Guild Wars began as three people's big idea, an MMORPG to break the mould, and one that would feature no monthly subscription fees - something many of us predicted would certainly lead to an early demise, especially against such fierce opposition.
However, that couldn't be further from the truth, and developer ArenaNet continues to go from strength to strength, bulging to over 130 staff today.
Guild Wars has also grown, flaunting two standalone expansion packs - with a third in development - plus sales exceeding three million for the series. We also recently found out that a sequel was in development, Guild Wars 2, scheduled to start beta testing some time in 2008.
So, in an effort to fill our mind with wistful fantasies, Eurogamer copped hold of game designers Ben Miller and Eric Flannum for a little chat, to find out just what lay in store for us in Guild Wars 2.
Eurogamer: Guild Wars has shown tremendous resilience in the MMORPG market. And despite coming up against strong opposition from games such as World of Warcraft, it's continued to grow. What's been the key to its success?
Ben Miller: Guild Wars has been a very innovative game that entered into an area of online role-playing where there was no product filling the demand. And I think the customers rewarded innovation.
Guild Wars is very different from traditional MMOs, not only in its business model but in the way it plays. I think it's much more accessible to people; it allows you to jump in and enjoy it right away - you don't spend as much time preparing to have fun.
It's a game where you can be good at it based on your personal skill rather than having to spend 1000 hours levelling up in order to compete. And I think having no monthly fees has had a lot to do with it.
So I think all of these things came together and offered people a new online experience they never had before.
Eurogamer: ArenaNet started out a small team with a great idea. How much bigger are you now, and are you still after the same things?
Ben Miller: We are a lot bigger today, but I don't think our focus has changed.
We are about 130 people today, and have grown a lot in order to support the success of Guild Wars. But our company is not one that's working on lots of different projects; we're a company that focuses on Guild Wars, and the goal of everyone here is to make Guild Wars the best game that it can possibly be.
That means we play every other game out there and listen to our fans, as we figure out how to make the best game possible.
Eurogamer: Obviously your biggest new announcement is Guild Wars 2. Which of the first game's strong points do you want to carry over into it?
Ben Miller: We're not trying to make a different game that appeals to a different audience; we want Guild Wars 2 to be the game Guild Wars players want to play.
We've been working on Guild Wars now for quite a few years, and realised many of the directions we tried worked out really well, while some didn't work out the way we wanted them to. So now we have an opportunity to go back and redo some of those decisions, to really make the game Guild Wars could have been all along.
Guild Wars 2 is going to feel similar to people who liked Guild Wars.
People who loved Guild Wars because it had very interesting strategic combat, or because there were lots of decisions for players to make, like choosing your strategy before a mission; it wasn't just about levelling up.
Those people who loved Guild Wars for its competitive aspect. People who loved Guild Wars for the fact it's so easy to get into and didn't make you sit around waiting to form a party, but let you jump into an mission and even solo most of the content in the game. All of those people are going to love Guild Wars 2.
But at the same time we're making improvements to the game that are really going to make what we view as the ultimate Guild Wars experience. And hopefully people who liked Guild Wars will like Guild Wars 2 a whole lot more.
Eurogamer: You've mentioned that Guild Wars 2 will be more "persistent" than the first game, perhaps offering less instanced content. How is exactly is it all going to work?
Ben Miller: In Guild Wars everybody plays in the same world and you can play with anyone you meet who has the game; you never run into the problem where you play on a different server to someone and can't adventure with them.
But a downside is you might never meet people from a random pick-up group you once went adventuring with again, because the world is so enormous.
So in Guild Wars 2 we want to have a big "persistent world" where you're out running into other people as you play. You could be fighting a dragon attacking a tower for instance, and other players will choose to come to your aid, rather than having you shut off from other players in your own instance of the world. Although some elements of the game will remain instanced - like in Guild Wars - such as dungeons, because it's cool and natural for them to be.
But when the world becomes persistent like that, then obviously you don't want everybody in the same instance of the world. If you've got hundreds of thousands of people online, you don't want them all standing in the same valley and tripping over each other.
So Guild Wars 2 will have different "persistent worlds", different servers so to speak, where you can build up a reputation and run into the same people over and over, naturally making friends by bumping into and adventuring with other people.
But what we can do is unify them with our single unified database from Guild Wars, which will allow people to move from server to server, right across worlds.
So we can get all those strengths and yet keep the aspect of a single international game, where anybody can go to any server to play with or compete against anyone in the world.
