Guild Wars Q&A - Strategy and Balance

Producer Jeff Strain discusses how ArenaNet plans to balance Guild Wars for both casual and hardcore players.

If Guild Wars reminds you a bit of Blizzard's classic Diablo action role-playing games, that's probably because developer ArenaNet was founded by Blizzard veterans. While Guild Wars isn't a massively multiplayer, persistent-world game like EverQuest, the goal in the game is to explore a vast, virtual world while battling both computer-controlled enemies and other players. However, Guild Wars will require you to do a lot more than just rapidly click on the mouse button to hack and slash your opponents. The game also incorporates a vast and intricate skill-based system reminiscent of the card game Magic: The Gathering. Each character can have dozens, if not hundreds, of skills in his or her inventory, but prior to each adventure, you can only select a handful of those skills to bring along. We had the chance recently to ask producer Jeff Strain how the gameplay in Guild Wars will adjust to accommodate veteran and casual role-playing gamers.

He's about to deliver a splitting headache.

GameSpot: We've already had a basic introduction to the character classes in Guild Wars: the elementalist, the monk, the mesmer, the ranger, the necromancer, and the warrior. In Guild Wars, you can choose a primary and secondary class for each character. Why was the decision made to allow players a secondary class? How are all the different combinations being made into viable choices?

Jeff Strain: The dual-class system provides richness of strategy by allowing us to make the professions strongly themed, in terms of strengths and weaknesses, without locking players into a specific play style. For instance, a warrior/ranger and a warrior/elementalist are both good front-line tanks (melee fighters that can absorb a lot of damage), but each has different specialties that make for a unique gameplay experience.

The professions are equal in terms of raw power, but while some operate in a fairly straightforward manner, others are more difficult to master. For example, a warrior/ranger is going to be roughly balanced with a mesmer/necromancer, in terms of power, but it will be much easier for a novice to play the former, because the mesmer/necromancer strategies are a little more complex--a factor that appeals to veteran players.

GS: How, if at all, are skills being adjusted for smaller and larger games? Can we expect to see players switching different skills in and out of their regular rotations for a smaller two-on-two match, as opposed to a four-on-four match? How is the game being designed to accommodate larger and smaller engagements?

JS: We want skills to behave predictably, so we don't adjust them based on game size. There are 450 skills in Guild Wars, of which at least 150 will be available to each character, and the skills have to be easily learnable. Guild Wars contains enough strategic depth that there's no need to overcomplicate things by changing the way skills behave. We might tweak death penalties or resurrection, but skill behavior remains constant.

Players will, however, tend to adjust their skill sets depending on the situation. They might choose general, broad-use skills for small teams and more-specialized skills for larger teams. For example, in a large party with several monk healers, one monk might focus on healing, while another lays down protection spells. Meanwhile, a third removes hexes and resurrects dead allies. Player strategy, rather than skill behavior, will change depending on the size of the conflict.

GS: And how is the game being adjusted to accommodate players of different skill levels and play schedules? Is Guild Wars being developed to appeal to hardcore fans who will carefully puzzle out ideal combinations of different skills to make killer characters and war parties? And how will Guild Wars be enjoyable for casual fans who don't have many hours a week to devote to trying out different skill sets? Will they just log in and be destroyed online by veteran players?

Bone creatures are the animated skeletons of fearsome monsters. And they look cool.

JS: In guild-versus-guild play, your guild is ranked based on past performance, and it will be matched up with guilds of a similar rank. In tournament play, due to the elimination structure, teams are also matched against teams of similar skill. Because Guild Wars is a skill-based game (that is, we reward skillful and creative play rather than hours played), players of varying levels can team up and have fun completing missions together. No matter how new you are to Guild Wars, you are never "useless." Some players may be more skillful from day one, but they will tend to play against players of a similar type. We'll match casual versus casual and veteran versus veteran. This is one of the reasons we include casual gaming arenas. Hardcore players tend to specialize and count on their buddies to cover them, while casual players tend to want to be more self-sufficient. In the casual player-versus-player arenas, you get paired with other players at random, so experienced players cannot choose their teammates. That equalizes the field quite a bit.

Skill selection and preparation play important roles in success. Also, a balanced team will always be more successful. Specific strategies, such as sacrificing health in exchange for massive damage to the enemy, are more easily countered than strategies that use a diverse range of skills. If we do our jobs, there will be no "killer" strategy; every winning strategy that players discover should have a counterstrategy that emerges just as quickly.

