The future of Guild Wars 2: “This is a statement: we’re not done”

Game director Mike Z lays out the vision for the long-running MMORPG as we approach the Icebrood Saga

At PAX West, ArenaNet took to the stage to reveal The Icebrood Saga for Guild Wars 2. It’s another season of free content for the game, but one that promises a bigger scope and more substantial gameplay changes than we’ve seen from traditional seasons in the past.

The Icebrood Saga will take us to the northernmost reaches of Tyria, and will give us a deeper dive into the norn and charr races than ever before. The big new feature brings us strike missions — ten-player encounters built to offer repeatable story content and a bridge to proper raiding.

Nonetheless, some big questions about the future of Guild Wars 2 linger, especially as the developers have restructured around a new, four-team method of building content, and some long-awaited features like Swiss tournaments and world restructuring are still listed under the ‘coming soon’ banner. I had the chance to sit down with game director Mike Zadorojny after the reveal to ask some of those questions, many of which came directly from the Guild Wars 2 community on Reddit.

PCGN: The MMO market has shrunk over the past several years, and Guild Wars 2 feels like one of the last survivors of a certain era of that genre. To what do you attribute that continued success?

Mike Zadorojny: The fans. The community is frickin’ ridiculous. You saw the event. You can put out the call and people show up. We asked cosplayers, ‘Hey, are you interested in this?’ And they’re just clamouring, like, ‘absolutely, please, we want to do these things.’ There was an old marketing guy at ArenaNet who used to have a saying that ‘we don’t build games, we build communities.’ We just do it the best way possible, which is through games. I wholeheartedly believe that – because without the fans, the game dies.

We started really broad with Guild Wars 2. We tried a number of different avenues. We added raids, we added all this extra content and extra features and those types of things. The thing that has really driven the evolution of the game has been the fans and their love for each other and the game.

Strike missions are a way for us to look back and go, ‘Okay, we have the group that raids, and we have a group that says raids are either stigmatised, too difficult, there’s jerks in there who are elitist.’ There’s all these things, and we’d say, ‘No, no, no, we can show you a path to get to this content.’ We can show you the way that you can get better – that you can experience things that you didn’t necessarily think possible either because of preconceptions, or because of lack of time, availability, those types of things.

We’re trying to find new ways to encourage the community to continue to support each other and give them the tools to do that. Even on the PvP side, the reason why custom arenas are a thing is we know we can’t create every amazing format that every player is going to want in PvP. But if we give them the tools, they can organise themselves, like ‘we want to do a 2v2 tournament.’ Then we can focus on ‘Okay, what are the things that the game mode actually needs?’

Are there any plans to make those 2v2 maps available outside of custom games?

MZ: We are looking at doing mini-seasons between the Conquest seasons, where we can do some more experimentation. The thing we need to be a little more cautious of is that GW1 had four or five different PvP game modes, which basically fragmented the playerbase. With Conquest, the goal was to always have one thing that, if you wanted to be the best at PvP, this is what you went and did. As opposed to ‘well, now there’s actually two things that are going on.’

You see this in other games as well. League of Legends was like, ‘here’s another map’ – but people went back and played the original map. Because that’s the bread and butter of the game. For us, it’s the same thing – we are interested in experimenting and doing off-season things that are different than the general Conquest seasons. But we know that Conquest is the bread and butter of structured PvP.

What’s the structure of the upcoming Swiss tournaments? How do players get into them?

Ben Phongluangtham, senior designer: Swiss tournaments will roll out as special tournaments with the Swiss ruleset for public testing. Once that testing is done, all of our tournaments will move over to using Swiss format. During the Swiss portion, there will be a set number of matches – so not everyone will play everyone – then seeding based on performance. There will also be a tiebreaker based on teams’ opponent win% for seeding purposes.

From there, the best-performing teams will go to a single elimination-style system to find an ultimate winner. Under most circumstances, any team that loses one game or fewer will move on to the single elimination portion. Regardless of placement, we’re planning to have every win in a tournament – Swiss or elimination – award some gold.

Now players are getting all of Guild Wars 2, including the expansions, in a single purchase. Does that signal that the path forward is free content, rather than paid expansions?

MZ: I don’t think we have an answer for that one yet. For us, at least today, we know that with the stuff that we want to give – the quality of life improvements, the story we’re trying to tell – Icebrood Saga is the best way we can deliver free content to our players. Now, whether or not we change that method moving forward, we’ll have a different conversation at that point.

Justin Fassino, PR manager: I think the important thing here, obviously, is that everyone at the studio knows that there’s a demand for an expansion. So it’s not like we’re ruling it out.

