Guild Wars Factions

Jeff Strain on the next instalment in the MMO series.

It's not unusual to hear a developer claim that their latest game will "raise the bar." Or, for that matter, push the envelope, move the goalposts, set a new standard or redefine the first-person shooter / action adventure / Barbie on a horse genre forever.

So we shouldn't be surprised to hear ArenaNet co-founder Jeff Strain use those very words about forthcoming MMORPG Guild Wars Factions. But we are, because we've been listening to Strain speak for some minutes now, and our general impression is that he's not just here to try and sell us his game simply by chucking out a load of clichés about how it's the best thing in the world ever.

He is here to sell us his game, of course - that's what press events are for - but, as becomes even clearer when the presentation's over and we sit down with Strain for a chat, here's a man who knows a lot about his subject, is keen to talk honestly about it, and isn't afraid to answer difficult questions.

Which certainly makes a change as far as we're concerned, and makes it a lot easier to ask tricky questions - one of which revolves around the very nature of Guild Wars Factions.

It's been nearly a year since the original Guild Wars (now retitled Guild Wars Prophecies) hit the shelves, and since then more than a million players have signed up. Many of them have likely been attracted by the innovative gameplay, which puts less emphasis on levelling up and more on team-based battles, and the fact that there's no monthly subscription fee - possibly even in that order.

Now, here comes Guild Wars Factions, which is billed as a standalone game or "campaign" in that you don't need to own Prophecies to play it. And this is only the beginning - we're told that ArenaNet plans to release future campaigns every six months. A whole new game every 180 days? Really, Mr Strain, are you quite sure this isn't just the first of many glorified expansion packs that you're asking people to pay full whack for?

Campaign strategy

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Just one of the many new locations you'll get to explore in Guild Wars Factions.

Yep. "We're comfortable with the fact that it's a new game," Strain says.

"There are two metrics to look at. One is obviously just the scope and scale of the content - just how much new content is there to play with? And more importantly, are you doing something different? Is it a new game?

"Well, from my standpoint, there's a lot about Guild Wars Factions that is very similar and familiar, but fundamentally, the play experience is going to be very different than it was in the original... We're really focused on introducing new ways to play the game, and the total amount of content is about the same as in the original Guild Wars.

"But I don't want to shy away from your question; I think it's a valid question," Strain continues.

"There are those people who will say, 'Well, if it was really a new game, you'd be calling it Guild Wars 2.' I can understand that, but our perspective on this is: Look, we're giving you more content, we're giving you totally new ways to play the game and we have never charged you a monthly subscription fee for an online, vast, virtual world game.

"If you want to get down and start talking about the brass tacks of value, there's nobody who can touch us. So that's not an argument that we're particularly shying away from or worried about."

As for the whole six month schedule issue - Strain explains that there are several different teams working in parallel on different games, "So each of these new campaigns has an entire year of development, from a full development team, and they're released on staggered six month cycles."

Factions, it seems, has been in development since the day the original Guild Wars hit the shops - and more excitingly, "Campaign III has been in development since about November of last year." Unsurprisingly Strain won't reveal any details of Campaign III, but he does inform us that it's "already far, far down the pipe."

A whole new world

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The jade sea in all its glory - not much fun for surfers though.

Having had the chance to go hands on with Guild Wars Factions, we can't deny that there certainly is plenty of new content to be going on with. There's a whole new continent, for starters: Cantha, which is far to the south of GWP's Tyria.

In designing Cantha, the developers took their inspiration from Asian cultures - hence locations such as the Shing Jea Monastery and Wajin Bazaar, and the proliferation of red paper lanterns and pagoda-style architecture.

But the most impressive location we got to see was the jade sea. According to GWF legend, some two centuries ago the Emperor of Cantha was murdered by his favourite bodyguard, who was later executed for his crime. His final death cry was so powerful that it turned the forest to stone and the sea to jade - leaving the local inhabitants, who previously made their living from the ocean, to find new means of survival.

Hence some Canthans began to build their houses on the backs of giant snails and tortoises, using them to traverse the jade sea. As you roam around you can see glimpses of what once was - whales, dolphins and even entire ships are visible frozen within the solid jade waves.

Despite their trials and tribulations, the Canthans are still going strong - for the most part, anyway. It seems the continent's inhabitants have divided into two factions (do you see): the Kurzicks and the Luxans. You, and your guild, will have the option to become aligned with either side. For the first time, guilds can form alliances, too, and you'll be able to visit each others' guild halls and communicate using a new alliance chat feature.

Allied territory

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Teamwork is key in Factions, just as in the original game - though really big weapons are important too.

It all ties in with Factions' new Alliance missions, which are all about the battle for the border between Canthan and Luxan territory. By taking part in an alliance mission, you will team up with others in a bid to control resource nodes, earn Faction points and generally fight it out in large scale PvP battles. These determine who controls the cities, where the border lies, and which faction has the upper hand - with battle lines changing in real time.

The Alliance missions are one of five new mission types you'll find in Guild Wars Factions. First up there are the Elite missions, which offer a serious challenge for role-playing characters - but reward comes in the form of some seriously valuable loot.

Co-op missions will see multiple teams joining together to complete objectives, while Competitive missions, Strain explains, "Play like a real-time strategy game - resource nodes, supply lines, trying to take strategic points around the map... [It's] kind of separate from the Factions features." The competitive missions, he says, are in there "just because there's a lot of demand for it, because it's cool and because it's fun."

