Our editor George Reith recently had the chance to chat with Guild Wars 2’s game director, Colin Johanson for ArenaNet over the phone and they talked about plenty of stuff. It was a lengthy chat, and we got a lot of information and snippets off him.
Colin talked about how Guild Wars 2 has been doing post-release, what the team is up to next, about the future of the series, what went into making Guild Wars 2, some behind-the-scenes stuff and plenty of industry-related topics like piracy and gaming addiction.
It’s a very interesting interview, so give it a read!
With Guild Wars 2, the initial reception was pretty stellar, with some great sales figures and a pretty high Metacritic average. How did you feel about that? Are you happy with how the game is performing?
I’m thrilled. To be honest, I think the predictions of how we thought the game would do, at each step along the way, it always was bigger, and more popular than we had ever expected it could be. And it’s been really humbling, honestly. Every step of the way, there’s been more people that showed up for all our betas and more people who signed up to play it on day 1 and more people who purchased the game so far since it came out than any of the numbers we expected. Our last big November weekend- at the high point in the weekend, we were using about 90% of our total server bandwidth for the demand of all the players logging in. And that was just awesome to see. It’s not something that we necessarily expected to be quite so big and we’re continuing to grow. And it’s just really humbling and really exciting to see how much people are falling in love with the game over a short period of time.
Do you have any kind of regrets regarding the development? I mean, obviously you can’t have that many regrets because, well, you’ve released a pretty good game. But if there anything, personally, that you think you would differently if you got the chance to do it again?
You know, there’s always the time element. We spent five years on the game and that’s a really long time to spend on any project. In the game industry, that is eons to be working on anything. You know, the game came out, and I play it everyday, and I everyday I see something in it. There’s always the little detail that sticks out to me- ‘Oh, we could have done that better!’ If we just had one more fix we could make, to make it more spectacular. There’s always a little detail that stands out to me, something we could have done if we had a little more time. But you know, honestly, we could sit on it for ten years and we could keep working on it, never put it out, and we probably still wouldn’t be happy. [Laughs] So it’s hard to say.
At the end of the day, I think that we’ve done a really good job, getting a really solid game out the door. There are certainly some areas that we know we need to grow in, and add more features. PvP is a big one for me. We know that there are some features that we need to have to get the PvP up to where we want it to be. Those were not included in release, and those are all things that we have either already added since the game came out or we have a team of people building right now. So it’s one of the big ones for me, really, growing that competitive PvP feature-base.
Speaking of the updating process- that’s one of the beauties of making a game that’s based in online, that you can constantly be updating it. But aside from continual updates for Guild Wars 2, are there any plans for bigger expansions that are kind of in the works?
Yeah, yeah, we are actively working on a bigger expansion as well. But that’s something we don’t have a real timetable set on yet. Our major focus now, like most of the companies, is live updates. But we do have a small group of people that is working on expansions and stuff down the road as well. But our big goal, what we wanted to do, is really kind of do something that no one’s ever done before in an MMO after it came out. And that’s every single month, adding giant updates to our game and do a huge release that really gives the players the sense that they’re paying their monthly fee, and every four to five months, they’re getting free expansions’ worth of content as part of logging into our game.
We had a huge Halloween update in October, we just had a big one in November, we have a giant Christmas update coming in December, and all of those have gone over really well, and I think in December people are going to be really excited. But January and February are actually are biggest updates to date. They’re even bigger than all the stuff we did in October, November and December. And I think that when people see how much stuff they’re gonna get for no monthly fee in January and February, they’re probably going to be blown away. These two months combined are basically an expansion’s worth of content for free.
Cool! Okay, that’s good stuff to look forward to. But in terms of paid expansions- because with Guild Wars 1 you had a few paid expansion sets- are you gonna have anything like that with Guild Wars 2 or is it all going to be regular, free updates?
We will also have paid expansions. In Guild Wars 1, there were really big ones, as often as every six months. I think we will not have them be as frequent in Guild Wars 2. It’s really hard to work on an expansion for six months odd, and then turn around and work on another one and another one and not burn the team out. I think we would rather focus on doing monthly live updates with which we can specifically go after parts of the game that we know we need to make better, and yes, the big expansions will on slightly longer of a time range. To expand the game out larger from there. But we definitely will do paid expansions down the road.
