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Guild Wars 2 Interview Part 1: Fighting Fires

After the launch of their blog yesterday, Arenanet has just posted details about how combat will work in Guild Wars 2, plus the - er- elements of the Elementalist class. In the first half of our interview with Lead Designer Eric Flannum and Global Brand Director Chris Lye, we explore these areas, talking about these combat changes, how they're approaching character classes generally, its unique pricing model, how they're approaching the Player Versus Player elements and lots more....

RPS: Guild Wars, drawing on Magic the Gathering and putting building your own character to the forefront, really was unlike any game of its type. How are you changing it this time out? Any to what aim?

Eric Flannum: Our goal remained the same. We wanted to keep the customisability which Guild Wars had. If I'm a Ranger in Guild Wars, I can be a very different character. I could have a hammer and a pet and be a melee character or I could have a bow and interrupt and harass other characters. They're very different play styles, and you can customise your plays tyle. That was really important to preserve in GW2.

RPS: So what's changed?

Eric Flannum: One of the issues we always ran into is that some players are not good at building those characters. We went through making sure that we didn't take the customisation out, but also made it so you can't make a really, really bad character. In Guild Wars 2, for example, the first half of your skill-bar is determined by what you're holding in your hand. So if I'm a warrior and I have a sword and a shield and then I switch to a great sword, my first five skills which change to reflect to show that I have a greatsword now. Those aren't skills you drag to your skill-bar – they're skills which are determined by your profession and what you're holding. That way we're sure that people have at least basic, useable skills which they can build on top of. The second 5 are ones you can slot yourself, and enhance your basic functionality.

RPS: Extrapolating from what you've said on the blog though, there's still a structure there. Of the five remaining, one is a high-power ability slot, another is a healing slot which leaves three which you have something like total freedom with.

Eric Flannum: One of the things we did was dedicate one of the slots to what we call an Elite Skill – which is a super-powerful one. And one to a healing skill. But even in those categories you have a choice, based upon your class and your profession. So, for example, with an elementalist, there's a channel skill which if you hold down will heal you, which works well for fire elementalists... because when you are one of them, you put an aura around yourself, so if anyone damages you, they take damage. So if you get in trouble, you can put that down – and you heal yourself [for a long period of time], then enemies will hit you... so you're still hurting enemies while healing. But a water elementalist who has a lot more support skills may bring a healing skill which heals allies at the same time, because he doesn't really need that really strong self-heal. He wants to be more support. He wants something in the healing slot that reinforces how he wants to play with the rest of his build.

RPS: I suspect one of the initially controversial decisions will be the loss of Secondary Careers, allowing you to choose from two sets of skills. However, it seems to be that the new ability to give your character a race - and opening up skills from that choice - seems to be somewhat functionally analogous to what the secondary skills did.

Eric Flannum: That's totally true. The other reason we lost the secondary careers – and we actually did have them in the game for a while, and they were just causing us some issues. And the fact that the races kind of act like secondary careers did help us make the decision, and that maybe they aren't necessary in GW2. The secondary careers... we tried them out. It was a pretty tough decision, as they were such a big part of GW1 – but we're getting so much mileage from the races. We're really pushing how unique each of the professions are. The elementalist has a mechanic where he atunes to different elements – we had a hard time reconciling this with the warrior, who's another one of our professions, who uses an adrenaline mechanic in order to build up damage during the fight. It was hard for us to combine how the two worked – but it was pretty easy to make the races and the professions work together.

RPS: You say that you're trying to bring more clarity to the combat. Care to elaborate on that? Guild Wars did tend to be a little confusing when everything was kicking off.

Eric Flannum: One of our priorities was to more visually advertise what an ability does. Let's take fireball for example, which is a really basic skill. Fireball comes out. It blasts. But when it explodes there's a really strong ring which shows where it's going to hit – and everything which attacks an area has a similar effect which means you can just look and go “that's the area”. You don't have to look at a character to see whether they're reacting to know whether they're hit or not – not that they don't react. You can just tell where your fireball hit. It's things like that. A cone of fire will hit the exact area it looks like it is. We tried to make it so you can look at a skill and just know.

RPS: Regarding another aspect of the game, last time I talked when Guild Wars 2 was announced, you said that there was basically a total divorce between the Player Versus Player (PvP) part of the game and the Player Versus Environment (PvE) part. Is this still true?

Eric Flannum: We basically divided our PVE and our PvP... well, our PVP is divided into two sections. Firstly, we have what we refer to as our “competitive PvP” which all players can go into. You don't make a PvP character. You just take your character to a place in the mists – which is our space between worlds – and when you're in there, you have everything unlocked. You have all the skills, you're max level, you have a set of equipment every player has access to. They're on equal footing. And then it works how it would on a server based first-person shooter, where you browse for a game and then play. There's no unlocking. We're having automated tournaments and things like that. There's a couple of ways to play that, but it's all completely on an even foot.

