We're pleased to bring you the second part of our exclusive interview with Colin Johanson. In it, we discuss many of the design decisions behind GW2's renown system, the important role beta weekends have played in the development process, and much more. So grab a frosty beverage, sit back, and enjoy!
GW2Hub: One particular criticism I saw leveled at “renown” and “heart chasing” was that their grandeur changed so heavily. One minute you could be battling dozens upon dozens of centaur, the next picking apples. Was this always the intention?
Colin: This is indeed intentional! We want to give folks a sense of pacing and a real diversity of content and experiences in the game. When everything is an over-the-top, epic war against centaurs, for example, it can get old and feels like you’re doing the same thing, even if it’s large in scale. We want to provide a real range of content and experiences to folks in the game. In real life we’re not all intense 24/7—and people who are, aren’t much fun—and we don’t want the game to be either. It’s worth noting that as you progress through the game, the event chains get much more involved and intricate, and in Orr—since there are no apple trees—things like the more relaxing, fun minigame-type stuff is left behind to help set the tone of the epic nature of the end of the game.
One of the things we’ll be focusing on as we continue to polish and prepare the game for release is identifying the renown regions that feel like they are dull, or repeating nearby content, and redesigning those to really be more unique and fun. Internal and beta-weekend tester survey scores help us find these, so thank you!
The renown regions are the closest thing we have to traditional MMO quests, and though they play more of a supporting role in the game (there are hundreds of hearts while there are thousands of events), we want to make sure they are fun as well. Generally, they are either minigames of some sort to help break up the pace, or they provide you a list of objectives to pick from, so you can do a single activity from the list or a mix of them depending on what you actually feel like doing at the time. Going forward, if anything, you’ll probably see more of the renown regions that feel a little generic changed over to become more minigame-like to help provide a better change of pace and variety in gameplay.
GW2Hub: Some of the content I experienced during the first Beta Weekend Event I thought was incredibly difficult, and it felt like the difficulty had been ramped up significantly from previous phases. (I could barely solo some content!) How is the process of fine-tuning difficulty working out? It must be difficult finding that line between playability but not wishing for people to walk through content...
Colin: We’re constantly testing and tweaking everything in the game to try and find those sweet spots we’re really happy with. As I mentioned earlier, the level 1-5 areas were oftentimes too difficult for new players back in the first beta event, and we did a lot of work to make those a little easier for the second beta event. Another change we made between beta event one and two is we raised the level that mobs start to learn various abilities. Other than bosses, things like mobs using AoE skills now occur a little later in the game, and mobs using various conditions have been pushed back based on the condition they used. All of this was to provide a slightly better learning progression in the game, so when you get to the point where creatures are using their full sets of abilities, you are far enough along playtime-wise to better understand how to deal with those situations.
Some things were just straight-up balanced wrong, too—hello, flame shaman!—and we’ve been identifying and trying to address those as well. That’s another area where the beta surveys are a huge help to us, as well as our own internal data mining, which gives us stats on how often people die in various areas of the game—the anomalies are clear, and we’re able to find and fix those easily using those data metrics (hello, Avatar of Balthazar story boss!).
GW2Hub: Something that many people continued to say to me during the first Beta Weekend Event was that they couldn’t believe how polished the game was, that it could undoubtedly be launched tomorrow. Do you think this is a fair assertion? Where are you in terms of your overall timeline and assessment on the products level of “finish”?
Colin: First, let me say that we’ve seen that comment a lot, too, and it makes us, in particular our QA team, extremely proud of the hard work everyone has been doing. In an age where new-game releases have been ripe with bugs and unfinished products, one of our goals is to try to buck that trend and release a truly finished game that is as bug free as possible. We’re all gamers first at ArenaNet, and honestly we’re sick of paying for released games that aren’t ready to be released—it drives us nuts and we don’t want to do that to our fans. Quite frankly, we wouldn’t want to play our own game if it wasn’t ready for release either.
That being said, the stuff we’ve shown in the beta weekend is just a tiny percentage of the total game that is Guild Wars 2, and those areas are much more polished than the rest of the game, which we’re working on feverishly to try and polish as well. We can’t work on the game forever, and every single game released always has some bugs in it, but we’d like to get to the point where we’ve got a very clean, polished game across its entirety before we release it.
GW2Hub: We’ve just completed the second Beta Weekend Event; can you let us in on any of the exciting changes we can come to expect in the coming weeks?
