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An Interview With ArenaNet's President: Mike O'Brien

August 28, 2013 - 4:28pm -- Lewis B

There are few people at ArenaNet I haven't interviewed, with Mike O'Brien having eluded me for quite some time. Thankfully, I managed to sit down with him (alongside some colleagues from Massively and MMORPG) for 30 minutes, to discuss his latest blog post. Here's how we got on.

Mike:Hi everyone! Mostly my blog post is a celebration of the year that we just completed. In terms of the year we've just completed, for me and all of us at ArenaNet it's hard to believe its been a year already. Time flies when you make one of these games and obviously we launched this game: there was so much to do and so many areas we as a company needed to be good at. All of a sudden we had to execute them perfectly in order to support the game like this. Some of the blog posts have talked about that, as the game comes out. You've got to focus on the game itself, scalability, supporting players coming in and producing new content to keep the game fresh. Having people box, cheat and hack accounts while preserving the games economy.  

when you make one of these games and obviously we launched this game: there was so much to do and so many areas we as a company needed to be good at.

My blog post is kind of a reflection of what a year it was and I think how far we've come on all those things. Once we had our sea-legs under us, the year was about developing new content and this living world initiative. So I've talked about how much I believe in that, to basically say that we reorientated our company to develop a lot of content into this game. This is a game about a living world, because it's a game where we designed it right from the beginning to be a world that's always changing. A world where players can come together to accomplish things and change the world. That's a really big goal and a difficult thing to live up to. We've been gearing up and gearing up to be able to do that. I think if you see in some of the recent releases we've done, looking at Clockwork Chaos and players banding together, you really do get a sense of the world changing all the time.

I wrote in my blog post that for me, when it comes together, is where dynamic events and living world events that are going on - where it really feels right - is when you're fighting for the world. That you don't think about the fact "was this always in the game" or "is this an event that got layered in recently?". You don't think about the mechanics of how it's all happening, you just think about the fact something is going on in the world. We really want to make the players actions have a persistent impact on the world: let players leave their mark and direct through their actions and choices the way that the Living World unfolds. We're excited to deliver content this rapidly to keep the content alive. With that, I'll turn it over to you guys. 

Massively: What's the single biggest lesson you've learned in the one year period, keeping up with Guild Wars 2. 

You saw in the early Flame and Frost updates we were treading gently in how much content we released and how world impacting it was. But as we get into it, the teams get better at it

Mike: I'll start with the biggest single challenge, for challenge, is of course being able to deliver content at the pace we're wanting to deliver at. We released this game - you probably saw - players talking about, as an anecdote,"how will they be able to support the game if it doesn't have a monthly fee?" and we really thought monthly fee or no monthly fee this is a living world game, we wanted to make the world feel alive and we wanted to do content updates more rapidly than anyone else. We didn't want a business model to dictate frequency of content updates. The biggest challenge is the mechanics of everything it takes to do that. You don't think about it and as a player you shouldn't have to. In order to do rapid content updates, you need many teams developing content in parallel because any one team can go from conception to release. In order to develop this in parallel you need the underlying technology and the underlying workflow to be able support that. Many teams are developing things and they're not stepping on each others toes but each new thing being developed can assume the existence of things we already released. Then you need a team that's practiced at it. It's a really new challenge for everyone but over time our teams get better and better at doing it. As I said in the blog post, I think it's an amazing tool. We started doing this and started doing it carefully - of course - because this is a big thing to ramp up.

You saw in the early Flame and Frost updates we were treading gently in how much content we released and how world impacting it was. But as we get into it, the teams get better at it and we have more and more power to make substantial world changing content every two weeks. I think it's an amazing power we have right now to keep the game constantly changing. Its been a year to build our team and company to the point where we can do this. Its been a reworking of a lot of our company and production processes but we did it! Look at the update we just did. What I look forward to is thinking about that release and then thinking about a year of those releases every two weeks. That's the kind of power we have in our grasp right now and that's what gets me excited. 

MMORPG: If you're constantly growing the world with Living World updates, is that a replacements to expansions? Are you adding new zones at any point? 

I think the distinguishing mark is that there are things to do in the world that are new, challenging and bring players together that require players to learn new skills.

Mike: First, we've been clear (hopefully) to our players that we're focusing on Living World right now. We're really not focusing on expansions right now. We think there's so much we can do with Living World right now - and we have - and you're asking can we add zones to the world: we did. We did add the Fractals of the Mists system through the Living World. Ascended gear - I know that was controversial - but it was a major new type of advancement that we didn't wait for an expansion for. We added it through the living world. Yes my general answer is we've already done a lot of that and are doing a lot of that, but I guess the thing I'd say is that Guild Wars 2 is a huge game and I don't think players should judge Living World by whether there is more and more land mass being added to the world. They shouldn't even judge expansions by whether there is more and more land mass being added to the world. Thats not our focus. Yes we've done it, we've added Southsun Cove, but I don't think that's the focus or distinguishing mark of what makes great new content. I think the distinguishing mark is that there are things to do in the world that are new, challenging and bring players together that require players to learn new skills. To come together to defeat bigger and badder challenges. 

