Ever wondered what the brains behind your favourite games were thinking during the creation process? Each month we sit down with a top developer and pick over the bones of their opus. This month: Jeff Strain, founder of ArenaNet and director of the most popular online RPG for years...
When we sat clown to design Guild Wars, our thinking was that MMOs have fantastic technology and design ideas, but they've been stuck in a rut for eight years. We sat down and analysed every component of online RPGs that we thought kept them targeted to a fairly hardcore audience and, of course, that spanned everything from the traditional problems of spawn-camping and lootstealing to subscriptionfees. We decided that even though we were going to be bucking convention, we wanted to design a game that was truly unique and that addressed these issues directly. The challenge was making sure that people understood what we were trying to do and that this was not just another MMO.
"Our goal wasn't to do something different, our goal was to do something better. It's a subtle distinction, but one that's important to us because I think you can fall into a trap, as a game designer, of saying: 'look, we just want to be different from MMOs and every time we see something that's like an MMO we should change it'. Frankly there are some elements of MMOs that really work well. Being able to rub elbows with hundreds or thousands of other players in the same area and do silly things like dance in groups and preen and show off your armour, I mean that's cool stuff. We didn't want to lose that aspect. Our goal was to take those fun elements, but solve a lot of the problems that turned a lot of people away. We also wanted to bring in some elements that make strategy games and first-person shooters fun, and try to bring that into the mix to make something that really has the best of all of them."
Interestingly, the game initially did not have the pre-Searing world. Initially, you got right into the action, but what we were finding was that we weren't really nailing that emotional attachment and the sense of loss that we wanted people to experience. Also, the game had a rather traditional tutorial where you'd go and do a mission, and it would teach you how to play the game. So what we did was take a step back and say what we really wanted was to find a way to make people fall in love with the world. The pre-Searing world was the last region we created, around the beginning of this year. Our team had become very proficient at creating new parts of the world so I think they enjoyed the opportunity to re-envision what the place looked like before it was destroyed. It just fitted in naturally to the development system we had.
We're releasing in Asia throughout this year and next. Well be releasing in Japan and Taiwan and we have plans for China as well. As we continue to release additional content into the live version of the game and also new chapters, well really start to explore lots of cultural zones. Early on in development we sent some of our character designs to our Asian teams for analysis. For the warrior, in particular, they sent it back with a note on it saying 'American redneck'. He was a big, beefy Conan type, and we realised that what each culture considers to be heroic is very different, so we really had to work on that.
"The skill system was the very core of the game. One of the things that we think turns a lot of people off traditional MMOs is the enormous time investment, which is required -not available, but required - in order for you to get to the fun stuff. From day one we wanted to make a game that was a skill game and not a time game. If you're a better gamer, think strategically and make good decisions then you'll do better than the kid down the street who has 80 hours a week to play games. I think that the very first part of it was to design that skill system, design that combat system and make sure, through extreme trials, that we really were living up to that promise of making a game that rewarded your player skills.
"One issue we ran into was that we found our pre-order items - if you pre-ordered the game in Europe or the US, you got a special item -were designed long before the preorder programmes began and, because they wouldn't become available until the game actually shipped, we didn't really put those through the same vigorous testing as the other items in the game. We realised that we had designed these a year ago and that they were just far too powerful. So, a day after we shipped, we had to tune that back. Luckily, we didn't hear much of an outcry, but we've been very careful and also fortunate that we haven't had to go nerfing [making wholesale changes to classes] in the game to a large degree. We did our time in the barrel up front and made good design decisions. Not to say that we'll never slip up, but so far we've had a pretty good ride."
Looking at our sales and the number of people playing, the no-subscription thing is working out well for us. From the beginning, our goal with the no-subscription fees was to bring online role-playing games to a broader audience than traditional subscription-based role playing games could normally attract I think now we're really seeing that people are trying Guild Wars - even people who don't usually play online role-playing games - because there's not this huge requirement for them to subscribe to it We're exceptionally pleased with the reception and now our goal is to start releasing new chapters and really make sure that we keep the content pipeline going.
