Guild Wars 2 interview: the boss O'Brien on launch, growing pains, reviews and patches

"I'm talking to you with very little sleep right now."

Don't suppose you noticed that Guild Wars 2 had launched - hardly been anything written about it.

Ahem.

Yesterday evening I spoke to ArenaNet co-founder and boss, Mike O'Brien. I only had 20 minutes with him, and he sounded tired - maybe he's busy or something at the moment. Nevertheless, in that time we managed to talk about how launch went, the few niggling issues the game has, his thoughts on reviews and post-launch content.

I divvied the chat up into sections to make it a bit easier to see where you're going.

Launch

It's been "a whole different experience" launching Guild Wars 2 than it was launching Guild Wars 1, O'Brien reflected. Guild Wars 1 was a fledgling ArenaNet's first game, which started small and grew through word of mouth - "whereas Guild Wars 2 is just big from day one". How big? One million people bought the game before release (pre-purchase), and over 400,000 have been playing at the same time. (Side note: Star Wars: The Old Republic had 350,000 concurrent players around launch) Presumably, those numbers are going up. "Yeah," agreed Mike O'Brien. "Yes they are. They're going up a lot."

MMOs are giant beasts - hulking combinations of huge RPG worlds that need to support thousands of players online together. And that's barely the half of it. There's a lot that can go wrong at launch. No MMO has launched flawlessly, and it's a crucial period of time when the whole wider world is watching. How will the launch of Guild Wars 2 be remembered?

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Mike O'Brien at ArenaNet HQ in March this year, checking out the community board. Jovial.

"For the most part, people are seeing that this is the game we have been telling them that we're going to create. I do believe that players see that we have lived up to our promises of creating a dynamic world, changing the way that content is presented in an online world, creating a truly social game," O'Brien said. "You look at it and you see that players have a really good atmosphere right now - very mature, strong. Everybody is generally really positive about all of those things."

"We're working around the clock to address this stuff. I mean literally - I'm talking to you with very little sleep right now. Each day we hope we're addressing the last few things. I think we're very close, but things could come up - I can't make promises."

Mike O'Brien, co-founder and boss, ArenaNet

Guild Wars 2 is playable and there are no queues. That's a hell of an achievement. But there are niggles. O'Brien called them "hiccups", and rather a lot. "Certainly, there are some hiccups. We wish there weren't some hiccups, and we're working around the clock to smooth out any hiccups. I suppose no MMO launch of this size is without hiccups, and we're not without hiccups," he said.

"If the game itself is running smoothly, which it is, and if players are loving the game, then that's what matters most. And I hope that's what players remember."

Trading Post

The Trading Post (auction house) isn't widely available. It's being tested at random by increasing amounts of people on the live servers - now around 25 per cent of the population. O'Brien wishes the Trading Post hadn't suffered, but he'd far rather a "peripheral" feature broke down than a more fundamental aspect of the game. "I don't mean to call Trading Post peripheral," he quickly added, "but it's not the game servers themselves, right? Some of those things we've had down time and we're just working as hard as we possibly can to make sure those things are all running flawlessly."

The grouping, guild and social problems

This is the thorniest of the issues at the moment - groups are being split up, particularly on overflow servers. Guilds are also having problems, and the whole social aspect isn't working as intended. Obviously this is a bit of a problem, given that it's the glue holding an MMO together.

Judging by Mike O'Brien's comments, the issue seems to have roots that are a longer and a bit more tangled than ArenaNet first realised.

"What that is, is there are a few different root causes, and we're learning about things that are causing that one by one. We have been fixing each of those day after day after day, fixing more things. What you're seeing is, day after day after day, the incidents of this are getting lower and lower. We're just basically keeping working to minimise, minimise, minimise," he said.

It was still happening on Wednesday, O'Brien admitted, and on Thursday - but less so. "And I agree, it's a super important thing we need to make a top priority and fix," he promised. Today, the incidents will be "smaller again", "and smaller again the day after". "We're making some really good traction on it," he enthused. "Of course, I wish it wasn't happening at all, but we're getting it licked with each passing day."

When it'll all be ironed out he wouldn't say. "We're working around the clock to address this stuff. I mean literally - I'm talking to you with very little sleep right now. Each day we hope we're addressing the last few things. I think we're very close, but things could come up - I can't make promises," he stressed.

Overflow servers

The problems people are having on overflow servers are caused by the grouping tangle. And the overflow servers themselves are being called on heavily now because there are heavy concentrations of players in places like starter areas.

"What we don't want to do is, we don't want to say, 'Because there are so, so many people playing in Queensdale right now, for example, we will create many times as many worlds as we need and then, when people move on from Queensdale, and spread throughout the entire world, all the worlds will feel empty," explained O'Brien.

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Here's Mike, holding a door open for me. Thank you very much.

"That one [when overflows will stop being needed] is actually really not in our control. What will keep people playing in overflow servers is when people actually have levelled up a bit and spread themselves throughout the world.

"The thing that makes overflow servers a lot more understandable and palatable is when you can easily find your friends, and you can keep your parties together through overflow servers, and that's why, as you were saying earlier, it's such an important thing to get the party problem fixed," he went on to say, "so that when you travel to a different map, you're staying with your party.

