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Social Game, not Social Life? ArenaNet on Guild Wars and the “Casual” MMORPG


March 30, 2005
 

With the massive success of World Of WarCraft, many of those in the MMO space may be trying to emulate the extremely detailed, in-depth game world of Blizzard's smash hit. However, this certainly isn't the case for the ex-Blizzard staff at ArenaNet, who are now owned by Korean-headquartered MMO giant NCSoft.

Philosophically, despite all the trappings of the fantasy RPG, Guild Wars is on an entirely different pole from the traditional massively-multiplayer online game. First off, it features no traditional subscription fee, with the initial purchase providing unlimited access and further investment rendered optional in the form of bi-annual add-on packs.

Secondly, once past a certain point, your character growth is not delineated by greater stats but a greater flexibility in their combat tactics more akin to Magic the Gathering than the direct contest of statistical attributes commonplace in most RPGs, thereby eliminating, at least to some extent, level grinding. Thirdly… well, the list continues.

But what are the circumstances under which this alternate view of MMOs has appeared? In 1999, Blizzard had shipped StarCraft: Brood War, but for Michael O'Brien, Patrick Wyatt and Jeff Strain, it was time for something new. Michael O'Brien was working on Heroes of WarCraft, the role-playing strategy game which eventually transmuted into the more traditional WarCraft III. Patrick Wyatt was ruling over Battle.net. Jeff Strain was working on a little something called the World of WarCraft, which at that point was trying to take the Massively-Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) concept and push it more towards a strategy game. By 2000, they turned from being Blizzard employees to Blizzard alumni, founding their own company to create a new, more “casual” MMOG: Guild Wars.

As Guild Wars makes its way through its last few tests before release, Gamasutra had the chance to probe ArenaNet's vision of the MMOGs' future and failings with producer Jeff Strain, and explore that fine line between social gaming and social life.

Gamasutra: What was the nucleus around which ArenaNet formed?


Jeff Strain

Jeff Strain: We felt like the MMOG had become stale. It dragged not only in technology, but in game design. It was stuck in the EverQuest or Ultima Online template that's, to this day, copied without a whole load of innovation.

GS: Some might claim that this paradigm is all the genre can be.

JS: If I told you “3D game” in the mid-90s, you'd have thought of a first-person shooter, because then most 3D games were first-person shooters. In other words, the technology implied the game design. It took several years of that technology maturing for people to start branching out and doing different things. We thought, at the time, MMOGs were in that same area. Look at all the other stuff we could be doing, and all these problems with the core design we could solve.

What we all realized was that if we wanted to pull this off, we had to make some bold decisions, take some risks in our design, try and define a genre and start from ground zero. Our goal was to make an MMOG which had a lot of the cool aspects of role-playing games in terms of character progression, but was predominantly a game of skill.

GS: Which is so rare in the genre. I was recently talking to an MMOG designer who argued that Planetside was the only MMOG which people play for the actual experience rather that sense of slow growth and progression.

JS: Yes. That's true.

GS: But oddly enough, that's the game which a lot of people actually said was actually fundamentally repetitive. To me, it seems that you're philosophically trying to draw these two things together – development and experience. Why do you think there's something interesting for gamers there?

JS: I think there's different types of rewards. You either reward them for time – that is, investment. The RPG reward. Alternatively, you reward them for their skill, which is the strategy game reward. Some companies reward people for money. There's some companies online which will power-level for you, which is just a conversion of money for time. I think that games that reward time, and particularly games that reward extreme amounts of time, appeal to a fairly narrow subset of the overall population. I think people appreciate a game where they feel their skill as a gamer and the choices that they're making are actually making the difference. I think that appeals to a lot broader group.


Guild Wars shows some startling pretty art at times

GS: I often think that addiction is different to enjoyment. There are games that are deeply compulsive, but when you look at your emotional reactions… well, they're relatively flat. A lot of MMOGs, perhaps even most, seem to fall into that category.

JS: You'll often hear us say that Guild Wars is a game without the grind. However, if you want to spend 100 hours trying to get a specific upgrade for an item, like a dragon-tooth hilt and a wyvern skill scabbard for your sword, that's fine. You have a specific goal in mind, and you want that item. What's not fine is “at level 20 I can access this dungeon, and at level 30 I can access that dungeon and there's a 1000 hours between them”. Obviously, the goals are shorter than that, or you just wouldn't do it… but we very much differentiate types of time sinks. And that differentiation is if it's for fun, or whether it's to arbitrarily take and stretch the 70 hours of content you have for game and stretch it over a thousand hours. Is it for fun or is it to try and get people addicted, so that you can collect another month of subscription fees?

