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Guild Wars 2: Beta, Release Date and Gameplay Interview

Dave Cook

Interview


ArenaNet reveals new details on its mega-sequel

Published on Oct 5, 2011

Guild Wars 2 will see a closed beta before the year is out. That’s the official line from ArenaNet’s lead content designer Colin Johanson, and content designer Theo Nguyen.

It might be old news for some, but it’s still an exciting prospect, because after what feels like an eternity of development time, Guild Wars 2’s release date is drawing near.

We caught up with ArenaNet’s duo to discuss the studio’s expectations of the incoming beta, launch plans, and support for Guild Wars 2 after launch. 

The Guild Wars 2 beta phase is about to kick off in a big way. How confident is ArenaNet that fans will respond positively to what they find in the beta?

Colin Johanson: Well, we’re in closed alpha right now, and we’ve announced that we’re going to go into closed beta before the end of the year. Based on the outcome of the closed beta, this will determine when we go into open beta, and the outcome of the open beta will then determine the final release date.

We’re feeling really good about where we are right now. In the last few months we’ve showcased Guild Wars 2 at Gamescom, at PAX, and Comic-Con in the states. We do a lot of game shows, and we’ve brought a lot of the game to show to the people.

We’ve had a lot of cool stuff to show to people. All five races are playable now, a lot of the professions, and we’ve shown off competitive PvP. The response to everything we’ve shown has just been overwhelmingly positive across the board.

Play alone, or together. Together IS better mind you.

That must really fill the studio with confidence ahead of launch.

CJ: That’s been really exciting to see, and everyone back at the studio has continued to work pretty hard on the game, because we believe we’re sitting on something really special.

It’s not often you get to say that in this industry about a game you’re working on. We’re all really, really excited about what we’re dealing with here. 

How important is it to bring games like Guild Wars 2 to expos like PAX and Comic-Con, and to extract information from the feedback you receive?

Theo Nguyen: We’re at all of those shows, and these players are our motivation and inspiration. We really love to show Guild Wars 2 off at shows because you get interact with fans, and that is always really exciting. 

And what specific feedback have you received so far from newer reveals such as PvP? Are there any glaring imbalances or tweaks that will need addressed?

CJ: I’m sure there will have been tons of imbalances spotted already [laughs]. You know, we're constantly balancing Guild Wars 2, and because we’re only in closed alpha, there is a lot balancing still to do before release.

Feedback-wise, the biggest questions we’re looking to answer are, ‘Is the core gameplay fun?’ and ‘Does it feel like this is truly the next-gen of MMO PvP?’ The response we’ve had so far has been an overwhelming ‘Yes’.

At Gamescom, when we first showed off competitive PvP for the first time, we put the Guild Wars 2 booth in the competitive gaming area of the centre. We did that for various considered reasons.

First and foremost we wanted to be clear and send a message that said, ‘We want Guild Wars 2 PvP to be taken as seriously as any FPS online or RTS competitive game.’ We want to be number one.

We want Guild Wars 2 to be what you think of, when you think of competitive MMO gaming. We had a line around our Gamescom booth all weekend long that was full of people just playing constantly. The response was overwhelmingly positive; everyone really enjoyed it, and the feedback from the players was really cool to see.

It just wouldn't be an RPG without attractive ladies, would it?

During these shows, and indeed the closed beta, what key identifiers will you be looking out for? What areas will you most be looking out for in terms of potential tweaks and fixes for the final release?

TN: Well we have forums full of players who are really honest, and they leave us tons of feedback on areas they would like to see tweaked, or fixed. We read them and we take a lot away from that. 

CJ: Expos do that for us too. There’s a benefit where fans get to see the game more, and really get to experience it, but there’s a benefit for us too. For designer guys like me and Theo, we get to come out to events and just sit with fans and talk to them. 

We make sure that we speak with every single player who walks away from our demo booths and say, ‘What did you think, what did you like, what did you experience?’ and of course, ‘What did you not like?’

You then start to develop trends in the feedback from everybody, and when you see trends regarding certain areas of the game, we say, ‘Hey this part looks like it might need a little extra work.’ This process is important to finding out what areas we need to focus out efforts on. 

When the first Guild War launched, it was something of a revelation in that it didn’t use a subscription model, yet bore slight traits of the MMO genre. Because many games are going free-to-play now, is Guild Wars 2 entering into a highly competitive market? How will it compete?

CJ: I think there are two issues here. If you look at the people who have done free-to-play games; generally it’s a game that was already out and charged a monthly fee for a long time.

