GWO Interview With ArenaNet – Beta Insights and Skills
GWOnline is very happy to present this interview with ArenaNet about their insights from the beta process so far, and how they go about balancing the game now that we are getting ever closer to release.
We were particularly excited to learn that ArenaNet can roll out and test changes to 100 skills in mere minutes, allowing for quicker and more responsive balancing in Guild Wars 2. Oh, and that there are ghost cows, and we will get to fight them! Questions are answered by Mike Ferguson (Game Designer), Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda (Game Designer), Theo Nguyen (Game Designer), Leif Chappelle (Game Designer), Eric Flannum (Lead Game Designer) and Isaiah Cartwright (Lead Systems Designer).
GWOnline: After you finished the first round of closed beta, what was the general feedback, and what insights did you gain?
Mike: Overall the feedback was extremely positive. For WvW, the beta was extremely useful for us as we were able to learn a lot from playing with a large population over the weekend. After the beta ended we immediately went to work on implementing various updates to make siege weapons more effective, we’re optimizing various systems that were extremely taxing on our servers, and we’re looking at various ways to make WvW easier to learn for people who are first starting out.
Annie: One big thing I think the story team took away from the beta is how players react to the information we gave them – negative points where the seams between quests were showing, points where they wanted information that wasn’t there, but also positive ones from how people responded to our use of cinematics, scenes, and “flythroughs” (little staged cinematics more typical of your standard game cutscene). It felt like we were definitely on the right track with hitting the high notes of the story. Beyond that, responses to characters and the balance of boss fights was definitely useful feedback – it’s always fun to see the aggregate response of players to certain elements of the game, especially trickier subjects like tragedy or humor. I now have proof that fighting ghost cows is just as hilarious as I always thought it was!
Theo: As Mike said, response from the beta has been largely positive. As with any feedback cycle, we’ve received a multitude of important insights that are too varied to discuss individually at this point. Needless to say, we’re working on several concerns that were brought up. To give an example, the rate at which players level is something we’re keeping a close eye on. Numbers balance can make or break a game. We feel it’s essential to get this right.
Leif: The beta weekend was a really great milestone for our development, as it was an opportunity to test server load and look at just how everything comes together. One of the most important insights gained was how all the content flows and how well it matches up to our intentions. During a normal week of design, we on the story team are focused intently on getting the balance for our instanced areas just right, but that’s only one part of the overall experience. When you have the ability to jump from one story step to the next, you might lose sight of how you actually get there. Yet between the events, renown hearts, and skill challenges, I often found myself pleasantly surprised when looking down at my map and realizing I was right where I needed to be just by following people and engaging with the world.
Introduction cinematics for the Ascalonian Catacombs
GWOnline: It seems that Guild Wars 2 is so close to being done, and we are all excited to hear that it is now in closed beta. What can you share with us on the current state of the game. For example, what things are you particularly focusing on at this time?
Eric: The game is in beta, which means that all of the major features and systems in the game are implemented and playable. This doesn’t mean that they’re all done, since we need to reserve the ability to iterate on anything that we feel isn’t up to our standards, and of course there is still polish work to be done on a few things as well. Right now we’re really focusing on addressing issues that come up based on feedback we get from both our core closed beta testers as well as our beta weekends.
GWOnline: Previously you have stated that the Guild Wars 2 guild system would work akin to “joining a group within a social network”. How has this philosophy of social circles influenced other aspects of the game’s social structure such as friend lists and alliances?
Eric: This all really goes back to a concept that we started implementing back in the original Guild Wars. The concept being that the player and not the character is the important link in a social circle. You can see this in things such as guild membership and friends lists being account based and not character based. We also use this philosophy for things like our achievements and achievement score which are also both account based. I think all of our social features start from there and naturally propagate outward with things such as guild membership, guild chat, and friends lists working between Worlds.
GWOnline: World versus World PvP is one of the most anticipated features left to be detailed before release. Can you give us a small previously unknown fact to tide us over?
Mike: Well there isn’t much that hasn’t been covered in our blog posts and the Reddit AMA, but I can tell you that there is one more siege weapon we haven’t revealed yet. It unfortunately wasn’t ready for our last beta event, but it should help address the feedback we got that doors just took too long to destroy.