Balancing And Playtesting
"It took a long time to test all the skills in the game. There are 450 of them and they all have to be balanced. It really is walking the line between maths and magic. You have to have a formal mathematic foundation to your skill system so that there's some structure that you can actually manipulate to tell yourself that it's balanced. But on the other side of it, there are just raw hours of play with skilful players and then the intuition of a very skilful game designer. We were very fortunate to have James Finney who was the lead designer of StarCraft working with us. He was the one who did all the balancing for the three races in Starcraft so he knew how to approach that kind of problem. All the skills were in and implemented at least a year before we shipped, which helped. From the very beginning, we knew exactly how many there were going to be per profession and there was no way anybody was adding skill to the game at that point!"
"The holy grail for us is seeing how players use our skills in ways that we didn't expect The strategies that evolve continually amaze us. During the world preview event in October, I had some press and we were doing demos for them. In the beginning, we'd go into PvP and just mop up the players. But by the end of the weekend there was a Darwinian evolution of strategies that we had never considered or thought about. By the end, it was difficult to demo the game because we'd go into PvP and be dead within 20 seconds. That was, for us, one of the most exciting things - the emergent strategies of the game. After that we nerfed the hell out of everybody [laughs]. Not really."
Player VS Player
"PvP was the best way to determine whether skills are balanced and the combat system is fun. Just have people get in there and go at it If you have to bring monster Al into the picture then that's something you have to develop as well. So if you're playing co-operatively in the early stages of the game and you're able to defeat the monsters within 20 seconds, or if they can always kick your butt in 20 seconds then it's not really clear if your skill system is unbalanced or your Al isn't good enough. So, to remove the variables from the equation and really drill down on getting that skill system balanced, we did PvP first."
"I think that if I were able to rewind history, a lot of refinements that we've made to the PvP experience - particularly in terms of how you acquire skills and the whole faction system that we rolled in - ideally could have been included when we released the game. But that's the kind of thing you can only really start seeing after watching thousands of people playing the game, hour-after hour to determine what the trends are and how people want to play. Luckily, we're probably the most responsive development team on the planet We have the technologies to quickly address issues and roll in new features. If you just look at the way we've changed the game and updated it based on player feedback since we shipped, I think that's really apparent. Of course, it would have been fun to have all that in from the beginning. Other than that, I think I speak for the entire development team when I say that we're all just walking on clouds right now."
Download Guild Wars
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
One Of the biggest complaints non-MMORPG players have of our beloved genre is that the games don't have the same kind of instantgratification, action-oriented gameplay offered by first-person shooters and their ilk. It's all hit auto-attack and sit back for ten minutes while the game fights itself'.
Guild Wars, however, is a very different kind of beast, and developer ArenaNet talks about it in a very different way. Forget the I33t speak jargon and the image of obsessed level-grinders spending 17 hours at a time in front of their screens killing rats. Guild Wars is taking a far more action-packed route, one that barely lets you stop for breath.
The point of Guild Wars is that it's fun. Instant, accessible fun, that nevertheless provides you with enough depth to keep you coming back for more. Everything about the game has been designed to streamline the experience, making it less nerdy but equally as compelling.
Do It With Style
One of the main reasons for the visual and gameplay style is that if you're not into the level-grinding mindset, then what you're looking for is the minute-by-minute experience to be fun," explains Jeff Strain, the game's producer and ArenaNet's founder. We have a mantra: What am I doing right now?' It's not about what am I working for?' or what will I be doing when I finally get to level X?' Whatever the answer is, it should be fun."
Part of this is down to the fast nature of the game's combat system. Don't expect to find any drawn-out automated fighting here (as seen in other MMOGs). We've designed it to be very fast and quick, explains Jeff, and we wanted to strike a balance between twitch games or 3D fighting games and MMO games where you set a target, click a few buttons and see how it comes out. We wanted combat to be something you managed -something you felt like you were doing."
The outcome, as comprehensively tested by the recent three-day free-for-all public beta testing event, has resulted in a system that oozes so much playability that even resident MMO cynic Steve Hill was caught up in the fun.
