We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Colin Johanson to discuss the launch expectations for Guild Wars 2, the importance of beta weekend feedback, and a whole lot more. Today we're pleased to bring you the first of this excellent two part interview with Colin, so continue reading to learn more about the impact of player feedback on design, and much more. And don't forget to check back tomorrow for the second part of this epic interview!
GW2Hub: How is the atmosphere in the office at the moment? Would you consider it “crunch time,” or is it much more relaxed?
Colin Johanson: It’s sort of a mixed bag of everything right now; as we approach getting a build ready for a beta weekend, we all start really cramming hard to make it the best possible experience we can. Once we get to the beta weekend, it’s much more relaxed, as we all get an opportunity to just spend three days playing the game with everyone, which reinvigorates everyone, allowing them to get ready for the next beta event and make the game even better.
We’re still trying to have a lot of fun every step of the way, though; great games are made by a team of people having a great time, and that passion and fun carries over into everything they do. Guild Wars 2 is one of the rare games that has the luxury to actually find issues with the game (via our beta weekends) and be given time by the publisher (thank you, NCsoft!) to address those issues. Because of that, we’re not crippled by the insane crunch and madness that usually accompanies other games to release; instead, we have the time to make intelligent design decisions, test them, and get them right so when we release the game, it’s one we’re truly proud of.
GW2Hub: When we spoke at Eurogamer last year, you mentioned being nervous before the reveal of Guild Wars 2 at gamescom, when showing it for the first time. Do you feel the same apprehension going into each beta weekend?
Colin: Less so now than the very first gamescom; that moment of working on anything for 3+ years of your life and showing it for the first time is incredibly nerve-wracking. I don’t think I slept more than an hour or two on the flight to Germany or over the couple days before the show. Once we let people play at gamescom and PAX two years ago, we had a pretty clear sense we were on the right track, and people were getting behind the game we were making.
Back then it was more of a stomach-churning “what happens if no one likes it as much as we do” nervousness. You only get one chance to make a first impression, after all. Now it’s more of a nervous excitement as the game edges closer to release with each beta weekend. We went from three years of work before getting feedback to now every month or two we’re getting to iterate and then get comments from an insane amount of people in our beta weekends—that certainly helps a lot.
Pride and hubris are dangerous things in this industry, though; they’ve killed many potentially great games in the past when teams assured themselves they had a hit and didn’t listen to the feedback. It’s important that we’re always a little bit nervous about anything we do and come at it with a sense of apprehension and humility. It’s not just our game; it’s a game we’re making for all the fans of Guild Wars 2 as well. Always being respectful of that, and being willing to recognize when decisions we made aren’t working, are both extremely important to the success of the game, which is a big part of our development philosophy and strategy.
GW2Hub: I also mentioned back then that I expected Guild Wars 2 to sell several million units in its first year based on the hype surrounding the product. After the pre-purchase and estimations that over 300,000 copies are likely to have been sold, has the pre-purchase completely surpassed all your original expectations?
Colin: I’d probably be demoted to lead content designer of toilet cleaning if I gave away any of the exact numbers…so instead I’ll just say the pre-purchase sign-ups have surpassed any of our expectations at this point, and they just keep going up. Thanks to everyone who has pre-purchased the game, we’ve been overwhelmed by the level of support from the gaming community for Guild Wars 2—the sky’s the limit at this point on where things can go from here.
The larger the audience that supports the game, the larger we can make our live team to support that audience of people, so it’s sort of a win-win for everyone at this point. We’re already starting to outline some of our plans going into the live-support mind-set, and I think, frankly, that people will be blown away by the kind of support this game is going to get after it ships. This isn’t just a game; a truly successful MMO is a service, and you have to be prepared to absolutely blow away your customers with the quality of your support if you want them to keep using your service. Our goal is to provide the best live experience anyone has seen in any MMO, period. If that wasn’t our goal, we wouldn’t be able to do it!
GW2Hub: Is there a renewed pressure in delivering the product (and as quickly as possible) now that the game can be pre-purchased and knowing money has changed hands?
Colin: Whenever you have someone pay for something, the expectations go up, and the pressure to meet those expectations goes up as well. If we didn’t respect and recognize that, we wouldn’t be respecting the down-payment of trust our customers have given us with their pre-purchases. Our fans have shown they trust us, so we absolutely feel pressure to live up to that level of trust by providing an incredible experience. Having pressure from lots of people pre-purchasing beats the hell out of having no one buying your game—now that’s pressure!
