Guild Wars Updated Q&A - Art and Music

Producer Jeff Strain goes into detail on the challenges involved in making such a large and diverse online role-playing/action game.


Most online role-playing games allow you to level up a character, collect lots of equipment and items, and learn myriad different skills. It's a rewarding process, but it's one that usually requires a rather large investment of time on your behalf. Guild Wars is an action-heavy online role-playing game that will actually challenge this formula. This innovative new game will offer a much faster pace than a regular online role-playing game. That's because Guild Wars features a blend of intense player-vs-player and player-versus-monster battles with Magic: The Gathering-style abilities. And perhaps one of the most impressive technical aspects of the game is that it will stream off the Internet while you play it (and the streaming does look very impressive). We recently had the chance to grill producer Jeff Strain about the challenges involved in making the look and feel of Guild Wars.

You'll battle both monsters and other players in Guild Wars.
You'll battle both monsters and other players in Guild Wars.

GameSpot: Tell us about where the inspiration for Guild Wars' art style is from. We know that many ArenaNet employees are alumni of Blizzard Entertainment, yet the game clearly looks very different from Blizzard's artwork. Why the difference? Is there a specific "look" that the art team is trying to create with Guild Wars?

Jeff Strain: The fantasy genre is great, because it provides plenty of room to be creative and to explore new artistic styles. And, hey! Big scary monsters are just cool! But the danger of fantasy is that you will either stick firmly to tradition and wind up with yet another Tolkien or D&D setting, or you will go too far in the other direction and create something that is not even recognizably fantasy. Creating an artistic style that expresses the fantasy genre in a fresh way is our primary goal, and I think we are starting to achieve that. We use the phrase "fantastical realism" to describe the style, because, while the setting is fantasy, we want to create a world that is extremely detailed and believable. The Guild Wars story contains fairly mature themes of human struggle and loss, and we wanted the art style to reflect that more mature theme.

As you can see from our screenshots, the art is colorful but is far more moody and dramatic than a traditional fantasy game. For example, many fantasy worlds often include majestic dragons as their icons. In Guild Wars, we've taken the iconic dragon to a more evocative level with our bone dragon, who, while a mere shadow of his former self--what with his gruesome exposed bones, torn flesh, missing hindquarters, and exposed spine--still radiates a sense of enormous power. As soon as you see him, you immediately know that you are in for a difficult battle.

GS: Tell us about the way in which Guild Wars' different environments are being designed. Are areas in the game being based on specific real-world locations, or are they fictitious locations created from scratch? Or is there some inspiration being drawn from locales found in the team's favorite fiction, movies, or TV shows? We've already seen impressive technical accoutrements--like lighting bloom effects and dynamic weather/water effects--but how is the art team using these technical features to bring the environments to life?

JS: The locations you will visit in the world of Tyria are original presentations of natural geographic regions. You will find deserts, jungles, farmlands, marshes, snow-covered peaks, blasted wastelands, and other environments that have a basis in real-world geography. However, each of these regions in Guild Wars has a unique artistic design, drawn from the imagination of our art team and taking full advantage of the rendering technologies provided by our graphics engine. For example, one of the missions you will undertake in the desert actually takes place inside a grain of sand. Our glow technology and material shaders are put to good use in this mission to handle the extreme lighting conditions and reflective effects you would expect to find in such a location.

GS: Tell us about the way in which Guild Wars' monsters are being designed visually. How are you making the game's monsters thematically appropriate to the game's different environments? What sources of inspiration are being used to create them--previous games, comic books, movies, traditional mythology, others?

Beware the mighty bone dragon.
Beware the mighty bone dragon.

JS: We design our creatures with one primary goal: to should scare the hell out of you! We made the decision early on to use humor sparingly and as a tension reliever--and to not use overt goofiness at all. The world of Guild Wars is a brutal world set in an age when civility and compassion faded away with the fall of the great kingdoms, and the creatures that have inhabited the ruins, swamps, forests, and wastelands of the world are usually methodically seeking your destruction.

