Since the game's announcement in 2007, NCsoft's Seattle-based developer ArenaNet has been quiet about what's been going on behind its doors with Guild Wars 2. With today's trailer, we get our first glimpse of the developer's re-imagining of this phenomenally popular online RPG. A lot has changed, but the developer's vision remains true to what made Guild Wars such a refreshing experience in the first place: accessibility, flexibility and incomparable value for money.
Guild Wars: Prophecies was a shot in the arm for the MMO market at the time of its release in 2005. It married a flexible, story-heavy, varied and hugely enjoyable campaign with a revolutionary player-versus-player system that has since grown to be one of the most fiercely competitive in the world, and it didn't force its players to pay a monthly sum for the privilege. Instead, two subsequent campaigns and an expansion pack were what drove the series' revenues, and there are no plans to dispense with the "pay once, play forever" business model. Once you've paid for Guild Wars 2, you'll be able to play it for as long as you like.
Set 250 years after the last Guild Wars campaign, Guild Wars 2 thrusts you back into a Tyria that's been taken over by big, bad Elder Dragons and their undead armies. The game's five races have been pushed back into their own territories, and the player's role will be to unite them in the struggle to reclaim the continent. Good news about the dragons, too - we definitely get to fight them. "Primarily the game will focus on one in particular," says designer and writer Ree Soesbee, "but the others are present in the world. Their activities will be have an impact on Tyria, and players will have the opportunity to experience the real danger that all of these creatures present."
Guild Wars 2's switch from an almost entirely instanced game-world, where you would adventure with only your party members, to a persistent, fully-populated one like those in more conventional MMOs, is the driving force behind most of the changes in the gameplay. The quest system, for instance, has been completely overhauled, and will offer something quite different from its competitors. "I think I can safely say that you won't see a single exclamation mark floating above a character's head in Guild Wars 2," claims lead designer Eric Flannum.
"We actually don't have a traditional RPG/MMO quest system," Flannum continues. "Instead what we've got are Events. Think of them as group-orientated activities. This is one of the many things that will encourage the player to explore the world - you can wander through and never quite know what you're going to see. You might come across a fortress that's being attacked by centaurs, or it might be that the centaurs attacked half an hour before you got there and they hold it now. You might start walking along a road you've walked a hundred times and suddenly there's a caravan travelling along that road that you may not have seen, and you can go help that caravan out."
These are bold claims for a persistent-world MMO. Guild Wars' heavy use of instancing made setting up dramatic storytelling much easier, but how is that narrative strength going to carry over to the sequel? "While our game is persistent, one of the things we learned from heavily instancing GW1 was how to really use instancing to our advantage," says Flannum. "The story will take place through a combination of instancing and persistent areas. We're really throwing our entire bag of tricks at the storytelling in GW2. I think we're going to be doing some things, especially with narrative, that people haven't seen before in an MMO."
There's also an attempt to introduce more variety into how the players can interact with this new, living world - and not just the welcome addition of a jump. To say that Guild Wars was combat-focussed would be something of an understatement; the absence of crafting and non-combat professions meant that there wasn't a whole lot else for players to take up on a whim if they felt like it.
"We're definitely introducing crafting, as well as a few other things that are going to provide players with other things to do," assures Flannum, although he can't say what those other things are. "I don't want to say it'd take the focus off combat, but it's definitely not going to be the case that the only way to interact with someone in Guild Wars 2 is to hit them on the head with a sword."
Guild Wars 2 will also still be fully soloable. As with the Heroes in Guild Wars Nightfall, players will be able to use their own customisable companion as a henchman to help them through the game, and will receive buffs if they decline to use this option. "We can't fully explain the companions system yet, but we can say that the game will be soloable," says studio head Mike O'Brien. "This goes back to that accessibility issue - we want players to be able to pick up the game and play it in the style that they want to play it. If they want to solo, we want to enable that... if they want to play with a group of specific people, we want to enable that as well."
Guild Wars 2 is attempting to show us a lot that we haven't see before, but as the trailer demonstrates, Tyria looks rather familiar - we've seen a lot of the trailer's environments in Guild Wars 1. "Whilst we're indeed trying to improve the visual quality of the game, we do plan on maintaining the sensibility that made the first game what it was," says art director Daniel Dociu.
"What differentiates Guild Wars 2 is the more stylised approach to a lot of the aspects of the texture work, grander spaces, more epic environments - all these enhancements go hand-in-hand with advancements on the engine front, so we are trying to parallel the advancements on the tech front with steps forward artistically... But there will be continuity, definitely," Dociu says.
