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  Interviews : December 16, 2004

  Guild Wars Interview [By Finger]
   With ArenaNet's Jeff Strain


There are now over a dozen high-profile MMORPGs in the market, all of which are enjoying varying degrees of success. Millions of gamers are paying subscription fees to continue to play these games, but ArenaNet isn't happy with yet another subscription-based online RPG. With their upcoming title, Guild Wars, ArenaNet aims to capture the best aspects of these games and combine in skill-based, action-oriented gameplay without having to charge a monthly fee. They've already run a couple of open preview events which went over very well with gamers, and the action is fast and furious without forgetting its RPG roots. I got the chance to ask ArenaNet founder Jeff Strain some questions about the game and how the preview events have gone so far.

Finger: Obviously, the Guild Wars preview events have generated plenty of interest in the game, and it's a relatively unheard-of way to get word out about a game. How hard has it been for ArenaNet to set up these events, and what do you hope to accomplish with them?

Jeff Strain: Our goal with our public events is simply to give everyone in the world the chance to login and play the game. Guild Wars breaks away from the traditional MMO approach in several areas, including the pace of combat, the leveling system, the skill system, the way you travel through the world, and the way the game is updated and supported over time. We think it is always better to let people experience the game directly rather than listening to us talk about it, so we decided early in the development phase to work toward these unprecedented global events during the alpha and beta stages of the game. Since we planned to do this so early, the task was not as hard as it would have been if we had not focused so consistently on server scalability and stability from day one, so the real challenge was not the technical infrastructure, but instead making sure that the game itself was fun and balanced. While we will continue to balance mission difficulty and skill and profession combinations until the day we ship, we always have to work toward the next public event as a checkpoint on that process, and the feedback we receive afterward is invaluable to us. We are looking forward to seeing everyone this weekend in the second Beta Weekend Event!


   

Finger: Much of the Guild Wars world works under "instanced" zones instead of the old Diablo 2 method of creating a game to bring your friends into. It's obviously a better idea from a gamer's perspective, but does this system generate lots of logistic and other server issues? Do you think it will be worth the effort in the end?

Jeff Strain: If it is a better idea from the gamer’s perspective, then it is absolutely worth the effort! Gamers see Guild Wars and the gaming features that it provides, but there is another product driving everything behind the scenes: the Arena.net global gaming network. This game network was built from the ground up as a step forward in online gaming technology, and it provides the infrastructure for many of the unique features in Guild Wars, including on-demand content streaming, a global namespace, international play, a singular global client, and of course the ability to offer the game without requiring a subscription fee. The technology is unique in that it is built around a “distributed confederacy” model in which our servers located in datacenters around the world work together to migrate your account and character records to different datacenters as you play with and against players from around the world in cooperative and tournament missions. You don’t have to pick a server and live there forever or choose a game host for your Guild Challenge battle. Nor do you have to wait in a queue to play because you happened to choose a server that is overloaded at the moment. Instead, the network handles it all behind the scenes on your behalf. All you see is that you can play when you want, with whom you want, and it all just works. Is it worth it? Absolutely!

Finger: Many gamers are interested in Guild Wars' MMORPG-style layout without the actual MMORPG monthly fee. Do you see this sub-genre opening up much more if Guild Wars is successful?

Jeff Strain: I definitely think that Guild Wars will change the way gamers think about online games and subscription fees in particular. As a passionate gamer myself, I like to play around with a lot of games at once. I may not finish them all, but I love the fact that I can play Zelda: Four Swords Adventure for a few weeks, put it down to play Half-Life 2 and Burnout 3, and then come back to it a few months later on a rainy afternoon. I don’t have to feel guilty about not playing. I don’t have to feel like I can only have one game that I am actively playing at a time. We think subscription fees are contrary to the way most people want to play games, in that they force you to pay every month, even if you are not playing. Our goal is to provide an online experience with all of the support and evolving ongoing content that you get with a traditional MMO, but without the need for that subscription fee; that is exactly what Guild Wars is all about. There are no gimmicks, hidden advertising, or fees in small print. You will not be paying in installments, or paying more than you would for any other AAA game. It just works exactly like you would expect: buy the game, play online for no additional charge, and when a new chapter comes out every six months or so, decide whether you think it is cool enough to buy. The choice is always yours. Do I think players will want to see more of this type of business model for online games? No, I think they will demand it!

Finger: Guild Wars allows players to advance very quickly to the game's maximum level of 20. It seems that player-vs.-player combat is intended to be the end-game for Guild Wars, but what can you promise to those gamers that aren't huge fans of PvP?

Jeff Strain: Player-vs.-player in Guild Wars is a tremendous amount of fun, but Guild Wars is not designed to appeal only to PvP players. The cooperative missions and quests in Guild Wars are the beginning of a story arc that spans numerous expansion chapters for the next several years. Since Guild Wars is a skill based game, rather than a game in which only those who have thousands of disposable hours will ever see the "cool" content, we can design each of these new chapters around the assumption that all players have reached the maximum level, or "ascension." This means that all of the ongoing content, whether through new chapters or streamed live into the existing game, is enjoyable by everyone, and we don’t have to water down the content by dividing it among the "elite" players and the more casual players. Gamers who enjoy cooperative or even solo gaming will find Guild Wars a refreshing change from endless FedEx quests and level grinding, even if they never venture in the competitive play areas.

Finger: The PvP system in Guild Wars is unique in that you can jump right into some PvP action with your guild and with minimal hassle, downtime, or setup. Do you think that serious PvP-oriented guilds have a place in Guild Wars? What do you offer these guilds that other games can't or won't?

Jeff Strain: We offer something very unique to competitive guilds: global domination. The Guild Wars competition infrastructure is global, which means that a guild that holds position number one on the Guild Wars ladder is number one in the world, not just on the east coast of the U.S., or on some arbitrary server with a fantasy name. Furthermore, in Guild Wars victory is earned through skill: guilds that train, plan, coordinate skills, lay battle plans, and study their opponents carefully will be the ones that dominate that ladder and tournament in Guild Wars, not just those that are formed by players who play hundreds of hours per week. We think that games of skill are more fun than games that reward grinding, and that they appeal to a much broader range of gamers. You think your guild has what it takes to clobber the global ladder and get its name in lights? Prove it -- it’s a level playing field, and only your skill will prevail!


   

Finger: The preview event, at least in my personal experience, went off perfectly with no delays in the game's streaming download system, no appreciable lag, and smooth gameplay. Did you expect to have the number of players trying the game that actually got on? Do you think that you can maintain this level of quality when Guild Wars launches next year?

Jeff Strain: I’m glad you had a smooth experience! We did have a few minor glitches, but no massive outages, overloaded servers, or debilitating lag issues. This is partially due to the experience this team has building global game networks, but it is also a testament to the scalability of our server architecture. We were well prepared for the 400,000 players that played the game during the World Preview Event, and we generated some very helpful statistics that will help us balance and refine the online experience even further. I will say very confidently that players can expect an even greater quality of service when we ship. After all, you experienced an alpha stage game running fewer than half of our expected number of servers at launch, and we have a bit more time to continue polishing until we open Guild Wars to the world.

I'd like to thank ArenaNet's Jeff Strain for taking the time to answer my questions about the game. Guild Wars is set for release in early 2005.

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