MMORPG: Because the Living World updates are free, is this a sustainable model? Can you do it for a long time?

Mike: As you know Guild Wars 2 has this unique business model and we love our business model. You've probably seen our earning reports where we have a very stable revenue base in the game right now and so we're funding these Living World updates through our revenue base. 

GW2Hub: What's the biggest reason for delivering the content that you are, at its current pace? Why place this pressure upon yourself? 

Mike: It's kind of funny because we come out with these updates and you'll see a lot of players are consuming the updates, looking forward to the updates and you'll see some players say "ArenaNet slow down, I've so much stuff to do! You're giving me even more content." It's interesting because I could take a step back and laugh at the whole situation - when was the last time players in MMOG's actually said they had too much to do in this game? I find that funny anyway. To answer your overall question I have to talk about philosophy. We came out with a game that is really a game that's not about continued vertical progression and gearing up for the next raid - to get that level of gear and gearing up for the next raid - and instead it's more about being out in the world and taking on those challenges together. We even have the inverse motivation of not wanting that continual gear grind because if we have too much of that, it means players are separated and it means they can't do those things together. When there's a dragon attacking, is the dragon too easy for some and too difficult for others?

We even have the inverse motivation of not wanting that continual gear grind because if we have too much of that, it means players are separated.

We really focused more on getting people more horizontal progression and more different things to accomplish as well as rewards to collect from accomplishing those things. So when we think about the kinds of updates we can do for Guild Wars 2 a typical thing to do in a traditional MMOG would be to focus on laying out more runway infront of players. The typical thing to focus on would be for players of a certain level or certain level of equipment and you'd say "Oh players are starting to run out of things to do, lets lay out more runway" and you'd develop more gear progression, more raids and new harder things to accomplish. They'd do that for a while and start complaining and they'd say "Nothings challenging any more, I'm running out of things to do" and you'd make more higher progression. That's a pattern our industry was in and it's a pattern that works for some players but I think players are kind of maturing past the point of wanting to be on that treadmill - wanting to be in that obvious pattern of every time I catchup you're wanting to put that carrot in front of me. 

We got rid of quests because they forced the world not to not change. Every new player that comes into the game, with quests, would have to do them in the same order.

From a game standpoint I don't think it's good for the game. Yes I will recognize and concede that some games have had that and had long times doing that, so yes in that absolutist sense it has worked, but what does it leave behind? Does it leave behind a world full of populated content and you can come in as a new player into the game and play this content, with players there wanting to do it with you and the whole world feeling alive. Or does it leave the new shiny everyone is focused on with husks of hollowed out things that people used to focus on years ago that they aren't focused on any more. We didn't really want Guild Wars 2 to be about that and especially if you look at the content structure. If you look at our original goal and dream it was to make it the first truly Living World. Why did we go in and get rid of all quests from the game? We got rid of quests because they forced the world not to not change. Every new player that comes into the game, with quests, would have to do them in the same order and so how do you do that if you're trying to continually change the world and have players feel like their actions impact the world. When we thought about it that way, the kind of content you release into the game has to be the opposite of that. It can't be - take the easy way out - whenever players are running out of things to do then we make something more challenging that requires them to grind more, that adds another 100 hours to the game. If you want to be able to impact the world around them and not just going through this progression leaving the old stuff behind then all the content you release has to be about impacting the world. 

Some MMOGs only release content every three months or so - content people can grind against .

When we think about it that way, we think about the content differently. We think about the point of the content not being about laying runways in front of people, the point of the content is that players are actually changing the world. So we start to think about it then as layering in to the stuff we've already built. You can imagine that when we shipped the game and it had well over 1,000 dynamic events you start to think that you could layer in new events all the time and to some degree players wouldn't know you were doing that all the time. They're playing the game, an event happens: did that event happen because it was always there? was it built into the code a year ago? is it a rare event? or because it was added a few weeks ago? When we think about the game that way, our job with this game is to keep things happening. We then think how often should things be happening - and this leads back to your question - when we released the game and we thought doing content every month would be a pretty powerful thing to do.

Some MMOGs only release content every three months or so - content people can grind against - and we looked in the history of MMOG's that tried to do content every month to keep the world feeling fresh. We thought to ourselves that doing this every month so we started and we did it every month and it did feel fresh. In 2012 we did our Halloween event, our Lost Shores and Wintersday event. It did make the world feel fresh and I think we can do monthly releases and they can feel exciting. But as players in the game, there's that feeling when a new release comes out where the world has changed and you're gathering together with friends to explore new content. You measure it from people talking about it on forums and fan sites, on guilds and chat. There's that moment where there's an excitement of discovery. Also, you know the world is about to change and you're all waiting for what we've announced. There's also the time in between and you're just playing the game, finishing up things and basically we just thought - you can see - this tangible reaction in the community of new things changing. Why does it have to be a gap between that there isn't something new.

