Guild Wars 2 game director Colin Johanson reflects on the game's shaky launch, and tells Dave Cook about ArenaNet's big plans for Tyria throughout the year ahead.
At midnight on August 28th 2012, Washington-based game developer ArenaNet opened the floodgates after years of Guild Wars 2 development, excitement and hype, officially declaring Tyria 2.0 open for business. The influx was too great, the rush too hasty, and one by one the cracks started to appear.
"There are times where I'm envious of developers who get to make offline games that don't have to deal with these kind of issues, it's insane how complicated it is", ArenaNet's game director Colin Johanson told me.
He's referring to a string of server overflow issues, Black Lion Trading post exploits and connection problems that plagued Guild Wars 2 at launch. It's a shame that these stumbles became marquee headlines across the gaming press, because as anyone steeped in the industry knows, MMOs are colossal projects that are by their very nature prone to frayed ends. All things considered, the launch could have gone much, much worse.
We're now just over five months on from Guild Wars 2's launch and ArenaNet has its ship firmly back on course, after shifting over 3 million copies since release, and launching a few world events so far.
There's also been a steady string of updates that keep Tyria in check, because being an MMO, there is never room for complacency. In many ways the job of Johanson's team is only just beginning.
"I think the biggest area we'll be looking at building on in 2013 is really solidifying the core game and living world we've created," Johanson explained. "We're going to add more variety and diversity to the existing world, so there is even more of a sense of discovery and mystery in every corner.
"We're going to expand on the concept of living story lines in the game word, so there are events and narratives with a strong sense of finality and permanent world change."
Such is real life: if you don't keep up with the world, you fall behind. With MMOs, newcomers can feel intimidated when approaching a vast online space like Tyria later in its lifespan. Catering for players at both ends of the spectrum is something that ArenaNet sees as vital to its long-term appeal and survival.
This is something Johanson feels must run alongside the game's world events, such as The Lost Shores, a popular weekend-long event that saw some areas of Tyria changed permanently.
ArenaNet isn't done with these by a long shot, he teased, "You'll see a lot more of these events in 2013. The concept in particular of building a living story that plays out across the game is something we're really excited about."
"We'll of course have festivals and special events as well", he added in reference to last year's Halloween and Wintersday celebrations, "but we want to expand the concept of what events can be to tell stronger narrative stories that drive the overall story of Guild Wars 2, and change the world forever as a result."
World events are one thing, but ArenaNet has made no secret that it's planning a full Guild Wars 2 expansion, the nature of which is currently shrouded in secrecy. Regardless I asked Johanson for details, "I can say we absolutely will have expansions in the future, however right now our major focus is on building upon the core living world and major game systems of Guild Wars 2. Thematically, we'll discuss expansion content a lot more once it's closer to being realised."
Defeated I asked Johanson about the increasing eSport nature of Guild Wars 2's updates and ArenaNet's own blog posts. It seems as if the studio has something brewing that may capitalise on the growing popularity of competitive titles such as Dota 2 and League of a Legends.
Surprisingly, Johanson didn't hold back. In fact, he confirmed that eSports is indeed a strong desire of the studio going into 2013 and beyond. "I think there really are two steps we need to accomplish here before we truly realise the possibility of Guild Wars 2 from a PvP perspective," he explained.
"The first one is ensuring the core PvP game and systems are strong enough to support a solid base of players who enjoy PvP from a more casual or progression standpoint. They're looking to have fun, be matched against players of similar skill, for it to be easy to get in and out of PvP games, and most importantly, feel like there is a strong sense of reward and progression for their time."
Once ArenaNet feels confident that it has this core nailed down, Johanson confirmed that the studio would then look at tackling the eSports world head-on, and that means catering to the needs of Tyria's more hardened players. It's going to be an open invitation brawl to all-comers, even if - as Johanson added - the smaller hardcore minority will be those that other players aspire to.
"We're actively working on building the core features required to make the eSports community shine," he confirmed, "while simultaneously building on everything required to expand our stale base community for PvP as well.
"Once all the major pieces are in place, you'll see us ramp up strongly on the PvP side of the game and expand our influence in the eSports sphere. This is a community that has really grown in the last decade or so, from the early days of StarCraft, to the massive communities now playing games like League of Legends.
"We know we need to have all of the components in place and really polished before we make our major push into that scene, but once we do we expect to carve out a territory as the strongest PvP game in the MMO market, and then build beyond that market from there."
I close in asking Johanson that ever-burning of MMO questions: "Will we ever see the game on console?" Oddly, he didn't say no, but warned that it's a task - for any developer - fraught with a sea of prevalent issues that need tackled first, and offered insight into ArenaNet's own investigation into the concept of Guild Wars 2 on consoles.
"We've had a team do preliminary investigations into console development in the past," he confirmed, "but at this time were 100% focused on developing and making Guild Wars 2 the best possible game we can do on PC. As for major MMOs on consoles, I think the challenges are enormous but the possibilities are really exciting.
"A few games have dabbled in this area, but I'm not sure anyone has been a smash success in bringing the console to the console space. These games are absolutely huge, so you're looking at how to handle install size, texture and rendering issues, and performance issues based on the limitations of the specific console OS.
"On top of this you have to deal with monetization and bandwidth contracts, issues with the console developer, questions on how you handle and publish constant releases and updates to your game, in a game space that rarely has large patches, and so much more.
"All of that is just logistics, never mind all of the gameplay issues that come with converting games [that are] typically extremely deep and complicated with numerous menus, skills, skill bars, and figuring out how to simplify them down to operate on a controller.
"It's a big challenge, and I wish anyone who takes it on the best of luck."
So probably not then.
You can also check out my three-part blog - 'Guild Wars 2: A Noob's Journey' - in which I break my MMO virginity and make a real effort to understand and enjoy what the game has to offer.