“Iteration” is a word emphasized by ArenaNet. It seems something greater than mere polish, and I asked ArenaNet if they could entertain a few questions about their design and development practice. What does it really mean to iterate? Guild Wars 2 Lead Designer Eric Flannum graciously took some time to talk about the term and what it means to the studio and Guild Wars 2.
Q: ArenaNet touts “iteration” a lot in interviews and official blog posts. Is it not the industry norm to iterate during MMO development? Are other games’ leads more bullheaded and less willing to deviate from the plan? What makes ArenaNet’s iteration of Guild Wars 2 special?
Eric: This is a good question. I think every game developer (not just MMO developers) would love to have the time to iterate on their designs. The luxury that we have been afforded during the development of Guild Wars 2 is the time to actually use an iterative process. There are many developers in the world, for example, who could not afford to rework a basic profession mechanic as we have done with ranger when it was clear that the profession was in a state that could be shipped. To be honest, the ranger was probably “ok” in the state we had it in, but we didn’t want to live with something being simply “ok” when we thought we could make it great. I’ve worked on a few games where we would have loved to have the luxury of a few additional months of development.
Q: How do the creators of the “less than acceptable” designs for Guild Wars 2 handle the change? How is the decision to not accept the working design made? Passionate developers can be protective of their design, and ArenaNet seems full of passionate people.
Eric: We have a few common sayings that get thrown around our design department. In many cases they aren’t things that I would repeat, but some of these sayings actually have to do with design principles. One of the first things we tell all of our designers is something along the lines of “your ideas aren’t special” or “care about your design but don’t get attached to it.” I think this is a very important concept for any designer to grasp, so even though we have some very passionate and strong willed people in our design department, everyone is willing to accept what’s best for the game in the long run. A huge part of being a lead on a design team is getting everyone thinking and pushing in the same direction, so it should never come as a huge surprise to someone when their initial design needs to be changed or modified in some way.
Q: Energy in Guild Wars 2 was iterated away to simply being the dodge bar, and a different long-term energy resource is under development. ArenaNet seemed so sure of the energy mechanic; how can such a sure thing get scrapped so far along in development? Does a solution, such as the energy mechanic replacement, need to be on the table, or is it enough to say “this isn’t working as intended”?
Eric: The first step to fixing something is always identifying the problem. That being said, we always need a viable alternative before we remove or rework a mechanic; otherwise we’re just doing work blindly which is never a good idea. Most often we just need to find some time to sit down and discuss alternatives, but in some cases (as with energy) a solution doesn’t present itself or seem viable until we’ve developed other parts of the game. Every system in the game affects every other system in a variety of ways. Because of this, we’ll often find a solution to a seemingly unrelated problem when working on or discussing game systems.
Q: We know that art and sound are iterated just as much as systems design, such as the sylvari re-design. Another thing I heard was that an early cinematic we saw was taken through another polishing pass, and I actually had a hard time believing that it could have been improved. Is it harder to know when such a subjective piece of the game is done? How do the artists and engineers know when to stop fiddling or polishing and move on?
Eric: When to stop work on something is often a very tough call. This is one area where we rely on the expertise of our individual developers. If the person working on something isn’t proud of their work even though most everyone may think it’s perfectly good then we’ve found that letting that person iterate on that thing will almost always result in a lot of improvement.
Q: Can you give us an example of something ArenaNet learned from Guild Wars 2 alpha testing with regards to the need for iteration?
Eric: One of the things that’s been undergoing a lot of iteration lately is our crafting system. I think the alpha test has been instrumental in helping us nail down all of the tweaks and refinements necessary to make crafting a super compelling experience.
Q: Is there anything undergoing iteration for Guild Wars 2 that fans might not expect?
Eric: It’s hard to anticipate what fans might or might not be expecting. I can say that just about everything is still undergoing active development, from our trait system to character lighting to sound and music. We’ve made a lot of progress, but polish and refinement is what makes the difference between a good game and a great game. We are committed to making certain Guild Wars 2 is a great game when it releases.
Thank you for time, Eric.