Secondly, we have world versus world – which is what would be called servers or a shards in another game. That's more if you want to think of it as an open world PvP, where levels matter and you can have unequal fights like 5 on 1 or 3 on 2 - or even 100 on 50. That's where we have our epic castle sieges and that kind of thing. In both of those types of PvP, they're separate from each other and separate from the PvE, but you have the same character you take between them.

RPS: The original Guild Wars developed for the Eastern and Western market simultaneously. In fact, it was one of the few MMOs where all the worlds were actually connected and you could abstractly play against anyone from anywhere in the world simultaneously. What's your plans this time? What did you learn from attempting it?

Eric Flannum: It's very tough. It's actually something which was very, very difficult for us. Localisation, getting the languages, the gameplay differences and how they play. The Korean market is completely different from the western market. With GW2 we're making it a little easier on ourselves, and we're initially only releasing in the West, and following in Asia afterwards. We haven't totally finalised dates or plans for that, but it was a big challenge in GW1. Just releasing in English and the European languages is also tough, so we figured that was a big enough challenge for us.

RPS: And just to make it clear, as people are always asking, what's the pricing model for the new Guild Wars?

Eric Flannum: We're basically the same pricing model as GW1. No monthly fee. Boxes, expansion and microtransactions for our revenue.

Chris Lye: : It's very important to us to state emphatically that they'll be no subscription for GW2.

RPS: One of the interesting trends in MMOs recently has been... well, MMOs get enormous sales from the boxes, but the subs drop almost immediately. It's kind of like that everyone, whether they planned to do so or not, has been forced into adopting Guild Wars "We will get our money primarily from the boxed game" model, if you see what I mean.

Chris Lye: It certainly seem that way. We have a name for it over at Arenanet, those who worry about it. We call it "second subscription syndrome". The fall off after the 30 day trial goes away...

Eric Flannum: James [Phiney, Arenanet's Creative Director - Ed] described it as Social Gravity. Where it's difficult to pull users away from a game. You have to get the majority of a group of friends to come over to your game, and you have to get them to stay and the key is to offer them a better experience than the game they're leaving. We're super-aware of that. While we do want to branch out to more than just MMO players, but to those who are playing an MMO, there are two things we're thinking about – first... well, they don't have to pay a subscription fee, so they may be more willing to play our game as well as another game. And the second thing is that the quality has to be there. You're competing with a game which has been out for at least 5 years in the case of WoW. In the case of Warhammer or LoTR less than that... but they've been out for a while. They've been able to find themselves a lot. Your game has to be really high quality. We're past the days where you can have a broken launch and have to patch it better afterwards. We're super aware of that. We want GW2 to launch to just be a fantastic experience.

RPS: Still - there's the two sides of making MMOs. There's either the subscription-fee model or the free-with-microtransactions model. Guild Wars sits alone, between them. How does it feel?

Chris Lye: It feels pretty good.

Eric Flannum: We were really happy with how GW1 performed. We said it before, but it did better than we even expected it to. We carved out a pretty good niche with our fans, and we've got a lot of super loyal, super-fanatic fans. It's time, with GW2, to take that next step and be even bigger.

RPS: I do wonder - why has no-one else tried it?

Chris Lye: MMOs are hugely expensive projects, at least the high end, so people consider them risky... so taking on a new business model is seen as risky. So publishers especially – and maybe also developers – go “Well – we know the subscription works. Or at least it's worked for WoW. Let's go with that”. Unfortunately what they then realise is that if they follow it too much in the prevailing business model they will never be able to beat or overshadow WoW.

RPS: If there was a trend in the last year, I suspect it's in people realising that if you're in the Fantasy MMO space you will never "beat" WoW. I remember when I was interviewing Jeff Strain back when Guild Wars came out, he wanted to see how World of Warcraft's subs numbers would hold up. The idea that it would grow as much as it did... well, it was totally alien.

Eric Flannum: I mean, back when WoW first launched the conventional wisdom was that you couldn't get a million subs to an MMO. The MMO audience was sort of tapped. And I don't think anyone thinks that any more. As MMOs expand into other game types which aren't WoW or even like us... you get stranger things or things in other genres. And then you see that people enjoy playing games with other people online. And that audience, I think, is just going to grow. I don't think we've seen the end of it.

Chris Lye: Look at Farmville. I know it's a dirty word to some people, but, you can't argue with very impressive numbers.

Eric Flannum: We're all social people. Social creatures, by our nature. I think playing games with each other is something we just naturally want to do.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Return tomorrow where in the second part of the interview, we talk about exactly how Arenanet plan to put that social element right in the heart of the player-versus-environment game, with details of their dynamic world and personalised quest systems. Which is, at least for this correspondent, the most exciting stuff he's heard about the game.

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Guild Wars 2

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Kieron Gillen


Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.