"Since it's not fighting for your $15 a month, Guild Wars 2 can happily co-exist with World of Warcraft. The question, really, is whether World of Warcraft, in all its undeniable but ageing glory, can co-exist with Guild Wars 2," I wrote about NCsoft's radical new MMO last month.
Maybe I'd been caught up in the hyperbolic spirit at Seattle studio ArenaNet, where president Mike O'Brien told us "we certainly have our sights set on number one," and "we can make the highest quality MMO ever released." But the game is definitely slick, fun and seamless, while the team's ambition makes a big impression. ArenaNet really does think it can make the first big step forward for MMOs since WOW's launch in 2004 – a step which the genre badly needs.
From both a business and a development standpoint, making and launching a new MMO is the most intimidating task in video games. Where does ArenaNet find such confidence and daring? What makes this unassuming studio, founded by a trio of ex-Blizzard staff in 2000 and with one game to its name, think it can take on the might of their former employer?
For one thing, it has the comfortable backing of owner NCsoft, which has dominated the lucrative South Korean market for well over a decade now with Lineage, Lineage II and Aion. But money's not the whole story. Touring the studio and chatting to staff, I pick up several clues that this is no ordinary games developer.
At ArenaNet, employees from different disciplines mingle in "strike teams", and O'Brien moves his desk around to be where he feels he's needed. There's a story about him spending a few weeks sat in a corridor.
Testers are as integrated in the development process as designers and programmers, and regular calls go out for the entire staff to down tools, jump on the servers and play the game. There's a frenzied company-wide PVP session taking place as I nose round the office.
Burly Romanian art director Daniel Dociu introduces me to a special art team which is both incubating young talent and experimenting with doing concept art directly in the game engine – sculpting wild ideas out of particles and polygons instead of paint. Yet the studio spends a fortune tracking down antiquated graphics cards to put in every PC in the office, just to ensure that Guild Wars 2's beautiful vision will be well optimised for the average player.
At the end of my visit, I talk to the youthful and irrepressibly cheerful lead content designer Colin Johanson – who has been at the company for six years – and ask him to sum up the ArenaNet difference...
Eurogamer: Can you describe what the atmosphere, or the culture, is like here?
Colin Johanson: I think there's a couple of words that I would use to describe ArenaNet. The first is creatively fearless – as a company, we are never afraid to try anything. And that is true of the decisions that we make in our video games, but that's also true of our company culture.
There's no company that doesn't have flaws, and we certainly have problems here too. The difference that makes ArenaNet unique to me is when we see something wrong in the company, when we see something that we could be doing better, we actively try to pursue ways to fix that problem. It's amazing to see how much this company has grown and changed over the last few years as a direct result of being willing to do that.
Eurogamer: Can you give examples of this creative fearlessness at work in Guild Wars 2?
Colin Johanson: I think one of the core ones for me is taking the holy trinity [of MMO character classes] – you have your front line, you have your healer and you have your ranged character, basically – and just throwing it out the window.
We're basically saying, listen, this as a core game mechanic is tired, we can do something better, we can do something more interesting than this. Let's not do it, let's try to do something else. And that's what we've spent many years now perfecting and working on, and getting to the point that we feel we have a combat system that doesn't need it and, we feel, works better without it.
I think the dynamic event system... even early on, when we would tell our fans, "Hey, we're going to make this game system that doesn't have quests in it," the response was, "Woooooah, don't do that! I really like quests, it's all I know. How do I get through a game without seeing a guy with a question mark over his head and running over and talking to him?"
We said, well, why do you need that? And it's something where, again, we didn't know if it was going to work or not, but we built it and started playing with it and fell in love with it.
Eurogamer: As I was touring the studio, Mike [O'Brien] explained that the teams were grouped according to themes rather than what their jobs were: this one would be working on community features, this one on server stability. What's the purpose of that? And what's the impact of that on the work that you do?
Colin Johanson: That's something we started doing recently, just in the last couple of years we've adopted this system of setting up smaller teams. We like to call them strike teams. They're basically devoted to solving a problem in the game, or dealing with specific core features in the game.
We found that when we bring [designers, programmers, artists and testers] into a room together, and we give them the opportunity to have open dialogue with each other all day, suddenly these ideas that we had start growing and becoming bigger and they start finding new things they can layer on top of it that they never thought of before, because they have a new perspective around them... it's really fantastic to have very different mindsets around you.
Our QA [quality assurance, or testing] team just sits with us and works with us, and they have ideas that we put in the game all the time. That's something that, everywhere I've been, is very unique.
Eurogamer: What sort of feedback do you get from the testers?
Colin Johanson: I'll give you an example from my team. My team is responsible for developing the events, the personal story and the dungeons in the game. We have QA testers who... send many-page-long emails full of suggestions and ideas about the events that they'd like.
