Guild Wars 2 was a major draw at this year's Eurogamer Expo, and yesterday we named it as our Editors' Game of the Show. Below, John Bedford tries out player-versus-player and discusses it with lead content designer Colin Johanson; on page 3, Robert Purchese interviews Johanson about dungeons, the endgame and Guild Wars 2's distinctive dynamic events.
The PVP zone of Guild Wars 2 on display at this year's Expo was the Battle of Kyhlo. It's a war game that sees players competing against an opposing team to secure three capture points on a devastated rural map: the Mansion, Windmill and Clocktower. As each team races to secure the 500 points necessary for victory, players can make use of a trebuchet - itself destructible - to destroy buildings and expose the capture areas, dealing extraordinary damage to those taking control of the map.
The capture-point mechanic is a staple of MMO battlegrounds and will feature in every one of Guild Wars 2's PVP maps. Johanson explains that variety will stem from the dynamic components of each match rather than the game rules. "That map had the trebuchet and the destructible environment. That was the secondary mechanic for that one. One of the other maps we're talking about has a giant dragon that flies over the map, breathing fire all over the place, doing damage. They'll all be capture point maps, but with different things that make each of them memorable."
Of the classes we try, the mage feels the most robustly developed at this stage, with a tactical assortment of single-target offensive, area-of-effect damage and healing skills. It has four banks of elemental spells that you can switch between: fire (directly offensive), wind (buffs and situational abilities), earth (debuffs and crowd control) and water (healing).
A delicate class, the mage requires tactical awareness and nimble fingers. Or - in the case of Eurogamer's Robert Purchese - finding the button for the Elite skill that transforms the mage into a whirling hurricane, knocking other players back, and spamming it with a gleeful look on his face.
"We kind of threw most of the Guild Wars 1 PVP stuff out of the window."
Colin Johanson, lead content designer, Guild Wars 2
The Necromancer, meanwhile, has incredible staying power and an Elite skill that turns him into a Lich, making the class tough enough to be accomplished at single-handed base defence for a limited time. Other skills across its two weapon-set banks included spell traps, health drains and the ability to turn into a shadowy mist with unique abilities. Warriors, too, change their skill sets according to which weapons they have equipped, and make superb base defenders.
At the beginning of each round, a voice tells you to "prepare your strategy". Not many teams at the Expo had one, but the points system clearly rewards tactical play rather than killing sprees - it's possible to top the leaderboard through legwork and base defence rather than hunting.
With so many abilities available and no straight tank/healer/damage split, there's a mouth-watering range of synergies between the classes, and it's clear that Guild Wars 2 is no one-hotkey-rotation-fits-all affair. It's very immediate and physical, too: characters fly through the air, get crippled, burnt, drained, knocked down and immobilised.
So how do you go about balancing this chaos? How do you draw players into a competitive environment and ensure that they don't become dominated by a select few, the hardest of the hardcore, on any individual server?
"We kind of threw most of the Guild Wars 1 PVP stuff out of the window," Johanson says. "The core PVP system in Guild Wars 1 was the guild-vs-guild battles; these don't exist in Guild Wars 2 at all. The reason we did that is we found a small, very dedicated group of players were really into PVP and they not only dominated - no-one else played.
"It was too complicated, it was too overwhelming. It wasn't approachable and we were very honest about looking at the mistakes that we made in the first game. We also looked at other games that are out there, seeing the stuff that they'd done and looking at what we could build in.
"We want Guild Wars 2 to be a game like Halo or a COD: you turn it on, look at a list of games, then you get in and you play. It's all very easy to understand, and that's what we've built."
As well as the familiar battleground instances, Guild Wars 2 will also feature a tournament mode where bracketed teams will face off against each other in an escalating series of matches.
"Those are ranked games that include as few as four teams, or a massive number of team," says Johanson. "You play your way through the bracket and the winning team gets a whole bunch of rewards for winning the tournament. In the competitive straight-up tournaments, teams are always five-on-five. And for the hot-joinable games it ranges from five-on-five all the way up to 10-on-10."
