Guild Wars Updated Q&A - Post-E3
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.
Get in the Guild
GS: As we understand it, Guild Wars will feature a combination of both massively multiplayer gameplay and instanced worlds. What kind of interaction will players have with the community at large as well as with their individual guilds?
JS: We think that a strong community is essential for an online RPG and that it needs to be nurtured and supported by both the company and the game, not by simply throwing a large number of people together in a public virtual area. Instead, we want to give players the opportunity to meet new people in the context of the game world and story, and give them the tools to manage interaction with friends and guildmates directly within the game.
There are four types of areas in the world of Guild Wars, and each has unique gameplay and social attributes. Towns are very similar to those of traditional massively multiplayer games, and it is where you will go to shop, trade, pick up rumors, and show off your new items. Social interaction will be unstructured and casual, so towns will be a good place to chat and meet new people. Outposts are also similar to traditional massively multiplayer areas since they're persistent and can support hundreds of other players. However, since each mission in the game has its own unique persistent outpost, you can be sure that every player you see is there for the same reason you are: to play that mission. Player interaction in outposts is therefore usually oriented toward forming teams and discussing mission strategies. Missions are areas in which teams battle through the events of the evolving Guild Wars story line or challenge other teams in PvP combat. Missions are private areas that are created for each team of players, so your interaction with other players in these areas is probably going to be focused on finding ways to stay alive! Finally, hunting grounds are larger wilderness areas surrounding towns for one or more players who just want to go bash something.
Fortunately, the "community at large" is always accessible while you are playing Guild Wars, even if you are playing in a private mission. The network panel contains a built-in instant messenger client, player-to-player message center, and guild forum interface, and it is always accessible while you play. For example, you could be discussing strategy for an upcoming tournament match with guildmates who are in town while you and a few others are tackling a new mission that includes looking for new armor components and skill gems. We also make it easy for you to find and play with your friends by giving you the ability to simply open your friends list and double-click a name to join them.
GS: We know that players will be able to mix special dyes together to create a unique guild color, but what are some other tools that will encourage players to participate in guilds, or in a larger sense, to enhance the community aspect of the game?
JS: Creating unique (or secret!) dye recipes is a great way to customize your character, but guilds will have access to other features to create their guild identity as well. For example, every guild will have a unique guild logo that is composed via an in-game interface, and this logo will appear on your team tabard in any PvP mission. We can also use your guild logo to decorate persistent parts of the world when your guild is victorious in tournaments or other story events. Imagine walking into the town of Kyhlo and seeing your guild logo swaying in the breeze on a 50-foot gossamer banner hung from the top of the keep wall! Guilds can also acquire their own unique persistent guild hall, and access to it will be limited to guild members or their invited guests. This will be a place to discuss combat strategies, hold guild meetings and elections, and maintain the guild treasury and item storage.
GS: The game will feature an ongoing tournament that will let guilds battle each other in a structured setting, but let's say your guild gets knocked out early. What other activities will guilds be able to pursue?
JS: The ongoing worldwide tournaments in Guild Wars are managed by our tournament servers, so if a guild is knocked out early, they can simply reenter the tournament at the bottom level. While there is only one battle taking place at the top level of the tournament, the entry level of the tournament may be simultaneously hosting thousands of battles, and the victorious team from each will progress to the next level.
In addition to the automated tournaments, we plan to host seasonal global tournaments in which guilds will compete for prizes as well as for the honor of being acknowledged as the best in the world. In these seasonal tournaments, guilds that are knocked out early can go back to the automated tournament for training, tackle a few cooperative missions, hold new guild elections to replace their clearly flawed leadership, or send angry e-mail to the developers about how the skills the winning team used are obviously too powerful and unbalanced. That's a joke, by the way.
More Updates, More Adventures
GS: And how about those players who either aren't in the mood to compete against rival guilds, or they don't have much of a competitive streak to begin with. Are these players out of luck? Will there be enough single-player or cooperative multiplayer options for players who aren't interested in competition?
JS: Some players are not going to jump right in to PvP areas, either because they are intimidated by it or because it's just not the kind of gameplay they enjoy. Guild Wars will provide a substantial amount of cooperative content for these players, and I think they will feel just as much a part of the world and community as those players who are passionate about PvP. However, we feel strongly that the competitive missions in Guild Wars can be fun for everyone, so we are putting a tremendous amount of thought into ways to allow players to ease into PvP with confidence. One way we accomplish this is by making sure that the cooperative missions and hunting grounds are teaching you skills and strategies that are useful in PvP areas. The monsters and armies you will encounter as you progress through the Guild Wars story will be using skills and items against you that are identical to those that other players will use against you in PvP combat; the monsters will be employing increasingly sophisticated strategies against you as the story progresses as well. This is a design decision on our part, and we expect that by the time you have substantially completed the mission content provided in the first chapter of Guild Wars, you'll have the skills and training necessary to hold your own in a PvP battlefield.
GS: Guild Wars has an unusual pricing model where players pay once for the game and then all subsequent online play with that content is free, but ArenaNet will release for-pay content packs regularly. What kind of things can we expect to see in the content packs? What's on deck for the first expansion, for instance?
JS: We refer to future expansions of the Guild Wars world as "chapters," because we want to make it clear that these aren't traditional expansion packs with just a few more characters and levels, but instead the packs contain content on a scope and scale that is similar to the original game. You could consider the initial release of Guild Wars to be "chapter one," and that is exactly how we talk about it at ArenaNet. The story that unfolds through the missions in chapter one is a small subset of the story arc that is planned for the next several years. So while each chapter will have a satisfying and definitive end, the next chapter will take up the story in a progression that feels seamless. Guild Wars was built from the ground up to make full use of our on-demand, asset-streaming technology. Over time, we will be making live changes to the existing chapters as we prepare to release the next chapter, so the story will then progress fluidly. In addition to new missions that continue the story, new chapters will contain new items, monsters, skills, playable character professions, environments, and music. In short, it will be an entire game.
GS: How far along is the game's development, and what is the team focusing on? Is Guild Wars still on track for the beta this summer?
JS: Guild Wars is progressing rapidly, and the team is almost entirely focused on the two things that really make an RPG fun: content and community. The art team is busy building new environments, weapons and armor, character models, monsters, and effects for new skills. The level designers and artists are creating and beautifying new areas in the Guild Wars world by using our custom world-building tools. The mission designers use a combination of whiteboards and scripting tools to create missions that take full advantage of the design benefits of instanced missions with truly interesting quests and objectives. The content programmers are busy adding UI features and new skills, sometimes at a rate of ten per day! Finally, the server programming team is working on optimizing the global tournament network and adding full support for the guild features and community interaction that are unique to the Guild Wars online experience. And while our beta plans are still being finalized, we have some exciting plans in store for our fans this fall!
GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about Guild Wars at this time?
JS: I would like to thank the more than 200,000 players around the world who took the time to play Guild Wars during the "E3 for Everyone" event and to find out what it is all about. We have a passionate and growing community, and we will work hard to meet your expectations for Guild Wars.
GS: Thanks, Jeff.
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