So I’m just curious about the process of inspiration for Guild Wars 2. Did you take inspiration mainly from other games, or do you look into other mediums, like you know, literature and art and films and stuff like that?
We’re inspired by pretty much everything. I think when you work on something for five years, you can’t be limited to any one genre. You’ve got to link at everything you possibly can. There are people who have been inspired by cartoons that their kids watch at home and they come in and say ‘Oh, we gotta do something like Yo Gabba Gabba!’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, I don’t think that’s a good idea! We shouldn’t do that.’ [Laughs] And you know, every day there is something different that inspires people across the company- the books they’re reading, the movies they’re watching, the shows that they’re really into. And they all find ways to have a little bit of an impact on the game. Certainly games that we all play as well have an impact and in different games, we’ll see a mechanic, and we’ll say ‘That’s not quite right for our game, but we could take that and make it Guild Wars 2, make it something really special in our game.’ That’s definitely something that we take from as well.
It’s kind of across the board. Every person here is taking inspiration constantly from all the things around them and using that to drive the stuff that they build. I think as game developers, especially as game designers and writers, oftentimes the best inspiration you find are the characters that go into your game. And if you’re writing those characters based on life experiences and people you know and things that you’ve experienced, and you’re able to take those experiences and put them into characters’ storylines you’re building, oftentimes that’s got to be the strongest piece of content. And that’s the type of stuff we really like to encourage our team to do more of. Especially if down the road we want to tell better stories than we have in the past.
Is there anything in particular? Can you think of one thing that really gave you inspiration personally when you were coming up with ideas for Guild Wars 2? Is there any one thing where you’re like ‘Yep, that’s the biggest’ kind of influence?
I would say our world vs world system. Our world vs world PvP is highly inspired by the old Dark Age of Camelot Realm vs Realm system. A lot of people that work here, Dark Age of Camelot was their all time favourite game, and the realm vs realm was really what made that game spectacular and amazing. And that system of having three different sides fighting constantly and rotating between the influences of power over this big PvP area, that’s a place where we found a lot of inspiration. And we took it and put our own Guild Wars 2 twist on it. And it’s something where we tried to build on the best elements of that and then make it uniquely and distinctly Guild Wars as well.
And actually, in February, we’re going to do a whole bunch of expansions on top of that world vs world area, to make that experience even more uniquely Guild Wars. But that’s something where we took a lot of inspiration from a previous game, and take that and then build on it and make it something even more.
It seems like PvP is kind og a big focus area. But in terms of stuff that is already incredibly impressive about Guild Wars 2, one of the things I thought was really unique in the MMORPG genre was the way choices and consequences are shown to the player. I mean, that’s the kind of thing you expect in a more hardcore single player experience. Making that work in an MMO- was that a difficult system to get in play?
[Laughs] Yeah, I think it’s something that defines the single player RPG genre, in particular really good single player RPGs have that choice that we’re talking about. I think that’s what makes them shine. You feel like the choices you make actually make a difference. And to do that in a single player game is difficult, but it’s something that you can do and it’s really rewarding.
To do it in a multiplayer game is much, much more difficult, just because you have to take into account every decision that every player could be taking. You have to make it so they’re not competing with each other, but that they’re decisions are complimenting one another. From a designer’s point of view, it’s something that can be really challenging. You have to consider that in every decision that you’re making from the design side, to make sure that it functions. So we had to do things like, with our personal story, develop a system where if you brought your buddy along with you to experience the personal story, we set up rules so that if they’re on the same story step as you, they could choose to take your progress or take their own progress. If they’re not on the same step as you, they’re certain limitations to the things they’re allowed to see or do so that the choice wasn’t exposed to them, but they feel like they’re experiencing all the content as well.