To make the system accessible to all, the traditional carrot-and-stick method of seasonal gear upgrades is abandoned, placing all players, newcomers and veterans, on an equal footing - individual skill aside, of course.
"From the second you get into the PVP game, you are as powerful as anyone else. You have all weapons, skills, items and stats. Everything becomes instantly unlocked and everyone is equal. The achievements and the rewards you're trying to get from there are basically prestige things and bonuses - things to show off, all the great stuff you've done.
"If you buy the game six months after it's out, we want you to be able to jump in, play competitive PVP, and not be at a disadvantage from someone who's been there the whole time - other than the fact that they know the game better."
Johanson is tentative about the number of instanced maps that the game will ship with (less than 10 is as close to an answer as we can get), but the ranked and unranked battles will form just one part of a PVP system that also allows players to travel between worlds in order to compete against other servers. Grander in scale, these games are also played over a longer period of time.
"Your server is matched up against two other servers in a two-week-long battle royale, including keep sieges and castle battles. This means hundreds and thousands of players fighting over maps together. At the end of the two weeks, the server that has the most points is the winner and that server gets a load of bonuses for everyone. After that, you get re-matched against two new servers for the following two weeks, so you're constantly fighting for the pride of your server.
"If I'm level 80 and you're level 30, I can bump you up to level 80."
"We call it the Mists. You go through a portal to get there and you're transported into a world that's in the middle of all these other worlds. You basically leave your server to go there and fight against the other servers. Then you drop back into your player-versus-environment.
"You don't have to know everyone and you can actually level up entirely in this mode. You can take your PVE character, go into the Mists any time you want, then come back. When you kill other players, their corpse will drop what a monster would and you'll get loot from them - you can level up your experience entirely there.
"We also have a sidekick system, so players can boost you up to their level. If I'm level 80 and you're level 30, I can bump you up to level 80 so you can actually compete in world-versus-world-versus-world. You won't be quite as good as everyone else, but you'll be able to compete."
ArenaNet is currently in a state between refinement and core gameplay build: polishing what exists and working on the incidental details that have become expected of an MMO in recent years.
"Right now, almost all of the major systems are in the game, playable and working, and we're mostly just iterating on things like how skills unlock. That's something that we've been play testing a lot - we're close to alpha and we're looking for feedback.
"Other than that, there's a profession that we haven't revealed. World PVP is something we're going to go into a lot more detail on and show a lot more gameplay in the future. We'll show new PVP maps and we haven't shown the Sylvar starter experiences. There are a lot of core things left that we'd like to go over such as achievements and guilds. That's really the core stuff left to get in - everything else, we're just revising and cleaning up at this point."
Johanson deftly deflects any questions surrounding release with the air of a man who may have been asked this question once or twice already over the weekend. "We're going to go with a closed beta before the end of this year for sure," he says.
"Based on the outcome of that closed beta, that'll determine our open beta schedule. Based on the outcome of the open beta, we'll determine the release date. We really don't know when open beta or release is going to be, because we want to be able to have the time to react to things."
While players enjoyed the demo on the show floor, Colin Johanson introduced the game's innovative adventuring structure in developer sessions in an upstairs theatre, showing dynamically scaling events and your character's personal storyline in the starter area for the Charr race, and a high-level open-world boss fight against an immense, cadaverous dragon called Tequatl the Sunless. Robert Purchese caught up with him afterwards to find out more about events and dungeoneering in Guild Wars 2.
Eurogamer: You needed a minimum of 10 people to begin the boss battle against Tequatl the Sunless. What's the largest minimum player requirement an event in Guild Wars 2 has?
Colin Johanson: Most of those scale down to a single player in difficulty. And some of them, like the giant boss battles, take about two groups or 10 people to do it at a minimum. That is, right now, the intended largest minimum size, about 10 people. I don't think we'd want to do anything bigger than that.
