Exclusive Guild Wars 2 interview on Path of Fire’s launch and philosophy
This launch diary installment will share ArenaNet’s responses to my PoF questions: Mounts, elite specializations, and the new maps were huge topics of discussion aside from the more general launch and development questions I had. Read on!
General questions about PoF
Massively Overpowered: I experienced some fairly significant connection issues and instance creation problems over the launch weekend, despite your round-the-clock efforts to work on those issues. What did it take to put things back on track, and did the issues have any significant impact on login statistics and expansion uptake?
ArenaNet: When unfortunate things like outages at a datacenter, problems between internet service providers or even hardware failure occur, it all comes down to the service teams being dedicated and focused on getting things back up and running as fast as possible. Just like when you’re dealing with a bug in the game, it’s a similar process of diagnosing, proposing solutions, trying solutions, potentially discovering a new problem and repeating until you have a happy player base running through the Crystal Desert on their raptors. We’re proud that the lifetime downtime of our servers is under 48 hours over 5 years, thanks in large part to the fact that we don’t need to take the servers down for each release, and the way that lets us keep our players in the game.
Dynamic content is a major Guild Wars 2 content staple. Cadence was a historic challenge for ArenaNet, but Living World season 3 kept to an impressive schedule that culminated in the timely release of Path of Fire. Can we expect season 4 to match up with a similar regular schedule?
Yes, we’re working to keep Season 4 on the same 2-3 month cadence that worked so well with Season 3. The big change we made this time around was to have two separate teams – Living World and expansion – working simultaneously, coordinating their handoffs so that the transition to and from the new expansion would be seamless. This allowed us to hit our stride with our episodic release cadence while still focusing on the quality of our content. And now that Path of Fire has been released, players can expect Living World Season 4 to pick up without any breaks.
During initial Guild Wars 2 development, we discovered that our environments became extensions of our characters and the gameplay that we supported. It was exciting to climb this cliff or explore this other cave to find the treasures, secrets or lore that was hidden there. Starting from there, movement has always been a key component for us and how our players experience the world. Gliding was a fun addition with Heart of Thorns and we were happy to bring mounts to Tyria once we figured out how to make them more than just movement speed increases, but instead new tools that players could use to see and explore the world in new ways. When we look to create a new feature for the game we analyze not just what the feature brings to Guild Wars 2, but how it works with our design philosophies.
I saw recent figures come from Mike O’Brien’s Forbes interview that stated 40% of players play a lot of World vs World or PvP content. With that number in mind, what plans are in place for improving those game mode’s content for those who enjoy it?
Both WvW and PvP game types are full of dedicated players. We just recently had an entire month dedicated to improvements and rewards for both game types to better support their efforts. During this month for WvW, we added a skirmish reward track to help players earn more rewards, we improved the LFG tool to make it easier for players to find groups, added new ways to track your team’s match history, added a new Legendary backpack and new armors. For PvP, we added automated tournaments to allow players to regularly determine who the best of the best are, added a whole new PvP lobby to give a better place for players to organize, practice or hang out with their friends before their competitive matches and launched a new PvP League season. We have teams that ware working on updates to continue our support for them.
The story quality has taken a huge leap between season 2 and season 3 and again from the season content to the Path of Fire story. How did that quality shift happen and what lessons will be carried forward for season 4?
Dragons, gods, magic… This expansion has it all in terms of fantastic content sources because of the franchise’s rich lore. How far in advance do you plan the story hooks for future development, and what does the story creation process look like?
We have a rich history spanning over a decade of ideas that started with the original Guild Wars. High-level story arcs planned well in advance. Details and smaller character arcs filled in as we get closer. From launch we knew we were going to come back to the Crystal Desert, it was just a matter of when – and before we got started on planning Season 3, we knew that it was ultimately going to lead us to the Crystal Desert and Path of Fire. Another example is the Sylvari connection to Mordremoth was planned well before launch.
I’ve loved how well the new mounts have applied to the in-game environment. How did you manage to get across to the user what mount is required for different obstacles without resorting to too much obvious signposting? Are there visual clues or other considerations that have been factored in that players might not be consciously aware of?
We spent a lot of early production work experimenting with how the mounts felt and how we could message their importance to players. Additionally, we created a set of precise measuring tools in our world building tool to make sure we kept things consistent, which helped on how their challenges were presented in the world. Essentially we tried to develop a language that would help players understand the characteristics of their mounts and how they might best use them in their explorations. We focused a lot on the details of how each mount acted, moved and how their personality supports these ideas. Because each mount came with its own unique mechanics this helped with the messaging immensely. This allowed us to create a unique set of tools that give the players new options and a new lens from which to view, and move about, the world of Tyria.