GWOnline: You once said that not all professions were finished at the same time, and that mesmer was the hardest profession of all to make work for Guild Wars 2. So assuming that the other professions were playable before the mesmer, how did the introduction of the mesmer change the PvP dynamics?
Isaiah: The mesmer has added some interesting things to the PvP scene. Clones add more deception to the battlefield, and the mesmer also has more ways to control his foes’ actions. One of the reasons we wanted to wait to reveal the mesmer until the end is that we wanted the mesmer to really mess with the other professions. Because of that, we wanted to make sure we had the other professions basically finished. Now that we have all eight done, we’ve been focusing on making sure each profession has different tools for solving problems while at the same time giving them different play styles and pacing.
GWOnline: In the early days of development Isaiah Cartwright made a statement that the lower number of skills would make Guild Wars 2 easier to balance than the original Guild Wars. However, we have recently seen the number of skills increased (e.g. the Engineer’s tool belt), there are more conditions available, as well as modifying traits. Was there a change in philosophy, or if not, could you explain how these observations fit together?
Isaiah: I think I might be the most qualified to answer this one In the original Guild Wars, due to secondary professions, all professions could use all available skills. This made for one enormous pool of skills. In Guild Wars 2, while the total number of skills is high, it’s really all about how compartmentalized they are. For example, because there are only three healing skills per profession, balancing three things vs. each other is a lot easier than balancing every healing skill in the game against each other. This becomes true with 20 utility skills and the limited number of weapons as well. While all of these things still work together and we have to make sure the combination of all these small pools of skills, traits, and items are balanced, it’s a lot easier than the first game because the total number of skills doesn’t multiply into as high a total number of combinations.
Another big factor in balancing Guild Wars 2, is the power of our tools. We can make a large number of changes to skills in a very short period of time, we can put 100 skill changes into the game and test them in a matter of minutes. This allows for us to test ideas, fix problems, or do small tweaks very quickly giving us a much more iterative process.
If there was a change in philosophy, it probably came from us getting more comfortable with our tools and our system. The more we worked on the game, the more we found ways we could do new and fun things with our skill system. For example, you could have a utility skill that gives you a flame thrower with a whole new set of skills or a skill could change into another skill while you’re using a skill that blocks. These sort of things slowly lead to a larger number of skills in Guild Wars 2 but don’t grow the number of combinations to an unmanageable level.
GWOnline: Currently the community speculates a lot about how the cross profession mechanics will turn out eventually. Is there a general design mantra among the developers, like “every offensive initiator skill will trigger a defensive effect, if it meets a finisher skill”? Otherwise keeping track of the effects sounds very complicated.
Isaiah: Our combo system really allows for some interesting play. Some profession builds allow you to combo with yourself, while others might place a lot of fields for allies to combo off of — it really depends on what type of content you’re playing and what type of build you’re using. I’ve seen a lot of teams internally make interesting use of them for dungeons and PvP and come up with a number of fun builds for them. While every profession has access to both finishers and initiators, some professions are designed to be better at combo initiators while others are really good at combo finishers, allowing for a natural synergy between these types of characters.
This system has a lot of depth to it, but you don’t have to know the whole matrix to use a combo. You just have to see an opportunity while playing and take advantage of it, if you’re holding a bow as a ranger and shooting at something and someone drops down a static field, you might move yourself to line up and get a combo, and after a while it just becomes second nature.
GWOnline: The demos during the year 2011 unraveled more and more starter areas for the different races in Guild Wars 2. Can we expect to see asura and sylvari starter areas on upcoming demos before the final release of Guild Wars 2. Could you share some favorite moment or experience from those starter areas?
Eric: We will definitely be expanding what we show as we progress through our beta events but we do want to keep some content back since we don’t want to spoil too much. As far as favorite things about the starter areas go, I think the boss in the asura tutorial is just amazing. Our artists and animators really outdid themselves with that one!
GWOnline note: We have added links to the official Guild Wars 2 wiki to key terms in the interview, to help you catch up if you have been living under a rock the last couple of years 😉