"That's the primary thing that's causing people stress about the overflow servers - difficulty finding friends. Hopefully, very soon, those problems will be fixed. That will get overflow servers to a much better state.

"Really, people, as they spread through the world, that's what will ultimately cause them to stop seeing the overflow servers."

"That's the primary thing that's causing people stress about the overflow servers - difficulty finding friends. Hopefully, very soon, those problems will be fixed. That will get overflow servers to a much better state."

Mike O'Brien

Reviews

How do you review an MMO? That's a difficult question to answer. Do you take a month of time to play it, explore a significant portion of the content on offer, and then judge? If you did, what use would a month-late review be to buyers? MMOs, especially one as apparently gigantic as Guild Wars 2, contain a nearly insurmountable amount of content.

"I'd like to read that Guild Wars 2 is the game that lived up to what it said it was going to do," Mike O'Brien told me. "That Guild Wars 2 was the game that offers a really living world; that players can come together and accomplish great things together in the world; that it's truly a cooperative game; that the things that push people apart in other online worlds don't exist in Guild Wars 2; and that it has the strong storytelling and exciting combat.

"Basically, the things that have been in our manifesto forever; the things that we promised players that we would deliver then; the things that we didn't release the game until it was ready because that's what we wanted to get right - all the things that we've been promising.

"I hope players recognise that we said we would create a world like that, and that we did create a world like that," O'Brien said. "People are going to come into the world and it's not going to be their father's MMO, so to speak, it's not what players are used to, but it really is, I think, a fresh look at online worlds and a look that I think the industry needs in online worlds. We need to be trying new things, we need to be innovating. And that's what I hope players recognise that Guild Wars 2 is doing."

He hopes that reviewers take their time - a statement that has a couple of meanings.

The first meaning is to allow people time to adjust an "existing MMO mindset" to what's on offer in Guild Wars 2. "What we've seen is that it takes players some time as they get into the game to realise, 'Wait, this game is a lot more free-form than normal MMOs. I should really take the time and enjoy the world around me, and not just try to be rushing through things.' I hope that people take the time," reiterated O'Brien.

"And then, of course, I hope that anybody reviewing the game gives it time to get through the growing pains of the first week," he added. "Things like, yes of course Trading Post is a very important part of the game, and it's difficult to do some things right now. It's difficult to craft right now, and it's hard to get some of the materials you need. But that's a very early growing pain.

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ArenaNet was really a mesmerising place to be.

"We're a couple of days after retail release right now and look at the stuff [we're] taking care of. And so I hope everybody gives the game some time to settle down and be the game that it's going to be for the next many years, and reflect that in their reviews."

Publishers of console games put a high importance on a review score. There have been lamentable reports of bonuses being withheld because a Metacritic average isn't high enough. There are four Guild Wars 2 reviews on Metacritic right now, and the average score is 94 per cent. Where does Mike O'Brien think it will settle?

"Oh I don't know. I don't really want to focus on Metacritic averages," he laughed, wearily. "We really, really worked hard, poured our hearts into this game for five years, and held it until it was ready to make sure that this was the highest quality online world that people had played, because I think that people deserve that.

"We're not competing against games in the state they were when they were released. We're competing against online worlds that have had years for polish, and players expect a high degree of polish, and players deserve a high degree of polish. And so we've worked hard to deliver that. I really hope and believe that reviewers will see what we were able to bring to the table. I hope they'll see that we really, really did keep developing this game until this game was at the high level of polish that players deserve to see, and I hope the reviews reflect that."

Guild Wars 2 is a big bet. NCsoft has spent millions of dollars getting it made and erecting the mammoth community and PR operation that spans the globe. Guild Wars 2 may look like a sure thing from where I'm sitting, and from where fans of Guild Wars 1 are sitting, but it's also a bit different - and maybe people don't want that. O'Brien thinks reviews will affect the overall success of Guild Wars 2.

"I hope everybody gives the game some time to settle down and be the game that it's going to be for the next many years, and reflect that in their reviews."

Mike O'Brien, co-founder and boss, ArenaNet

"Reviews serve an important purpose in the industry, so I guess that's a way of saying of course reviews will ultimately affect. The biggest thing that reviews affect is they get people who weren't thinking about a game to try a game. Guild Wars 2, it's different, right? So it kind of needs people who love it to get out there and say they love it and say, 'Hey, you might not have thought that this kind of game was something you were going to love, but you really ought to try it.' So," he said, "I certainly hope that reviews are accomplishing that for Guild Wars 2."

Post-launch content patch plans

BioWare shouted about being more aggressive with the pace and heft of post-release Star Wars: The Old Republic content patches than World of Warcraft, which is saying something - given what Blizzard has churned out month by month for several years. ArenaNet business boss Randall Price told me earlier this year that there are Guild Wars 2 "development plans in our back pocket for literally years to come". I asked Mike O'Brien how it would compare to SWTOR and WOW.

"Players can expect that we're going to very, very strongly support Guild Wars 2," he answered, measuredly. "I can't announce to you today what the upcoming updates to Guild Wars 2 are going to be, but we are in fact working on exciting updates for Guild Wars 2, and you're going to see them soon."

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