[GW2] Interview with ArenaNet’s Eric Flannum

“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.


19 thoughts on “[GW2] Interview with ArenaNet’s Eric Flannum”

  1. Great interview, I love it when you guys ask such technical questions(development methodology) and ArenaNet takes time to answer them. Some fans mistakenly label even these interviews as a marketing exercise and a part of “hype train.” I think these interviews are great not just for Guild Wars 2 fans but also for game developers in general.

  2. This is exactly the kind of interview I love to read. Hats off to Ravious for the questions, and thanks again to Eric and the ANet team for taking the time out to answer them.

  3. As a software developer myself (sadly, not games though), I really like these kinds of insights into the company’s practices and philosophy even if there is no “news” about the game itself. Thanks Ravious (and Eric!)

  4. Nice interview Ravious. It’s encouraging to hear Anet’s people have enough pride in their work that it’s not good enough until they’re satisfied, even if others are.

    At least Eric didn’t say “We are committed to making certain Guild Wars 2 is a great game when it *EVENTUALLY* releases.”

  5. “and a different long-term energy resource is under development.”

    you have got to be kidding right? energy was probably one of the things I was happiest about seeing let go, but you’re telling me that they are cooking up another system?

    1. I completely agree with What of the Fuzz! I don’t think I want a new long term resource! I say ‘think’ because so far I have not disliked any existing conventions ANET has changed ha ha.

      1. Long term resources are pretty much required for games with sustain, both in PvP and PvE. If you don’t eventually run out of something, you have little pressure to do the other things right.

        Skill management, positioning, and execution of relevant game mechanics are more important than the inclusion and use of a long-term resource system, but without that eventual, “oh shit I’m left with only a few options” line in the sand, PvP comes down to how long you can perform at the level of your opponent, and PvE is a binary interaction: can you do the fight mechanics? If yes, you win, and if no, you won’t. With that long-term system, a lot of other variables come in to question.

        For an easy example of why a long-term resource that can deplete is necessary, look at ye olde Paladin/Paladin or Druid/Druid duels of Vanilla WoW/Burning Crusade. One person had to consciously choose to lose and stop playing for a victor to be decided, which is pretty uninspired game-play.

        1. yeah but you still risk that though, if you burn your skills too fast and you have wait for the recharge, and then of course like GW if your build is worse than your opponents you’ll quickly feel pressured.
          other than one or two elemental builds all my builds for pvp could run without energy management and I only had to think about the recharge, and that provided plenty of pressure

          like all other things it is a matter of taste, I would just prefer not to think about energy management

          1. Long term resources aren’t necessarily an energy management system, though. It’s hard to think outside of the box to give you a good example right now (it’s late), but the basic comparison that comes to mind is the difference between an FPS (of which there is no or severely limited sustain, think hardcore modes in your recent AAA shooters) and a MOBA like League of Legends. In both game types, the focus is on the end goal, which is to win – winning the match or the round or what-have-you is important, but the focus on how that happens is vastly different.

            When you don’t have sustain, and the goal for combat is to win each individual limited engagement (like a firefight, or duel [MW3 mutliplayer, essentially]), your combat will be very quick and visceral, there’s no need for a duration limiter because your combat durations are very short. Turning a corner and stumbling in to an enemy is the entirety of your engagement, once the enemy is dead you move on to a brand new engagement with some other enemy.

            With League of Legends, though, combat duration is very long – up to an hour, in some cases. You’re not focused on winning individual engagements, you’re focused on long-term resource management: tower kills, creep score, Dragon/Baron kills, zoning, et cetera. While you could break each thing down and call them all individual engagements, you’re always focused on progressing towards the end goal.

            The difference there is that, in an FPS like MW3, killing an enemy is an end goal in itself, and even if it didn’t contribute to the overall success of your team, you still successfully completed your engagement; whereas successfully killing an enemy champion at the wrong time in LoL can cost you the entire match.

            Long-term resource management isn’t limited to cooldowns, energy, or any other familiar mechanic. Things like enrage timers, stacking debuffs (CTF game modes, primarily), simulated fatigue, weapon/armor durability, stat weights, things like that, they are all pretty stock long-term resources players have to deal with across multiple genres.

            For individual engagements (so the arena-esque Conquest mode), what I’d like to see ANet try is a long-term resource involving conditions and boons. Something like as you sustain more and more conditions, or the longer you continuously fight, the ever so slightly more susceptible you become to damage/conditions/whatever. A situation like this would combine quite a few of the ideas MMO’s have been using with the unique twist of GW2 mechanics – the longer you fight, the harder it is to keep yourself or your teammates alive, and the more stress is placed on you to perform at higher and higher levels, and all surrounding an already existing and fairly familiar game mechanic.

            I feel like a conditions/boons resource would work pretty well on that individual fight per fight basis, but WvWvW would need it’s own long-term resources to manage (keeps, resource nodes, supply lines, whatever) in addition to the system in place for Conquest. PvE would also need unique/individual resources for particular encounters, long-term resources aren’t always a catch-all like energy management, they can be incredibly varied and diverse across different game modes and even between specific encounters within a set game mode.

            1. “and a different long-term energy resource is under development.”

              focus on “energy resource” I’m plenty aware of resource management, but energy resource management directly implies that it involve energy.
              now if they’ll have some sort of fatigue system other than the dodge fatigue, I dunno

    2. We’ve known about a long term replacement since they scrapped energy. We just don’t know what it is.

      I’m interested to see what it is, and how it shakes out. Will it be integrated into the game, or will it feel like a foriegn add-on?

      1. well yeah there were mention of it, but there were also talk about just keeping it at no energy and only recharge.
        well we’ll probably see soon enough

  6. Excellent questions! And refreshing to read some honest answers. Just coming from Massivelys’ interview of the producer of DAOC for its 10th anniversary, its refreshing to read answers from a dev that don’t reek of marketing-speak or assume we are s-s-s-s-s-stupid.

  7. Another long-term resource, eh? Interesting.

    I have been thinking that recharge time probably isn’t enough, but ANet have to be careful they aren’t just sticking the energy bar back in, changing it from blue to purple and calling it mana.

  8. I do wish they be contented in what they’re doing sooner so we’re close to the release date. No one can wait that long for a game despite its promises!

    Who here has a time machine? I want to go to the release date now.

  9. Oho, so more new changes? I gotta say energy was one of the things I was interested in, mostly due to the thought of it being a new experience to play as a caster that relies on something other than the all holy mana most games tag on due to convenience. For example “it’s easy so let’s use it”. Now balance issues are balance issues. If an elementalist is able to stomp a warrior of equal-ish standing of course there’s an issue, so by all means they need to iron out that kind of thing before we have the all powerful templates (soosc and the like) return and make it impossible to find a group because of the “hey, you can’t run it our way, so we don’t want to take the chance”. In my mind, this is important that they’re still working on the system, so chances are higher that when the game comes out, we have to adapt more and template less. I like, I like, keep it up. I look forward to the end result.

  10. I wish he had identified what they perceived was the problem with energy.

    Energy and energy denial were great mechanics in GW, I’d be really disappointed if they dumbed the game down to only have skill recharge.

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