Thanks to the fine folks at ArenaNet, I had a chance to ask Linsey Murdock and Isaiah “Izzy” Cartwright some questions on the Guild Wars series. Linsey is the current lead designer for the Guild Wars 1 Live Team, and Izzy is hard at work on Guild Wars 2. The interview gives some good insight for what both may have in store for the future.
In many past Guild Wars interviews, ArenaNet developers have said that the skill system incorporates a few ideas from collectible card games, such as Magic, which has a strong niche protection they lovingly call the color wheel. How is the Guild Wars balancing approach for professions similar to the Magic color wheel?
Linsey: It’s a fair comparison. One of the big similarities is that in Magic they take all the key mechanics of the game and divvy them out to different colors. We do basically the same thing, dividing our game mechanics among the various classes.
Izzy: Yeah, players outfit themselves from a large collection of skills. That kind of play feels very similar to Magic. We have builds, they have decks. And like in Magic, some mechanics are stronger than others. It takes some player skill to create effective builds, just as it takes player skill to play the game well. But while the mechanics are similar, Guild Wars is a different beast than Magic. Both Magic and Guild Wars have strong metagame shifts, but we deal with that issue in different ways. Magic adds new sets every 6 months or so, while we do updates every few months; we’re pretty similar in that regard. I think the big difference is we added new professions into Guild Wars, which would be like if Magic added entirely new colors; I don’t know, like mauve or beige or something. (laughs) It just makes balancing a lot harder.
Could you briefly describe what you would consider to be each profession’s niche?
Izzy: Warriors are front line damage dealers with variable utility. They’re the most durable profession and are the best at dishing out Deep Wound and Knockdown. Rangers have definitely changed a lot since they were introduced. They’re our primary condition-spreading class. Rangers are a little more solo-oriented, jack-of-all-trades kind of characters. Ranged attacks, DPS, interrupts, conditions… a little bit of everything.
Linsey: Mesmers manipulate how you’re able to play. They’re one of our primary hex classes and are good for interrupts and debuffs. They also have one of the stronger energy gain lines in the game. In PvP, they can have a psychological effect on other players, making them second-guess themselves.
Izzy: Necromancers are one of the strongest hexing classes, with multiple enchantment removal options. They use corpses as resources and can create minions. Necros also have an unavoidable damage type called Life Stealing.
Linsey: Monks are the primary solo farming classes for PvE, obviously. They’ve got strong condition and hex removal, and of course, they’re our main healers. Elementalists are both mid-line damage dealers and toolboxes. They have access to Blind, slow, ranged damage spells, and explodey AoE spells. Eles have high energy pools and can make strong use of secondary class skills, so they’re quite versatile.
Izzy: Assassins are lightweight DPS melee characters who have Shadow Step and really fast solo spike damage. With access to Poison, Bleed, and Dazed, Assassins are very good at applying conditions to a single target.
Linsey: Ritualists are our secondary healing profession. They’re sort of our engineers – they can do damage buffing, party heals, make turrets, buff other characters. They also have access to condition removal. Dervishes specialize in AoE melee damage, enchantment manipulation, and self healing. They have easy access to Deep Wound, which makes them pretty formidable.
Izzy: Paragons are durable support characters with a decent ranged attack. They have Chants, Shouts, Echoes, party heals and buffing, and easy access to Bleeding.
How important is each profession’s identity? Does the second profession mechanic affect the identity of the professions?
Izzy: Obviously the secondary profession a player chooses is hugely important. It’s crucial that we have a strong primary profession which defines the character, but that secondary profession opens up a new matrix of tools you can manipulate. In effect, we don’t have ten professions in Guild Wars. When you factor in the secondary professions, we have close to a hundred classes in the game. We have two kinds of identities for all our professions – primary and secondary. Take an elementalist, for example. You play a primary elementalist a lot differently than you play a secondary elementalist. When we find a class combination where the secondary is stronger than the primary class, we usually end up changing that.
Going further off of Magic: The Gathering’s color wheel, the collectible card game has never added another color (colorless and gold cards excepted). With Factions and Nightfall, ArenaNet squeezed four more professions into place and these new professions went through many growing pains. Do you feel that the added professions are as solid in identity and application as the core classes?