Every creature we design is either part of an army or an inhabitant of a specific geographical region. Army creatures are designed together as a set and are the foundation for the political factions that drive the progression of the campaign story. The army of the undead, for example, includes ghouls, hellhounds, phantoms, warlocks, and bone dragons. These creatures are usually found in groups, and they employ very sophisticated tactics and a wide variety of necromantic skills against you. Region-specific creatures are usually only found in one part of the world. The behemoths and river drakes, for example, are found in the swamps and river bottoms of the Kryta kingdom and are designed to be visually consistent with the terrain, vegetation, and architecture of that area.

Know Your Role

GS: Tell us about the way the art team is approaching character design from a visual standpoint. In a game as fast-paced as Guild Wars--in which players duel each other competitively using a huge combination of different skill sets--it seems imperative to create distinctive-looking characters that can be quickly recognized for tactical reasons (so that players can incapacitate frontline fighters to get at vulnerable enemies or so that players can attack a healer to cripple a group, etc.). Yet the game will also feature plenty of loot and other items to help players make distinctive-looking characters as they play online, over time, so that not every fighter looks exactly the same. How is the task of character design being approached to accommodate both these needs?

Each class has a distinct look, so it's easy to identify the threat someone signifies.
Each class has a distinct look, so it's easy to identify the threat someone signifies.

JS: Just as the blending of the strategy and role-playing genres generates unique game design challenges, it also creates challenges when designing the player characters. It is very important that you're able to identify a character's profession visually, since knowing the profession of your teammates and your opponents is a major component to your strategy in both cooperative and competitive play. In a fast-paced game like Guild Wars, you don't always have time to click on a teammate, and you can't even hover over a status bar to find the information that you need. When you have been the target of spells such as blackout, life siphon, and hamstring within the last five seconds, you want to be able to identify friendly monks immediately. However, it is also very important for a role-playing game to give you a wide variety of options to customize the look of your character. It would be difficult to feel a strong sense of identity in an online world if you walked in to town to find 20 other characters that looked just like you!

To resolve these somewhat competing goals, we designed a set of materials, colors, and physical attributes that would give each profession a unique visual style. Some examples of these physical characteristics include warriors with short hair, monks with fully or partially shaved heads and tattoos, rangers with long hair, mesmers who are taller than average, and necromancers with pale skin. Each profession also has a distinct material or fabric set. Only warriors can wear metal, monks always wear spun cloth, necromancers wear dyed leather, and rangers wear armor and clothing made from natural materials, such as leather, bone, and feathers. Finally, each profession has a unique color theme that affects not only the natural color of its armor and items but also the manner in which it takes on player-applied dye colors that can be found throughout the world. For example, blue dye applied to a warrior's gear will result in a bright, enameled blue that is appropriate for metallic surfaces, while blue dye applied to a monk's robes will result in a pale blue color more consistent with a natural cloth dye. The combination of these guidelines for physical attributes, materials, and color give each profession a distinct and easily identifiable appearance but leave plenty of room for our character artists to create a wide variety of armor, clothing, hairstyles, and faces. Your online character should be as unique as you are, and we are confident that you will have the options to build a character that is uniquely your own.

GS: In addition to designing artwork that looks compelling, it also seems like the art team has been tasked with creating what is essentially a large body of content--not just different character art but different special effects for the game's many spells and abilities; its many sets of weapons, armor, and other items; and its different textures and other assets for the game's environments. How has the team approached this challenging task, especially considering that players will be expecting even more new stuff in the forthcoming chapters?

The soft glow on these spiders doesn't make them any cuter.
The soft glow on these spiders doesn't make them any cuter.

JS: The scope and detail of the Guild Wars world requires a staggering amount of art. When you start adding the thousands of terrain textures, trees, rocks, plants, flowers, and other natural environment models, in addition to the architecture for every culture and region of the world, and the ambient creatures, monsters, armies, player characters, skill icons, skill effects, skies, guild logos, user interface (UI) elements, weapons, armor, and clothing... Well, the number becomes overwhelming very quickly. Moreover, these are just the art assets, individually. In addition to the art team producing these assets, we have an additional level-art team whose sole task is to take these assets and populate the world.