There are significant new areas, of course: most excitingly, the prospect of exploring an underwater continent. Flannum claims that there will be "a lot" of underwater exploration, and it will be possible for all races and players. "It's going to be really easy and accessible for players to go underwater. In a lot of other games you see the underwater environment as this really hostile environment where you have to worry about running out of air constantly and you're always on the verge of dying, and that tends to make the area less fun. We really want to emphasise the fun, the differences, the change of pace of going underwater, to encourage that exploration."
Players are still going to be able to have multiple characters on one account, and though the professions system is still shrouded in secrecy, ArenaNet has been willing to share a few details about what differentiates character types. Instead of the original's one, obscenely beautiful race of humans, customisable through the player's choice of professions and skills, Guild Wars 2 offers five races.
We know four of them from the Eye of the North expansion: Humans, their eternal enemies the Charr (whom Guild Wars 1 players will have spent an awful lot of time clubbing over the head), northern warriors the Norn, and the magical Asura. The last race, the Sylvari, an earth-magic race with a strong connection to nature, is new to all of us. ArenaNet can't tell us exactly what each race's special skills will entail at this stage, but we already know that the nine-foot Norn can transform into a bear for a huge boost in combat, and that the crafty, technologically-minded Asura will be able to use golems to fight for them.
"There's going to be a slightly different story for each race," says Soesbee. "To start off, everyone knows that there is this great threat, but at the beginning the races are operating on their own, they don't understand that the threat is so great that they simply must come together... It's going to take the player character being a hero to get these races to overcome their pasts: the humans who hate the Charr, the Asura who are naturally sceptical about every other race, who think they're better, the Sylvari who are young and new and don't understand the nature of the world, and the Norn who are just naturally independent. Someone has to bring them together, and that someone is the player character."
Despite their differences, we won't be fighting players of other races. "Competition has always been consensual in Guild Wars, and we've retained that as one of our core tenets. It also goes along with accessibility and being able to play with your friends," says Flannum. "We looked into dividing the races early on, and we decided against that, specifically because we want you to be able to play the race that you want and also be able to play with your friends. We didn't want to fracture our player base by having a good-versus-evil vibe going on between the players themselves."
However, player-versus-player has always been hugely important to Guild Wars - guilds regularly compete for thousands in cash prizes - and ArenaNet is obviously keen to keep the attention of its hardcore players, offering the same jump-right-in PvP system where everyone has access to the same skills and equipment, and success is determined by strategy. "We wanted to give our competitive players, who were a really important part of our GW1 audience, what they want," says Flannum. "Those people don't want to lose to someone who's just played more time than them. They want access to all the same skills as the other person, and they want it to be their skill in making and executing a character build to be what wins them the day."
In addition, there's also a new World PvP system, which lets you use your PvE character and equipment to play against other people on a more open battlefield, the Mists. "It's very casual PvP where you can gain levels and have ten-on-one fights or 100-on-20 fights or whatever, where everything flows naturally on the battlefield and there's no limits to how many players can be involved," elaborates Flannum, though the team can't go into specifics about exactly how players will gain access to the Mists.
Splitting the PvP into two modes, Flannum believes, is the best way to accommodate the broadest possible range of players. "We gained a lot of experience with a lot of different types of PvP from GW1, and we grew to recognise that there were really hardcore PvP players, but there were also people who wanted that more casual, in-world type of PvP. And so we decided to give both groups what they want."
It's clear that lessons have been learned from the first game, and that goes for the professions and skills too, although ArenaNet can't tell us specifics about how they will work. "I think that we allowed GW1 to get too complex, and with GW2 we have a new opportunity to make it a game that's easy to get into but which has the depth of mechanics that keeps people interested over a long time," says O'Brien.
"To give a simple example, we eventually had 1200 skills in the game. And I think that through adding three campaigns and an expansion and having ten professions and the number of skills that it did, Guild Wars grew unwieldy. We've come to realise, through developing Guild Wars, that what makes it such a fantastic game is not quantity - it's quality. This time around I think that we can really focus on the parts of the game we want to focus on, make a clean break, make sure that it stays true to the original intentions of Guild Wars, and make it the game that we always wanted it to be."
As for whether it's the game that Guild Wars players will want it to be, O'Brien is confident. "Guild Wars was a very unique game. It takes a different approach to role-playing. Looking at our competitors, it has its genesis in the Magic the Gathering tradition rather than a straight Dungeons and Dragons tradition, and I think players really appreciate that breadth. Because it was so different, I think we got a lot right, but we also got stuff wrong. Guild Wars 2 is the ultimate game for Guild Wars players."
Guild Wars 2 won't be going into beta testing until much nearer its release; ArenaNet is keen to conduct most of the testing within its own, fast-growing team. The trailer, though, and the team's enthusiasm, have redirected our attention to this potentially landmark sequel after two years of silence. If it retains the accessible values of its predecessor across a bigger, persistent, more interactive world - without forcing us to pay a monthly fee for the privilege - it could really shake things up for MMOs.