Guild Wars Exclusive Preview

We've got the exclusive first information on Guild Wars, the upcoming game from the developer founded by Blizzard alumni.

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In March 2000, three developers walked away from Blizzard to form their own company, Triforge. Their departure caused quite a stir at the time, due to the trio's expertise. The three founders of the company, Patrick Wyatt, Mike O'Brien, and Jeff Strain, played key roles in the development of Starcraft, Diablo, and the entire Warcraft series, including Warcraft III. Perhaps even more impressive is that Wyatt and O'Brien were the lead programmer and original architect, respectively, for Battle.net, Blizzard's popular and groundbreaking online matchmaking service. Triforge has since been renamed to ArenaNet, and the project the company has been working on since early 2000 remained shrouded in secrecy until now.

Two warriors take on a skeleton.
Two warriors take on a skeleton.

Today, ArenaNet has announced a new competitive online role-playing game, called Guild Wars. At its core, the game is a fantasy-themed, action role-playing game, which will let you hack and slash at monsters with medieval-era weapons and let you use special skills, which may include powerful weapon-based attacks, magic spell-like abilities, or miscellaneous options, to assist you in combat. Guild Wars will include all the features you've come to expect from a good action RPG, like killing monsters to gain experience, gathering up gold and loot, and outfitting your character with stronger and stronger equipment. Guild Wars' combat skills system is where the game sets itself apart from the competition, as it forces you to think carefully about tactics before and during combat and offers opportunities for powerful cooperative tactics when you're playing as part of a team. The world of Guild Wars consists of persistent and nonpersistent elements and is designed specifically for both cooperative and competitive play.

With Guild Wars, ArenaNet's developers hope to address what they feel is a big problem in today's online RPGs--specifically, that competitive play doesn't reward skill as much as it rewards the players who have put the most time into the game. ArenaNet intends to design Guild Wars so that characters will get more powerful with time and experience, but the pace at which players become stronger will trail off over time. The game's combat system is designed such that higher-level characters can use a wider range of tactics than lower-level characters, but they won't necessarily be more powerful in every situation. This places a greater emphasis on skillful, creative play. Guild Wars' combat skills system is also specifically designed to encourage you to cooperate with other players and figure out how to combine your unique skills in order to overcome nonplayer character (NPC) monsters and other teams of players.

Unlike standard massively multiplayer role-playing games, Guild Wars is not built around a large, persistent world where you are forced to travel over miles and miles of terrain. Instead, the developers at ArenaNet have designed a world system that uses both persistent and nonpersistent areas in order to facilitate an environment where friends can more easily meet up with one another. The developers plan to let you use the in-game buddy list to quickly transport yourself to the locations of your friends.

You can meet at outposts to form questing teams.
You can meet at outposts to form questing teams.

Upon loading the game, you will be presented with a world overview map that shows areas that are unlocked and ready for exploration. Clicking on one of the areas will immediately transport you to that territory, where you can explore the land in more detail. There are two basic types of persistent territories: towns and outposts. Towns are areas where you can buy supplies, chat with others, and conduct general character-management tasks. Outposts act as entrances to the game's missions. There, you can meet up with others who are interested in doing the quest and form parties to go into the missions together. Like in Anarchy Online, the missions in Guild Wars are not a persistent part of the world; essentially, each mission takes place within a "pocket dimension" that's separate from the rest of the game. This means that you don't have to worry about getting in line to do the same mission or entering a dungeon to find that all the monsters have already been killed and all the treasure has already been taken. Multiple parties of players can partake in the same quest simultaneously.

The developers at ArenaNet have also pointed out that nonpersistent missions allow them to create quests that are potentially more interesting, perhaps allowing you to deform the landscape or affect the world in a manner that wouldn't be possible if missions were part of a persistent world. The missions in Guild Wars also limit party size, so the problem of low-level players quickly advancing by tagging along with high-level characters on missions will be reduced.

Many Skills, Many Strategies

Arguably, the most interesting aspect of Guild Wars is its skills system. Each character in the game carries a set of learned skills, which are similar in usage and purpose to the class skills in Diablo II. As characters pick up gold and experience, new skills can be purchased from computer-controlled trainer characters in the game. Like a magic spell in a standard RPG, the skills in Guild Wars require a certain amount of energy to cast, although a character's health and energy bars regenerate slowly over time.

The warrior's cyclone skill is effective when he's surrounded by enemies.
The warrior's cyclone skill is effective when he's surrounded by enemies.

Guild Wars' skills are unusual in that they are designed much like the spells in the popular collectible card game Magic: The Gathering. At a glance, some skills may seem more powerful than others, but using these skills carelessly may lead to unforeseen effects. For instance, the game's standard healing skill heals all targets within an area. At first, this sounds great, since the standard healing skill can quickly replenish both your health and your nearby teammates' health. However, the skill affects everything in its radius--if you carelessly cast heal while in the middle of a battle, you'll heal nearby enemies as well as yourself.