So it definitely makes things a lot more complicated, but I think in the end it’s really rewarding, and it’s something that we look ahead to in our expansions to expand the story and the characters in the game. I think we can even do that better. We want people to look at Guild Wars 2 not just as an MMO, we want them to say ‘That’s the best RPG out there, and it just so happens that I can play the best RPG with all my friends at the same time too.’ And if we can pull off stories that everybody looks back at and says ‘This is the greatest RPG story I’ve ever experienced’, that has to be our goal for telling personal stories and giving people choices in the game.
It seems like these unique touches you’ve given to the genre are some of the things that are really endearing to the Guild Wars 2 community. But when you’re working with a genre like the RPG or the MMORPG, genres that have got so many well-worn stereotypes, do you find it quite difficult being creative and innovating within the genre?
I wouldn’t say we found it difficult to be creative or innovative. I think the challenge we had was getting people to accept that creativity and innovation is acceptable in an MMO. I think you said it best, there are a ton of stereotypes. When people hear the word ‘MMO’, there’re very specific expectations they have about a game. They just come in and say ‘that game won’t have a storyline’ or ‘it’s going to be super grinding’ or ‘I’m gonna have to fight other players all the time, I’m always going to be competing with other people’ or ‘I can’t play with other people without someone getting in the way.’
There’s really just a lot of expectations that come with that MMO genre. And trying to get people to accept that you can make a game that doesn’t have one of those things is a really different thing to do. We wanted this big, open, living world experience, and I remember the very first time that we beta tested the game, or rather alpha tested it internally, we brought it a bunch of testers and we popped their characters out in the open world, and we said ‘Alright! Go play the game.’ And they turned around and said ‘Where do I go? I don’t have a quest blog that tells me that I should go here, then go here, then go here.’ So I said, ‘You can just roam around the world.’ And he said, ‘I don’t understand. I can just run around and find stuff?’ I’m like ‘Yeah! Go play the game, it’s okay!’ It really took years of building on messaging. Just because people have had so many years of this extremely linear, streamlined experience where they don’t have this open world and they don’t have this sense of exploration.
It was something that we knew from the start we wanted to build on. But getting people to accept it and understand it was a really hard thing to do.
Interesting. As you said, these alpha testers wanted a lot of hand-holding while they were playing. I mean, this is something that seems to come up a lot in commentary, particularly online journalism- how games today are too easy. There’s too much handholding. People are looking back to the SNES days, going ‘Well, these games were hard!’ I mean, what do you think about how you had to balance the difficulty of Guild Wars 2 to accommodate so many people, to try and make it accessible yet challenging?
Yeah, it’s really hard. It’s still something that we’re working a lot on- making sure there is stuff that is challenging for the really great players but also so new players can feel they can log in every day and there’s a lot of fun stuff around to do. And every month we’re updating the game, that’s still something we’re continuing to work on, to provide more and more stuff for people in all of those categories.
I think one of the hardest things about an MMO, to make an MMO really successful, is that you need to be approachable enough that the casual gamer can get into it, but you need to be deep and rich enough that the advanced player can play for years and still find new things and still discover things in the game and continue to grow. That’s a really, really careful balance to walk. I think that you’re always on the risk of upsetting the casual players by making the game too hardcore, and you’re at risk of upsetting your day-to-day hardcore players by making the game too casual.
It’s definitely something that’s really challenging. You see a lot of the MMOs falling into one of the two categories. They’re either really casual games or they’re very niche games, and a really hardcore group of players play it for a really, really long time, but they can’t attract the casual audience, because the game isn’t approachable enough or casual enough. And I think we’ve done a really good job with Guild Wars 2 so far, we’re kind of bridging the gap between those two, providing a game that allows the casual gamer to really get into it and go and have fun and just enjoy themselves and provide depth for the player who’s looking for more. And I think that, in particular for both of those groups, we’re gonna continue to build the game and make sure there’s enough for both of them as we go forward.
Considering you worked on Guild Wars 1 as well, I’m just curious about how you found working within the MMO genre with the shadow of World of Warcraft. I don’t know if that’s the right way to put it, but obviously, working in that genre the popularity of World of Warcraft must have been something you guys were considering. Were you trying to compete with WoW directly, or…?