Early messaging around the Icebrood Saga mentioned “expansion-tier features.” What do you see as those features?

MZ: If you look at the history of what we’ve been doing, cooking 500 was another one of these things. Obviously, built-in gear templates are one of those things that we would want to consider in there. We’re taking on bigger projects, to be able to release those when they’re ready, as opposed to holding all back and then doing it as one boxed product. That’s the difference in the methodology.

Things that we wouldn’t rule out – but that we’re not talking about today – would be like another mount, another elite specialisation, those types of things. Those are all things that traditionally have waited until a boxed product is ready. But instead, now we’re saying, ‘look, here are the things that we’re doing. Here’s what we’re releasing right now. Here’s what’s next.’ Some of that was given in the roadmap from February. We’re getting pretty close to being done with all the things I said we were going to do, and now going into the territory of the things that I said were on the horizon.

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Updates like world restructuring and Swiss tournaments were first outlined ages ago. Did you intend to announce these things so far ahead of release? What are your plans for communication with players going forward?

MZ: Here’s the thing: we have to be communicating with the players. If the players do not know what is coming, then they feel like they’re getting blindsided with every release. In April, I did a kind of a ‘here’s the state of the game’ and ‘where we’re going’ roadmap look. We were actually in the process of figuring out what the next one would look like when this event was put on the calendar. So rather than just put in a blog post, let’s talk about it. Let’s get in front, let’s celebrate this.

Part of the reason we do this is that it’s been seven years, and the game is still going strong. So let’s meet with the fans and hear the stories. I spent 40 minutes this morning, just walking the line, because everybody’s got something on why this game means something to them. This is why we’re doing it.

We want to be – we need to be active in our communication with the players. They may not necessarily always see that we’re listening. But we’re lurking on all the forums, and on Reddit, and we’re in the game. So we’re hearing what people are talking about. We also have data metrics on our end telling us what players are doing. A lot of it is sifting through that data to figure out what is noise and what is super important to this game. How do we make sure that we continue to keep it healthy?

I saw a comment on Reddit that was like ‘Why would you get up on stage and announce something like this?’ This is a statement. This is us coming forward and saying ‘we’re not done.’ Because we just spent a bunch of money to show everybody all the cool stuff that’s going on. Seven years later, we still have the same commitment we’ve had to this game for a very long time.

So we’re going to continue to give updates, we’re going to continue to be iterative in our design processes, and how we can release things faster and more efficiently. But we’re also going to find ways to be better about communicating our intention. We’ve tried a couple different things. Generally, I think the balance patch notes come out a little bit earlier than the actual day, so there’s more chance for people to talk about it and speculate and start theory crafting. We’re going to continue doing this kind of stuff – how can we be more in front of the fans? Because again, we’re doing this game for them.

You’ve mentioned that there are now four content teams working on updates. How does that affect the structure of releases going forward?

MZ: RCT before was always doing smaller projects that would lead into one-off storylines or smaller initiatives. They were scrappy as hell and came up with some amazing things like roller beetle racing and those types of things. But now they actually have some tools that allow them to do things on close to the same scale as other teams.

When we do a Living World release, that’s our bread and butter – we know that. But we’re also going to do some other things that have more cohesion to the overall arc that we’re trying to tell. Things will be better ‘branded’ – for lack of a better term – but also allow us to do things more creatively than we’ve been able to do before, because it’s not a small team that’s doing this. We actually have some resources that we have dedicated.

Does that affect the broader structure of releases, too? You’ve alluded to smaller episodes between major releases.

MZ: We want to build a predictable way to let players know when content is coming out. Since earlier this year, we have a much better understanding of what we can deliver and how often. That’s what we’re really pushing right now. Towards the end of Season Four, there were a bunch of things that took us a bit longer to do on some of those episodes. One, they were pretty frickin’ massive, especially Dragonfall. And two, there were a bunch of structural things that we had to take time to go do.

Guild Wars 2 is a massive game, something like seven million-plus lines of code that are all compiling and releasing every two weeks. It’s a massive game to update, and we need to make sure that we’re able to provide our fans with the quality experience they expect.

Having four teams just gives a little more flexibility. So we can do things that structurally or thematically are part of what’s going on, but don’t necessarily need to be the golden path. You can expect something between episodes – filler episodes is the wrong way to think of it because it’s not necessarily a side story – but it could be something more interesting, or could have systemic changes to the game at large.

Do each of those four teams have different focuses?

MZ: Yes. At the moment, the three teams we’ve talked about are our prologue, Episode One, and Episode Two. There’s a fourth team working on something we haven’t talked about.