To generate this amount of art at the quality level we have established for Guild Wars, it takes a very large and very talented team of artists who are passionate about the game. We have more than 40 artists generating art for Guild Wars, and while they are all capable of tackling just about anything, each focuses on a specific part of art production, including animation, effects, environment modeling, creature modeling, player character modeling, concept, 2D art and the UI, and technical art. But it's not enough to have talented artists; you have to give them great tools as well. There is a huge difference between the way a model appears in a 3D modeling application, such as 3DS Max, and the way it appears in the gameworld. Not only does the context of the surroundings impact the appearance of the model but also the game-rendering engine can apply all of the shaders and effects that are not visible in the modeling application. This can seriously impact an artist's efficiency if he has to wait for a programmer to add the model to the game world to create a new build of the game. Given the enormous amount of art that we have to create for Guild Wars, we knew we had to automate this process. And so we developed a suite of tools that allows our artists to view their models in the game engine at the click of a button.

Soule Music

JS (cont.) At this time, all of us are solely focused on completing the first chapter of Guild Wars. Upon its release, the development team will refocus and will actually form two teams. One team will be tasked with serving as the live team, living in the world of the first chapter and adding content on a continuous basis. Whether it is a whole new quest or a small seasonal element, your world will be dynamic, and it will change over time. The other team will be charged with creating the second chapter by focusing on new content, such as art, characters, spells, weapons, and story. The second chapter will be substantial--roughly equivalent in size to the initial chapter of Guild Wars.

It's safe to say that the world of Guild Wars is lush and beautiful.
It's safe to say that the world of Guild Wars is lush and beautiful.

Upon the release of that second chapter, essentially the teams will reverse roles. The chapter two team will then become the live team, and the first team will begin development on chapter three. With this process, you will experience excellent in-game support within a growing, dynamic world, and you will have the opportunity to acquire significant new content every six to nine months.

GS: As for the game's sound and music, could you tell us about Guild Wars' music and its purpose? How is music being used to help lend specific environments a certain character, and how is it going to lend appropriate tension and atmosphere to combat and noncombat situations?

JS: Music works with art and lighting to help create a sense of place in a role-playing world, and it can often be the key component in adding spice to an otherwise traditional setting. For example, a desert setting could feel barren and desolate if the music was somber and plodding, or it could feel exotic and mysterious if the music was more upbeat and melodious. However, creating music for an online role-playing game has distinct challenges, because you have to consider the effect of hearing the same piece of music 1,000 times. During the "E3 for Everyone" global demo last spring, the login screen music was an epic piece that conveyed sadness, struggle, and ultimate triumph for the Guild Wars story. It was created by Guild Wars music composer Jeremy Soule, a veteran of the game music industry and a strong proponent of movie-style cinematic scores for games. His was an exceptional piece of music. On the first day that we added it to the game, people in the office were cranking up their speakers and just sitting at the login screen to listen to it. But after a few weeks, we didn't hear it around the office as often, so we realized that people had started turning the music off. It was still a beautiful piece of music, but it was not really appropriate for something that would potentially be heard thousands of times. Each piece of music must be created not only to be beautiful and to convey the mood of your surroundings but also to hold up to repeated listening and to avoid any "standout" sounds that could get on your nerves over time.

We will definitely be including Jeremy's gorgeous musical composition in Guild Wars, but it will be placed in such a way that it will not be at the center of daily play. Instead, it will enhance the Guild Wars experience in an even more meaningful way.

GS: Tell us about the game's sound effects and what they'll add to the game. Will Guild Wars' sound library offer much more than the clanking swords and shields we're used to hearing in fantasy role-playing games?

JS: Sound is an extremely important component in Guild Wars, not only because well-designed soundscapes are essential to drawing you into the world but also because sound plays a critical role in combat. The combat in Guild Wars is very fast-paced, and tactical awareness is critical to victory. So it's important to be aware of everything that is going on around you, even if you are not directly looking at it. We accomplish this by giving every skill in the game a profession-specific base sound that is easily discernible from both ambient sounds and other profession-skill sounds. For example, all monk skills share an underlying low frequency voice-chant sound, and you learn very quickly to identify this sound so that you know when a monk skill is being used anywhere in your area. In addition to the profession-specific base sound, every skill is layered with a higher frequency sound that is unique to that skill. Over time, you will learn to identify this unique sound as well, and you will be aware of every skill that's being used in your area so that you can quickly formulate a counterstrategy. We will certainly also give you plenty of armor clanking, bone crunching, and victory yelps, but you might find that even these sounds have meaning when you learn what to listen for!

GS: Thanks, Jeff.

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