Well, it’s obviously an elephant in the room when you’re making an MMO. With Guild Wars 1, we decided to not compete with World of Warcraft and we made a game that was very different, that was distinctly different and free-to-play and it was really a completely different game type. We called it a cooperative RPG, not MMORPG. People ended up playing it like an MMO and it kind of adopted that name overtime but we always thought of it as a co-op RPG. And we never intended for it to directly compete with World of Warcraft.
We’re definitely going after a different audience and some people from World of Warcraft would also be interested in this game. But we didn’t just want to make Guild Wars 1 again. So we decided with Guild Wars 2, let’s make a pure MMO, let’s make a giant open world game and let’s try to accomplish the things that people really want to see in an open world MMO, which is a truly living, breathing world that changes and you can just explore to have a great time. That’s really what we set out to do and sure, we wanted to compete with World of Warcraft. We wanted to compete with every game in the genre when we were putting that game out and make a game that basically defines where the genre of MMOs is going. I think the MMO genre had stagnated a lot, and over the course of 7-10 years before Guild Wars 2 came out, there wasn’t a lot of innovation. It was all just ‘Let’s make a game, and World of Warcraft is working, so we should make exactly what they’re making’, and as MMO players, first and foremost, most of us working here were kind of tired with that, because if we wanted to play that game, we could just go play that game. And we didn’t see any reason to make that game again, because there’s plenty of them we can already go and play.
So we wanted to do something different, but we wanted to definitely appeal to that core MMO audience, and that also extends to the RPG audience out there that was looking for an MMO that was more than just an open world quest that you just marauded through. We wanted to make something that was really more like a true RPG, like a Skyrim, where there’s this big open world for all these experiences for you to have. And it just so happens that you can do them with all your friends. I think that appeals to MMO players, it appeals to WoW players, and it appeals to people who play any MMOs out there. Or RPGs.
Yeah, the whole WoW vs Guild Wars thing- the one thing that initially got me into Guild Wars was the lack of a monthly subscription.
But at that time, it seemed like kind of inevitable that Guild Wars 1 would not have a monthly subscription. But now, you have more and more games that are dropping the freemium model, with microtransactios. Did you guys consider microtransactions in Guild Wars 2?
I think that just like there are stereotypes with MMOs, there are stereotypes with free-to-play games. There’s an expectation with most F2P games that they are inherently very casual, and they are games that will probably rip you off with microtransactions, so that you can actually play the game you want to play, because they make all their money off microtransactions. Then you play the game, you’re an hour in and something pops up saying you can’t go any further unless you pay us $6.99 to do this thing. Those stereotypes were one of the reasons why we didn’t want to do a free-to-play game.
We didn’t want to get caught up in a system where we have to build microtransactions like that to say profitable. I think there’s a real danger there, if we head down that path. And with the one-time upfront box-fee, which is what most game players are used to, we’re still approachable. We don’t charge you monthly fee, so we’re not limiting the approachability of the game by having you basically have to decide whether you’re gonna stick with us for a long time or not. You can make that choice on month-to-month basis or day-to-day basis and it’s not costing you anything to make that decision. And looking back at growing up as a game player, I don’t have a problem with paying forty or fifty or sixty bucks for a video game and then getting to play it for my whole life. It’s always felt weird to me that I buy a game and I have to keep paying to play that game. When I grew up playing Mario and Zelda, all these games were- one I bought it, I had it. That’s cool, I got it. I don’t have to pay for microtransactions to get little features. I don’t have to pay a monthly fee to keep playing it. And that’s really what Guild Wars 2 is all about.
We have microtransactions in the game, but none of them are mandatory, none of them are ever things that you’ll need to use during the game. They’re all bonus things that people can use if they want. But at the end of the day, you can buy our game and you can play it forever, and you’ll never need to pay for anything more than the core box, and that’s something that respects the gamers, respects the time and commitment the gamers want to put into the game, and respects sort of a tradition of the gaming industry. And that’s something that is really important to us.