Eurogamer: What's the most people you can have doing a dynamic event?
Colin Johanson: It depends. They differ. They can go higher [than 100], they can go much lower too. Technically there's not a cap, but there's a point where the event stops scaling to support those people. Any number of people can do an event, it's just going to stop creating additional content to support the number of players that are there.
If you're fighting a giant dragon, certainly 100 players or more can participate, and the boss would recognise that and scale to match.
Eurogamer: Is there any protection against lots of rag-tag people showing up and making, by virtue of it scaling, a dynamic event too hard?
Colin Johanson: The intent is the balance will be the same regardless of the amount of players. The difficulty would be the same, it's just going to react differently.
The fight should feel the same, you really shouldn't notice that there are those extra people coming in. Because his health is just going to be scaling so that it matches the damage those people are doing. His attacks are going to be taking advantage of hitting a wider areas or doing other stuff to offset the amount of people that are there.
Eurogamer: The hardest content in the game, then, is the five-man dungeons?
Colin Johanson: Correct. There are two versions of every dungeon: a story mode that you do first... that's pick-up group friendly. It's much easier and fun content that has a lot of cinematics in and tells a fun story. And when you finish the story dungeon, you unlock an explorable dungeon. And the explorable dungeon tells the story of what happens after you completed the story dungeon.
That is the most difficult content in our game, our explorable dungeons. They're very, very hard. And they're actually really unique when you look at traditional MMO raids. In Guild Wars 2, every time you load into one of our explorable dungeons you actually get to vote on what path you want to take through the dungeon, and there is a minimum of three paths through the dungeon, and each path is completely different and unique. You can play a dungeon over and over and experience it in different ways.
"Everyone, including casual gamers, by level 80 should have the best statistical loot in the game."
On top of that, we take the dynamic events that happen out in the world and seed them in our dungeons. Each time you play through a dungeon, even if you've been down that path before, new dynamic events can completely change the experience for you. It's like you're playing with your favourite D&D group; you're walking through the hallways and you never know what you're going to run into next - what boss is going to break through a wall and come out, when an ooze is going to drop from the ceiling.
The idea is that you should always be on the edge of your chair - you never know what's coming. That's what dungeon experiences, to us, are all about. We think the fun of content is reacting to and trying to overcome things you don't see coming. That's what all our dungeons are about.
Eurogamer: Some of the Elite character skills, like turning into a tornado or into a lich, are fantastic. How many Elite skills are out there for each class and how do you go about acquiring them?
Colin Johanson: The answer to both of those is we're still trying to finalise that right now. The way you earn skills in the game is something that is currently in flux. The weapon skills you unlock by killing stuff. The way that you gain all the other skills is something that we're trying to update. The basic intent is that you'll go out into the world and do challenges to unlock those skills. That's the core concept.
Elite skills would be a little harder to get and something you get through harder challenges. The total number is still something we're trying to finalise. It's going to be in the ballpark of like three, four, five, maybe six Elite skills. We're still trying to come up with a final number per profession. And obviously we would add to those after the game releases as well.
Eurogamer: Can you unlock skills by killing bosses?
Colin Johanson: Right now you don't. That's subject to change, but right now skills aren't currently learned from killing bosses, no.
Eurogamer: How are you handling endgame loot - will we be farming bosses?
Colin Johanson: Everyone, including casual gamers, by level 80 should have the best statistical loot in the game. We want everyone on an equal power base. The rare stuff becomes the really awesome looking armours. It's all about collecting the unique looking stuff and collecting all the other rare collectable items in the game: armour pieces, potentially different potions - a lot of that is still up in the air and we'll finalise a lot of those reward systems as we get closer to release. And those come off of things like the bosses at the end of dungeons - the raids.
When you get to the end of the dungeon and you kill the boss, when the five of you take a boss out, everybody gets a token. And you can turn those tokens in and use them to get whatever reward you want from that dungeon at the end.