Fiery Swords of Slaying

GS: Tell us about the way skills are planned to work in practice in a competitive online environment? How dependent is successful play on players' reflexes and on the ability for players to coordinate joint strategies with good timing? How is this being compensated for against online lag, differing connection speeds, and the usual problems that can sometimes break up online action games?

Down for the count.

JS: We want to find a balance between strategy and action. Planning ahead is important, but it's not more important than what happens on the battlefield. Coordinating movements, adjusting strategy on the fly, and timing attacks are all crucial at high levels of play. For instance, with interruption, where you specifically target an opponent who's performing a skill, anticipation is key. Anticipating your opponent's timing will make the difference, and connection speed doesn't play much of a role. We also allow dodging. You can attempt to dodge incoming missiles or launch a counterattack to foil your enemy. Timing is an important factor, but Guild Wars isn't a twitch game. Ultimately, strategy and teamwork will win the day.

GS: We understand that strategic use of skills will be crucial to succeeding in Guild Wars (and hopefully part of the enjoyment), since the game's design has been compared to that of Magic: The Gathering. That said, what kind of items and inventory objects will players obtain, and how will they get them? Will they be performing single-player quests with items as rewards, or wagering items with other players in competitive battles, or buying them from shops?

JS: Monsters drop items, but only items they might actually use. You won't find bunnies dropping vorpal swords in Guild Wars! In general, a found item isn't immediately useful, but you can pay a crafter to break it down into its component parts and reassemble it into something that works for your character.

You find items within cooperative missions, which are designed for a target number of players. That said, you can always attempt a mission on your own, either by going solo or by hiring henchmen from town. You can purchase some items from shops in towns, but these tend to be more mundane and don't include magical enhancements.

Magical enhancements are what make items really fun. A sword, for example, can have three categories of magical enhancements: a prefix item, a suffix item, and inherent bonuses--such as increased chances of delivering critical hits. Say you have a long sword, and you obtain a "Fiery Hilt" and a "Pommel of Troll Slaying." Put them all together and you get the "Fiery Long Sword of Troll Slaying." Take the "Fiery Hilt," and pair it with the "Pommel of Magic Resistance" on the same long sword for a "Fiery Long Sword of Magic Resistance." Each item type has many possible magical enhancements.

GS: And what will the role of items be in the game? Just a cache of healing and mana potions, or maybe a few suits of armor that look neat but don't do much else? Or will players be able to get powerful weapons and armor that gives them distinct advantages in battle? Will they remain persistent on their characters over time? Or will they decay with use over time? Or will they disappear at the end of a mission?

JS: We don't have healing potions. Victory in combat is not about how much gold you invested prior to combat but how well you use the resources you have at hand.

Cool-looking armor is great, but the value of items in Guild Wars is more than cosmetic. A rare item is rare but not necessarily "über." Again, skill and strategy are key. Items, armor, skills, and attributes all work together. You can obtain a sword with an attack bonus, and maybe you can increase that bonus even more--but only in specific circumstances, such as when your opponent is "bleeding." So if you have skills that cause bleeding, then this might be a good sword for you. But that additional bonus may have a cost, such as a decrease in armor rating. Our goal is balance. We want players to have fun finding cool and rare stuff, but we don't want to make a game where simply spending hours finding rare items is the path to victory.

In addition to monsters, you can battle other players from the comfort of your own chair.

GS: The fact that the gameplay focuses heavily on character skill sets seems to already cut down on potential hacks and exploits that players might try to perform by duplicating or trading items they shouldn't have. Are there any other specific plans in place to safeguard against players who try to cheat the system? Any preliminary plans in place on policies about how to deal with cheaters online that you'd care to comment on at this time?

JS: One of our primary goals is to eliminate those loopholes that allow some players to gain advantages over others by exploiting the system. Our streaming technology lets us quickly discover and close off exploits and cheats. Since Guild Wars is completely server-based, we can provide a secure play environment. This is the team that built Battle.net. We've been through the fire, and we know how to build a secure game. Cheaters will not be tolerated. Our attitude is "Shame on them for cheating. Shame on us for leaving the door open." We are strongly committed to preventing cheating in all its forms.

GS: Thanks, Jeff.

Guild Wars is scheduled for release early next year. For now, watch an exclusive gameplay video that shows the game's many skills and spells in action, linked to below.

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