ArenaNet took chances with Guild Wars, scrapping all fees past game and expansion purchases, establishing an obtainable level cap (that even I reached, twice) and insisting on an instance-led approach where cities and outposts were the only evidence of a massively multiplayer world. It was and is unique. And it worked; the game initially scored higher than World of Warcraft, Blizzard's behemoth that had launched a couple of months prior, and WOW never trampled Guild Wars into the ground.
ArenaNet, once small, now has a massive team working on Guild Wars 2, and is taking chances on a much grander scale. NCsoft is revealing its new champion in stages, not that we could digest an entire MMO in an instant. Here, lead content designer Colin Johanson and - very briefly - global brand manager Chris Lye explain how ArenaNet is attempting to change the face of MMO questing in Guild Wars 2.
Eurogamer: So, what are dynamic events?
Colin Johanson: The basic idea behind our system is to take the traditional concept of quests - where you go up and talk to a character and get a big wall of text to read to find out what's going on and then run off to do it - and change it so we have dynamically occurring events where things are constantly happening around the player that they can see, that they can hear and they don't have to go read about.
These events dynamically change the world and cascade out across the map and change the content for everybody in it.
Eurogamer: Can you talk us through a dynamic event? Let's pretend I'm a warrior and I'm in a starting area. I put on my shield and metal hat.
Colin Johanson: Let's say you are a Charr warrior. You can join up with the Iron Legion Charr and a force that is marching out to assault the Flame Legion base - the bad Charr. A whole bunch of different events cascade out from this assault. There's a troop of engineers to escort who set up mortars. That kicks off another event where you defend them as they try to build the mortars. If you successfully defend them, and the mortars go fully operational, they start firing down on the main Flame Legion base.
Or you can join the foot troops in an assault on the main gate of the base and try to smash it down. And you're going to be able to do side events to gather weapons to help equip the troops. As you get these weapons, the troops switch to use them and become more powerful. All of these events chain together.
Eventually, when you take control of this Flame Legion base, follow-up events to hold or branch an attack to other locations on the map open up. But if the Flame Legion take these locations back, they'll start organising attacks on friendly player locations on the map.
Eurogamer: Guild Wars had an instanced quest system that was activated in main towns. Is that what happens with these dynamic events - get to a town, hit "go" and you and your party begin the mission?
Colin Johanson: We've split quests into two completely different concepts. One of them is our dynamic events system, which occurs in the persistent world and keeps the world dynamic and alive for all the players. The other core system is your personal storyline. This you're always on and there is always a next step available to you; where you should be going in the world and something you should be doing to progress your storyline.
In Guild Wars 1 we presented a story about other characters. The story is the world. You yourself never had a story; you didn't have a personality. We're taking the best aspects of a role-playing game and putting that into your personal storyline. You'll go through and make choices that develop who you are and the world you see. Your friends can come with you and help you do your personal storyline, and you can help them.
Eurogamer: How will our choices manifest on our characters?
Colin Johanson: We're trying to let the characters make choices that have real emotional investment and that are important enough to care about. You're going to choose if your best friend lives or dies. Based on the choice you make, that character will actually die and the storyline will completely change. There will be villains you capture that you have the choice of sending to prison or executing. Your choice will completely change the outcome of things that happen in the future.
You have friendly groups that you can rescue and save, and they'll start showing up in other storyline steps later and help you. They'll check back in with you in cities and you can talk to them and see how they're doing.
Locations will get destroyed, and this is a little bit of a spoiler for you, but early on in one of the Human storylines you have to pick between trying to get to a hospital or an orphanage - which one do you want to save first? The bandits are going to attack both. Based on the choice you make it has a dramatic effect on your storyline.
Eurogamer: I'm vain; I want to see these changes visibly on my character!
Colin Johanson: The most important thing for us is to make sure the story changes and that characters react differently to you based on the choices you've made. We want you to be the hero. That's one of the key design elements in Guild Wars 2. We're going to have you doing heroic things.
