Lead Guild Wars 2 content designer, Colin Johanson, managed to find a little spare time in his very busy Eurogamer Expo schedule to sit down and chat with me about all things Guild Wars 2. Here is how we got on…
Tap: Hi Colin, I swear I’m not stalking you! I found out recently that you began you career at Mythic, I don’t know how I didn’t know that already. Has it in any way helped shape WvWvW, from your experiences with Dark Age of Camelot?
Colin: Mike Ferguson and Matt Witter are our two lead designers working on the WvWvW project, from a lead design perspective. Both of them are ex-Mythic employees. Mike was heavily involved in Dark Age of Camelot back when I was at Mythic. Mat was heavily involved in Warhammer Online and so the two of them have a lot of experience with world PvP. We also have a lot of staff who give them a great deal of feedback and suggestions. We are big PvP players across the board. I played a lot of Dark Age of Camelot. Our lead designer Eric Flannum would say one of his favourite games of all time was Dark Age of Camelot. We certainly draw inspirations from those areas, but we want to take that and make it our own too.
Tap: How is WvWvW coming along? Can we expect a full weeks preview?
Colin: I’m not sure when we are going to do a full reveal on it. Generally, people in the office play it every single day. I play it once or twice a week just because I’m in meetings most of the time! Most of the people on team are playing it five days a week for several hours every day, whilst our alpha testers are also playing it with us. We’ve been playing it a tonne and it’s coming along really well. It is one of those things where we try to follow the design philosophy for anything we do: we don’t want to talk about it too much until it’s in the game and we are happy with it and then we’ll do a big reveal and put all the information out about it.
In general, I think the MMOG industry has burnt people out in the last six or seven years on doing this concept of saying “Hey, this is the game we are going to do and this is all the great features we are going to have” and they run out of time and can’t do what they want to do. We don’t want to do that. Its got to be in the game, totally working, and then we are going to come out and talk about it. So when WvWvW gets to that point, we are going to talk about it more. It isn’t completely done, but already it’s really fun.
Tap: A lot of ranger fans are still asking about ranger quivers. I know the last time I spoke to both Jon’s they hinted that the engineers backpack was a bit of an experiment as to whether the ranger could have quivers…
Colin: I think we are still poking around on that one, to see what we want to do…
Tap: Still with the ranger then, are you allowed to mention anything yet about the changes to pets?
Colin: The high level things I can talk about. We think the pets are OK, but we really need to clean them up to make them a stronger part of the ranger class. At the end of the day, our ranger is intended to be our pet class. That’s its main function in the game and if you want to have a solid pet class in any game you need to have really good synergy between the pet and actual player. Right now we don’t have that yet, so I think our biggest focus is that we’re going to try to clean the pet up as part of the ranger profession. Building a much stronger synergy between the two as we redesign; that’s the biggest area we are trying to focus on right now.
Tap: I felt today, having played the ranger almost exclusively, that their pet was often fine (when it turned up) but forgettable, and that I functioned perfectly fine without it. I felt at times like a Guild Wars 1 ranger running a none pet build, just zipping about using my speed as a tool, where as I was seeking more skills to influence the pet…
Colin: I agree with you, that is the sort of stuff we are talking about. Finding better ways to control your pet and combine with it and use things to take advantage of the pet being there. One of the few things you can do right now in the downed state is call your pet to resurrect you and I think that is a really nice combination between the two. Those are the sorts of things we would like to see more of; to see the pet become a bigger part of your game play.
Tap: I would suggest based on the level of polish in the game that your obviously coming to the end of the development cycle (to some degree). Are there any nerves now that the game is in its final furlongs?
Colin: I think in the final week before the game comes out, people are going to start and get a little bit of nerves. I think the most nervous we all were was going into Gamescom last year. We had played the game, we had had a lot of usability testers come in and play the game and we had a pretty good idea of where we stood, but you just don’t know until the first time you take the game to a game show and all of a sudden 100,000 people play the game in a weekend. You just can’t simulate what that’s going to be like, even when you bring in thousands of usability testers. It’s just a different ball-park.
I remember flying to Germany last year before we were going to show it for the first time. I barely slept those two nights before we showed the game. I was super excited to show the game, I just didn’t know what was going to happen and by the end of that weekend the response that we had and the way that people just embraced the game and how excited they were about it; I think really, since then, we haven’t been nervous, just excited.
We want to get Guild Wars 2 finished and into everyone’s hands as we’re so pumped to be working on a title that so many people are excited about that the nerves have sort of gone out the window. You need to be careful as you don’t want to be too optimistic and start to believe your own hype too much or you’ll end up not making a great game. You always have to be a little bit cautious, a little bit nervous. These days, we are more cautiously excited than nervous!
Tap: I think you should be confident. I’ve a bit of a wide bet with a friend that you’ll ship five million units in two months. So if that does come off, I’ll drop you an email…
Colin: Haha! what do you win if that comes off?
Tap: We haven’t decided on a prize yet!
Colin: We’d be pretty happy with that, that would be great!
Tap: In terms of sales, why do you think other MMOGs developers haven’t followed the buy to play model that ArenaNet have created? It’s obviously working for you as you clearly have all the resources you need from Guild Wars and NCSoft. Why do you think others aren’t willing to replicate it?