The personality each mount has combines with its realistic movement patterns for an impressive end result. Can you share more about how the mounts were developed?
Most of our mounts started with the idea of the movement mechanic that they’d end up embodying. We knew, for example, that we wanted something with a massive vertical jump. Since we wanted the mounts to feel very connected to their movement type, we had concepts of a bunch of different animal types that might visually suggest a high jump. The initial version of the springer looked like a cross between a giant bunny and a kangaroo. Just from looking at the mount it was easy to get a sense of its movement type and how it would fit within our world.
Mounts feel almost overpowered in the original zones. Was that intentional?
Our goal with allowing mounts in core Tyria and Heart of Thorns maps was to allow players to experience the older content from a new perspective. Being able to get to locations that were previously impossible adds a new level of exploration that was not possible before. It’s true that we didn’t originally intend for players to get to these locations, but it’s a lot of fun to have this level of power. However, in specific areas, we tried to preserve the challenge of the content by disabling mounts, like jumping puzzles. This was something we did with gliding from Heart of Thorns when we enabled it in the core maps.
The balance between making the game space feel vast and also offering easy navigation to the player across the new maps would have been difficult to find, and I’m sure that presented technical problems when creating them. What factors were considered when designing the Path of Fire zones to keep that balance, and have lessons been learned that will influence future map development?
We originally designed the maps around pockets of content or content hubs. From there as we extended further into the desert we used the less cultivated areas to help accent the dangers and feeling of survival. Knowing that mounts were the paramount feature in the expansion also kept us focused on spacing out the content appropriately. Lastly, we had weekly play sessions to get a sense of the maps and determine what was the right amount of content we could provide for these massive play spaces.
How did you design the new areas with mount-accessibility in mind, and did you make any slight adjustments to other zones to prepare? Did you worry players would find map exploits or shortcuts you hadn’t envisioned before the mount mechanics were considered?
I’m amazed at how well an area that hasn’t been at the main forefront of Guild Wars lore in so long has translated into the modern game space. How much effort went into balancing the nostalgia factor with providing an environment that felt new and exciting?
This was something that we had planned out from pre-production and kept evaluating throughout the development process. There’s a lot of GW1 lore in the area, but not everyone who plays GW2 was familiar with it. We narrowed in on key stories or components that we wanted to make sure transitioned to the current focus and then let the open world teams figure out how to sprinkle hidden bits for players to find like the kids playing “Ascension” in the Elon Riverlands.
Many players go into every expansion announcement hoping for a new race or class, but that’s not how Guild Wars 2 has worked towards expansion. Will future feature development follow the same blueprint, or are players right to hope for playable exotic races or an entirely new class in the future?
For expansions, we focus on giving players a new way to play their favorite characters through new Elite Specializations. It’s another level of customization that focuses on building out the diversity of any given character rather than adding completely new classes. It also gives people a new way to play through Guild Wars 2 with their friends.
What comes first: Choosing a new weapon that would enhance a class, or creating a new elite spec that incorporates a coherent playstyle?
Ideally, we want to choose a bunch of points that would enhance a profession or help fill roles, either new or old. As a start, we’ll look at a profession and ask what playstyle it wants or needs to improve on. After picking that, we generally move to thinking about how the character will perform that function, where weapons, utility skills and mechanics will get tossed around (and out).
How well do you think the new elite specializations are working at this early stage?
Players are still getting used to the new specializations and are building some interesting combinations. We’re continuing to monitor their thoughts and analyze data on our end to make adjustments as necessary.
If there’s one thing we can count on, it’s that players are extremely adept at finding crazy ways to use all aspects of the game. In the few days that the game has been out, we’ve seen a fair amount of interesting use of the skills, items, and mount systems.
Are there any balance tweaks — further to the ones seen before launch — that you have planned since then?
Even as we were locking down Path of Fire and getting ready to launch, the team continued to make assessments, plan out and implement more changes (internally) that we’ll be introducing in future balance releases. We’ll also continue to watch how each elite specialization works and will make adjustments as we can to ensure they’re fun to play both with and against.
Many thanks to ArenaNet for providing answers to my questions over its busy launch period.