You’ve described Strike missions as this bridge to bring normal players into high-level content. Do you think they will offer something to players who are already into high-level gameplay?

MZ: The first ones being released are more of a bridge. But the opportunity is there. One of the questions we were asked was ‘Are there gonna be different difficulty tiers?’ In the things that we’re looking towards, especially either through achievements or other ways, we can’t forget about the raid players. Also, they won’t let us forget that they exist! But they are a hardcore group that really are passionate. They want challenge, they want things they haven’t seen before. This is an opportunity for us to find ways to service one tier and potentially service the hardcore audience that is already there.

Strike missions bring a form of repeatable story content. Will we see story content resurface in other ways, as well?

MZ: Absolutely. Season Four was expensive, and a lot of those things you only saw once, like flying on the back of Aurene. We haven’t done anything else with that, but that was really cool tech, and I’d love to see us be able to create something out of that, or going into the amphitheatre at the end of Episode Six. Fighting Kralkatorrik was a massive thing that would’ve been cool as a fractal, or something else that had scaling difficulty and those types of things.

Right now, something we’re really focusing on is ensuring the things that we put a lot of resources into are things that actually get repeat play, not just a ‘once-and-done’ kind of mentality.

Could that extend back to existing content in older seasons?

MZ: It doesn’t preclude it. But it is not something that we are actively looking at.

Does that go for Season One, as well?

MZ: Season One is always on our mind, because there’s a lot of really cool stuff in there. Some of the things you will see moving forward are that the designers are drawing inspiration from some of the cool things in Season One. But Season One was telling a very cohesive narrative that players have lost touch with, because it’s not there anymore. We continually have conversations about how best we can bring it back. Unfortunately, because of the way that we did build it – it was fire and forget – that meant that as one team shipped something, another would come in and overwrite all of those changes.

Untangling that web is a little bit harder than just saying ‘and now the content is active.’ If we’re gonna bring it back – and I would love to bring it back – it means doing something in a meaningful way. If we just bring it back, the new guard of players will get something new out of it, the old guard will be like ‘okay, there’s the nostalgia.’ And either it’s going to live up to their expectations, or rose-coloured glasses are going to say, ‘Man, this was amazing back then. But this is garbage now, and we haven’t changed anything.’ So if we’re going to bring it back, we need to do something that will actually be meaningful across the board.

When will we hear more on Swiss tournaments and world restructuring?

MZ: Our goal actually was for the Swiss tournament beta to already have happened. We discovered that some of the back end infrastructure would have just crashed on live servers. For Swiss tournaments, the front end is done, and we’re just shoring up the back end to make sure that it’s going to run and people aren’t going to lose progress. The work that we’re doing right now is going to have some impact on how we finish world restructuring as well. We’re killing two birds with one stone.

World restructuring is the paramount feature that the competitive team is working on right now. We knew we needed to get Swiss done, and now all hands are trying to get world restructuring done as soon as we can.

Is there room for a ‘story’ difficulty in raids and other high-end content?

MZ: There is. There’s a constant, constant tug. Do we go build new raids for the raid group, or do we pull somebody to go make the old raids easier? The Bastion of the Penitent is one that we get a lot of comments on, because it’s the Saul D’Alessio story and the mursaat. It’s a very powerful, moving story, and it was very self-contained to that raid. So unless you’re a raider, you never see it.

I would not rule it out. The thing that we need to be careful about is how we manage that expectation. Because if we go back and release ‘story mode’ for an individual raid, that is taking time away from other things like being able to build additional raid content for the raiders. We want to make sure that we’re trying to service both groups.

On the opposite end of the difficulty spectrum, some players complained that Season Four’s regular story content was too easy. How do you balance that?

MZ: We generally try and make the story content be approachable to the average player, because that’s why people are here and what they’re playing. Moving forward, we’re trying to give players who are looking for meaningful challenge a way to have that with the Icebrood Saga.

The challenge is that the skill disparity between average players and hardcore players is extreme. We’re talking about ten times damage output. You can’t necessarily put a DPS check that the average player is going to be able to overcome without making the fight entirely trivialized for the hardcore. But we have some tricks up our sleeve that we’re going to be trying.

Is there a chance we’ll see more guild-specific content in the relatively near future?

MZ: It is something that we have been investigating, still trying to find a way that that makes the most sense. We still obviously are releasing guild hall decorations for the fans to build the guild halls the way they want. We gave them really beautiful race track equipment so they can build their own custom arena, or roller beetle arenas and things like that, or races.

Guilds are the core of Guild Wars 2, and I do recognise that group has also been under served, at least during Season Four. We’re trying to find ways that we can provide meaningful content for this group.