Then eventually it swapped over to free-to-play at some point and the studio went heavily microtransaction-based in an attempt to make its money back. 

Either that or they give you free-to-play for the first 30-40 levels of the game, and then you have to start paying for the last few levels. Guild Wars 2 is neither of those things.

We don’t load up with microtransactions that you have to buy to be more powerful than anyone else, because just like in the first Guild Wars, all of our microtransaction items are cosmetic.

These things are optional, and the game will be free to play from day one, not three years after it launches. On a competitive basis; customers will have to answer that question for themselves. We have our opinions, but everyone has their own as well.

I think if you’re into free-to-play games, you’re probably going to look at Guild Wars 2 – as a game that you have to buy once and then play for free forever – and you’re going to ask yourself, ‘What am I getting for my money, and what kind of quality production is this going to be?’

The Charr really do kick ass though.

How would you answer those questions?

CJ: Well for us, we feel we are making the best game in the industry. It’s better than games people pay a monthly fee for, and it’s better than people who enjoy free-to-play titles. 

That’s the target we wanted to set for ourselves, and fans will have to look at it and say, ‘Is this what I’m getting for my money?’ and hopefully they’ll agree that there isn’t a lot of competition for us. 

You’re right in that this is a very personal question, and a matter of how people value content. Do you think that the industry is still trying to work out the value of a dollar online, and to gauge how much people are willing to pay for certain digital content? The Oblivion ‘Horse Armour’ incident springs to mind.

CJ: I think the industry is still figuring that out, and right now, I think they’re trying to figure out two different price points. There is, ‘I pay a monthly fee for a game, how much am I willing to pay for a microtransaction on top of that?’ 

But then there’s also, ‘I don’t pay a monthly fee for this game, it’s completely free, what am I willing to pay for a microtransaction?’ Oh and actually, I think there’s a third question, which is, ‘What kind of microtransactions is this game trying to sell to me?’

If it’s a game where you have to constantly buy microtransactions to compete, then those items are going to have different price points than objects in Guild Wars 2, because they are things you can choose to get if you want to.

I mean, every time you level up, we’re not going to say to you, ‘You can’t level up without paying us five dollars’, because games that do this drive us absolutely nuts. I think everyone’s trying to figure out what they can charge, and the fans are going to be the ones that drive the price.

It’s all about what fans are willing to pay. If they see items that clearly cost too much, we know that fans will show outrage over it, and they’re going to drive those price points down.

That said, I don’t think people fully know what they’re willing to pay for content right now, but we’ll be watching this very closely after Guild Wars 2 launches.

We’ve recently seen OnLive launch here in the UK, and that is a very interesting take on the way people view value online. Could you ever see a game like Guild Wars 2 working on a service like OnLive, or even Gaikai?

CJ: I think that naturally and slowly, the industry is headed in the same direction as those services. Traditionally there has been offline games, MMOS and highly popular online games. There are also games like Halo and Call of Duty which have huge online components, but that also offer an offline component too.

I think you’re starting to see everything headed more and more towards online connectivity, and elements that would traditionally only exists as offline components are slowly becoming online-orientated. 

If you look at Guild Wars 2, we have a fully branching single player storyline that you can bring your friends along to experience it with you. That’s a huge part of Guild Wars 2. It’s potentially the best RPG you’ve ever played, and that’s in the middle of an MMO. 

Looking at games on consoles; there are more and more games coming out with light MMO elements like this. Take Red Dead Redemption for example, when you got to make your posse and go out and play together. That’s a game that, traditionally, wouldn’t have had an online element to it. 

But studios are starting to add this kind of element to games, and the thing is, you’re going to see more of that as developers find new ways to take advantage of the online space. 

The Serpent Strike is awesome. Just look at it.

And that ultimately sustains interest in the game?

CJ: Games that have the highest retention rates are also the games that have online communities. These are games that you play with your friends, and that keeps people coming back for more. 

This is also the same reason why people keep on coming back to MMOs. Many people say, ‘Well, I was going to play this game, but none of my friends are playing it. So I’ll play the game that all of my friends are playing instead.’ 

That sense of community and the bond that comes with playing among friends is powerful, and it keeps people invested in the games they play. You’re going to see more of that, as we already see it with phone games, iPad games, and all of that is turning increasingly towards online gaming too. 

We’ve touched on the social aspects of playing together, and the positive effect it has. How socially integrated will Guild Wars 2 be, in terms of networking and cross-platform tools?

CJ: We have a team of people that is dedicated to developing out-of-game applications for Guild Wars 2. We haven’t finalised all of the stuff they’re going to put together for release, but we have shown an official app that you can get for your iPhone, iPad or Android.