I think that's an example of how we can take all the things that have made Guild Wars strong in the past and accentuate them by adding these new improvements and new technology in Guild Wars 2.
Eurogamer: Guild Wars was noted for its easy to achieve level cap, which hit a ceiling at 20. However, we've heard you mention that this new game might not have a level cap at all, or a very high one. What's the thinking behind this?
Ben Miller: We haven't announced the exact mechanic because it's still something we're trying to figure out, but let me talk about the philosophy of why we'll have either a very high level cap or none at all.
In Guild Wars we had a level cap that was intentionally very low, you actually hit it half way through experiencing the story in the game. We did that because we wanted to communicate very strongly it wasn't what the game was about; you didn't have to worry about levelling up, and there were lots and lots of things to do after you'd hit level 20.
So in Guild Wars you'd hit the level cap and still only have a small fraction of what was out there, then essentially keep on levelling up every time you earned 15,000 XP and got a new skill point. It was just the same except the level display didn't get any higher.
What we thought was level did two things for you. It's a very clear indicator of progress first of all, as you could have a character that had a bunch of skills and a cool title, but that didn't necessarily communicate to other people that your character had really accomplished something great - in a way that simply showing the higher number would.
Secondly and more importantly, level allows the game to change the way things feel over time. So when you're making character progress and accumulating attribute points, you eventually max-out one attribute line and move on to a completely new one, making your character and experiences feel different over time.
And what we thought was, could you get those benefits without turning it into a game that's all about time spent? Where anybody who's played for 1,000 hours is going to be a lot better than somebody who's played for just 100 hours
So we have a new system in Guild Wars 2 where everybody who gets into structured PvP will compete on a level playing field; given maximum level and access to all the skills in the game.
We'll also have unstructured PvP, where you'll play as your developed character with their abilities and not be given maximum level and access to all the skills.
We're introducing a sidekick system too, which you may have experienced before in City of Heroes. So that if I log on and want to play with a friend, I can do what my friends can do, regardless of our levels. It doesn't mean I can't play certain content because I'm not a high enough level yet
We've been asked the question a lot by players; whether new expansions or campaigns will raise the level cap of Guild Wars. And we have to say no, because that's not the game - the game is all about having the level 20 cap. So what we're doing with Guild Wars 2 is letting people have that fundamental feeling of progression, without being all about how much time you've spent on your character.
Eurogamer: A really strong point of the first game were its storylines. How important will they be this time around, and will events revolve around them once more?
Ben Miller: Well in Guild Wars the game was very story-directed, the world was there to support the story. This gave us the really cool ability to tell a story in a way no other MMO could, by having the instanced world really change in response to it, and that's something we definitely want to keep in Guild Wars 2.
But in Guild Wars we had players who got on a track where the whole purpose of moving forward was to complete the story, and a lot of times the world ended up feeling less like a world and more like a backdrop as players raced as fast as they could through the story.
We want to make Guild Wars 2 feel like you can really have a lot of free-form exploration and discover a lot of things off of the beaten path; really direct your own experience - just hanging out and having fun in the world in addition to following your way through the story.
There will also be no more paving barriers you can't get across. We really want players to explore the world and discover really interesting story elements to immerse themselves in. To discover things at their own pace before moving on to explore another area.
Eurogamer: In the first game you had the option of filling your group with NPC henchmen if you had gaps in your line-up or simply didn't want to wait for real life players to fill your party. How will this work in Guild Wars 2, will we see the return of the henchmen?
Erik Flannum: That was obviously one of the very strong things in Guild Wars, our henchmen and later our heroes. But one of the side effects we've seen with that is, because of the way those characters worked, in some ways it discouraged you from grouping with other players.
So one of the things we're planning on doing is developing a companion system, where every character of every class has - if they want it - a companion they can develop, much like our Heroes. However, these companions don't take up a party slot, they're assumed to be a part of your character. These will allow you to potentially fill in weaknesses that your character may have.
For example, you might have a character who's a mage-type that doesn't have a lot of armour and doesn't want people to get up and really smack him. So he might take the companion that's a very heavily armoured "tank" character, which will allow him to more effectively solo. But it will still allow the mage to feel like he's got that vulnerable low armour thing going on at the same time.
We're also going to offer some sort of buff for players who prefer not to deal with companions, which will make up for the loss of power in not having a companion with them.
Eurogamer: Guild Wars only featured one race, the humans, and steadily added more playable classes to the original line-up. What sort of choice will we have in Guild Wars 2?
Erik Flannum: Right now we've got five races announced, and we're not saying exactly how many, but that's not the total amount that we'll have, we're going to have more in the future.