Other skills can affect the state of the world for a limited time. For example, one of the ranger's world enchantment skills turns all arrows in the area into fire arrows for a period of time. This enchantment is very useful against monsters that use ice-based attacks, but if you come up against some enemy archers while the skill is still in effect, you'll find yourself getting shot with fire arrows also. These wide-ranging effects force you to think carefully about not only which skills to use, but when to use them.

Guild Wars will let you try out many different types of skills. By the time the game is finished sometime in the second half of 2004, ArenaNet hopes to have a few hundred included in the game. Some skills affect only yourself or a single target. Players who select the warrior character class may choose the sprint skill, which lets warrior characters run faster for a short amount of time, while higher-level healing spells can target single allies to avoid accidentally healing enemies. Other skills, like the ranger's fire-arrow skill mentioned earlier, will affect the entire mission world. The ranger's "edge of extinction" enchantment is another example of a skill with wider effects. When a ranger character uses this powerful skill, killing a monster of a specific type will incur damage on all other monsters of that type, no matter where they are in the mission.

There are also skills that enhance or weaken (or "buff" and "debuff") the abilities of their selected targets. Some of these buffs don't have a time limit associated with them, but instead require your character to continuously expend energy. For example, you can use the "mending" skill to increase the rate at which you or a targeted ally can regenerate lost health. However, your own energy will regenerate more slowly for as long as you continue to use the skill, and you won't have as much energy available to use other skills in the meantime.

Finally, Guild Wars will also have trigger-based skills that take effect when a certain condition is satisfied. One of the more popular skills we saw in multiplayer testing at the ArenaNet offices was the backfire skill. The backfire skill causes enemies to take massive damage anytime they try to activate a skill. One common tactic we used was to first poison our enemies, causing their health to gradually deplete over time, and then hit them with the backfire skill, which presented them with a dangerous dilemma. If they tried to use a self-healing skill to offset the poison damage, they would take massive damage from the backfire skill; if they didn't heal themselves, they'd eventually succumb to the poison. In that case, their only recourse was to ask a teammate for some healing.

Sickly green spell effects often signify the presence of a debuff skill.
Sickly green spell effects often signify the presence of a debuff skill.

Though the developers plan on having hundreds of skills in the game, and high-level characters will probably end up learning a few dozen, Guild Wars currently forces you to choose only eight to bring into a mission. Again, this limitation is similar to building and playing with a limited deck in a game of Magic: The Gathering. You are forced to think about what you will face in a mission or against a team of other players and pick out skills that are appropriate for the job beforehand. Teams of players can discuss the skills they possess and attempt to come up with combinations that work well together. Failing a mission gives you an opportunity to reshuffle your skills and attempt different strategies instead of trying the same things over and over again.

The developers were quick to point out that having a skills system allows them to design the game so that low-level skills don't necessarily become obsolete by higher-level skills that players will learn later. For instance, basic skills like the warrior's sprint are still useful in any multiplayer battle and in many cooperative missions. It's also worth noting that the game's monsters will use the same skills that you use; it may even be possible to learn effective skill combinations by carefully observing the skills that monsters use against you.

Join the Guild

The character classes in Guild Wars are called professions. ArenaNet plans on exhibiting three of the game's professions at this year's E3 and plans to include several more before the game's release. The three professions currently announced are the warrior, the ranger, and the necromancer. Unlike in most other role-playing games, new players do not pick out character classes at the outset of Guild Wars. Instead, newly made characters will undergo a series of basic missions that let them try out basic skills from all the different classes. Once those training missions are completed and players have gotten a taste of all the different professions, they will be able to choose a profession by completing an initiation mission.

This might be a good area to use the fire arrow enchantment.
This might be a good area to use the fire arrow enchantment.

The warrior, logically, will have access to a large array of attack skills. His purpose is to be the frontline attacker for a party, with the ability to dish out large amounts of damage while absorbing a great deal. The warrior's weapons of choice include swords, axes, and battle hammers, as well as shields. Shields can't be equipped while wielding two-handed hammers, so to compensate, strikes from a hammer can interrupt an enemy in the midst of using a skill. Some of the warrior's skills are specific to certain weapons. For example, there's a hammer blow skill that will knock an enemy to the ground. Attempting to use the hammer blow while equipped with a sword or axe will do nothing. Other skills, like the cyclone skill (which strikes all enemies within melee range of the warrior), can work with more than one type of weapon.