There are item rewards that you'll get from story stuff that can make your character look a little bit different. We have things along those lines, but they're still in development at this time.
Eurogamer: Will we be able to develop romantic relationships with AI characters?
Colin Johanson: Ha. There are some [non-player characters] who might get romantically attached to your player. They may love your character so much they start following you around. We want to make really strong emotional bonds between you and the characters in the game world. That's really important to us. If you want to tell a great story you need to have compelling characters and great interaction with them. We've tried to make sure that element is there all the way through the game. You are going to have interactions with important NPCs and you'll develop relationships with them. And those relationships will change entirely based on choices you make when you're playing through your storyline.
Eurogamer: How long is our personal storyline - will it accompany us up to the top levels and beyond?
Colin Johanson: We're not talking too much about personal story at this point. The idea is that as you're playing through the game you always have a story step available to you. And we have a whole lot of varied endgame content available, so you can keep playing for as long as you like.
Eurogamer: Dynamic events are not instanced - other players can see their effect on the world?
Colin Johanson: That's right. They're out in our persistent game world where hundreds of players are together on the same map at the same time. These events are happening all over and are chaining and cascading and changing the game world as players play.
Eurogamer: They sound like they'll require a good group of players to complete. What happens when I log on and no one else is around?
Colin Johanson: We've developed a scaling system for our dynamic events that automatically detects the number of players who are actively participating and changes the difficulty of the event to match that.
If you're the only player in the map and you're the only one doing the event, the event will scale down so it is just difficult enough for you to play it.
Eurogamer: That's great, but I prefer to work on my own or with a small group of friends rather than in an unorganised swarm. If the event scales to compensate for tens of people, won't it become unachievable if they're a dishevelled mess?
Colin Johanson: One thing we've really tried to do is build a content type to encourage players to work together. What we've seen in testing is that even people who are solo players have these moments where they form an ad-hoc group. It's a bunch of solo players that end up playing together because of shared goals. Everybody gets rewarded equally for taking part so there's no reason not to help each other. These events are little community-building moments all over the game world. Even if you're not in a group you end up playing as if you are, because you're trying for the same goals.
We never punish you for having a player nearby. In traditional MMOs, other players can come up and steal your loot by doing more damage to the creature, causing the last hit. Or they can kill a target you're trying to get for your quest before you. In our game, we reward you for that. If another player helps you kill a creature, both of you get rewarded. If everybody participates in the event, everybody gets rewarded.
Eurogamer: This sounds like Warhammer Online's public quest system. Will the rewards of the change depending on the number of people participating in them?
Colin Johanson: It's really important to draw a large distinction between our events system and Warhammer Online's public quest system. When their public quests happen, it's a slice in time: it happens, it's really static, and it ends. Nothing in the world changes. You get a timer that counts down until the public quest happens again.
Our dynamic event system, when it ends, will dramatically change the world depending on the outcome of the event. That then cascades into other events that change the world around them. Nothing is ever static or stale. You never get a timer saying, "Three minutes until content runs again." You have content that is dynamically spreading across the map and changing, which is very different to what [WAR's] system did.
Eurogamer: That's a gutsy approach. Can the players handle the responsibility of shaping their own world?
Colin Johanson: We are trying to drastically change the game world based on the outcome of events. We aren't nervous about it. That's what players want. We've seen from our playtesting that this really works well. There are real consequences, the world feels alive. We want to create a situation where if an event changes the world, you can really see what it did. There will be towns full of merchants that you will defend in an event. If players don't show up to help, the entire town will get wiped out and be taken over by bad guys who will use it as a base and start operating in the area to attack other locations. Players will need to band together and take that location back.
Eurogamer: These dynamic events presumably need something to trigger them to start?