It’s an app that lets you open your guild list, and you can actually chat with your friends while they’re in the game, right from your phone, or iPad. So if you’re on the bus coming home from work and you’re like, ‘Oh, I want to team up later when I get home and go raiding’, you can arrange that for later.

You can also pull up your chat list and see where your friends are in the Guild Wars 2 world using the map. So then you can say, ‘Oh, I see you’re in that dungeon, if you give me an hour I’ll meet you there.’ I think this is something that will really help us build a strong sense of community. 

ArenaNet also has a team dedicated to exploring the possibilities of Guild Wars 2 for consoles. Is this still a logistical challenge in this generation?

TN: Well yeah, we have that team looking at the possibility, but right now all of our focus is on making Guild Wars 2 the best PC game possible. But there is every possibility of a console game in future. 

We’ve also touched on the increased competitive nature of Guild Wars 2, and the way that you are looking to help the game stand out in the online circuit. Could you ever see the game hitting the pro tournament circuit, or indeed the creation of a Guild Wars expo?

CJ: Absolutely, there could be an expo. We will have tournaments constantly running all the time in the game, that give you rewards for competing in them, and of course for winning. We plan to have these tournaments running from launch. 

How exactly we’re going to structure those tournaments hasn’t been decided yet, but it’s going to be exciting. We did this in the first Guild Wars as well, with PvP tournaments and we did those all over the world. 

Our last tournament was at Gamescom, as well as some tournaments in Korea, and we’re going to continue that tradition in Guild Wars 2 even more, so that we’re right there in the upper echelon of competitive games. 

The visuals put other online RPGs to shame. 

And in terms of the fan base, have you seen an increased pick up in the brand, the lore, and players just really getting invested in the world you’ve created?

CJ: Yeah it’s definitely continuing to grow. Every expo, or show that we do, we get people showing up in costumes, or talking to us in great detail about the story. At Gamescom we had a big costume contest, which is now a yearly tradition at the show. 

The first year, only like four or five people showed up in costume, but now that is rapidly starting to grow tremendously each year. The number of people who follow the game is rising too. I worked on the original Guild Wars and when it first came out I’d say to people that I was working on the game.

Most people would be like, ‘I have no idea what that is.’ But with Guild Wars 2, when we say that name now, and to people who know the industry, they already know what that is.

This is also starting to spread to people outside the industry too. That growth is really nice to see, and when Guild Wars 2 comes out, it’s going to grow even more.

Why do you think that is specifically?

CJ: Well, not only do they get their money’s worth when they buy a Guild Wars game, but every month they are rewarded for continuing to play, and they genuinely feel like ArenaNet is a company that cares about them. 

We do things like no monthly fees because we want to get more people playing, and we don’t want to haul them over the coals to play Guild Wars 2 every month. We’re going to do everything we canto continue to support them.

ArenaNet has also done a great job of raising awareness in the Guild Wars brand through cross-media, such as novels and so on. Will you be stepping up this side of the business in conjunction with the launch of Guild Wars 2?

TN: This really depends on what kind of potential value is there. So something like a Guild Wars anime for example; if that is something that our fans would like, then we’d consider it.

CJ: We already have two novels, and a third one that’s in the works, as well as stuffed Charr plushies, and that’s the kind of stuff that is just the tip of the iceberg.

We’re really keen to grow that side of the series, but it’s purely based on the demand from the fans. Just doing it for the sake of doing it doesn’t really do us any good. 

ROAR! RAWR! NOISE!

Finally, we’re trying to get a collective opinion from studios around the world on Wii U. Although ArenaNet isn’t developing Guild Wars 2 for the format, we’d like to hear your thoughts on the tech, and if it sparks your imagination at all?

TN: Oh wow, I did not expect to be asked that today [laughs]. Well personally, I have a Wii at home, and I enjoy it. I am a little concerned in some aspects, as to whether or not developers will really jump on Wii U and make the most of the control method. 

Every time you have new technology or new ideas, the value always lies in how developers make the most of it. I mean on Wii right now, there are a lot of games that don’t actually need to be played with motion control. 

CJ: Yeah I mean, I know about it, and I understand it to a degree. But I really need to know more about it before I pass judgement. As Theo said, it’s going to be about how developers embrace the control method. 

At the end of the day, it will be mostly about the quality of the games, and if too many developers look at teh tech on offer and say, ‘Yeah that looks really clunky, and it’s not going to go anywhere’, then that won’t be good at all. 

 

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