ArenaNet's Design Director looks at past and future of Guild Wars

As the citizens of Tyria celebrate the fifth anniversary of Guild Wars, we at Massively have been looking both at the future of Guild Wars as well as the past. The things in store for Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2 are of great interest to fans, but what came before set the stage for this long-running game.

We had the opportunity to spend some time with ArenaNet's Design Director James Phinney and talk about how far Guild Wars has come in five years. Follow along after the jump to see what he had to say.

Massively: Guild Wars has come a long way in five years, and you've had plenty of time and experience with game development for the game. How has the process changed and refined over the years?

James Phinney: It's gotten progressively less chaotic. Obviously, there were a lot of lessons along the way while we were developing campaigns, but the biggest change to how we approach things now has to do with the maturity of the game. We know our players and our game much better than we used to, and we're able to focus on addressing community needs and balance issues in a much more focused way. I think our recent updates and the War in Kryta content are good examples of that.

"We were really just trying to make something that people would enjoy playing and would want to tell their friends about."

The business model was revolutionary at the time it was introduced, and opened the door for a lot of players that didn't have a monthly sub fee in their budget. How much do you think that has contributed to the success of the game?

Well, there's no doubt that as a small company releasing its first title, it helped a lot to have such a unique business model. We think that helped get us a lot of attention early on. And of course, buying the game and simply owning the thing you paid for outright without having to keep paying subscription fees appealed to a lot of players on principle, and for others made it worthwhile to try out. Because you don't pay a monthly fee, you don't have that pressure to commit to this one game and give up all others. After all, a game should be something you do for fun, not an obligation.

It was more than that, though. Business model also matters because it affects how you design the game. There was never any pressure on us to make the game grindy or to follow any other cookie-cutter MMO conventions that we didn't enjoy ourselves. We were really just trying to make something that people would enjoy playing and would want to tell their friends about.

A good business model won't support a game on its own, of course -- Guild Wars has lasted this long because it's a solid game. What do you think made the game stand out so much at the beginning, and what has helped it maintain such appeal through the years?

When I think about Guild Wars, I think about ease of use, player choice, storytelling, no grind, fast, skillful play and beautiful art. In general, there's a clean quality to the controls that makes it easier to get into than the standard MMO, and wherever we could, we've made sure the game wasn't a hassle. We've always tried to let people get to the fun stuff quickly.

When I say player choice, I mean everything from selecting builds, to jumping straight into PvP (or avoiding it altogether), to having the freedom to wear the armor you want with the stats you need. We've always tried to give players a lot of freedom in how they play, enabling them to have fun rather than dictating exactly what they had to do.

Storytelling is also a big part of the game's identity too, a big part of what made GW stand out right from the start. I'm still very proud of that "Two Years Later" moment from Prophecies. It's hard to get that feeling in an MMO.

People need a challenge and a sense of progress. We've always tried to provide both without forcing people into repetitious, grindy behavior. Especially when we released, this philosophy stood in stark contrast to the prevailing gameplay of time. A lot of character progression was through open-ended collection mechanics rather than a linear progression or even a tree. Of course, we had challenges of our own after we added titles to the game. These were difficult for us to balance at first, and even though they were entirely optional, many initially brought a feeling of grindiness to the game. We've done a lot of work to address this over the years and restore the proper balance between content and reward to the game.

I think the pacing of skill use was refreshing for people as well. A spell that takes two seconds to cast in Guild Wars is a slow spell. You couldn't say that of most of our competition.

There are more examples I could give of the ways that Guild Wars stood out from the crowd, but I think it comes down to us trying to make a game where fun was the first priority.

What do you think is the most significant change or series of changes to come to Guild Wars since launch?