When you watch a skilful Guild Wars player, their hands are never still, enthuses Jeff. They're continuously managing their health and magic, as well as engaging in the act of combat. And that skill doesn't just come from sitting in front of your PC and level-grinding for hundreds of hours - in Guild Wars, we've limited the effect of levelling up so players have to rely on their ability, not how much free time they have. It works: we've found that the speed and accessibility of the action and the animation really adds to the adrenaline and excitement.
So, how does it work? We wanted to ensure it was accessible to casual players and not just designed for the hardcore. If you click the mouse, something should happen. Every character has what we call a grunt attack', so if battle begins and you're not sure what to do you can just select a target, click the mouse and your character will attack. You always have that satisfaction of something starting.
As your skills increase, you have the added management of the eight skills you can choose before a mission, or a player-versus-player contest. As you progress, you develop skills that you open with, ones that you sustain with, ones you use in a pinch, ones you use when you're trying to escape, and ones where all your team-mates are dying and you've got to pull out a big nuke. Managing the energy cost is something that's constantly ongoing.
Hands Across The World
Guild Wars' combat isn't restricted to beating the crap out of the game world, though. As the title suggests, this is about in-game guilds taking on each other to prove their might. PvP is integral to the experience, but as Jeff insists, it's all strictly regimented. When you create your character, you place it within a certain world that corresponds to the real world. What this means is that you can decide to play with other Europeans or Americans, and so on.
When you go to social areas and on missions in your world, you'll find yourself with people from the same world. You can challenge other guilds from within your world.
Jeff goes on: The coolest thing is that we'll be running an International Guild Tournament between guilds from the different worlds. If you have a team, and that guild fights its way to the top of the intra-world tournament, then your specific world will receive benefits like exclusive missions, items and special features that can be unlocked. That's why we call it the International Tournament, because you're always pulling for the team from your world to be in the top spot. So get out there. Sign up and do it for your country. Your mother would be proud.
This is the best metaphor I can think of for Guild Wars. In a market full of overly candied soda, Guild Wars is a nice refreshing glass of orange juice, freshly squeezed. It's got a little pulp, but it's sweet, and its simplicity is classic. Be warned though, Guild Wars is missing a lot of the 'massive' that makes up MMORPG, and makes some new assumptions that old school players might not enjoy.
First and foremost, Guild Wars has no monthly fee. Buy the game and that's it. This is because the developers have designed a system whereby they'll occasionally release expansion packs, not requiring a monthly fee to keep the game up and running. All of the game characters are in the same server, but the overall feeling of the game is sparely populated, because each outdoor area is instanced to include just a few players. In addition, the normal party size is four people. The gameplay is unusual in that unlike other MMORPGs, loot is not a primary focus of the game, but rather represents a small part of your advantage. Guild Wars was designed from the ground up to facilitate skillful play, both in PvE and PvP environments, and for the most part, I think they've succeeded, as it's not about how long you've played your character, but how you play your character.
There are six different professions to choose from, of which you can have one as a primary class and one as a secondary, which determine your look, what sort of armor you can wear, and what skills you can use, with 75 skills per profession meaning that a normal character can have up to 150 skills. However, you can't use those all at once, as you can only take 8 skills with you into the field, meaning that your choice of skills is important. Since you can only change skills at a town or outpost, you need to choose carefully to suit your play style. This means that in addition to the 30 different class combinations, there's nearly limitless combinations you can make from the skills in your possession, which range from special strikes that knock the opponent down to healing enchantments that cause you to regenerate health in the middle of combat. The maximum level is 20, and any character created expressly for PvP starts at level 20, so that should give you some clue as to where the game is balanced. It's fun though, and that's what counts.
Last, for audio, I must applaud ArenaNet's choice of composers. The soundtrack for Guild Wars is composed by Jeremy Soule, famous for producing lush, extravagant film style scores. Plus, Guild Wars is extremely pretty, with some amazing art design, an excellent graphics engine, and a unique glow system. I give Guild Wars two thumbs up, and definitely recommend it to anyone that's looking for an MMORPG that requires skill and doesn't necessarily want to invest hours and hours into a game to get something rich and rewarding out of it.