'Everything in the world is fair game': Chris Whiteside on Guild Wars 2's living world

The Living World An interview with ArenaNet's Chris Whiteside
Someday playing MMOs will be like visiting that virtual-reality club in Minority Report or stepping onto a holodeck that conveniently sits between your fridge and bathroom. Today, however, we're still playing on screens and in worlds that don't quite feel alive. That goat-herding NPC you once helped do his job? Yeah, he's still there doing the same thing he was last week.

ArenaNet has tried to push Guild Wars 2 in the right direction with its "living world" philosophy -- the idea that events can come and go, experiences can change year to year, and perhaps players can even change the landscape of Tyria itself. Last week, Chris Whiteside, Studio Design Director at ArenaNet, chatted with us about how this living world, even in its infancy, is already starting to change what it means to be an MMO.

Massively: Tell us a little about the living world from the developer's side.

Chris Whiteside: We had decided around launch we wanted to set ourselves a bigger challenge. We're all MMO players, and we really wanted to take the term "living world" and actually make it happen. It's an easy thing to say and we were all really excited about the idea, but by the time we realized just how complex the idea really was, we had already committed to doing it. For us, that meant huge logistical changes and restructuring how the whole studio works. We pretty much had one team; now we have four teams that rotate on separate streams and are constantly working on the next update and then the next update after that. This is really exciting, and yet at the same time, it's required huge amount of new practices and brand-new tech to allow four streams of development at the same time. Each team has started with an event and now moved onto to its second and third events, and they are getting better with each release.

The living world feels like a great marketing angle -- why are you talking about it only now?

You can see looking at what we've done how the teams have been spinning up and getting ready. We didn't want to announce that we were doing this until we knew that it could be done and we were confident about being able to maintain a two-week release cadence. The living world to us means evolving the world as real-time as we can get. We really wanted it to be an adventure for everyone, including us.

The way we develop is according to a plan for 2013 and beyond. It's a thematic plan with key points that we want to hit, and then it gets handed to one of the teams. From there, they get to choose what it is they want to work on. On paper it sounds great; everyone wants to be able to do what he or she wants all the time. But in reality, people need a little more guidance. The teams have gained more confidence and are starting to hit the ball. The game is spinning up really well, we've learned from a lot of our mistakes, and our content is becoming really deep. The cool thing is that if you've played every event, you start to see a greater tapestry being woven and lots of different varieties of events going on. We think players will really enjoy looking back at all the stuff they've done.

The Living World An interview with ArenaNet's Chris Whiteside
Do the four teams each handle their own events or just sections of an event?

It's sections of an event -- occasionally a full event depending on if the team has time. We also have core teams that basically work on evolving, for lack of a better term, the main part of the game, as well as teams working on other persistent content.

How about holiday events? Will the living world give me a second chance for missed achievements?

The holiday events we've made thus far are done and in our bank. Next year the events might reflect that content, but there might be new achievements, collectibles, and different events to participate in. In terms of the events themselves and how some content stays and some goes away, we're continuing to work on dungeons, fractals, and open-world bosses. We'll be seeing sections of events and things players enjoy doing being used more in fractals. You specifically mentioned achievements, though. It is unlikely that you'll get another crack at those achievements once they're gone.

Unlikely? That's interesting.

Yep. It's an interesting idea. But let me take it back to the studio for discussion! Really, we want it to be a living world, and part of that living world is that things change in real time and that happens. An event passes and then it's gone, just as in the real world. You think back on the memories of those events and look at the keepsakes you've earned during those experiences. It's very difficult ground to tread, but at the same time you raise the big issue in that the new player can hear about these experiences before coming to the game and not getting a chance to play them. That's an interesting thing that we are watching. But as I said, we have ways of putting content back in. Achievements make for an interesting question.

How are players reacting to that goal?

Is there animosity around it? Yes. I think part of that was not understanding our position because we didn't talk about what the living world was. We were just getting on with it, and players were like what the hell is going on. I think once people start understanding what it is we're doing, then they'll start to get seriously excited about it. But for a player, if you miss something and you really wanted it or you hear about it afterward and you wanted it, there will be some disappointment. That's the nature of the living world. It comes in and it's exciting because it's a limited-time thing, and then it goes away. If we don't have that paradigm in the living world environment, I'm not sure how much of a living world it actually is in terms of an evolving narrative that synergizes with gameplay. I think it's a huge bone of contention because it revolves around rewards, but we are always looking for ways to improve rewards.

The Living World An interview with ArenaNet's Chris Whiteside
Is this why events are longer?

There is certainly more time to get stuff done. Some of the stuff is around for a month, and unless you're on vacation for a month or something, there is opportunity to come and play an event. I don't want this to sound uncaring because that isn't where I'm coming from at all. We're doing our best to maintain a balance between an evolving world and a place where players can get the most out of our events that have certain timeframes. If you've followed ArenaNet in the past, you'll know that we never stop or rest until we do the best job that we can. We are constantly brainstorming about how to best solve these complex issues.

What other aspects of the game will play a part in the living world?

We've already done guild missions, revamping of dungeons, fractals, revamps of places like Orr, constant progression, gear evolutions, and reward evolutions. Moving forward, we're going to be focusing on all these things but also dungeons, fractals, and open world bosses. In terms of living world, some of those parts of the game will be folded into that but remain as persistent content. So you'll still have that sense of history and that this big thing happened. And of course, we're looking at holidays, world vs. world, and PvP too. We're always listening to the community.

Are we going to see changes to Tyria aesthetically, and will the events reflect those changes? For example: Can we finally kill all the centaurs?

As complex as the living world is, it's still in its infancy. It's really only just been born. Just by the statement you've made, you can see the potential for everything we can do in the world. We can really making the living world events more persistent. We don't want to go into too much detail until we're locked and loaded and really happy and it's finished. I would say say that everything in the world is fair game. Our goal is to create a living world, so the idea of the landscape changing, not just in terms of buildings and geography but the actual characters and heroes in the world, is fair game too. That's relatively low-hanging fruit, but those things have huge impact. This is just the prologue; the potential of what we can do is amazing. We have the tech and team in place, and they are capable of delivering every two weeks. It will be amazing.

The Living World An interview with ArenaNet's Chris Whiteside
Are these living world events weaving a greater story?

Yes. Absolutely. As in a great television series, we want you to be able to jump in a year or two and pick it up quickly. We want an arc; it's a living world. We have quite an interesting arc with Flame and Frost, and many players asked us what's next.

So what is coming next?

On July 9th we have coming what is maybe the coolest thing ever: something called The Bazaar of the Four Winds. A floating city will fly around the world of Tyria trading and offering lots of new opportunities. There are connotations of pirates, but I can't really talk about it yet. Around gameplay, some of the developers looked at the concept art and thought wouldn't it be cool to have this sort of gymnastic, elemental-style movement that allows you to traverse cliffs and jump across huge gaps. Then they thought about turning it into a race against players in real-time and adding pick-ups, kinda like a Mario Kart thing, which they did. And this will unfold lots of stuff much further down the line that might change how creatures or elementals react to players. I can't wait to see people's reactions to the city. It has a really three-dimensional feel to it.

Thanks so much for your time, Chris!

When readers want the scoop on a launch or a patch (or even a brewing fiasco), Massively goes right to the source to interview the developers themselves. Be they John Smedley or Chris Roberts or anyone in between, we ask the devs the hard questions. Of course, whether they tell us the truth or not is up to them!

This article was originally published on Massively.