And finally, Challenge missions are all about earning high scores for display on the GW leaderboard. In one such mission, for example, you're tasked with keeping a group of villagers who are under attack alive - the longer they stay breathing, the more points you score.

Character building

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An assassin practices his ninja-style skills.

Guild Wars Factions also introduces two new character classes - the Ritualist and the Assassin. The former has been given a Native American look, complete with beads and leather fringing, and wears a helmet covering their eyes at all times. Luckily they don't spend the whole time bumping into things, though, since they see using spirit vision. The Ritualist's special skills include summoning spirits to help out in battle, and the ability to resurrect other characters at a sacrifice of half their health.

Then there's the Assassin, a much cooler looking ninja-type who can wield two weapons at once and zoom about the place at super-fast speeds. Assassins' general nimbleness also enables them to dodge attacks with greater ease.

The six core professions will also feature in Factions, but they'll all have new looks and skills. In fact, there are more than 300 new skills in GWF - 75 each for the ritualist and assassin, with the other 150 or so split between the other six professions. They're all likely to come in very handy since the game also features more than 100 new enemies.

So what with all the new environments, mission types and characters, you can't deny that there's a lot more to Guild Wars Factions than you'd expect from a typical expansion pack. It's also good to know that you don't need to own the previous game, and that there are no plans whatsoever to introduce any kind of subscription fee - an example which Strain believes other MMO publishers are likely to follow.

He says that years ago, when EverQuest and the like first emerged on the scene, "All the major publishers thought subscription fee gaming was the way of the future" - but now, "They're taking a step back and saying, 'Can we continue to get away with this?'"

The thing is, Strain says, gamers might be prepared to pay one monthly subscription fee, but they won't be up for paying five - which doesn't bode well for new franchises. "This industry relies on passionate gamers trying new things out."

In from the cold

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Factions features slum areas as well as pretty bits. Looks sort of like an Ewok shanty town, doesn't it?.

Trying new things out is something Strain knows a lot about. After all, it was he who started the World of Warcraft project when he was at Blizzard, only to leave and co-found his own company so that he could explore new ideas.

Strain believes that with WOW, Blizzard took the best elements of MMOs that had come before and bundled them all together - rather than producing a truly original game.

"There's nothing really innovative or ground-breaking in World of Warcraft, but it's perfectly executed. We thought it was time to take that technology and do cool new things with it," he says.

While we're on the subject of WOW, what does Strain think of the recent 'gay guilds' controversy?

Well, he reckons it was simply a case of a couple of GMs being misguided, and Blizzard failing to analyse the situation correctly. As for ArenaNet's policy on the subject: "Guild Wars is open to everyone as long as they don't break the terms and conditions" - which, Strain says, are there to protect players from abuse, rather than force them into hiding. "Hey, everyone's welcome; if you're in an LGB guild, more power to you..."

Platform jumping

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Why do we get the feeling this tree-man-thing isn't as friendly as the one in Lord of the Rings?

That's enough politics for now - let's talk about the future of Guild Wars, namely the possibility of seeing it on consoles. Strain says there are two issues here. First off, there's the fact that console games are generally static; you buy the game, you put it in the disc tray, and that's your lot.

Guild Wars, on the other hand, is being constantly updated, thanks to ArenaNet's streaming technology. Strain's glad to see that there's a hard drive option for the Xbox 360, but all the same: "For us, when you buy [the game], that's just the beginning of our relationship with you - and we want a direct connection with our customer so that we're always giving you new content, always supporting you directly.

"Xbox Live just wasn't really built, from a business standpoint, to support that... Their whole goal is to encourage people to go and buy games on the shelf, then there's an online component for it."

There's also the question of how many console gamers are up for playing online anyway. "Right now, for online games, it's all about PC. That's where the online gamers really are," Strain says.

"If that changes, though, then we're ready. All of our technology is developed in an engine-agnostic format; we can very quickly plug in the client component for different platforms. Certainly, all the back-end technology, the server technology, doesn't care what the host platform is at all, so we could very easily do versions of our games that inter-operate across different platforms."

All in all, it sounds that Strain is optimistic when it comes to the possibility of Guild Wars on console: "There need to be some changes in the business model, and we're keeping an eye on the technology - but we love console games, and I'd love to see Guild Wars on an Xbox or a PlayStation 3."

Wishful thinking

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Here be dragons! Well, one dragon. There are probably dungeons somewhere too.

So what with Factions nearly here, a whole host of future campaigns already in the planning stage and next-gen console Guild Wars a possibility, the future's looking bright for ArenaNet and GW fans alike.

But we reckon Strain has a secret hope for the future. Does he ever wish that one day, maybe - just maybe - he'll make it through an entire interview without anyone mentioning World of Warcraft?

"You know, I'm from Blizzard, and I worked there for many, many years... I'm very fond of those guys, and I'm very proud of them for what they've pulled off. It's a beautiful game, and I very much respect it... And I'm not answering your question," Strain says with a chuckle.

"It's been interesting for us to see. I do believe that the success of World of Warcraft is a case of "the tide rises and all boats float". I believe that it's been a positive for the entire online game industry.

"So I don't ever necessarily want to have to do one of these and not hear it mentioned. I guess what I would say is that our goal is to make sure that they never get to do an interview and not have Guild Wars mentioned."

We'll bear that in mind.

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