Colin: We’re focused right now on addressing the remaining core issues that came up in the most recent beta weekend to help prepare the game for our next beta weekend. As is our usual mode of operation at ArenaNet, until stuff is in the game and we’re happy with it, we don’t talk about it, so I can’t say more than that—yet! Beyond cleaning up a few things based on the feedback from the last beta weekend, we’re focusing on polishing all of the game people haven’t seen and getting that all up to the level of the content that’s already been seen in the beta weekends.
I can say the next beta weekend will have some big additions we’re extremely excited to show everyone, but marketing won’t let me say what those things are...yet. Your readers have now been trolled.
GW2Hub: With the staggered use of beta weekends, rather than leaving the servers open 24/7, there is a real emphasis on these events being just as intended—to test the game and not to act as a glorified demo. Has it surprised you as to how valuable you’ve found the events?
Colin: I cannot emphasize enough how important the beta weekends are for us to really get an understanding of the core issues that we may not have been aware of without the high population density. While we have the servers open 24/7 for our internal testers so we can get feedback based on that scale and style of play, we need the beta weekends to help us really understand what happens when massive groups of players hit our servers, and our game maps, simultaneously. Some of the biggest issues we’ve had to address, such as server density, have come out of these beta weekends and they are helping us prepare to release the best possible game we can.
There is a second value to these events that’s actually more internal and psychological in nature that cannot be overlooked, which is the effect it has on all of us at ArenaNet. The beta weekends are a chance for all of us designers to take three days off from developing and do nothing but just play the game with the fans; it helps us better understand our own game and our fan base, and it also helps us take a break from all this hard work to just have fun. Come Monday morning—or Tuesday for some, like Isaiah, Mike Z, and JoAnna, who forget to sleep all beta weekend—the office is literally buzzing with excitement. People are chomping at the bit to get in and make the game better, to share their stories from the weekend, and to get back to making this game they truly love. The beta weekends invigorate our entire team and have a huge boost to morale; they are a chance to remind us all we’re doing something truly special, and doing it for a fan base that is truly special as well.
GW2Hub: Changing subject a little, how does it feel knowing that the industry is already beginning to adopt core concepts from GW2? The announcement of Elder Scrolls Online sees them replicate many of the ideas you’ve developed (skills linked to weapons being one of them). Is this finally the beginning of a shift in the genre mentality and content?
Colin: Video games is a truly copycat industry; if something is successful, you’re going to see it repeated all over the place by other games—it’s just the nature of the industry. If you look at World of Warcraft, for example, and the massive amount of success that game has had, nearly everything that followed it was a knockoff of most of the core fundamental mechanics and ideas used in WoW. For that matter, WoW itself was mostly a knockoff of the core fundamental ideas from early MMOs, like EverQuest, but finely polished and made more approachable for a casual audience. When the original Guild Wars first came out, the idea of doing an MMO that didn’t have a monthly fee was borderline unheard of. People thought we were crazy, and here we are seven years later and there are MMOs without monthly fees everywhere. If the core design ideas of Guild Wars 2 start being adopted by a lot of new games in the genre, it’s a sign that our game is a success, so that’d certainly be exciting for us! It might also signify a fundamental shift away from the games using a lot of the core mechanics and content models of the first generation of MMOs (EQ, WoW, Guild Wars, etc.) and into different content models, which is pretty exciting as well.
All that being said, I’d love to say to other developers that part of what is going to make Guild Wars 2 a success is not repeating what has been successful for other MMOs, but instead asking how can we do what other MMOs have done differently, or better. This is an industry where making a game is insanely expensive; there is no game harder to make than an MMO, period. Usually you’re betting your company on the game because the development costs are so high, which is part of the reason why I think you see so little innovation in the genre—the risk is just incredible, so it’s much easier to play it safe. The problem with playing it safe is that you’ll never make the next great game; at best you’ll make a good, solid game that is fun but nothing spectacular. To do the spectacular, to change a genre, it requires taking risks and doing something new, it requires pushing the limits and asking fundamental questions about why we do things as a genre. We’ve tried to do this in Guild Wars 2, and we’re going to continue to ask those questions going into the future after Guild Wars 2’s release. We hope other folks out there can learn lessons from some of the decisions we made in our game, but I’d encourage them to try to find ways to make games that are different and take the genre in exciting new directions if they truly want to help push the genre forward.
GW2Hub: Thank you for your time!
Colin: Thank you, GW2Hub. I truly appreciate your thoughtful questions that let us as developers really talk about the design process!
We'd like to thank Colin for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk with us, and our friends over at NCsoft for their assistance in setting things up. And as a special thanks to our readers, this week we've also got an exclusive developer journal from Colin about dynamic events that you won't want to miss, so be sure to keep your eyes on the 'Hub!