloe plant or just leaves. It’s part of the lore, it’s part of the gameplay, it’s part of the nature of the race, and we have this variety, but what made it so exciting to design was how we were able to explore and have fun with all the details.
RS: One thing I want to add is how the Charr female were also a large challenge for us. There was a lot of Charr in GW1 but no Charr females, and we had to come up with lore as to why that was, and when we made them we had a lot of sketches go around the office asking “Do they have breasts?” “Are they large and hulking like the males are?” “Do they wear the same big armour?” We threw in a lot of different variations, and Jeff Grubb and I had some very strong ideas on how “it needs to be this way” and we were very lucky that our artists got that them as cool as they are, because I think they’re wonderful.
KP: No boobs!
RS: No boobs! [Bangs fist on the table triumphantly]
What sets Guild Wars 2 apart from other fantasy-set properties?
EF: One of the things I think really sets us apart is a sense of progression and history to the world. Guild Wars 2 is set 250 years after Guild Wars 1, and in most fantasy worlds, not all, but in most [if they jump forwards hundreds of years] it’s basically the same. Technology doesn’t advance, political systems don’t advance, that sort of thing. So one of the things we really wanted to do was make our world feel alive by making it change during those 250 years. We reflect that in the technology that you see, but we also reflect in things such as social advances. [For example] the world of GW1 is one of monarchies with kings and things like that. You go to GW2 and the humans have moved to a parliamentary government, and the advent of gunpowder and the more widespread use of it have affected the world.
Asura technology, which is essentially technological magic, has propagated throughout the world and you’ve got these gates that allow you instantaneously travel, so what we wanted to try and think about was how these things affect the world and how these races view each other. Tyria is experiencing a lot of changes that our world is undergoing in that it is becoming a smaller world, where because of magic and technology people are able to communicate with each other and see each other more and share ideas. That’s one of the big themes of the game; it’s this big diverse world having to put aside its differences and come together and become one unified world. I think that’s a fairly unique sort of thing for a fantasy world to do, and it was one of the more important things to us when we were developing it.
JP: I look at it as we do try really hard to take this race archetypes and make them uniquely our own. There are definitely aspects of them that you might see in other fantasy lore, but as with Sylvari we’re trying to it stand out and put our own personal touch on it.
CJ: Yeah, the only thing we had that was close to traditional fantasy was Dwarves, and we kill that entire race off.
JP: Yeah, we solved that problem!
RS: We’re all gamers. We play the games, we watch the moves, we read the books. We know what we like and what people generally like because we play it. So when we talk about how GW is different from these games, it’s built from a sense of all of those games and the parts we love best, and how we can make those part even cooler so we like them more, because if we like them more you’re going to like them more!
Why do you limit the player to 10 abilities, even though players are able to swap weapons to extend that?
EF: The reason why we limit, and it’s kind of a tradition from GW1, is that we think choosing a new set of skills is a very cool decision to make. One of the things that makes playing a game fun is whenever you’re forced to make a decision for one thing verses another that’s the fun of the game, because it’s putting power in your hands and it’s giving you agency over how your game plays. A big part of that is that in GW1 we gave you unlimited freedom [through] hundreds of skills and combine any eight of them you wanted, but one of the downsides to that was you could make terrible characters, like you could make characters that couldn’t do anything!
So for GW2 what we wanted to do was not put a ceiling of the good builds that you could make, but bring the floor for bad builds up. So [we decided] to give every player a basic set of skills that we know work together and combine in interesting ways that will make them useful, and that’s where the weapon skills come into play. Once we started playing with weapon skills we decided it wasn’t enough choice, so we gave players a second weapons set which gives players versatility, allowing them the ability to combine multiple things together, and it gives them that feeling of choice.
What was the biggest challenge when trying to tailor the personal story to player’s choices, and are you surprised at how strongly Mass Effect players have got attached to their personal stories?
[Laughter from the devs, Eric signals to Ree to ‘go ahead’]
RS: The biggest challenge is making your choices meaningful; if you choose to save the orphanage or choose to save the hospital that needs to make a difference, otherwise you chose red or blue and it’s not a big deal, but the more difference it makes, the more distinct the text after it and what happens after it becomes. So if we let you pick something as big as your race, you’re going to get a different story. If we make the orphanage and the hospital that different, and then have hundreds or even thousands of those choices in the game, we’re just exponentially propagating the amount of results and the amount of work we have to do, and get it back to a point where the story has cohesion can be difficult. So there’s a balance between “This choice really making a difference, that makes this story different and part of the story different,” and “That’s totally invalidated a lot of other stuff we’ve written.” We need to be close to the good side, where you’re going to feel like you’re doing something distinct because you’ve made those choices but it still feeds into the rest of the world.
EF: [In regards to Mass Effect 3] I have Mass Effect and have played it, but not finished it yet so I’m not entirely sure [on the controversy.] Apparently a lot of people are upset about it and they’re responding in the way it feels most appropriate. I’m not entirely sure what we’d do if we were in that situation, but I’m sure [Bioware are] making whatever choices is the choice that they feel is going to be best for their fanbase. As far as what we would do in that situation, I have no idea! [laughs]
Are eSports competitions something you aim to accommodate with the competitive PvP?
EF: Yeah, eSport is definitely something we’re considering. We’ve built the game with that in mind, competitive PvP, that is. One of the reasons we chose our style of competitive PvP was so that we would have a score that people could easily look at, and if you’re observing it you could know 'the red team has a higher score than the blue team’. We did this both because we wanted to make the game an eSport and also because we wanted to make the combat more exciting. We tried very hard to make the game have very visceral, visually interesting combat. We worked very hard to make it easy to identify what’s going on, which is also important if you want it to be spectator-friendly.
We’ve tried to make the game as broadly appealing as we can, because we feel like the foundation for any eSport game is to make a really appealing fun game, that grabs people and keeps them hooked. We hope we’ve accomplished that. eSport is definitely something we hope is in our future, if the competitive PvP grows to be popular enough.
Many thanks to the developers for taking the time out for the Q&A session, and to NCsoft for putting up with me for the day. Guild Wars 2 releases later this year, and is currently available for pre-order directly from ArenaNet and from traditional retailers.