"Guild Wars is not an MMORPG," proclaims Jeff Strain, producer at ArenaNet.
Hold on... Are we in the right press conference? The name sounds right, but we were definitely under the impression that Guild Wars was an MMORPG.
What Jeff actually means is that Guild Wars is not what you'd expect from a game tarred with the MMORPG brush. While it certainly is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, it certainly does not adhere to the conventions so inextricably linked to the genre.
Combining emergent PvE gameplay with highly structured PvP combat, Guild Wars aims to open up online role playing to whole new audiences previously put off by the notoriously time intensive games. The lonely single-player is catered to with fresh PvE content, while the social-minded can form Guilds and battle to be the best PvP combat team in the world.
And when we say world, we mean the whole world. Guild Wars is pioneering a new global game network that means you're not locked into your local server. You can go where you want and play with whoever you want.
So, convinced we had stumbled into the correct room, we settled down with Guild Wars' producer Jeff Strain to learn more about this intriguing MMORPG. Or whatever it is.
One of the most interesting - and surprising - things you've said about Guild Wars is that it's not an MMORPG. Why not?
The traditional model for the MMORPG that was laid down by Ultima Online and EverQuest is built around subscription fees, first and foremost. They want you to keep playing month after month, and to do that they might stretch out 60 or 70 hours of unique playtime to, say, over 1000 hours. To get to the really cool high level content in these games you have to invest hundreds of hours of your life. And those hours are usually spent doing a certain type of quest - what we like to call a Fed-Ex quest, taking something to somewhere else. Now, those Fed-Ex quests aren't there because the designers are dumb or lazy, but because in huge multi-user worlds it's very difficult to have quests that change the world.
A good comparison I like to make is the original series of Star Trek. Every individual episode was designed as a closed narrative with the world ending up in the same state as it began. That was so that the series could be played back in any order without confusing the viewer. Those are the conditions a traditional MMORPG labours under because, say, if you blow up that bridge the people behind you can't ever cross it.
Guild Wars is designed so that it breaks free of those constraints. The two fundamental design goals of Guild Wars were to create an MMO that valued skill above time investment and that we wanted to make an online RPG that had compelling quest content that hasn't been possible in the traditional MMORPG structure. So the reason I say so cleanly that Guild Wars is not an MMO is because people immediately connect that term with the traditional MMORPG structure that has been laid down for so many years. Guild Wars does not adhere to that structure.
So how can Guild Wars offers quests that change the game world, especially when cooperative multiplayer play is so central to the game?
When you enter a mission or quest area in Guild Wars you and your party of up to 8 people are put into a part of the world that is uniquely created and populated just for you. The way that works is the game servers will look at everyone in the party and examine every quest you've completed, every NPC you've talked to, every item in your inventory and so on, and build a large matrix of everything you could possibly see in the quest. Then the servers systematically remove everything that would not make sense to you and your party. For instance, if you've seen an NPC die but one of your friends hasn't, we'll make sure that NPC plays no part in the quest. So essentially we remove all the inconsistencies and dynamically populate the quest based on what you have seen or not seen in the game.
Here's a concrete example. In the Ascaron missions after the Great Searing [the destruction of your home city by invading forces] one of your missions is to track down a Prince who has taken a batallion of the Ascaron army out to establish a forward post. Your quest is to find him, and when you do he's surrounded by the enemy. If you rescue him he establishes his forward base. From then on every time you enter that part of the world the Prince is there, and that opens up lots of new quests and game content for you to explore. In other MMOs you couldn't do that kind of quest, because for some people he would be there and for others - who hadn't done the quest - he wouldn't. In this situation you can take friends who haven't completed that specific quest to the forward base, but if they go there themselves it will not be there. As well as getting rid of inconsistencies, we want to make sure everyone gets the benefit of party member's accomplishments.
So in Guild Wars the world is constantly changing and evolving as a result of your actions. That's the most important aspect in creating a believable RPG world, that sense of 'I'm having an impact on this world'. You can't do that in a traditional MMORPG.
So is every quest instanced, or will you constantly be surrounded by other players?
You'll be surrounded by hundreds of other players in a traditional MMORPG sense when you're in the outpost at the start of a mission, but once you're into the mission it belongs to you. No one else will be wandering around. The power of that is not only that we can do some of the world-changing things I've mentioned, but also that there are no monster respawn points, and the boss at the end of the mission is there only for you. No waiting in queues, no having your loot stolen. It's very much about the personal experience for you and your party members. It feels much more like a role playing experience, rather than being stuck inside a machine.
