Every company has its secrets: secret recipes, secret codes, secret programs, and secret ways of doing things. Some secrets are kept for important spy reasons, and some are kept simply because no one bothers sharing them. The secrets I’m sharing in this blog post are equal parts both. gw gold
Some developers might wish there was a secret recipe book for designing an online world—some big ol’ Betty Crocker-style book with chapters like “Combat System” and “Interactive Story Telling,” containing recipes for “Melee Weapons” and “Compelling Main Characters.” And they’d wish all you had to do was add in the particulars specified and work on each bit for the required amount of time.
The truth is that designing an online world is a lot like the real world. It’s messy business. It’s organic. It’s chaotic. The mental space in which you are creating is different from moment to moment with assumptions and extrapolations piling into a confusing tangle that only your gut has time to sort out. It’s like a turbulent ocean storm of ideas, processes, people, and collaboration.
At ArenaNet there aren’t really recipes, nor are there secrets, but there are the high-level design principles that have guided our design process of Guild Wars 2. They have been the stars in the night sky that have kept this ship from running aground on more than one occasion. You can see them reflected in the combat, in the story, in the event system, even in the world map. Every aspect of the game has been touched and shaped by one or more of these “golden rules.”
Make the world come alive
I list this one first, as it’s probably the principle that is most integrated into everything we design into Guild Wars 2—we are making an online world after all. It basically means that the world of Tyria acts as a metaphor for a real world with its own self-enforcing rules. In terms of story and lore, we had to establish things like geopolitical dynamics. There are nations, and those nations have relationships with each other. Those relationships are based on history, on the personalities of individual leaders, on geographical realities. In our environment design we add caves for creatures to live in and nests for things to lay eggs in. We establish some semblance of an ecosystem by the choices of creatures we place in certain areas and how they biologically relate to one another. Then, so players get a sense for all this, we have events where you get to interact with those nests, and quests that allow you to explore the impact of those geopolitical conflicts through the plot of your personal story.
Purpose: It’s a litmus test we use to determine if something doesn’t feel right in the world of Tyria. Normally, it’s used with content or story. It provides the foundation and starting point for characters, plots, and environments.
Cooperation is key
Every time we implement a new system, there are about 1,000 decisions that need to get made right away, and another 1,000 that you don’t get to the first time around.
The biggest decisions get arbitrated by the player, i.e., YOU! We want everyone that’s on the same team in Guild Wars 2 to really be on the same team—not fighting for resources, not having tangentially conflicting motivations, not minimizing each other’s experiences. This led us to things like the combo system, which gives you reason to get excited to fight alongside others because you can combine your attacks with theirs in all kinds of tactical ways. Every player can gather from all nodes because we didn’t want tension to build up in a group of people trying to adventure around a map together. Events themselves exist because they are a content type that benefits from more players being in the world. Even the way we reward event participation makes it so your contributions matter, but not at the expense of someone else’s.
Purpose: This has helped guide a lot of our content types and reward systems. It helps us evaluate whether we are motivating players to play together or unintentionally creating conflicts between players.
Play the game, not the UI
Now, you might be thinking, “Hey, game designer! That’s about the stupidest thing ever typed.” And it kind of is. How else are you going to play the game? The way we mean it is: Since we are creating a living online world in which you heroically spend your time, we want you to viscerally experience that world. We don’t want the world to be hidden behind stacks of menus, buttons, charts, graphs, or whatever else it is we could conceive to put between you and Tyria.
The UI of Guild Wars 2 is a balance of the information you need right now, the information you need sometimes, and the information you are getting contextually based on what is going on. Because the information I need in those categories differs from what you need at any given moment, the one common thing we both need out of the experience is for it to be visceral and intuitive. And that isn’t achieved by covering your screen with more screens.
Purpose: Being mindful of the way the player will interact with a game system from the beginning helps guide its scope and creates a synergy between its mechanics and how the player experiences it. It helps us reduce visual clutter and acts as a catalyst for those hard-to-make decisions, such as no red dots on the minimap.
“Let’s try it.” You hope to hear that phrase at the end of a meeting, especially if that meeting was contentious, or if the idea discussed is new and radical.
Imagine a playground full of kids playing. At its best, playing is making mistakes in a safe environment and learning from those mistakes in a way that encourages growth. Trying out new ideas or making drastic changes is the way we as designers get to play with the game. It’s where we slip and fall, scrape our knees, and otherwise monkey around on the jungle gym. While we don’t try out every idea, we use our collective experience to get a sense for what has promise—what we should follow down the rabbit hole. We look at where our ideas break, how they break, and why they break. You can see this in how we redesigned the sylvari, or in how we have developed the professions. They’ve all undergone quite a bit of transformation over the last few years as we have tried out different approaches and learned from those very playful experiences.
Purpose: To reinforce our general design culture of iteration. You can’t innovate in an environment that is averse to failure. You must embrace the risk of making mistakes. At the end of the day, if something doesn’t quite turn out the way you wanted, it’s not failing, it’s playing—and you grow for having done it.
Do it well or don’t do it at all
With a game as big as an online world, you need to pick your battles very carefully. Every feature you choose to invest resources in something means some other element gets less attention in one way or another. Hopefully, at some point, you get a good idea of what it takes to make a profession, a skill for that profession, or whatever the feature or set of features at hand may be. You get a sense for the overall resource cost of any particular element. When that happens, you start seeing how parts contribute to the whole, and you are able to see where some features would drain resources away from more important core areas. With Guild Wars 2, we tried to err on the side of doing a few things great, rather than doing everything less than great. What does that mean? It means that we focused on the core of the experience instead of the unnecessary trappings. It also means we chose to cut features. If you make the wrong decisions about what you focus your development resources on, you may create an aberrant experience. But when that focus is applied correctly, you end up with the superior level of polish that is only possible through the devotion of sufficient time, energy and talent.
Purpose: This enables us to focus our resources on the most important game elements we want to make great. The result is a game that has a consistent quality bar, and thus a consistent feel. If any feature isn’t going to be able to meet that bar without hurting something else, then it needs to go for the sake of the greater whole. It’s a vicious jungle those little features live and die in.
Respect the player
We respect you—as a player, as a human being. This game we’re making may end up competing with your real life. It might fight for your free time alongside your friends, your family, your work, and whatever else you might be doing. Because of that, we want to give you a meaningful experience, not one that is a vapid waste of your time. Whatever your reasons for spending time in Tyria, we don’t want to waste it by doing stuff that isn’t fun.
That’s why we make our content epic. That’s why we have giant nightmare demons to fight, global allegiances to form, immense keeps to siege, and giant catapults to fire. Tyria is a place that will foster relationships with new friends, and provide you a rich experience to share with old ones. It’s our version of a playground on the grandest of scales.
Finally, we are building an online world, but we are always careful to leave space for its most important element, the one we designers would like to step out of the spotlight for: its heroes—you.
Purpose: To keep us honest.
I hope you enjoyed exploring the now not-so-secret herbs and spices that help us make Guild Wars 2 such a delicious experience.