ArenaNet takes a big gamble with a sequel to their mega-hit MMO Guild Wars.
Guild Wars 2I recently spent some time on the phone with ArenaNet co-founder Jeff Strain and a number of the Guild Wars development crew. After talking to them, I've come to realize that they're crazy. Or they might be geniuses. Or maybe both. How else do you explain the decision by a developer to just abandon a successful MMO? Guild Wars launched in April 2005 amidst a flurry of critical praise and PvP fan huzzahs. The unusual MMO experience had no monthly fee to play. Players simply bought the game and could play as much as they wanted for as long as they wanted. The company would make its money with a series of stand-alone content additions that would be released every six months or so. This resulted in the highly successful Factions and Nightfall campaigns. Then ArenaNet dropped a bombshell. The next campaign in the series was being cancelled in favor of Eye of the North, the game's first true expansion pack. Even bigger news than that was that Eye of the North would be the last product for the original Guild Wars. Instead of new campaigns, there would instead be a full-blown sequel called Guild Wars 2. I wondered why, when most MMOs are designed to run for years and years (if not in perpetuity), ArenaNet would mess with something that was clearly working? This conversation would be my chance to find out. "We're All Very Educated About Guild Wars." "We're not really excited by the idea of changing something that people are attached to." The voice coming through the speaker is that of Mike O'Brian, one of the co-founders of ArenaNet. "But we're learning all the time about the ways that people play MMOs. We learn from the successes and failures or competitive products, of course, but mostly we've learned a lot about the way people play Guild Wars. After two years of working and supporting the product, we're all very educated about Guild Wars and we have a pretty good idea of what the ultimate Guild Wars experience should be." According to O'Brian, the genesis for Guild Wars 2 came about during the planning stages for the next Guild Wars campaign. "Guild Wars is a really unique game," O'Brian said. "In looking at the design, we got a lot of things right. The problem was that after two years we also saw a lot of ways in which the core gameplay could be improved. These weren't things that could be addressed by adding new layers on top of the original game, though. They involved going in and making upgrades and improvements to the fundamental gameplay systems. In the end we made the decision that in order to truly make the ultimate version of Guild Wars we were going to have to make Guild Wars 2." Jeff Strain jumped in to continue O'Brian's thought and give some concrete examples of changes between the original game and Guild Wars 2. "It's always difficult in an operating MMO to go in and change fundamental gameplay systems because you tend to be carried forward by your own momentum." He mentions that other MMOs have tried to do this with disastrous results and while he doesn't mention any single game by name, I'm reminded of the Star Wars: Galaxies and its nightmarish New Game Experience. "Part of it is just that we found that layering complexities on top of existing gameplay systems kept existing players happy at the expense of bringing new players into the game. When the tutorial levels keep getting bigger and more complicated, there needs to be some reassessment of what you're doing." Jeff's first concrete example of the perils of overcomplicating things was the concept of leveling. "The level cap in Guild Wars is 20," he said. "We set it deliberately low to let players know that the game is not all about leveling but about player skill. By the time players hit the level cap, they'll actually only be about halfway through the story and they need to look for other ways to improve their character. What we found was that while players understood and appreciated that, at the end of the day, they still want to level their character. They want an unambiguous tangible marker that displays their progress in the game. We want to give them that, but every system in the game is built around a level 20 character. Raising the cap in the current game breaks every piece of content we have." The new game will have a much higher level cap - and the team is actually playing around with the idea of having no cap at all. Missing Out On Social Opportunities One of the major new additions to Guild Wars 2 is persistent world areas. The original game was entirely instanced which, according to the ArenaNet team, did wonders for their ability to tell a story (there's a major event in the middle of the original game that completely alters the world forever). "What you lose in an entirely instanced game is a lot of social opportunities," Mike O'Brian said. "There's a lot to be said for running into the same people over and over again. If you run with a pick-up group and you never meet them again, it can make a completely instanced game a very lonely experience." While Guild Wars 2 will contain a lot of instanced mission content, it will also sport a lot of shared landscape and will also be divided up into different servers filled with smaller groups of people in the manner of traditional MMOs. Strain is quick to emphasize that that doesn't mean that players will be ghettoized into their own unique shards. "We're doing this to create more of a neighborhood feeling," Strain said. "But we also want people to be able to switch worlds easily and also interact with players from other worlds." In order to do this, the team is introducing a big addition to the game's lauded PvP systems called "World PvP." Into the Mists "Guild Wars had two kinds of play -- RPG and PvP," Strain said. The much-lauded Guild Wars PvP system was