This is a game about a Living World. We really took it as a challenge for ourselves and the world always feels like there's something going on. The week before a release and the week after a release the players are so engaged in discovering what's going on - can it always feel like that? We decided internally we thought we could do it and that it could always feel like that. We've geared up and built up these teams to accomplish that. You look at is as a huge challenge and its taken us a while to get it right, but I do think it has the effect. I look at it now and every week really is the week leading up to something or the week after something excited has happened. Players are interpreting it that way and you look at the player activity and every week is like how those best weeks used to be. 

GW2Hub: So how do you feel about those that say their impression of a Living World was permanence and not temporary content?

Every two weeks, 25-26 times a year, can you imagine if we implemented 25 new dungeons a year?.

Mike: I think when we were starting it was a totally fair comment. Again it's not an easy thing to do to keep the world alive and so from a players perspective, you don't want to think about the details. We just want want to entertain them. But as a journalist you look behind the scenes and think "Well, they've gotta be able to deliver this content, have multiple teams working at different stages, deliver it and not leaving behind things they've gotta come back and finishing later on."

We've got to make sure that everything we deliver is at a level where we are happy to leave it in the game, to keep impacting the world going forward. We need to make sure we aren't fragmenting the player base. Every two weeks, 25-26 times a year, can you imagine if we implemented 25 new dungeons a year? A year later, we had players fighting over "I want to do this dungeon or that" - There are 25 of them. Maybe I'm having a hard time getting a party together because they're all doing the other 24 dungeons. We could turn round and say, "Lets do that for another year" and then there would be 50 of them. Players shouldn't have to think about those issues, but behind the scenes we are. We're thinking Living World updates should feel permanent and should feel like they're changing the world, but we want to feel like we're getting it right and not run before we can walk. We don't want to make mistakes and leave behind content that is fragmenting the player base.

The early stuff we did, Flame and Frost Retribution, I liked that. I thought it was a really solid release but the Molten Weapon Facility that many were looking forward to got blown up at the end. Players looked at that and said "I really wanted a new dungeon, it was exciting, I played the hell out of it for two weeks but it got blown up at the end." If I was a player I would have said that, I would have said that I loved Living World but wish it wasn't temporary so I think it's totally valid. But, it takes its time to gear up and now you look at it and it isn't quite like that.

Now Scarlet is attacking the world with her invasions against Tyria, that aren't going away any time soon. There will be a pacing to it and it wont always be at the at the pace it's at now and sure someday players will defeat Scarlet and the world will change but that's the kind of permanence that I think you want. You don't want permanence to the point where the world will never change again, but you do want permanence to the point where I enjoy something and I can keep enjoying it so you aren't taking it away from me every two weeks. We're gearing up to that and to answer your question, if we had kept doing what we were doing and releasing content every two weeks, then I'd be launching that same complaint. Players are voting and the outcome of the vote leads to permanent world change; then an invasion; a new bad guy and players fighting against them over the long term - with that bad guy changing the world - and if players can and can't defeat things, that's the mark on the world we want to see and that I want to see.

For personal motivations, a year later, 25 of these releases later, the world should feel a different world. That's the way I'll judge permanence for the actions and the choices players have made and that's what we're doing now. 

Massively: Have you found the personal story a challenge or limitation? We've heard feedback from players to cleanse Orr based on Zhaitan is defeated or the fact main characters can't change much as new players still need to experience that. How do you respond to that?

Mike: I don't want to get into that too much as we'll make announcements when fully ready, but in broad strokes we steered away from things that would impact the personal story. We wanted to keep this clean and simple and there's no way that it should be the case that over the long term anything touched on in the personal story is not fodder for the Living World because that would be exactly to the kind of thing we designed Guild Wars 2 to avoid. That would be for certain things in the world to be sacrosanct and we're going to go about changing that stuff.

Guild Wars 2 Hub would like to thank ArenaNet and Mike O'Brien for taking the time out of his busy schedule to entertain us. In addition, we'd also like to thank Massively and MMORPG for allow us to let you in the on the questions they asked and for granting us permission to let all of you read them!

Comments

BeLkin (not verified)
BeLkin's picture

That's a lot of work here, GJ!

Funly (not verified)
BeLkin's picture

"Some MMOGs only release content every three months or so - content people can grind against ."

No. Some MMOGs release content every three months or so - content that actually challenge the players - content that allow a full guild to come together and beat a goal - content that is so hard that weeks go into just planning it - content that stay in the game to be played again and again and again.

Humulus (not verified)
BeLkin's picture

It seems hard coz of gear treadmill, when new raids come the old one is obsolete. GW2 doesnt focus in vertical progression, many pp dont get this and say that the game fails - when it was designed this way. They havent raids so pp must be busy doing other things, and thats the living story purpose.

Anonymous (not verified)
BeLkin's picture

This entire interview is a very intimidating wall of text. Perhaps try some better paragraphing.