Following the publication of their manifesto (which is also in video form, at the end of this article), we caught up with ArenaNet’s co-founder and studio head Mike O’Brien, and Guild Wars 2 lead designer Eric Flannum, to find out what inspired their outcry – and more importantly, how they plan to change things for the better…
Q. So you guys recently published your manifesto. Do you think there’s something fundamentally wrong with MMORPGs, as they stand?
Mike O’Brien: Well, I think that online worlds have so much more potential. If you can cast your mind back in time to when Ultima Online had been announced but not yet released, we all believed that in truly free online worlds in which things could really change according to the actions taken by players. Persistent impact on the world, you know – social activities that you could have with other players that make the game truly a social multiplayer game.
The MMO industry has been kind of stuck in a rut, with a lot of games working identically. We’re trying to get back to that joy, that early promise. We’re looking at all these things online worlds were meant to be and thinking: we can make that happen. So this is our manifesto, this is our way of saying we, as an industry, can be more than this…
Q. Would you say a large part of the problem stems from developers attempting to emulate World of Warcraft’s success?
Eric Flannum: I think that is a problem, not for every game out there but certainly for a lot of games. If you look at certain successful MMOs like EVE Online or the original Guild Wars, those are games that did things differently. We sold six million copies of gw2 gold and we were certainly a game that took a lot of chances.
Now, one of the arguments we came up against was whether Guild Wars 1 was really an MMO, and that was one of the things that we wanted to change, the perception that we weren’t an MMO and that that was why we could get away with not charging a monthly fee. So that was one of the goals of Guild Wars 2, to say hey, here’s an MMO – watch how we can build an MMO and not have to charge a monthly fee.
It’s very easy for people to fall into this trap of not wanting to take chances. MMOs are huge investments in both time and money, they’re one of the most costly types of games to make – maybe the most complicated and costly games to make. When you consider that, it’s really easy to become extremely risk averse. We decided early on: let’s be different, let’s examine all of the issues that we see with the current MMO market and let’s try to make a game that addresses all of those.
Mike O’Brien: It’s not just a risk averse MMO industry, it’s a risk averse game industry, and that was why we founded ArenaNet – we wanted to bring players new experiences. We believed at the end of the day that gaming is all about experiencing new things.
Q. You mention in the manifesto that Guild Wars 2 isn’t designed to “suck your life away” – do you think certain MMOs, like World of Warcraft, are engineered to be as addictive as possible?
Mike O’Brien: I’m not going to speak specifically about any one MMO, but I definitely think that there’s a whole batch of MMOs out there that are crafted to have very precise reward schedules, where a lot of the focus of the game is on anticipating the next reward. And that’s where it starts to turn into grinding – having to play monotonously to get to the next reward. Throughout ArenaNet’s history we’ve been focused on the moment-to-moment gameplay. Players should be able to get to the fun part of the game as soon as they sit down and play. Let’s give players something meaningful in half an hour.
Eric Flannum: We released this graph which shows the typical MMO levelling progression as a kind of ever-increasing curve, the higher the level you are the more time it takes you to get to the next level, to the point where, in old school MMOs certainly, you’re taking a week to go up a level. Our graph shows a similar kind of progression right at the beginning and then a flattening off. There’s a hypothetical time period after which levelling simply takes too long and we never want to go past that. We’re tweaking the numbers, but we’re thinking it won’t be much more than an hour and a half between levels, or somewhere in that neighbourhood.
We want our levels to come frequently enough that you get that sense of clear progression and accomplishment. but we don’t ever want it to be the case that that sense of progression isn’t easily obtained.
Q. So with the game experience being separated from the levels in this way – how would this affect the development of expansions, which would normally benefit high-level players?
Eric Flannum: Yeah, that’s a tough question because we’re really concentrating on the initial release right now. We certainly have some plans for additional content, but we’re really focusing on making the initial realease as great as it can possibly be.
Q. With Guild Wars 2 not being all about reaching that max level cap, how do you go about creating a compelling endgame?
Eric Flannum: So you do that in a couple of ways, we’ve got the more traditional PvE dungeon experience endgame, and we have our own twist on that which we’ll talk about a bit later. We also use our sidekicking system to allow players of all levels to play together. It allows us to have a level 80 character have the entire world to experience again – that character can go back and play through areas that he’s been to before, that he’s maybe a little nostalgiac about. Or he can go play through areas he’s never seen before, because maybe it wasn’t his race’s starting area.
The second thing we do is encourage people to make and experiecne new characters. The personalised branching storyline means that even if you create a character with the same background you’re presented with choices over the course of the storyline that will alter the flow that your story takes. You’ve always got a lot of replayability there, we also go to great lengths to make all of our professions play very differently from one another, playing a warrior is very different from playing an elementalist, it’s this whole different mindset. We have this really great depth of experience that you won’t get going through just once.
Q. So that personal branching story, is that tied to races, professions, or both? How many unique stories are there?
Eric Flannum: I think if you do the math there are something in the order of a million (or something crazy like that) combinations, it’s kind of an exponential thing! So what we do is have you answer five questions in your character biography – we had a time when we had you answer a bit more of those, but in our playtesting we found that was a bit overwhelming for people – so we turned those questions into choices that are presented to you during the story.
You answer these biography questions and they affect things off the bat: if you’re a human you choose whether you’re from the streets, or whether you’re a noble or a commoner. That effects the story that you start seeing right away, but in addition to that you make choices that effect the various missions that you’ll get. For example, in the streets you meet an old friend who’s in trouble, at one point you get to decide his fate and that decision has a meaningful impact on what your going to experience in the game later on. Those questions are very different depending on what race you are – in that example you had human oriented questions. Asura have their own, and Charr have ther own.
Mike O’Brien: This is what we’ve always wanted from online worlds since the very beginning. I mean, who didn’t imagine if one day in these online worlds, a huge dragon flies out of the sky and starts breathing fire on a town while the townsfolk run around screaming “Help me! Help me!” as the buildings blaze. And then, players can band together to fight off the dragon – or maybe fail to defeat the dragon, so the town is burned – and they can see what the impact of that is on the world. These are big visions that we’ve always hoped for, and so when we set out to make Guild Wars 2, we decided to not be stuck in the same mindset. Let’s go and accomplish the things that we’ve always believed we can accomplish in an online world.
I mean, storytelling – there’s another example. Online worlds are roleplaying games, and they should learn from the best roleplaying games. Let’s go tell a compelling story and not let the fact that the world is online mean that we can’t have as personal a story as you see in a roleplaying game.