Colin Johanson: There are whole lot of ways our event system triggers. We've tried to vary it up. Some are on timers and randomly occur in the world at different points and chain from there. Some are hidden in remote parts of the world. These are driven by player interaction; you use something in the world that causes an event to happen. A great example is an Asura who is standing outside of a cave that has a tiny entrance that the Asura can't fit into. He tells you that there is a bunch of mushrooms growing inside the cave that he needs to get. And he'll turn you into a pig if you volunteer your help. And when you turn into a pig it triggers an event where you can sneak through the hole and start digging up all the mushrooms for him, and you have animals that are chasing you around and you can dodge them and use your pig skills. There are cool little hidden things like that all over the game world.
Eurogamer: Is there a lifetime to these dynamic events, a point at which they finish or reset?
Colin Johanson: They don't necessarily have an end. They're cyclical in nature, so as the events chain across the map they can be pushed back the other way, or the chain will alter and then come back around. It always feels like a natural chain where the course of events makes sense.
Eurogamer: You say players are fed up of levelling. Why, then, has Guild Wars 2 ditched the appealingly low 20-level cap of Guild Wars 1 and raised the ceiling to an unconfirmed height - possibly hundreds?
Colin Johanson: At this time we're not ready to discuss how many levels the game is going to have.
Eurogamer: Is it over a hundred?
Colin Johanson: I can't say that at this point.
One thing I will clarify is that players aren't bored of levelling, they're bored of the content you need to do to level. Most MMOs these days make you grind and do really repetitive, boring content over and over again. There are moments of fun, but then you're back swinging your sword over and over again, chasing around a moth or an ogre that's standing around in the world doing nothing. That's the part of the genre we think players are done with. We want to make something that's better than that.
Eurogamer: Can I cruise through Guild Wars 2 playing only my personal story?
Colin Johanson: The two parts of the questing system, the dynamic events and the personal story, really go hand in hand. The personal story has you travelling all over the world and along the way you encounter all of these events happening so you stop and participate. You can stop and play mini-games in cities, you can go participate in dungeons, you can go run off to PVP any time you want. The idea is you can do all of this different content to have a really varied gameplay experience.
Eurogamer: What sort of effect can players have on the world outside of dynamic events? Can PVP turf wars change areas?
Colin Johanson: The are part of a strong system and we're really proud of them. We'll look at ways to put it anywhere in the game that will make it stronger. We're not ready to talk about PVP at this time. But we will do in the future.
Eurogamer: Are dynamic events the endgame raids of Guild Wars 2?
Colin Johanson: There will be endgame content where you can play in maps filled with dynamic events. There will be endgame content that we're calling dungeons, and many of these are high-level raids. And we're not ready to talk about those yet either, but they're a large part of our end-game content. PVP is a huge part of it.
Every big city in the game will be filled with all sorts of mini-games that you can play. Those provide a lot of repeatable end-game content. Players can compete in bar brawls and shooting galleries and perpetual snowball fights, and all sorts of fun mini-games like that.
Eurogamer: Are there rewards for the mini-games?
Colin Johanson: The bragging rights is obviously a big one! If you knock somebody out in a bar brawl hopefully you'll get a couple of their teeth or something. We'll also be giving rewards that are on a scale equal to other things you get in the game world. We want to make sure that every type of content we have in the game feels rewarding: that you're getting something for spending your time doing it. This allows players to play the game their way. You won't feel left out for playing some content.
Eurogamer: How's the development cycle on Guild Wars 2 going?
Colin Johanson: It's going really well. We're playing the game together constantly. We've seen the event system. It's functional and works extremely well. The core concepts of how we thought it would work are all working and we're having a blast building dynamic events. And, more importantly, we're having a blast playing this game together.
Eurogamer: When are the public going to play?
Colin Johanson: I'll have to turn that to Chris but I don't think we're ready to reveal that right now.
NCsoft PR: We haven't officially announced that but...
Eurogamer: This year?
NCsoft PR: You guys will be the first to know when we finally make that decision.
Eurogamer: Will press play the game at E3?
Chris Lye: We have not confirmed that we're attending E3 at this point.
Eurogamer: Oh. Are you attending E3?
Chris Lye: Haven't confirmed if we... ha!
Guild Wars 2 is in development for PC. The MMO has no release date.