Producer Jeff Strain gives an update on this upcoming hack-and-slash online game.
Computer role-playing games started off as single-player adventures that let you gain a certain amount of experience points, or even levels, after you killed enough skeletons and goblins. They've changed. These days, many role-playing games have gone online, featuring cooperative or competitive play in persistent online worlds that remain as you left them on your last adventure (rather than resetting all the way back to the beginning). ArenaNet's upcoming game Guild Wars will take the hacking and slashing of a fast-paced role-playing game and actually let you pit your character's skills against those of other players. The game was recently made openly playable with the "E3 for Everyone" public test, which let just about anyone download and play the game during the Electronic Entertainment Expo in May. We now have a full post-E3 update on the game from ArenaNet cofounder and Guild Wars producer Jeff Strain.
GameSpot: "E3 for everyone" is finally over. How did the online event work out in terms of gameplay? Did you see many players exploiting loopholes or trying to create the single most powerful kind of character? How is the team going to use the information it gathered from the event to avoid these kinds of issues in the final game?
Jeff Strain: The event gave us an opportunity to see how many of our design directions actually worked with thousands of players online simultaneously. The core gameplay mechanics in Guild Wars differ substantially from traditional massively multiplayer games, and while our ongoing alpha test continues to generate valuable feedback, opening the doors to thousands of demanding gamers was a great way to discover the mechanics that really worked.
Guild Wars is designed to be a game of player skill rather than a game that rewards you strictly based on the amount of time you have played. Creating a game of true skill that also supports persistent characters is challenging, because you want your character to grow and progress over time, but that progression cannot result in "uber" characters that will inevitably defeat lower-level characters. In Guild Wars, your character grows over time by learning new skills and finding loot, which gives you more tactical diversity. In other words, you are gaining options, not power. During "E3 for Everyone," we were pleased to see that the teams that were successful in tournaments and combat arenas were those that organized themselves and developed custom strategies around its items and skills. Players who logged 48 hours trying to find every item in the game had fun, but they were less successful in player-versus-player (PvP) battles than those who spent their time learning to think and act strategically, which is exactly what we wanted to see!
We did see players trying to find the ultimate character class, and we encouraged them to do so. One of the hallmarks of a well-designed game is strategies emerge over time that were not foreseen by the designers, and this helps keep the game fresh and exciting. Of course, that's only a benefit if a counter-strategy does not emerge quickly. In other words, we want to avoid the possibility of having a "best" character or strategy, and therefore, we take skill and profession balance very seriously. The skill system in Guild Wars is built on formal mechanics designed by some of the most experienced designers in the industry, but there is just no substitute for playing the heck out of a game before release to ensure good balance.
GS: And how did the play test work out technically? What lessons did the team take from the test in terms of stability, server load balancing, and lag to make sure that the game runs smoothly at launch?
JS: The event worked out very well technically. Guild Wars is still at an alpha stage of development, but our programming team has a tremendous amount of experience building global game networks, so server load balancing and stability issues were minimal. Many of the unique technologies we created to minimize instability and server downtime were put to good use. For example, if an instance of a mission crashes, the ArenaNet server manager will terminate only that game, but players in other missions on that server will not be affected. Our servers are also capable of running multiple versions of the game simultaneously, so we can quickly fix a bug or exploit and patch the server without rebooting or even terminating games that are currently in progress. We did have a database server hardware failure one evening, but otherwise the hiccups were minor and affected very few players.
We were both pleased and surprised to see a large number of Asian and European players participating in the event, even though we had not focused on raising awareness of the event in those countries. The international response to Guild Wars was very favorable, and we plan to provide the technical infrastructure to fully support players around the world.