We want races to really have a pretty big impact on the way characters play. For example, the Norns, who are the big, burly, half-giant Viking guys from up in the North, all have the ability to shape-shift into a were-bear form; giving them more health and making them stronger, that sort of thing.
So a Norn warrior is going to have this were-bear ability, while a Human warrior will have a completely different ability just as significant - though we're still throwing around exactly what it will be.
So people who like playing as warriors are going to get a lot of variety out of choosing whether they want to be a Norn, an Asura, or Human warrior - as those are all going to feel very different.
Eurogamer: Will we be able to multi-class like we can in the current game?
Erik Flannum: Yes. Our current plan is to include the primary and secondary professions that we had in the first game.
We're still looking at various systems as far as how many classes we're going to have, which ones we keep around from the old game and how many new ones we want. So we're still trying to work out the particulars, but I think it's pretty safe to say we'll have the primary and secondary professions.
Eurogamer: Are there any features from other MMORPGs that you're looking to integrate into Guild Wars 2, such as player crafting, housing, mounts and so on?
Erik Flannum: We're definitely looking at all those things, but we haven't announced any of that yet.
Eurogamer: We're moving into a new era for PC gaming, with DirectX 10 and Windows Vista fresh off of the press. How much difference will these make to Guild Wars 2?
Ben Miller: You can expect that Guild Wars 2 is going to be an art-style that people love from the first game, but with very upgraded graphical abilities. We are rewriting portions of the engine in order to provide much greater detail in Guild Wars 2 than you saw in Guild Wars.
Eurogamer: Do you think that's something you might be able to achieve on console in future? Or are you going to stay on PC?
Ben Miller: We are focused on PCs right now. I think consoles remain an interesting opportunity for Guild Wars in the future, but that's not something we've announced any plans for at this time.
Eurogamer: How do you think Guild Wars 2 will stand out against behemoths like World of Warcraft?
Ben Miller: Obviously it stands out by having no monthly fees. But beyond that I think Guild Wars is a different kind of game that appeals to some people those other games don't.
We really focus a lot in Guild Wars about just being able to get the player right into the action. A lot of the people who get turned off by the more traditional MMOs really enjoy the fact in Guild Wars that if you have just half an hour at lunch time to sit down and play a game, you can actually really accomplish something, and that's not always the case in other games.
And I think finally, Guild Wars really shines from its competitive aspect, which I think isn't something you see in other games. We have tournaments regularly where people come and they win US$ 100,000 in cash prizes. In what other role-playing game do you see people actually playing the game competitively as a sport?
Eurogamer: Guild Wars has been supported with lots of new expansion packs, perhaps to make up for the lack of subscription fees. Is this something you want to continue to do in Guild Wars 2?
Ben Miller: The Guild Wars business model has worked really, really well for us. We're blown away by the success of the first game. We were three guys with an idea and now we're a 130 person company supporting one of the biggest online role-playing games in the market.
We're certainly not going to turn our back on the business model that got us here. It was really refreshing for players and carved out a niche in the market that is completely unsatisfied by any other games. I think you'll see us do a lot of similar things with Guild Wars 2.
You've seen that with Eye of the North we're focusing on expansion instead of a campaign. The difference being that an expansion really focusses on making the best possible content for the existing player base, instead of making something to get a lot of new players in to the game.
Expansions are really an exciting tweaking direction for us, so that we don't have to keep reinventing the tutorials, low-level content, and new professions to get people into the game. I think what players of Guild Wars really want is to take their existing character that they've worked so hard on and love, and to have lots of new things to do with them.
So Eye of the North will be much more targeted toward our existing fan base and what those people want.
Whether that means Guild Wars 2 will have expansions, or the same kind of release cycle as Guild Wars, or mini-expansions on a more frequent cycle - I don't know the exact answer. But I think we have time here to really find out what works best for the game and for the community.
But the fundamental business model is not going to change. You buy the game once, you can play it for as long as you want. And the new content we introduce in the future you can choose to buy or not to buy.
I view us as the company that puts our money where our mouth is. We think that we'll produce such compelling content and such compelling expansion packs that players will want to buy them, but we won't force them to. If players are happy with what they have, then they can just keep playing the game in that way for as long as they like. That's been a great strength with Guild Wars, and of course we're going to carry that through into Guild Wars 2.
Guild Wars 2 is due to enter beta testing in 2008. Guild Wars: Eye of the North is due for release in quarter three of 2007. Head over to the Guild Wars website for more information.