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ArenaNet's Mike Zadorojny reflects on one year of Guild Wars 2 and its 'absurd' content pace

Gavin Townsley

Birthdays are great for a number of reasons. There's the cake, the gathering of friends, some jubilant cake-chomping, and even the ability to get violent with anyone who goes near your stack of gift-wrapped loot. If something doesn't go as planned, feel free to cry if you want to.

Fun aside, these anniversaries also serve as a great time for reflection. Guild Wars 2 officially turns one today, so ArenaNet Lead Content Designer Mike Zadorojny spoke with us in San Francisco about the challenges the team faced in the first year and how it opened the doors for the living world and future content.

Massively: Looking back on the year, what moments or things are you proud of in Guild Wars 2?

Mike Zadorojny: The hardest thing about developing an MMO is that you spend a lot of time building it, and then you launch it. And that's not the end of it! That's just step one because you have to continually maintain it and add new features. We launched the game and we restructured the company. We started talking internally about doing this two-week content cadence and this idea of a living world. We asked how can we get closer to this holy grail of a unique experience every time a user logs in.

So we made some fundamental changes again. The level of dedication to iteration, not just at the game level but the company level, has been really awesome. No one else is really trying to push out as much content as fast as we are. [The pace] seems a little absurd until you work through all the pieces on the back end and look at how we set the pipelines and production.

Ultimately, I'm super proud of the game. I'm proud of how far we've come in the last year. We added major features and started adding a story that is evolving over time. I'm proud of the individual efforts that everybody brought to the table to get us this far. We can continue to strive toward new ideas and new challenges that we want to roll out and do things like Cutthroat Politics, where we wanted the players to vote on which direction we were taking not just the story but also some of the developmental resources as well. Do we do a fractal based on the fall of Abbadon or a fractal based on a Thaumanova Reactor explosion? We're still willing to try all of these things despite the fact that we've released a game that is arguably hugely successful, and the players are really on board with it.

And we haven't forgotten our roots as a company -- we still want to push, and we still want to do more.

Are there more plans to incorporate the community-based decisions on story direction?

This was just the tip of the iceberg. We still want to have our creative vision but still want the players involved. The closer we can get those two together, the more exciting things can be. So yes, we do want to get players involved. It probably won't be an election next time, although I can't really say that cause I don't know for sure what will be the next time, but it could be an election or something else. It comes down to wanting more control in the players' hands in terms of the direction where things are going.

Interview Mike Zadaronjny reflects on one year of Guild Wars 2
Has the content cadence combined with this community-driven direction caused any panic attacks? It seems as though it would add a random element to development.

For us, it's a new challenge. How you solve that and make it more streamlined is super important. We've restructured the company, we've restructured teams, we've restructured processes, we've added new gates and everything else. We should probably do a GDC talk on this at some point going over all the stuff we had to do in order to make it work! But it's fun for us. This is what gets us excited, to wake up in the morning and go for that holy grail of that unique experience for everyone whenever they are logging in.

Sometimes it's through building or putting stuff into play that makes things easier [for the designers]. The tools programmers have been life-savers in terms of actually being able to pull all this stuff off. Without the right tools while managing all the branches the game is working on, it could have blown up in our faces. It's a unified goal for everyone working at the studio.

We still have just as many people working on Guild Wars 2 now as when we launched the game. Four of the teams are now working on the Living World aspect, but everyone else is working on new features, new pipelines, new tools, and new ways we can roll things out. So we are very involved with the game and love it, so much so that when a new release goes out, we'll take some time off to play the game and see what's going on and listen in on the feedback. The two-week cadence allows us a couple of major bonuses in terms of whether we make a mistake or something not necessarily as cool because there is a shorter time players have to deal with that mistake compared to a six-month patch. It's a challenge, but an exciting one.

What mistake did you learn from the most in the first year?

One of the things that was actually really hard for us when we started was a concern that we were fragmenting the playerbase in terms of building all these new features and new things that were forcing people to go their separate ways. We had eight dungeons with three paths each, fractals, World vs. World, and structured PvP. The open world itself wasn't necessarily the forefront that we originally wanted it to be because we started to spread everyone so thin. We wanted to build social content that brought people together and made people feel that some of it was a challenge, but we still wanted a unified goal for players. This is literally what spawned the guild mission system. That team said, we've done all these things that are great, but how do we get people together and back into the open world?

So we then started things like the bounty system! We basically used the Living World initiative to go back and revisit some of the things we wanted to retouch, like redoing Ascalonian Catacombs, redoing bosses and paths, and so on. But we didn't want that to be the end of it. There are more dungeons that we want to revisit because we are continually learning from ourselves.

Interview Mike Zadaronjny reflects on one year of Guild Wars 2
So the Living World is a product of that player fragmentation?

That's the entire reason the Molten Alliance facility and the Aetherblade Retreat were there as kinda temporary content. We wanted to make it a focal point to get everyone in and everyone playing it, but not to the point they come out and never want to see it again. Then we can take it out and still have the content. That particular stuff is being remade into some of the new fractals coming. That team is taking the content that players really enjoyed and making it a permanent addition to the game. Living World is really about how we can continue to not be stagnant with what's going on, to play to a bigger picture as well as we look to the future.

What area of the world do you want to see improved or changed?

I think our giant world bosses were a great first step. Players found the limitations of our system rather quickly, so now they are not nearly as exciting as they once were. I want to see us make more interesting challenges and encounters, things that require levels of coordination that we haven't seen in the game yet. One of the benefits we have from the world we built is that players are excited to see a friend because they share loot, and when a player goes down, any friend can res you. We can do things and put a harder challenge on players than I think you can get away with in most traditional MMOs because there is a level of camaraderie there that is just built into the game.

Interview Mike Zadaronjny reflects on one year of Guild Wars 2
What's next? Living World II?

The story stuff is the first step. The second step is bringing better and more technology to help us do bigger, stronger, faster everything. What's next? I think it's the next iteration of the game. Year one was us setting the ground work and building core features for the game as a baseline. And now we can focus on what's next. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Thanks for your time, Mike Z!

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!

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