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Interview: Designing Guild Wars 2 – Part 1

29 Jun 2011  by   Paul Younger
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Apparently, making an MMO is not easy. I can’t see why, thousands of players, constant updates, exhaustive levelling, loot and guild systems… sounds easy if you ask me. 
Despite that, we sat down once again with ArenaNet’s Eric Flannum, lead game designer on Guild Wars 2, to chat about how the MMO space has changed since the first Guild Wars, how the team generate new ideas and the difficulty in making each player feel unique and valued.

IncGamers: Guild Wars is a genre defining game to a lot of people. With that in mind, with Guild Wars 2 is it a case of iteration over complete overhaul?
Eric Flannum: I think we knew right away that wouldn’t to change a lot of major things about the game, things like it being a fully persistent world as opposed to being primarily instanced. We knew that we didn’t just want to iterate on the first game because we were already constantly in the process of doing that with Guild Wars one.
Part of the reason we started to make Guild Wars 2 was because there were certain things we wanted to do with the game that would have been very major changes and we didn’t feel we could make those changes to Guild Wars 1 without fundamentally changing the way the game works. We didn’t want to do that because it would have changed the game away from what the people that have been playing it for years loved about it.
IG: Will post-release iteration and updates be an equally big focus for Guild Wars 2 as it was for the original?
EF: It’ll be a pretty big focus for us to keep providing more content post-release, yes.
IG:  In expansion pack form?
EF: We haven’t really determined exactly what we’re going to do, right now we’re more concentrating on releasing the best game that we possibly can. We’ve got some ideas but we haven’t solidified anything yet in terms of post-launch support. But, we will support the game very heavily. There will be an extensive live team to make sure of that.

IG: How has the MMO space changed since the launch of the original? Would you say that it’s perhaps more difficult to make an impact now then it was?
EF: I’d say that it’s probably more difficult, yes. When the first Guild Wars released in 2005 World of Warcraft had only been out for a little while, you didn’t have that many MMOs out at the time.., there’s certainly way more now, especially when you factor in the games coming from Asia.
I think the big thing it that there weren’t many well established MMOs compared to now and that’s what makes it difficult, you’re not competing against how those games were on release you’re competing against what they are now.
For example – comparing Guild Wars 2 to Guild Wars 1 – we couldn’t release a game that was as big as Guild Wars 1 Prophecies, we have to release a game that is much bigger than that because otherwise it would just pale in comparison. This is a reality that MMO developers need to face that you’re competing against games that have been supported for several years and that can be tough.
IG: What’s it like developing a game for a genre containing a behemoth the size of World of Warcraft?
EF: For us, we don’t necessarily pay.., well, I wouldn’t say that we don’t pay attention it to, but we don’t try to directly compete with them. The reason for that is that we don’t have the same business model; we’re not asking people for a subscription fee which means that playing our game doesn’t force players to commit to two subscription fees. Therefore, it’s much easier for people to play our game and therefore we don’t really see [WOW] as competition in the same way as other MMOs might.
Also, at ArenaNet we firmly believe that game players.., there are certainly companies that concentrate on taking existing games and polish them and provide a different version of them, but that’s just not something we want to do. We think we need to be a company that provides new experiences and new gameplay features and all that, so that’s our path to success.

IG: How do you go about deciding on what the ‘new experiences’ are going to entail?
EF: Most of the current MMOs, we look at them, we play them and we try to figure out what could make them better. Then we really dig down to the basic issues and remake the game so that everything supports our ideas and improvements.  For example, it would have been pretty easy for us to say that we’re just going to make a standard MMO expect we’re going to have these dynamic events. But, instead, we think that the way content is handled in MMOs needs to be drastically different and in order to succeed in that we have to make this new type of content the basis of our game.
That’s why dynamic events are the basis of our game, because we thought we needed to make a really big change in order to make the game’s entire system tie into that theme and work with it.
IG: Why is it that ArenaNet can deliver and support a quality MMO without a subscription fee, but others don’t /can’t?
EF: I can only speculate on what the others do and what their thinking is. For us, our business plan just makes sense and I can only assume that for them their business models also make sense. To some extent we’re pretty efficient with our network code and our bandwidth usage and that kind of thing.
For Guild Wars 1 is wasn’t that the game was instanced and therefore was really easy to run, we ran numbers of servers equivalent to any persistent world MMO and now Guild Wars 2 is a persistent world MMO. So, yeah, our business model is right for us. I’m actually a bit surprised that I don’t see more companies doing it our way.

IG: How difficult is it to provide each player with a unique experience in what is fundamentally the same world populated by the same characters?
EF: It can be very difficult and I think we try to accomplish that in two ways. First, the personal story really branches out a lot so that players experience different things and then we use instancing to good effect to reflect those changes. Then the second thing our dynamic event system does is.., the ‘dynamic’ part of that system is that the world changes, so you can give people different experiences in that way.
In a quest based system, there’s a start, middle and end to the quest, everyone will experience these things in this specific order.
For a dynamic event, a chain might involve people being kidnapped from a town. Some people might experience this at the very beginning of the event and, from their perspective, they’re trying to defend the town from the kidnappers and if they fail they’ll have to go rescue the people they failed to defend. Someone that comes in at the middle of that event might stumble across a town where there are prisoners being held by this bunch of bad guys and they might choose to try and free them, so they’ve got this different perspective on this narrative than other players will have.
I think this kind of thing can keep the game fresh for people, experiencing things from different angles and in a different order. 
See the second part of this interview here.

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