Izzy: We brought in the new professions to add more diversity to the game and increase the number of options available to players. The new professions definitely increase the size and complexity of the skill matrix and make it more difficult to balance, but we think it’s important to bring new things to the table with each new campaign. In hindsight, the new professions definitely created more difficulties than we had anticipated, but it added more diversity and more builds to the game. We really felt it was important to expand the possibilities and keep things fun for players, so it was worth it.
What were some lessons that were learned regarding adding new professions after the initial release of Prophecies?
Izzy: For Factions, we started off the new professions – Assassin and Ritualist – weaker, then adjusted them and made them stronger. For Nightfall, the Dervish and Paragon started off strong, and then we had to tone them down. Both approaches had drawbacks. The big lesson we learned about adding new classes is that it increases the amount of time required to get things right. Neither of the approaches we took are acceptable long term strategies, though. We learned that adding more classes greatly increases the complexity of the game, and we just need to give ourselves more time to roll out the new professions in a balanced way.
The tournament scene for Magic: The Gathering constantly evolves as cards are phased out due to new sets, cards are banned, and new cards are added to the list of playable cards. Similarly, ArenaNet evolves skills by balancing them, splitting them into PvE and PvP, and sometimes even changing the entire functionality of the skill. Yet ArenaNet has never dropped a live skill from play. Why is it better to “effectively remove [a skill] as a viable option” than to get rid of it altogether?
Izzy: Our goal is game balance, first and foremost. There are different ways to achieve game balance other than dropping a skill entirely. From a player’s perspective, it’s easier to understand that a skill has been changed than dropped altogether – particularly for more casual players. When we balanced Smiter’s Boon, for example, that was about as close to getting rid of a skill as we could go.
ArenaNet has showed some interest in sealed deck tournaments at a few gaming conventions. Current Guild Wars players can do this informally with some community tools, but it’s not an official part of the game. Will we ever see some “limited” play type in Guild Wars, and what are some of the design hurdles and problems that spring to mind concerning this format?
Linsey: Yes, there will be a Sealed Deck format – we just announced it. It’s a strong format, and we can balance our Sealed Deck similar to a Magic format by restricting skill use rather than changing skill functionality. We’ll be able to balance specifically for Sealed Deck without causing problems in other areas of game. One of the hurdles we encountered with this format was group formation. Making this work as a format supported in the game meant adjusting the original rule set so that players who aren’t all in the same room can more easily form groups.
Linsey, you mentioned in your journal that for the Guild Wars Live Team you’re starting to drive the skill and profession balance changes. What kind of data do you guys rely on when driving changes? What are some of the things you’re still learning from the balancing process?
Linsey: Honestly, pulling stats on skills doesn’t give us a lot of useful information re: skill usage. The community does a great job of telling us what their problems are. Often player input can be more useful than pulling stats or looking at metrics. In terms of lessons learned, we’ve found that the solution for balance issues is to look for the root problem. The answer to a problem with Skill A may not be to nerf that skill, but to nerf Skill B or adjust a game mechanic like Soul Reaping or buff stacking. So the real key is washing away the symptoms to find what the real illness is. We want to treat the core disease, not just the symptoms.
What are some of the strongest lessons you have learned from Guild Wars 1 that you are going to bring to Guild Wars 2 regarding protecting the niche or identity of professions and skills?
Izzy: For Guild Wars, we had two big demographics of players — PvP and PvE — and we tried to make all of our skills work for both player sets. There are some skills that work well in both PvE and PvP, but not all of them. Going into Guild Wars 2, we now recognize that we have two different game types. We need to address the different needs of each game type without negatively affecting either one. If we don’t properly handle skills in both formats, we end up hurting both games. Every profession needs a niche in both game types. Right now in GW1 we have classes in PvE and PvP that are used very infrequently. As we enter GW2, we’re going to do a better job identifying these issues up front.
One of the big things we’re going to do is focus more on a smaller number of game types for GW2 instead of the fifteen or so game types in GW1, where every balance we do has a ripple effect on other game types. It becomes crazy difficult to keep everybody happy. You can’t balance for just one format; you have to balance for all formats, which makes a pretty complex matrix. By keeping the number of game types to a manageable level, we’ll be able to institute more effective skill balances and keep everybody happy.