There are almost too many big changes to list. I think we've been trying to improve every aspect of the game over time. Here are my top 5:

Titles – As I mentioned before, this was actually something of a mixed-bag for us originally – especially with many titles initially requiring ridiculous grind for a while – but overall they've been a huge addition to the game. We're happy for players to enjoy the game in whatever way suits them, whether that means playing through a campaign once and calling it quits, jumping straight into PvP, or trying to experience every last element the game had to offer. Titles have been a way to recognize players for the things they've done in the game and they've been a big plus in that regard.

PvP-Only Characters – The philosophy of letting players do what they want was really put to the test in the early days of Guild Wars (especially when you had to earn "Refund Points" in order to change your attributes), when getting a new character ready for PvP, meant a frantic race from level 1 to 20, with a lot of work to learn the exact skills you'd need along the way.

Heroes – The ability to customize NPCs and issue commands in game has had a huge impact on Guild Wars. Much of it has been positive, even necessary, but it's also posed a real challenge for us. Social experiences are a huge part of what make online games worthwhile, and now that people aren't "forced" to play with other humans, they don't always choose to do so. We continue to work on things like cross-profession balance to make sure that when you do want to group with other players, there'll be a spot for your character.

Hard Mode – One of the interesting parts of having a game that rewarded player skill was the difficulty of balancing things for players with very diverse play-styles and skill levels. Hard Mode allowed us to once again give players more control over what kind of experience they were interested in and to provide more depth for veterans of the game.

Better Voice Acting – This is the only non-feature on my list, but it's meant a lot to everyone working here. Minister Cho's Estate. Nuff said.

Looking back at the game now with several years of experience behind you, what is one thing that you would change?

Just one, huh? I'd make sure we had a fully-staffed live team from the start. We've gotten better about it over the years, but in the beginning, we couldn't respond to player needs as quickly as we should have because we were always scrambling to get the next campaign ready. This would need to include either public test servers or something like the Test Krewe we have today.

When Guild Wars released in 2005, the MMO market was significantly less populated. Do you see the recent popularity boom of MMOs as positive or negative for Guild Wars?

I think a subscription game might be concerned about the market being crowded, but we're not. For us, it's great that people have such an enthusiasm for playing games online. We're confident that as long as we make something amazing, people will play it.

How has the departure of Jeff Strain and Patrick Wyatt (2 of the 3 original founders of ArenaNet) impacted the Guild Wars franchise moving forward?

Only softball questions today, I see. From a direct development standpoint, Jeff and Pat left ArenaNet for positions in the NCSoft organization well before either of them decided to strike off on their own. So the immediate impact for day-to-day work here wasn't significant. Still, I think it's fair for people to wonder if their departure would hurt ArenaNet overall. A development studio is only as capable as the talent in it, and those guys are both very smart and very talented individuals. Guild Wars fans can rest assured, though, that they were smart enough to put the right people in place at ArenaNet before moving on to NCSoft in the first place. The team vision for Guild Wars is strong enough that the project is in good shape.

Do you feel it's important to get new players into Guild Wars now to prepare for the launch of Guild Wars 2, or is that a concern?

We want Guild Wars to be as fun as possible for the people playing it. We think it's important to continue to attract new players into GW for its own sake. New players help keep the experience fresh for everyone and give us an excuse to keep doing fun new things in the game.

As for how this relates to the launch of Guild Wars 2... I don't think it really does. Through the Hall of Monuments (introduced it the Eye of the North campaign), we do let players' achievements in GW get reflected in GW2, but this is primarily a way for us recognize the things players have accomplished in the game over the years. It isn't really part of a strategy for marketing the game to people who aren't already GW players. Once we get started, GW2 will have plenty of marketing on its own.

It's been said before that Guild Wars will continue to be supported even after Guild Wars 2 is released. Can we expect to see the game continue to be updated as regularly as it is now (skill balances, etc), or will that change dramatically once GW2 launches?

The plan is to continue to support the game for as long as people keep playing it. For us, there's no connection between the GW2 launch and slowing down on GW. As long as there is a GW live team, the live team will do its best to support the GW community. That's what they're here for.

Thanks for your time, James.

This article was originally published on Massively.