Do the individual quests and the ever-changing world link into an over-arcing storyline?
They absolutely do! There are 25 core story missions in the first release of Guild Wars. These are very different from the usual quests you'll find in explorable areas, because they act as checkpoints for the storyline. As you complete them dramatic things will happen, driving the story forward. And that's just Chapter one of the Guild Wars saga. Every year we'll release a couple of new Chapters that continue the storyline, as well as adding new explorable areas and quests for the more free-form RPG experience. Overall, Guild Wars is a combination of free-form exploration and questing - telling your own story, if you like - set off against a more structured storyline backdrop that's unfolding around you.
Let's talk money - you mentioned there are no subscription fees for Guild Wars, but new Chapters will be released every year. How big will these Chapters be and how much will they cost?
Each Chapter we release will be roughly on the same scope and scale as the original game. There will be new professions, new skills, new monsters, new story missions, new explorable areas, new quests, and new PvP content as well. Essentially, we'll be reinventing the game a couple of times a year. That's what will keep it fresh. We believe that it's really important to give the player new content all the time so that he or she doesn't just feel like they've been abandoned. I think that's the main reson Guild Wars players will feel like they are getting so much more from their experience than they get from other MMORPGs.
How much will they cost? We haven't made a final decision on that yet.
Rather than focusing on PvE or PvP individually, Guild Wars plans to tackle both spheres. How do they link in with each other?
I think Guild Wars will appeal equally to more laidback PvE RPG players who want to explore the world and marvel at the sights, and ultra-hardcore competitive PvP types. That's fine, but we also want to marry those two realms in a meaningful way. Because Guild Wars is built on a truly global network we've been able to implement what we call the 'Worlds at War' concept.
When you create your account you pick a home world, like the European world, the US world, the Korean world and so on. That dictates the people you are normally surrounded by when you play the game, but at any time you can go to international districts and play with anyone you want from around the world. But the other thing that means is that when you field teams in the International PvP Tournament the home world of that team is very important. If they fight to the top of the Tournament they open up content for everyone else in their home world.
We do this by having crumbling, ancient statues of the Gods in each world that open up otherwise inaccessible portals to unique areas and missions, which in turn contain unique items, skills and charmable creatures you won't find anywhere else. That only happens in the world whose team holds the top spot in the International Tournament, so obviously there are a lot of kudos attached. It gives you a reason to root for your people in the Tournament, or a reason to be extremely proud if you're in the team!
The process of levelling up in Guild Wars is quite different to what we're used to. Can you tell us about that?
People often ask me what the level cap in Guild Wars is. Their expectations are based on MMO games where the level cap is 50 or 60, and they seem to think that's the definitive number. I ask them what's wrong with 100? Or 200? It's a pretty superfluous figure, but it's actually very important for those games because they're structured to offer new content in relation to how much time you've poured into them.
Guild Wars, in contrast, is based around your skill as a player. Our maximum level is twenty, and you hit that very quickly, after about 20-30 hours of play. We call that 'The Point of Ascension'. Almost all of the content in the game and in the future Chapters is only available to Ascended characters, which means we don't have to worry about providing different levels of content. All the good stuff will be available to everyone. It's not our intent to force people onto the levelling up treadmill, so the level cap in Guild Wars is almost meaningless.
In terms of PvP, then, what effect does having everyone on a similar level have on the combat?
Well, that's what makes multiplayer strategy games so much fun. Look at something like Starcraft. If you've only been playing for a couple of months and you challenge someone who's been playing for years, if you're a better player you'll win. It's a test of your play skills. How much time you've invested is meaningless. For true competition, for true PvP play, we feel that level playing ground is absolutely essential. Merging that with the process of embarking on PvE quests and developing the persona of your character in the world was the real challenge we had to face. Fundamentally, PvP combat in Guild Wars is not about what level you are, but how good you are.
The PvP combat feels a lot more dynamic than in other 'click-and-forget' MMORPGs. As an online experience, you've compared it to something more like Counter-Strike. Can you explain that a little more?
We studied Counter-Strike a lot when we were laying out the initial design for Guild Wars, because we really wanted to capture that balance between team strategy and adrenalised combat. For that to be really successful, we knew we needed to give players freedom to dodge attacks. So, for instance, if you're about to throw a fireball at me I can dodge it if I'm quick enough. It's not a roll of the dice, it's a conscious decision. That adds a whole new element to our strategy. I can run to high ground if I'm an Archer, or I can hide behind things if I'm an Elementalist. Controlling your position and taking a more action-oriented role adds so much, but I wouldn't go as far as describing Guild Wars as a twitch game. It is, however, a very harmonious blend of action and strategy.