designed to completely skill-based, not (as in many other MMOs) dependent on equipment found in the PvE section of the world. In fact, players who only want to participate in the PvP aspects of the game can eschew leveling altogether and jump straight into a level 20 PvP character and do nothing but guild battles for their entire Guild Wars experience. They've been notably successful at implementing this, as the many positive reviews of the game's PvP aspect have attested. The issue for the team was that as the game evolved, the PvP and RPG aspects of the game have started to diverge. "We're very proud of our PvP system." Strain said. "We've had plenty of tournaments, world championships and other big Guild Wars events. That's our high-end PvP experience and we certainly don't plan on abandoning that. We want to enhance that aspect of the game in Guild Wars 2." According to the team, the problem with high-end PvP is the learning curve. With so many skilled players, there's no way in Guild Wars to gently introduce players to the concept of PvP. Newbies can be brutalized by the experience of letting teammates down as they develop the skills to be competitive in PvP. "World PvP is the solution for that problem." Strain said. "It acts as a bridge between the RPG world and the high-end PvP world." World PvP takes place in something called "The Mists." This is the nether region that exists between different world shards. In it, different worlds will be set against each other on a large battlefield that has a variety of objectives to attain. Large crews can attempt to seize gigantic castles while smaller group can work on protecting supply chains that feed giant catapults or capturing guard towers or defending important choke points. They key element, according to Strain is that nobody can be a detriment in World PvP. "There's no reason not to go out there because anything you do helps." Strain said. "Everyone reaps the benefits of your efforts while really good players or guilds can be recognized." "World PvP also teaches players core competencies that allow them to get involved in the high-end PvP if they wish," Strain said One of the key goals of the design team is to create a world where players don't have to spec out different PvP and RPG characters. They want players to be able to smoothly transition between one and the other. "There may be different player skills involved in a tournament match, but they should be able to use the same character they just used to capture a castle in the Mists." Eye of the North Guild Wars 2 takes place roughly 250 years after the end of Eye of the North, Guild Wars's first and last official expansion pack. "The general theme is one where humanity, dominant in Guild Wars, is besieged on all sides and they're worried that their day is coming to an end." The speaker is Eric Flannum, the design lead for Guild Wars 2. "The Charr in Ascalon have all but taken over and a whole bunch of non-human races that we'll be introducing in Eye of the North have finally reached an equal footing with humanity. That allows us to set up a four way competitive dynamic but we're also introducing a fifth faction, a common enemy that threatens the whole world." According to Flannum, one of the team's design goals is to structure the world differently. Rather than the very linear world of Guild Wars which was designed to tell a very big story, Guild Wars 2. will instead be persistent where the player will uncover pieces of the great story in what they're calling "story bubbles." The team likes to compare it to the Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms setting where players can participate in multiple story arcs rather than just one large one. "Eye of the North provides a direct bridge to Guild Wars 2," O'Brian said. "We want everyone to eventually move on to Guild Wars 2." In order to do this, one of the major element introduced in Eye of the North will be the Hall of Monuments. This museum will allow players to store many of the great armor, weapons and achievements they've accumulated in tfhe first Guild Wars and transfer them to the new game. The Hall of Monuments will still exist 250 years after the end of the first game and the player's new character will be considered a descendent of their original. As such they're entitled to some of the older stuff that will be displayed in cases inside the hall. Players won't be able to bring everything with them. Some of the old skills and weapons won't make the transfer to the new game, but the team wants players who've invested so much time into the original game to not have to lose that when they start the new game. The Old World That, of course opens up the question of what happens to the first Guild Wars when the new game launches. "Nothing," Strain said. "If people want to continue playing Guild Wars 1 they can. We're going to continue to support it and there's no 'cut-off' date when we're going to shut off the lights. In the end, though, we expect everyone will migrate to the new game." And the business model? "The same," Strain said. "No monthly fee and we'll be bringing out new content for purchase on a regular basis." He wouldn't elaborate further on exactly how that worked save to say that it probably wouldn't be the same 'Campaign' system they used for the original game. "ArenaNet is the Guild Wars company," Strain concluded. "We've got about 100 people here focused on nothing but what's best for Guild Wars. The new campaigns were great, but in the end, that wasn't what our players wanted. They wanted a deeper experience that we just weren't going to be able to provide for them in the original. Thus Guild Wars 2." And what about the future? "Well, we're not saying anything, but assuming everything goes well, there's no reason for the franchise to end with Guild Wars 2." Strain said. Back to Top