In our conversation so far, we’ve had a lot of talk about gaming now and gaming in the past and the kind of interface between the two and kind of charting how PC development has gone over the years. With the PC, as a platform, now being more and more dominated by startup and independent developers, how did you feel making a Triple-A title like Guild Wars 2? Do you think Triple-A production on the PC is being threatened by the rise of indie gaming?
Uh, I don’t know if ‘threatened’ is the right term, but I would say that when you make a game like Guild Wars 2, when you make one of the huge MMOs, you’re gambling your entire company on that game, because it takes so long to make it and it takes so much money to make it that you can’t afford to fail. If the game is even mildly popular instead of really popular, odds are you’re gonna have to fire a whole bunch of people.
The risk that comes with it is incredible. And I think seeing more and more companies that are stepping away, thinking ‘We don’t want to take a risk by making a big this big, it’s too expensive, it’s too risky and our whole could fall if we don’t succeed’. You don’t have to worry with the indie game model, you know. You can make two or three or four or five games that aren’t crazy successful, and they’re not very expensive to make, and they don’t take a lot of people, but the second you make Angry Birds, when you make that one that really explodes, you’re crazy profitable and you have enough to hold your company for ages. And I think that’s the biggest thing, in why we’re seeing more and more of that. It’s very easy to form those companies, it’s very easy to make a small indie gaming company, and you’re not risking your entire company on one game when you build stuff. You really have the capacity to make a lot of games and stay in business even if your game isn’t hugely popular. You can sell a small number of copies and keep everyone employed to keep your company going. And I think that’s part of why we’re seeing more and more of that going forward.
It’s that the risk of making these big companies, and in particular, MMOs is just crazy. I really don’t think we’re gonna see that many more MMO companies in the future. I think too many companies have attempted to be WoW and folded and failed. And you’re gonna start seeing very few companies taking risks making games as big as Guild Wars 2.
The whole high risk/high reward thing you just mentioned is very interesting with regard to piracy on the PC platform. It’s quite a big issue at the moment for a lot of people. But I suppose the MMORPG is safe from piracy, due to the online nature. But, you know, even things like WoW have seen hacked servers and people pirating the game and stuff like that. Were you concerned with piracy while you were making Guild Wars 2?
Piracy is not something we were worried about at all. You have to log in to our servers for verification and everything, because it’s an online game. We’re in the position in the PC market where we really don’t have to deal with piracy. We do have to deal with, however, a boatload of security issues. You know, there’s always hackers, there are always people stealing other people’s credit cards and using those to get into the game. They’re always people trying to steal other people’s accounts. That stuff never goes away. This is something we didn’t experience much in Guild Wars 1, because the game wasn’t as popular as Guild Wars 2 is. The popularity of Guild Wars 2 means that we’re attracting all sorts of people from every corner of the internet, and they’re trying to come in and cause problems in the game.
So we hired and built an entire internal security team that basically monitors the game, protects people’s accounts, gets rid of hackers and modders, and they’re actually to the point right now where the game has a ridiculously low rate of reports of people doing those kinds of activities. It’s way lower than any other game I’ve seen before. And it’s something we’re really proud of, especially with the population we’ve got. But that fight will never end. Every day there are people trying to take advantage of the game and our userbase or something. But as long as we’re a crazy popular game, we’re always gonna have to fight that.
Well, yeah, evil’s a society that never goes away. [Laughs]
Yeah, regarding the kind of popularity of Guild Wars 2, you guys are at the moment working on a Mac port, and obviously that’s going to extend your popularity. But have you guys considered a Linux port? Do you think Linux users will be able to get their hands on Guild Wars 2 in the future?
You know, it’s something that we check around every now and then, but there’s no one actively working on it right now, and we won’t be working on it in the near future. But we have talked about it, yes.
Fair enough. Regarding other kinds of ports- the MMORPG is one of those genres that’s only ever on PC. But we’ve seen some MMOs on consoles in the past. Have you ever considered porting Guild Wars 2 or making a console MMO, ever?