There also seems to be a real element of team sport in Guild Wars, in that the best teams will be built around people with different yet complimentary skills. Is that a fair comparison?
Yes, definitely. One of the things we really wanted to do was make each of the professions extremely different from the others, so you'll play an Elementalist very different from a Ranger or a Monk. Moreover, because each player has a primary and secondary profession, we add lots more layers of strategy. An Elementalist Ranger plays very different from a Ranger Elementalist. So each person on the team will have a very specific role to play, and teams that are very competitive will discuss what those roles are and train accordingly.
What does the Guild system add to this type of team strategy?
That's a very interesting question, because it's almost outside the context of the game. People will form Guilds in the same way that people form competitive sports teams. Competition is fun, and competition with your mates at your side is even more fun. Community s so important for games nowadays, especially MMORPGs, and being able to form your Guild in-game and feel a sense of belonging to that Guild really builds strong communal bonds. What it really comes down to is that people love spending time with their friends, and their friends become even closer when they are competing alongside them.
How epic will the PvP encounters get?
We decided early on that your immediate party would be capped at 8 people. That's not because of technical limitations, but because as you go above that you lose the tight strategic feel we wanted to capture. But we did want to make multiplayer arenas where there were lots of people running around and chaos all around, so in some PvP missions we put in 6 teams of 8 players all competing for the same strategic points. Then you get into the whole shifting alliances thing, which adds a whole new political dynamic to the carnage.
Guild Wars has a very console-style aesthetic, and when we mentioned that to you before you seemed pleased. Do you feel the future of the RPG lies in taking the nerdy edge off the genre and offering a quicker, more action-packed experience?
I do think that there's a segment of the PC gaming community that really enjoys the hardcore element of traditional MMORPGs and enjoys the fact that if they invest 100 hours a week they can really excel at the game. For a lot of people time is the best currency they have to spend. That's fine, and I hope there continues to be plenty of innovative products aimed at these people.
At the same time, I do believe that the vast majority of gamers prefer a game that has depth as well as accessibility and immediacy. For me personally, my gaming time often comes in one hour or thirty minute chunks, so I want to be able to get something done in that time and have fun doing it. I don't want to lay the groundwork for future fun by, say, chopping wood for six hours. With Guild Wars we're really striving for that style of play, and I think that's very important for the MMORPG genre. I think there are a lot of people out there who like the idea of an MMORPG but don't like the execution, and that's the group that Guild Wars is aiming for.
We're on the verge of the next generation of consoles. Do you think a game like Guild Wars could translate to PS3, Revolution or Xbox 2?
From a design and play standpoint, I think it could transfer phenomenally well. First of all though, we need to get to a point where the internet connection to the console is reliable enough. Also, the lack of a hard drive would prove a problem. We're going to be constantly streaming new information, and that's not something you can do if you've only got a disc with static information burned onto it. It's difficult to support customers in the long term without a hard drive. Having said that, if any of the next-gen consoles come out with a hard drive and a solid internet connection, we'll seriously evaluate it.
Guild Wars players will not be seperated by servers. How difficult has it been to create a global MMORPG network?
It has been a phenomenal proposal! We spent the first two and a half years of this company's life building the enormous technical infrastructure that we're pioneering in Guild Wars. To my knowledge, Guild Wars is the first and only game that will be released as a single client around the world simultaneously. Normal MMORPGs ask you to choose a server, and you're stuck there forever. What we wanted to do was eliminate that segregator. If you've got a million people around the world playing your game, why put them into buckets? The way we've got around this is to have every server around the world talk to each other, rather than existing in a vacuum. Information is constantly passed back and forth between our data centres, making it seem very simple to the user who can play with or against people from different servers around the world. It's all done automatically and I think that'll be one of the great emergent things about Guild Wars, because people will realise they're playing in a huge global sandbox.
Must have been a hell of a challenge in technical terms...
It has been. We've got a huge network of unbelievable network engineers and support staff to pull it off. We just deployed our European data centre and it's all working out fine.
And that global network means that your persona and ranking is a true reflection amongst every Guild Wars player in the world?
Yes. When you're ranked number one in Guild Wars you're number one in the world.
Guild Wars will be available in the US from April 26 and in Europe from April 29, courtesy of NCsoft.