Hello! I recently had a sit'n'chat with ArenaNet's Martin Kerstein in search of deeper detail about Guild Wars 2, an MMO for which we seem to have been waiting forever. Most of that chat was firing questions from RPS readers at him, which I'll be posting on the morrow (that's how people in fantasy games speak, you see. They'd never say 'tomorrow'), but my own probing about Guild Wars 2's oft-repeated promise that it's escaped the usual MMO treadmill of questing and grinding bears a standalone post. Will this really be the long-promised MMO rapture, the online world that's free from the increasing irritatingly traditions of this oft-static genre? Let's find out...
RPS: What are your thoughts on WoW's recently-announced subscriber decline – is it just recession ills, or could the world perhaps be tiring of the ephemeral nature of the virtual rewards most MMOs are built around?
Martin Kerstein: I don’t think it’s a sign of being a recession or anything, it’s just a couple of other games came out, people get older… I mean, World of Warcraft’s had an amazing run, but it’s an older game as well – some people are maybe just tired, they’ve had a kid or got married and don’t have time to play anymore. So I think it’s rather natural that they lose some subscribers at some point.
RPS: What about MMOs in general, is there any worry that the bloom’s come off the rose not just in terms of subscriptions but in terms of the very appeal of these games, the way experience points and virtual rewards are attached to everything else now?
Martin Kerstein: Well, what we try to do with Guild Wars 2 anyway is to break a lot of the existing conventions, like by getting rid of quests and basically totally focusing on dynamic events. So you just run through the world and happen on stuff, and that stuff has an impact on the world. It’s not just there’s this one guy standing with an exclamation mark and you go there, he says ‘hey, those evil bandits over there have been threatening me for the last 15 years, like I told the other thousand people before you…’ Then you go there and they’re not actually doing anything. So you kill them then come back, so the guy says ‘thanks, everything is fine now’ but you turn around and the bandits are back… Our dynamic events will actually have an impact on the world, so if you defend a village it’s safe. It’s more like a living, breathing world.
RPS: Is that a personal shard system, so it’s resolved for you but for everyone else the bandits are still attacking?
Martin Kerstein: No, no. That’s another thing – we also have a personal story, where you make decisions at character creation that determine how your personal playthrough will happen, and at certain points in the story you come to forks where you have to make a decision that then takes you one way or another. But those dynamic events in the world, obviously they have to be cyclical in a way, because if they were to be permanent you would probably need 10,000 game designers making content 24/7 for their rest of their lives. Definitely, though, that cycle is not constant – and also there are event chains, so if you do one thing it triggers something else, and if you follow that up it triggers something else. There are even events that stretch across the whole map.
RPS: What about the permanency, or lack thereof, for rewards? Historically, Guild Wars has been good at having players select the skills they want rather than just whatever’s unlocked most recently, but when you grab a new weapon or armour is it going to ephemeral, something that quickly loses all meaning and has you immediately desiring something better?
Martin Kerstein: There’s different ways in which we’re tackling that. The thing is there are lot of people out there who still really like getting new gear, so obviously as you progress across 80 levels you get new gear, better gear that you find or can craft. But we also have less hardcore rewards – achievements and titles and stuff, similar to Xbox achievements, so just by doing things in the gain you get them. And one thing we will do is have something called Transmutation Stones, so if you have a sword you like and you really, really want to keep it but the stats are not as great, you can basically transfer the look and skin to another sword. So you can keep your favourite sword even if the stats are no longer that good. In general, we try to make the game as fun for people as possible, and not feel as though the game is work – that’s bad. If you go home you want to play, you don’t want to feel as though you have a second job.
RPS: You were talking about needing 10,000 designers to make a proper solo experience – what’s the comfortable middleground between having that meat of content and where you have to have some of the traditional MMO treadmill content purely to be practical?
Martin Kerstein: The good thing is that events are, like I say, cyclical but the cycles vary. We have small events, which might cycle a little faster; we have really big challenging events… I don’t know the exact cycles, but it really isn’t like you hand in your quest and then you see a respawn of exactly the same thing. You defend the fort against Centaurs and you push them back, all of a sudden you will see the NPCs and the merchants come back, they bring in guards and you keep pushing the Centaurs further, maybe back to their stronghold. Then as long as you keep them confined, your village is safe. If the players then decide ‘ah, I don’t want to stay here anymore’ and go somewhere else, then all of a sudden the centaurs find there’s nobody there to keep them from taking over the village so they start pushing forwards.
The good thing is those events run even if there are no players involved – if there are no players, the enemy will take over and you’ll have to get it back before you can actually do anything. That’s why it feels more organic and breathing. If you log out in the evening and you know ‘ok, we had control of that stronghold over there’ but you look in the next day and it’s ‘holy crap, what happened? Where did all these monsters come from, where are the merchants, what happened to this town?’ It’s changing all of the time, not having the exact same guys standing in the exact same spots, always saying the same stuff.
RPS: How can you prevent what happened with Warhammer Online, where the public quests sort of fell apart as players levelled up and left them behind so anyone coming along later had no-one to tackle them with?
Martin Kerstein: Those had the problem that they were not scaling. Our dynamic events scale, from an individual player up to how many players are taking part, and they dynamically scale. So if you start out on your own, obviously you have less opponents, but if a bunch of other players come by - and that’s another good thing, all the people participating in those dynamic events, whether they’re grouped or not, get rewarded, so you’re always glad to see another player. It’s not like ‘hey, there’s another player, which means I’m going to level slower because he’s killed my mobs and I have to wait for a respawn.’ Instead it’s ‘hey, there’s another guy, so it will be more challenging and more fun, or we’ll do it faster’… So if other players come along it will scale up, and if they leave it will scale down. It’s all dynamic.
RPS: So that’s true of the rewards, too? I remember that weird roll-off thing in WAR where just a couple of guys would end up getting great loot and everyone else was left with nothing, even if they’d fought really well.
Martin Kerstein: Yeah, when you’d put all the effort in and then rolled, but then you were like fifth and got nothing, that wasn’t fun. No, everybody gets rewarded in our dynamic events.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
The reader inquisition interview with Martin will follow tomorrow.