We had a small team that was investigating it at one time, and who knows what might happen someday. But right now our focus is on making the Guild Wars 2 PC experience the greatest MMO we possibly can, and that’s pretty much what all of our research and all of our company time is going into.
Sure. This is one of those questions that I really hate asking. I’m sure you get it all the time, but I feel obliged to. Even though you guys are going to be supporting Guild Wars 2, like you did with the original, for a long time now, what are the chances of you guys starting up on a sequel? Within the next, you know, five or so years. I mean, you think we’re gonna get a Guild Wars 3?
[Laughs] Well, I can’t speak for five years from now, and I have no idea what we may end up doing then.
But it’s certainly not something we’re looking to do anytime in the short term. We’re focused on making the game we’ve got as amazing as we possibly can, every month giving out the kind of releases you would expect you would have to pay for, but we’re gonna give them out for free. And, you know, developing expansions down the road to continue to build on the things we’ve done with the game. And that’s really the 100% of our focus right now. We haven’t even talked about Guild Wars 3 at all at this point.
Fair enough. Trying to predict that far into the future is a little difficult. Just one more final question, I’m sure you’ve got stuff to be getting on with. I’m just interested in what you thought about the addictive element of MMORPGs. You get stories popping up regularly about people getting serious addiction to certain types of games and some people have even died from playing StarCraft too much. Considering how addictive the MMORPG is meant to be, did you feel any kind of weird weight or responsibility, making Guild Wars 2? Because it’s a pretty addictive game. I wouldn’t be surprised if people would have been losing sleep playing Guild Wars 2.
Yeah, that’s one of the weird things about being a game developer. You know, you want to make these games that people are going to love, and we go to game shows, and we meet our fans, and we hear these stories of people who met their wife or husband in our game or I’ve met some fans over the years that got really, really sick, and they said Guild Wars 2 is the thing that helped carry them through when they were unwell. And they continued, and after that they got their lives back, but they look back and that is one of the things that helped carry them and, you know, those moments make you really, really proud as a game developer. They make you feel like, ‘Hey, the thing we’re doing is really making a difference in some weird sort of way that helps make people’s lives better.’
And then there’s always the opposite end of that spectrum of people who get too involved in something or don’t have the self-control to regulate how much they play it. We’ve tried to build Guild Wars 2 as a game that you can jump into, play for a while and jump back out again. You don’t have to log in for six straight hours. We’ve always had things like that. In Guild Wars 1, we had messages that popped up that said ‘You’ve been playing for two hours, you might want to take a break.’ We try to consciously think of stuff like that and find ways to build into our game. You know, messaging and systems that help encourage people to play our game. And we love it that they play every day. But we don’t want them to play every day at the cost of their real life, at the cost of their relationships, at the cost of their happiness. And I think that that’s a really tough thing to do. As a game developer, and especially as an MMO developer, you have to make a game that people want to play every day. But at the same time you have to make a game that they don’t play for 24 hours and kill themselves every day. Finding that careful line between the two of those is a really difficult thing. And I’m proud to say, so far with Guild Wars 2, we haven’t heard any major reports of issues there.
It seems like our playerbase understands what it needs to do and understands that it’s a game that’s built around playing and having fun, but it’s okay to take a break. And hopefully that’s something that continues forward. But it’s definitely tough. Any game developer and any part of gaming will always have to deal with that for the rest of time. They’re making something that can be addictive. I mean, as great as the community aspects of an MMO can be, where you build all these great relationships, there can also be some negatives that come there too. I don’t really know a great way to try to respond to that other than just as a developer, trying to make games that allow people to take breaks. You know, give messages, or encourage them to play the game, but also to go out and enjoy real life and enjoy those moments you have outside of the game.
I think if somebody is playing a game all day, they’re probably not very happy. They should be playing games and playing other stuff, and enjoying life. And Guild Wars or any other game should be just an element of the things that they enjoy. It’s not the thing that drives their entire life, you know.
We want to thank ArenaNet and Colin for their time and a wonderful chat. We hope you guys enjoyed the interview. Tell us what you think in your comments below. You can also give our mega-review of Guild Wars 2 a look here.