Exclusive Guild Wars 2 interview on Path of Fire’s launch and philosophy

Spurred on by my excitement for Guild Wars 2‘s second expansion, Path of Fire, I reached out to ArenaNet shortly before release to secure a post-launch interview to ensure all my most burning questions could be answered. I drafted my questions not long after launch, and while I most definitely wished to discover whether the initial launch hiccups affected the immediate uptake of the expansion, beyond that I sought more information on the development of such a decisively different expansion than Heart of Thorns was.

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.

Tell us more about the “joy of movement” philosophy behind active combat, gliding, and the new mounts in PoF, and how it might apply to future development.

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?

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
The ArenaNet philosophy is constant iteration. After every release, we sit down and analyze our work to see what players enjoyed, what elements we felt were strong and most importantly where we need to keep improving.  We’re constantly working on perfecting our craft and a large part of this over the last year has been better integrating our story and gameplay. We’ve also taken a look at how we present our allies to the players and how your group of allies handles the challenges Tyria presents them.  We’ve brought on some heavy hitters, like Tom Abernathy, over the years that have really been pushing us to strive to be better.

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.

Mounts

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?

We experimented with different movement types and built prototypes so that the team could run around our maps with mounts even before we had the art for them.  Even with the rudimentary initial version, we knew we were on to something as we moved around the maps on them.
The goal from the beginning was to make our mounts feel like companions that joined you on your journey through the desert and not just a lifeless vehicle that made you move faster. A tool that helps you solve puzzles or think about the world differently, not just a movement speed increase.  When we decided to create larger, more expansive maps we knew that this was the right time for us to explore the idea of mounts within Guild Wars 2.  We experimented with different movement types and built prototypes so that the team could run around our maps with mounts even before we had the art for them.  Even with the rudimentary initial version, we knew we were on to something as we moved around the maps on them.

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.

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?

The goal was to create something that encouraged exploration but took advantage of how the mounts felt in the hands of players.
We built the expansion around mounts, but allowed for the possibility for things like gliding, teleport to friend and portals to circumvent some of these experiences. The goal was to create something that encouraged exploration but took advantage of how the mounts felt in the hands of players.  We also did some additional work on previous maps to better handle mounts now that players had access to abilities that would allow them to get to areas we originally had thought impossible.  Generally speaking though, we are excited when players find new ways to combine the tools we give them.

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.

Elite Specializations

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.

Have you noticed any surprising uses of the new elite specs’ abilities that the team hadn’t envisioned?

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.

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21 Comments on "Exclusive Guild Wars 2 interview on Path of Fire’s launch and philosophy"

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Bruno Brito

Good interview. I was expecting a “will you guys take a look at condition behavior and meta right now?” question, tho.

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Knox Harrington

The non-answer they’d give would be more infuriating than not asking the question at all

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Annoyed badger

Everytime I hear Anet talk about their ideas and philosophy, I go back and watch the manifesto trailer and feel sad about the game that could have been.

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Knox Harrington

I’m glad they made WvW more rewarding but it’s just lipstick on a pig at this point.

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Thomas

I like PoF, but I think ArenaNet is making a tactical error in putting the story missions (both base zone story instanced content and living story instanced missions) on a higher and higher shelf in terms of difficulty/inaccessibility. I think it would have been smarter for ArenaNet to make the story missions easier but add challenging bonus mission content within story missions for players who want extra rewards and challenges.

Some of us, however, just want to play through the base story and move on.

The net result is that playing through story missions on alts, one of the things that kept me playing both the base GW2 game and HoT as well, is not even a consideration in PoF. I just don’t want to go through any of the PoF story missions again if I can help it.

Once I get through PoF map/zone completion on a few toons and then finish the PoF story (once!) on my main character, I will move on to another MMO that, imo, is more generally solo friendly, such as WoW or SWTOR–at least until the next GW2 expansion comes along.

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Terren Bruce

Please don’t use SWTOR as an example of a game doing it right. The story missions are so easy in the original class stories, RotHC, and Shadow of Revan that it actually takes away from the emotional weight of the story.

I actually quit SWTOR for that very reason on my latest attempt to get back into it. The solo experience in SWTOR is just too boring to be worth the time investment. There’s no engagement with the game play. The same can be said of the original personal story in GW2. I recoil in horror at the very thought GW2 might go back to that.