The ranger class specializes in using a bow and arrows and also in using nature-related skills. The ranger's bow skills include a double arrow skill, which lets the ranger fire two arrows simultaneously at a single target, and a poison arrow skill, which drains an enemy of health over time. Only the ranger will be able to use world enchantment spells that affect the state of an entire mission area. These include the fire arrow and edge of extinction enchantments mentioned earlier. The developers have also mentioned the possibility that rangers might be able to charm monsters or take on familiars to bring into battle. None of those skills or features have been implemented yet, however.

The necromancer class is built around the principles of black magic, disease, and death. Many of the necromancer's spells will center on the use of corpses littering the battlefield, which he can use to refill his own powers. The corpse explosion skill is a good example of this. The necromancer will also have a number of skills that cost health instead of energy. One example of this is a skill that drains a good portion of an opponent's energy at the cost of a small amount of the necromancer's health. Finally, the necromancer will have access to many debuff skills, such as the ability to temporarily reduce an opponent's armor level.

Aside from your choices in skills, you can differentiate your characters using specializations. Like with skills, the choices for specializations vary depending on a character's profession. Warriors might be able to choose a specialization that increases their rate of healing, while spellcaster classes may get to choose specializations to increase their rate of energy regeneration. Depending on a character's level, the character may be able to use more than one specialization, but ultimately, you will be forced to make a few choices from a wide array of possibilities.

You can also customize your characters by choosing a dual profession. The second profession's skills will likely cost more than adding skills from the character's original profession, but the new profession's specializations will also be opened up to the character. The ability to make dual-profession characters should let you make your characters especially well rounded and should add a great deal of strategy to how you choose to develop characters.

Multiplayer and Technology

ArenaNet has stressed from the start that it intends Guild Wars to be a competitive multiplayer game. In order to foster community, it is planning integral support for player guilds, including guild chat rooms, forums, and specific recognition within the game, such as ladders and rankings.

NPC monks open up mission areas and can sell you new skills.
NPC monks open up mission areas and can sell you new skills.

The current plans for competitive multiplayer exemplify how ArenaNet plans to recognize guilds within the game itself. One idea is to create a player-vs.-player mission area where guilds fight for control over a castle on the map. The mission area would effectively act as a guild tournament that transparently, automatically, and continuously matches teams up in a tiered competition. Teams entering the mission would be funneled into areas where they encounter another team to fight. The winner of that encounter would then be funneled off into another area "closer" to the castle to face another first-round winner. With enough wins, a guild would eventually face the champion guild holding control of the castle to fight in a king-of-the-hill battle. The guild controlling the castle would then receive recognition from the game, like having its guild flag flown from every flagpole on the map, and monetary rewards like receipt of sales taxes from a town's shops, until it is finally knocked off by another team of players. Since the tournament system is still early in development, none of these features could be demonstrated to us.

The developers at ArenaNet were also eager to talk about the special technology used to develop Guild Wars. Similar to what companies like WildTangent have done with their Web drivers for online games, ArenaNet is using a proprietary technology that allows it to automatically stream new content and updates to you each time you log into the server. This updating is done transparently, ensuring that you don't have to worry about downloading or manually applying new patches. Using this type of development platform also lets the development team dynamically update the gameworld with news on changes in player and guild ranks or with graphical cues as to which guild controls which portions of the world.

Perhaps most impressive was the demonstration given to us on the scalability of the technology. From a single 240-kilobyte executable, we were able to very quickly load up the game, with additional content streaming in the background as we completed mundane tasks such as login and character creation. Practically speaking, the game's standard installation will most likely use a larger footprint than 240K, but this proof-of-concept demonstration was still impressive to witness. The developers also suggested that this technology would let them easily distribute the game in many different ways, including online, as part of promotional discs, or packaged on a retail CD.

According to the developers, alpha testing for the game has been going on for about a year now. With the core game engine set, most of the future development slate will focus on adding new content, such as new monsters, professions, and skills, as well as implementing the multiplayer features and guild support that were described to us. The company has recently hired a lot of artists who are working hard to improve the game's graphics and user interface, which remain somewhat rough at this point. They'll have plenty of time between now and the game's planned release in the second half of 2004 to improve on Guild Wars' visuals.

That leaves one big question: Will Guild Wars require monthly fees? Despite having a single, nonsharded, fully hosted server environment with persistent player characters and a partially persistent world, ArenaNet and Guild Wars' publisher, NCSoft, have no plans to charge a monthly fee to play Guild Wars, at least in North America. The pricing model for the game in Asia and other territories has yet to be determined. ArenaNet's developers are adamant that monthly fees greatly limit a game's potential audience, and they feel that it remains one of the big factors slowing the growth of online gaming today. If ArenaNet can deliver on all the planned features for its game and do it without charging a monthly fee, then Guild Wars may have a chance at making a big impact on the online role-playing genre.

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