And rather than blow them off, we look through that list of stuff and see what can we do in a reasonable amount of time, what would help this event be better, and we do all of those things. I guarantee you that every event that you played today in some way has an element that was implemented and suggested by one of our QA department.
Eurogamer: Daniel [Dociu] also said how respected artists were here, and that they led a lot of the design process in terms of the maps and so on.
Colin Johanson: When we lay out the maps... we bring the artists who are working on the map, the level designer who's laying out the map and the writing team who's going to be working on that map, and the designers, and we all get together in the room.
We sit there for hours, sometimes days, and just talk about everything that we want to have going on in the map, and everybody throws ideas out; there's ideas in our game and events in our game that came from the artists, that came from the writers, that came from programmers. They're all a really integral part of that process.
And then as the artists go and they start building the maps, they start building little areas into it... and they come to us and they say, "Hey I built this beautiful outcropping over here that we don't have any use for in the game, what should we use it for?" And we're like, "Oh, let's take advantage of that!"
I think what ends up happening with that is you end up getting a really strong world. You don't have a beautiful game that feels soulless because the design doesn't match the art, and you don't have a game where the design is really strong and the art's kind of all over the place... Everything feels like it belongs there. The events and the spawns feel like they belong in the area and match the art of the world. That comes from that cohesiveness.
Eurogamer: One of the problems you deal with when launching a new MMO now is expectations. People expect all these features, and a huge amount of content, and it's often not really possible to deliver at launch. How do you manage that? And where are you prepared to make sacrifices?
Colin Johanson: We recognise that right now, to compete, you need to release a game that's not just good enough to compete with another game that just released, but you need to be able to compete with all of the expansion content as well. Because people are looking for that much game experience out of a game. They want an experience that matches up with a game that has four expansions already made for it.
The way that we're going to handle it is: we're making a game big enough that we offer that much content. We are making a game where we're not sacrificing anything.
We're not just doing PVP, we're doing competitive PVP and we're doing an open-world, world-versus-world PVP system as well. We're not just doing a story chain that you can play through or an open world full of events, we're doing an open world full of events, your personal story chain, and all the different, branching versions that all the different races offer. We're doing dungeons, and we're not just doing dungeons, we're doing repeatable versions of dungeons that have different storylines that branch that you can play through.
We're tackling all of that, and we're saying we are not going to sacrifice anywhere. We're going to do all of this, we're going to make this the game that offers something for everybody, and we're going to get that right, and if it takes us a little longer to do that, the trade-off is totally worthwhile.
Eurogamer: I know the company line on release is 'when it's done'... Do you have any kind of external pressure or internal pressure where you feel that there is a clock ticking to some extent? Financially perhaps?
Colin Johanson: External pressure? Absolutely not. NCsoft has been fantastic to us. They've basically given us the freedom to make the best possible game that we can and they trust that if we do that, it's all going to work out fine in the end. They recognise that rushing a project out the door doesn't do any good.
So, externally, no. Internally? The only pressure that we have is the pressure we put on ourselves, because we know our fans want to play this game, and we know they're chomping at the bit to get at it. But we're not going to sacrifice anything to make that happen. We're going to put out a game that we're in love with and totally happy with, and only then.
Eurogamer: What drives ArenaNet, as a company? I've heard your colleagues talk about wanting to be "number one" in a few different contexts – Daniel was saying he wanted to be the most beautiful game in this genre, for example. Is that it? Is it a competitive jostling to be at the front?
Colin Johanson: I think what drives us is to better ourselves as a company and to continue to improve on the product that we make and better the industry around us. I think there's a lot of ways that you can make video games, and we want to be the company that encourages people to think outside the box and try different ways to make games.
There's no better way to better yourself as a company or as an employee of a company than to try different ways to do things and see if you can find a better way to do it. I think above all else, that's what drives us.
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Eurogamer: Without asking you to name names, when you look at other MMO launches – and frankly there haven't been all that many successful ones over the last five years – where do you think your competitors are going wrong?
Colin Johanson: Honestly, we have a lot of respect for the the other MMO developers out there. We realise how monumental an undertaking it is to make an MMO. I mean, there's nothing like it. If you are a game studio who has never made an MMO before, and you're thinking about doing it, seriously consider all the work that goes into it. Because an MMO is so many games rolled all into one game... We're building, I feel like sometimes, eight games all rolled together into one.
So it's hard to say if other people failed or where they failed – I'll just say that I have a tremendous amount of respect for anybody who's willing to make an MMO.
Eurogamer: What is that keeps you here, personally?
Colin Johanson: Above all else, it's the people. I love ArenaNet, I love Guild Wars 2, I love working here, but the thing I love the most is the people I work with. I wake up every day excited to come into work, because I get to go hang out with a bunch of my friends all day and we just happen to make video games, and that's pretty awesome.
You know, we all give each other a hard time, but this is a close group of people. We lunch together, we work long hours together, we go to Old Country Buffet together and survive somehow. We've kind of built a little bit of a family here.