GW2Hub: How has the feedback from the beta weekends impacted Guild Wars 2’s development? Has any feedback really surprised you and the team and made you think, “Wow, we really have to change that now!” or were you already aware of many of the issues?
Colin: The feedback absolutely makes a huge difference to us; after every beta weekend, we have a huge review of the feedback from both the players and our internal staff. We try to tackle the major points we need to address, assigning them to the folks who can knock them out, then test, iterate, and test again until we get to the point we’re happy with the solution.
Over the years we’ve learned to not be surprised by any of the feedback we get. I’ve learned one person will say a mountain is too tall, another will say it’s too short, and a third will say there should be no mountain at all. The key is to be able to consolidate all of the feedback and identify trends, then use our data-metric tracking to help verify that those trends are indeed true issues, and then address them.
We’re generally aware of most of the issues we’ve heard raised in the beta test, which is good; if we were caught flat-footed and surprised, it’d be much more concerning. Sometimes we know there is a problem, but we want to see hundreds of thousands of people play it to help identify what the best solution is; there is no easy way for us to replicate the kind of data and feedback we get from the beta events. Some things that are already in our plan, like key bindings, can get bumped higher in priority and completed ahead of schedule if a large enough portion of the community points out they really want them.
Sometimes we get feedback for which the amount of work required to fix it just isn’t worthwhile, but we’ll at least embrace and poke fun at it. For example, some of the crop sprinklers in the human lands are located in square crop fields, but the sprinklers only spray in a circular pattern. Ian Yonika, one of our insanely talented animators, pointed this out at one point. We were past the point where it was worth the amount of time it would take to change it, and it’s a pretty tiny detail, so rather than change the game, we added “Farmer Ian” to the game. If you talk to Farmer Ian, you’ll notice his conversation very closely resembles the post Ian left in our developer forums about why the sprinklers don’t make sense. Thanks, Ian!
Simultaneously, we’re also dealing with other parts of the game that our beta testers aren’t able to see—trying to polish those areas up and get them ready for ship as well. There are additions like the Mystic Forge that have been in the works for a while, and we finally got all the necessary resources online and the forge tested to the point we were ready to show it.
GW2Hub: Has much of the feedback given been consistent with your internal testers’ opinions? Have there been any glaring differences?
Colin: I’d say the major difference is that our internal testers have a very different testing environment than our beta event, so they are able to identify some of the issues, but it’s difficult to recognize everything, much as it is for us as well.
As I mentioned, there is seriously no replacement for our beta weekends when so many players hit the servers simultaneously. Our internal test can’t begin to replicate that when it comes to game performance, as well as the density of content and the actual in-game player experience.
For example, in our first Beta Weekend Event, we found the newbie zones were absolutely slammed the first two days of the weekend, and the populations were so high that it often made the content experience less than ideal. We simply don’t have enough people in our internal beta to truly replicate this experience for days on end, so seeing it live was something we didn’t fully anticipate. We added a bunch of features, new events, and various tweaks to the scaling system to help make that experience much more fun. By the second beta weekend, a lot of us on the content design team spent the first day bouncing around between the newbie zones to see how it worked, and we were happy to see that the tweaks we’d made helped make that first hour of gameplay more fun.
We’ve also heard for a while from our internal testers that probably the biggest challenge with the game is actually just teaching people how to play it and the nuanced differences in Guild Wars 2 from the traditional MMOs or RPGs they may be used to. We were aware of this, and we saw that same feedback come up in our open beta events as well. Solving this problem requires a lot of different solutions, and some of them we’ve done, like add better hints and tutorial-type stuff for PvP and WvW; but we’re still working on a number of things to better teach the game, and you’ll see those in the future.
GW2Hub: How have you gone about dissecting the feedback you’ve received on the official GW2 forum? There were hundreds and hundreds of pages. It must be an absolutely mammoth task to coordinate…
Colin: Many, many hours put in by many, many people. It also requires constant, real-time monitoring, rather than just reading it all after the beta event. Sometimes it’s better to ask questions early in a thread to help direct it toward the information we need to help make informed decisions. Because of this, not only does the ArenaNet staff play the entire weekend during a beta but many of us monitor the forums along with our community team all weekend as well.
As always, thanks for reading, and don't forget to check back tomorrow for part two as our exclusive GW2 interview series continues!