You have to be able to make a judgement call. You look at the activities players are doing, and divide them into “People do that because it's fun” and “People do that because they have to”. Let's keep the stuff that's fun.

GS: So did the idea of the pricing model come from the game design, or the game design come from the pricing model? The idea that you're paying for more content and extra stuff to do, rather than simply being there seems to flow naturally from your design priorities.

JS: It was very conscious. Probably the reality is that we sat down and said “This game will not provide a subscription fee. Period.” That was statement number one. I would say that the design came out of that, rather than the pricing model came out of the design. What it comes down to is that we don't have to try and find ways to keep you playing. It's perfectly fun to have 70 hours of content which takes 70 hours to play through. If you buy the game, play it for 70 hours, have a rip-roaring time, put it down and then six months later when the next chapter comes out and you want to come back and experience that… well, that's great. That's fine for us.

It means you don't have to feel guilty to be paying a subscription fee and be not actively playing the game. Another comparison is that Harry Potter books. They come out every two years, and it's enjoyable when another one comes out, but it's not as if you've been reading Harry Potter for the entire time between books. Here's something I enjoy. I'm going to extract the fun out of it, and then I'll do something else until the next one comes out… and I'll have fun with that too.

GS: I'd imagine the server population will fluctuate around the packs… but I don't think it actively matters, does it? With the game linking up opponents in Player Versus Player modes and having hub areas to gather a party before moving to instanced areas for the actual quests, a small population won't get diffused over a large area. It doesn't appear as reliant on mass dynamics as the traditional approach.

JS: We channel communities into common areas, so there's always people to play with. We also talk a lot about mission flow, in that it's a lot better to have four 30-minute missions, rather than one 2-hour one, as you want people constantly cycling back to the public areas to have a chance to hook up with someone else. Having said that, I don't want to give the impression that we expect people to play through the content and stop playing. Obviously there's the phenomenal player-versus-player aspect which people will get into it. And even beyond that there's a stream of content from the live-team. They can very organically change the environment, not just adding another mission: a genuine 'change the world' type of quest.


A colorful combat scene from Guild Wars


GS:
It strikes me that the game's design pushes towards the two poles of online experience. On one hand, you've got something that's a lot more like a traditional single-player RPG with instanced quest missions which you experience in small groups. On the other hand, you have the player-versus-player section which is very much pure ritualized combat between groups of heroes, based on player skills. What you've done, however, is excise the middle ground.

JS: I think the rough metric, looking at our player population, is that about 50% will play both, 25% of them will play the player-versus-player and 25% the player-versus-environment. That means there's substantial numbers of people who are playing the game [because] they like that purity in one of those two areas.

GS: The criticism people have thrown at Guild Wars is that it seems to have thrown away the whole idea of a virtual world, which was part of the “vision” of the online living world. How would you respond to that?

JS: I'd respond to that, by saying that there are far more people who'll enjoy a true role-playing experience allowed by being able to have quests that are not FedEx quests which change the world around you, rather than people who'll be irritated by that. MMOGs – even the most successful ones, even World of WarCraft - compared to WarCraft III or Diablo appeal to smaller numbers of people. I think World of WarCraft is largely riding on the reputation of Blizzard and the fact that it's a very polished game, but we'll evaluate it in six months time to see how many people are still playing it. After it settles down, what's the real long term player population of that game? I suspect it'll be quite high… but I don't expect it'll be close to what Diablo sold world-wide.

I think that there'll be people who won't like Guild Wars because they like baking pies. They like… well, we always say “The Grind” with a negative connotation, but it's not always bad. Grind just means you're investing large amount of time in order to reach a goal, and some people enjoy it and have the time for it.

GS: While fairly radical in design to most MMOGs, its actual setting and theme are very familiar to anyone who's ever picked up a simulated “Sword of Kobold Slaying +4.” There seems to be a contrast between form and content, in many ways.

JS: Like I said, MMOGs are a technology, not a game design. Take these wonderful technologies and wonderful new opportunities we have to build online experiences… but let's bring some innovation to the genre. Let's sit down and re-evaluate a lot of these things we've taken for granted. Not just for Guild Wars, but we hope for all products that come afterwards. We hope they'll say “They did a lot of things differently, and a lot of that stuff worked out well and some things which I'll change…” And we're hoping this will spur the industry to think about online technologies and online games in a bit of a different way.

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