Like most of you, we've been waiting patiently for information about ArenaNet's (mostly) announced Guild Wars 2 project. Unfortunately, despite all of our efforts, we've still been unable to get anything definitive. Having said that, Guild Wars has an amazingly unique art style that made the opportunity to sit down with Daniel Dociu, Creative Director at ArenaNet, so appealing to us. During the interview we talked about the work he did on Guild Wars, the future look of MMOs, his role in Valve's Half-Life 2 and of course, my failed attempt to get information about Guild Wars 2.
Tamat : Hey Daniel, thank you so much for sitting down with me today to talk about Guild Wars.
Daniel : Hello! My pleasure.
Tamat : First of all, can you just talk a little bit about your history in the industry?
Daniel : Well I got into games around 1993 if I recall correctly. My first job was with Squaresoft as an art director, back in the days when they had a studio in the Seattle area. Then I moved on to EA for a couple of years. The next one was Zipper Interactive which is currently owned by Sony. I was there for about four years. I then went back to EA for a couple of years and then I did freelancing for a few months in-between EA and ArenaNet. I've been here at ArenaNet for a little over five years now.
Tamat : Let’s talk more about some of the work that you did on Guild Wars. What were your main focuses on the project and what would you say some of your biggest achievements were?
Daniel : The central focus or contribution to the game, was building a team and building an art culture that is based on a solid foundation and traditional art skills that are based on values that I believe in as far as fashion and healthy work ethics. We built this art team from a handful of people to somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty people now. They have been more or less hand picked from the best talent pool that the industry had to offer. It's a team that I'm personally proud of and very protective of and that's what I would consider that my main contribution to the game. On a day-to-day basis I do very traditional art direction, which is very hands-on. I do a lot of concept art myself as well as running around and overseeing the implementation of the vision into the game.
Tamat : Now, from an artistic standpoint, what do you think sets the Guild Wars universe apart from other MMOs? What gives it its individual character?
Daniel : It's our goal to have Guild Wars stand out artistically, primarily through the hand crafted qualities that we want the game to have. We want to make sure that we're not going the route of photo realism which most of the other developers are pursuing. We'd much rather go our own way and adopt an art direction that is style centric and based on traditional artistic values and that carries through certain hand crafted qualities. So the craftsmanship and the passion for detail, richness, textures and the memorable visuals are what we're striving for.
Tamat : So is it safe to say that you're going for the same kind of thing with newer projects that you're working on? As you said, a lot of the games go for photo realism where the consumer’s hardware is barely able to run the game smoothly. Would you say that you're going to be pursuing something that continues with the art focus that you had in the original Guild Wars?
Daniel : *laughs * Now that was very clever! Of course we're sticking to our guns and we'll be continuing the same quality and artistic integrity that we did with the first game and trying to build upon that to hopefully bring it to the next level. I don't think we're giving away much of a secret here by stating our ambition to deliver visually powerful and high quality games.
Tamat : Now in that same vein, let's talk about newer projects that you're working on. Is there anything that hasn't been completely confirmed that you can maybe give us a hint about?
Daniel : *laughs * We don't know what you're talking about!
Tamat : Alright! I guess I’ll just have to live with that. However, it’s been stated publically that the polygon counts and texture allowances have been increased for the next Guild Wars project. Can you talk about that at all?
Daniel : I have a strong opinion on this topic so without confirming or denying anything, I truly don't believe its poly count that makes or breaks the visuals of a game. I think it's a rather irrelevant measure of game's artistic quality. Poly count is something that engineers can brag about or take pride in and, while it does help us artists, it's not the defining ingredient of good art. I feel very strongly about this and feel that there are games that were made ten to twelve years ago on inferior platforms or machines that still hold up well and have passed the test of time despite their downright pathetic technical capabilities. Then there are games that are being developed currently or have been shipped recently which can handle all the polygons you can throw at them, yet the art is nothing to write home about visually.
Tamat : In your opinion what are a few of those games that have withstood the test of time?
Daniel : Oh jeez. Really early on I remember being blown away by Chrono Trigger and the early day Final Fantasy games. Then I think the first real eye opener for me was the first Metal Gear. It proved to me that one can take pride in one's craftsmanship as an artist, even on a technically inferior platform and that it’s attention to detail and craftsmanship that makes the difference and compensates for the shortcomings of the system. I felt that particular game was developed with a lot of pride, that every single pixel in that game had been hand-placed, and it showed. It was the Asian or Japanese mindset of pride, craftsmanship and passion for your craft that truly impressed me and changed my perspective on how to approach development.
Tamat : Sort of a random question but I understand you were the inspiration for Father Grigori in Valve’s Half-Life 2.
Daniel : *sigh * That is correct and to this day it's pretty funny that it's likely what I'm most known for. By the end of my career I’d like to rectify that and have bigger accomplishments.
Tamat : What’s the story behind that?
Daniel: My son, who is currently working here at ArenaNet as the lead of our cinematic team, used to work at Valve on Half-Life 2. I got to hang out with the Valve crowd a little bit and they were looking for someone with an eastern European face with kind of a mean frown and I was the cheapest talent that they were willing to hire for the job. That was an easy $200 that I made for a mug shot.
Tamat : Well after talking to you it's nice to know that you're not a drunken priest, hell-bent on slaying monsters.
Daniel : A Priest I am not. As for the drunken part, I'm not going to comment on that!
Tamat : *laughs * Alright! What do you think the future holds for MMOs as far as art direction?
Daniel : Your guess is as good as mine. I mean I wish that I had a recipe up my sleeve but I don't believe in recipes. I believe that everyone who claims to have one is fooling themselves. Instead, I believe in following your instincts and being passionate about what you do and giving it your best shot while hoping for the best. But I'm not putting any kind of thought towards foreseeing trends or trying to make course corrections based on trying to read into the future.
That said, I think quality will continue to go up and that hyper realism will always be pursued by some developers but they'll always run towards limitation that makes that direction unattractive to me and to this studio.
Tamat : We'll that's all I really have for you Daniel, thank you so much for joining us and good luck on Guild Wars 2.
Daniel : Thank you! It was my pleasure!
Andrew "Tamat" Beegle