I get that a mission here or there might be a little over tuned for some classes or builds. But that is a price I’m more than willing to pay for actually being engaged by the game play of the story.

Having said that they could tone down the Herald of Balthazar in the Sacrifice mission and Mordremoth at the end of HoT’s a little. The key is a little. Not nerfed into the ground.

Honestly those are the only two missions that are that bad, and even then only on some classes. And maybe the Caudecus fight in LW3.

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BalsBigBrother

I just finished the last boss battle in PoF and I didn’t feel exhilarated or happy that I won. Nope my overall feeling what one of exhaustion and me thinking thank god that is done to the point I missed a good chunk of the cut scene that follows due to me stretching tired muscles. In short it wasn’t fun for me in the slightest.

I had the same feeling with a few of the other major fights too, many of them are way too busy for me personally, with too much going on for me to track of or keep ahead of and it wasn’t fun.

I understand that there is a wide diverse audience to cater for so not everyone is going to be on the same level playing wise in terms of what they can do in a given situation. All the git guds or l2p isn’t going to change that, some folks are just going to struggle with specific aspects.

So the answer well personally I would take a look at what Secret World Legends has done with their dungeons or what EQ2 does with its instance content. Both those games offer difficulty levels in one form or another. So if you want a challenge you can have one but if that is not your thing but you still wish to play the content in a slightly easier manner that is an option too or if you want to make it much harder again that is an option.

Trying to create a one size fits all for such a large diverse audience is always going to leave some folks behind or some folks wanting more so instead give people options and let each of them decide what they want out of it :-)

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refaal

I really don’t see what makes you say that PoF story quests are challenging, when the difficulty bar is clearly lower in comparison to HoT.

Take the quest Sacrifice in Desert Highlands for example: You can opt for doing all the side quests, which are somewhat annoying (but still doable), or you can just jump straight ahead for the boss fight, which consists in dodging 2 of the 3 very basic attacks from Balthazar’s herald.

While I tend to agree with you when you say that instanced content shouldn’t be on a higher shelf in terms of difficulty, I personally think only T4 fractals and raids apply to that definition. Those and jumping puzzles (I love JPs though!).

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Thomas

In the HoT story missions, I found only the last one to be really difficult, whereas many (imo) — and perhaps most — of the Living Story season 2 and 3 missions were as difficult as (or more difficult than) the final HoT story mission (“Hearts and Minds,” I think it was called).

In PoF, I felt several of the story missions were at least as difficult (one in particular) as Hearts and Minds in HoT.

What people consider “difficult” is obviously going to vary, since it’s a subjective thing. But there are ways to design content so that expert players are challenged without barring average players from basic storyline content.

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life_isnt_just_dank_memes

One of the things I wish ArenaNet would have addressed in their return to Hearts and Heart Vendors in PoF was leaving out Karma Armor sets for each map in PoF. Again, as a pattern, ArenaNet has included very few armor sets and some of them are just variations of a theme and not standalone armors.

The Spearmarshal/Elonain sets are just variations on the same theme. In GW1 those sets were distinctly different. Expansions and standalone games should come with a full compliment of weapons/armor included in the box price. It stinks that more of that stuff came with GW1 than with this.

This game is a blast but ArenaNet still need constructive criticism from prominent voices in the community. I really wish this pattern of theirs of not releasing armor sets would be addressed in a meaningful way.

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Rottenrotny

Good read and great expansion.
I managed to get a couple friends to start playing GW2 for the first time and they’re beside themselves on how in 5 years they never bothered to play it.

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BalsBigBrother

Thank you for the interview and thank you Tina for your column.

Your launch diaries were a factor in me getting Path of Fire now rather than later. I hadn’t really intended to get it right away. However your enthusiasm was infectious so here I am hopping around on a huge bunny-roo with a big smile on my face :-)

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TomTurtle

It’s the Massively writer effect. Rubi had that effect on me for getting into the original Guild Wars.

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Sally Bowls

Thanks to you and ANet!

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TomTurtle

A lot of vague and non-answers. Not unexpected really. I appreciate you trying though Tina.

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imayb1

I was particularly happy with the evasion about a new race. I hope they’re working on a new one for the next time.

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Arktouros

Seems more like a review of all their pre-launch POF information dumps and then updated now that we’re past launch.

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Alex Willis

Great interview!

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