Colin: I think above all else, the biggest reason that that happened is that most games which have been subscription models; the games that have done extremely well in the industry (with the exception of Guild Wars) have all been subscription games, and those games have made a tonne of money. I think this tends to be a very copy cat industry where they see the success and they say “this is what we should be doing if we want to compete”. Until a number of games come out and follow the business model we have done, and are extremely successful, people are going to be playing those that are monthly fee games as well.
What is going to shift that is the approach of what do customers pay for and what are they willing to play? If customers stop paying for monthly subscription fee games and start only playing free to play games, or only go and play Guild Wars 2, you are going to see a shift. Games like Guild Wars 2 where you buy it once and play it for free. Inevitably, it is going to be the customers that decide all that. The developers are just literally doing what the customers are willing to pay for.
People have shown that if you provide a quality game people will pay a subscription fee for it, so our hope is that we make the best game ever made, have it be free and if everyone comes and plays our game, I think you will see the industry change dramatically because of that. If everyone still keeps playing games that are monthly fees and they play our game, I’m not sure you’ll see a massive shift.
Tap: I think a lot of developers are obviously backtracking now. DC Online has just gone free to play, yet these free to play games tend to cripple the user experience so you have limited classes, or limited character slots which almost forces you to buy anyway. I’m positive the industry will shift based on Guild Wars 2…
Colin: We toe an interesting middle ground in that area, because there really are just two paradigm shifts that seem to be happening. The first is you pay a monthly fee for games, and there are actual console companies that are looking at following that model, which is really interesting to me, and then you have the opposite end of the spectrum that is being driven a lot by the east; games that are completely free (or you pay a very small fee up front to play the game). These companies then monetize it by charging you a fortune to play the game or to get more powerful.
Guild Wars 2 falls in a strange middle ground where we don’t sell anything in our online store that makes you more powerful. There is nothing you need to buy in our store to ever play the game which is very different to most of the Eastern games, and we don’t charge a monthly fee which is very different from most of the western MMOGs. It will be interesting to see if companies start to drift towards that middle of if they continue to shift far to the left or right of those.
Tap: Was there ever a discussion by ArenaNet to bring Guild Wars 2 to a console market? Guild Wars 2s lack of a subscription fee could fit well where games just buy the product off the shelf and away they go…
Colin: It really is something console gamers are used to and we did have a small team investigate it but our biggest thing right now is to focus on making this the greatest PC game ever made. If you don’t set that as your target, you aren’t ever going to do that. You have to make that your focus if your ever going to make a great game. We want to do that first and foremost. Everything we have is being used to make that a reality and once we get to the point where we’ve released the game, we are going to sit down and look at all the options with the research we’ve done and potentially see if that’s viable, but right now we aren’t thinking about it. We are just trying to make the greatest PC game ever made.
Tap: Are you working on any spectator modes, including things such as fixed perspective cameras and replays?
Colin: I think if you want to be a massively popular competitive online game, which is exactly what we want to be, you have to be investigating all those things and looking at things that allow players to watch the game, learn about it, see professional players play the game and understand that and be able to watch great matches as well.
Whether it will be done on the initial release I’m not sure, but we had to add it to Guild Wars 1 to make sure we had a really strong competitive game and its the sort of things we are going to have to look at in Guild Wars 2 as well.
Tap: Can we expect an announcement of any additional PvP scenario maps in the next few months?
Colin: We certainly want to have more maps in the game before we release, but it is just like WvWvW. When we have a competitive map to the point where we absolutely love it, and it is playing really well, at that point we will probably announce it; to put it out there and show it to everyone. It is just a matter now of getting another completely ready, that we love. There is no exact time table that we are following, it is more a case of “hey, when is the next one ready?”.
Tap: Are there any current balance concerns in PvP? I don’t recall encountering any skills or classes that made me think “Oh god that’s overpowered!”
Colin: We are constantly testing and looking at ‘numbers’ and running data mining to see what appears, but we are really happy right now with the balance we have, especially for something that is in an Alpha phase. I think the systems team has done a fantastic job of balancing the game already. Right now, the 8th profession is a little weak and needs a lot more work to get to the point when it is on par with the rest of them and so that is one area of concern. We are trying to get that unnamed 8th profession so that it matches everybody else.
Tap: The 8th profession has been undergoing play testing for months then?
Colin: Oh yeah, absolutely!
Tap: Finally, as a bit of fun, what’s your favourite race?
Colin: It has to be the charr for me. Ever since I ever started working at ArenaNet and saw the charrI was like, “wow! What is that?”. I just think they look incredible and to be actually able to play as one now and roam around as my bad ass big cat monster; I think they are amazing. I think their stories are amazing and I love playing in the charr areas with the steam punk feel to it. I play a charr whenever I get a chance, although the asura are rapidly moving up the list for me. The animations really sold me on them.
We haven’t demonstrated this yet, but the early asura starting experience, it is amazing. That first storyline for the asura and the first events you experience in the starting area — there is such a great sense of humour there – such a unique feel to all they do, that I go back in that area constantly because I love being there. Every time I run around that map I can’t stop smiling.
Tap would just like to thank Colin for his valuable time and all the ArenaNet and NCSoft team at Eurogamer Expo for making the entire event a brilliant occasion. We’ll also be chatting with ArenaNet’s Bobby Stein next week to discuss voice overs, script writing and those personal story cut-scenes. Watch this space.
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