Earlier this month at PAX, ZAM had the chance to speak with a few of the developers from ArenaNet about its upcoming MMO, Guild Wars 2. A sequel to the successful Guild Wars (published by NCSoft), Guild Wars 2 is currently in full production, with a predicted release date sometime in 2010 to 2011. We learned quite a bit about the project, including its new and revamped engine, what to expect from PvP, and the story and lore behind it all.
ZAM sat down for a Q&A about the upcoming sequel with Jeff Grubb (Game Designer), Daniel Dociu (Art Director) and Mike O'Brien (Founder and President, ArenaNet) to find out what players can expect to see in Guild Wars 2, which will be featured on ZAM in a few days, after the weekend. Before the Q&A, though, we had a brief chat with the team about the history of the franchise, and why they decided to make a sequel, rather than continue supporting the original Guild Wars.
Chances are, if you've never played Guild Wars before, you've at least heard about it, since it set a precedent in the MMO market. Released in 2005, Guild Wars didn't charge customers a monthly subscription fee, like most MMOs at the time. Yet it wasn't free-to-play, either; Guild Wars has never gone down the "micro-transaction" path. NCSoft returned to the more traditional PC game model; charging customers the one-time "box price," with no added fees or subscription for continued, online play. The only catch was that players would have to buy future "episodes" or expansion packs if they wanted to raise their level caps and explore new content and areas.
"Because you're not signed up for a monthly fee," Mike O'Brien told ZAM, shortly before our Q&A, "we as developers don't have that motivation to put you on the hook and say, ‘You have to play hours every day, and if you don't play hours every day, you're going to fall behind and [not] be able to play with your friends anymore.' We just make things easy for the players. It's our company's philosophy; be nice to the players and take out the things that stand between players and having fun immediately."
At a time when WoW and other subscription-based MMOs were dominating the market, Guild Wars offered a financially-viable alternative to gamers who liked the idea of MMOs, but didn't want pay a fee every month to play. Guild Wars' gameplay was also a bit different from similar games; the developers actually called it a "CORPG," or "competitive online role-playing game," rather than an MMORPG. This was, in part, because of the episodic nature of Guild Wars' gameplay, which polarized PvE and PvP into two distinct modes. PvE zones are instanced to a player or group; a mechanic designed to make questing easier, with fewer distractions. Also, the PvE side of the game was more episodic; delivered in linear, progressive stages that allowed players to play at the pace they wanted.
"Guild Wars is much more in the tradition of Magic: The Gathering, rather than D&D, like most of our competitors are," O'Brien said. "It has the very unique skill system; everybody can build up their own way to play the game, different than their friends do.
"[Our fans] love the way we tell stories," he added. "I don't think anybody else tells stories the way we do. And they love the degree of customization they have over their character, and the way their character plays. We make it so easy to get into the game and just have fun. If you've got a half an hour, you can go just have fun for half an hour; you don't have prepare to go on a big raid, or that kind of thing. It's the game's business model; it just makes it easy to get into."
Guild Wars went on to become relatively successful, selling over 6 million copies so far, according to an announcement by ArenaNet in April of 2009. But a couple years back, the developers had a choice to make; either continue spending their time and money on the original game, or devote the majority of those resources to a sequel.
"Guild Wars far exceeded our expectations for its success, and we supported it through follow-up campaigns and an expansion pack," O'Brien said. "In 2007, we announced that we wanted to stop making follow-up campaigns for Guild Wars I, and instead, focus on a sequel for the game. And the reason that we decided to that was because we wanted to be ambitious and do things in the game that we couldn't do with the existing engine, or with the existing infrastructure of the game."
Unlike most game companies, ArenaNet announced its Guild Wars 2 extremely early in the sequel's development, since it felt obliged to let its customers know why new content for the original game would be slowing down.
"Normally in this industry, if you're working on a new game, you just keep it secret until you're ready to talk," O'Brien said. "With Guild Wars I, we had been releasing content regularly, [so] we had to tell our fans we're going to stop working on new campaigns for Guild Wars I and do Guild Wars 2 instead now. So we announced it before we even started working on it. It killed us to have to be developing in the dark, because obviously we're making cool stuff and we want people to see what we're working on. But we wanted to get the game to the point where it really shows what it is."
The new engine O'Brien mentions is a yet-unnamed, proprietary graphics engine developed by ArenaNet. According to O'Brien, it will allow the developers to take both the gameplay and visual aspects of Guild Wars into new territory.
"We've really re-built a lot from the ground-up with technology," he said. "Guild Wars 2 is a radical revamp of the 3D engine and a new terrain system. It's an open, free-form world now. It's fully 3D, whereas Guild Wars I was kind of ‘2 ½-D.' It has a lot more movement through the world, swimming underwater, day and night cycles and it's a full-on persistent world. And we rebuilt our whole tool chain too, so that we can produce much higher-quality content—and much faster—than we did in Guild Wars I. We've been pretty busy, and what you'll see today is a result of that work."
O'Brien is referring to the new Guild Wars 2 trailer (nearly five minutes long), released in late August. At the time, we hadn't seen it yet: this would be the first time some of the ZAM team would get to see what this new engine was all about, and finally get the chance to discover what the theme of Guild Wars 2 might be. You can check out the trailer here if you'd like to take a peek for yourself.
Since its release, the new Guild Wars 2 trailer has been well-received by fans, featuring a mix of concept art and in-game footage. You'll see fly-overs of a variety of terrain and new landscapes, with massive buildings and architecture that prick the imagination. The engine does undoubtedly look totally revamped, comparable with the graphics of any modern MMO out there today. And if you look close, you'll even see a few hints in the trailer, like a bit of steampunk, which ZAM asks about in the upcoming Q&A.
O'Brien said the changes and improvements in Guild Wars 2 don't just stop with graphics and gameplay, though. The story-telling that ArenaSoft is known for will be kicked up a notch as well; this time around, the developers are telling stories that hit a little closer to home.
"The story is much more personal now," O'Brien said. "We used to tell the story of the world, but now we're telling the story of your character as well. We haven't announced what we're doing with character customization, but it's a focus of ours."
O'Brien also mentions the skill system; something unique to Guild Wars that the developers also revamped. This time around, they had different priorities in mind.
"We had 1300 skills in Guild Wars I," O'Brien said. "That's one reason we stopped doing campaigns; we didn't want to just add skills indefinitely to [the original game]. Guild Wars 2 has the feel of the Guild Wars I skill system, but it really focuses on the quality of the skills rather than the quantity."
If you would like to know more about the upcoming Guild Wars sequel, visit our Guild Wars 2 portal site for upcoming news and announcements. Be sure to check back with us after the weekend, when we publish our Q&A section of our interview. It features just about everything we could squeeze out of the ArenaNet team concerning PvE and PvP, the storylines explored in Guild Wars 2, the game's new graphics engine and much more.