Lunch with Colin Johanson


What follows is a three part transcript of an interview that our UK members Sam (@tasha_darke), Andy (@Andypanda169) and Alistair (@Aeladriel) got from Guild Wars 2 designer Colin Johanson.

It took place in a restaurant in London where ArenaNet kindly invited representatives from a few fan sites, including Dragon Season, to have lunch with the developer. We’d like to thank ArenaNet for the invitation and, of course, Colin Johanson for answering all the questions patiently, providing us with new bits of information for you to sink your teeth into.

Please keep in mind that the conversation was recorded but, due to high levels of background noise, not everything could be fully transcribed, so we had to rephrase some things – mostly the questions asked, not Colin’s responses. Some questions were downright inaudible, so we had to deduce from Colin’s answers what the question was. Finally, not all questions are from our members, but since it was very difficult to tell who was asking what at any given moment, we hope you’ll forgive us if we’ve included something that Colin was saying to you. Thank you for your understanding!

We got to see a horse in some Flame and Frost concept art and it got us thinking: Are we going to see mounts in Guild Wars 2?

Colin: That concept art piece for Flame and Frost […] got put out with a guy standing next or riding a horse and by the second we got that put out, everyone said “MOUNTS ARE COMING IN THIS RELEASE” and I was like “Noooo!”. Concept art team, you can never do that again! I say, if we ever did do them, we would need to find something really creative and very uniquely Guild Wars 2 to make them fit in the game, cause they don’t really make sense in the world – travel is so easy, it doesn’t really fit.

Can we get you into this sack, Colin?

Colin: Did you bring a sack?

PvP is on the blacklist [of our questions], so we figured you might not know enough about that…

Colin: I play a lot of PvP, but I hide so no one knows who it is. Cause it would be really embarrassing for me to go there and lose all the time and have my name show up. I’d have real trouble with the leader boards that come out – my name would show up like ten thousandth out of ten thousand.

When are guild missions triggered?

Colin: This is really up to you, you know, giving you a chance to kinda decide when the guild does stuff together. The guild leader, let’s say, the officers basically get the chance to just kick off content constantly for everybody.

So, basically, what you’re going to have is something like the little tick boxes in the guild panel as in, like, you can assign to a rank and, say, this person can kick off a guild mission?

Colin: Yes, that’s right.

What can we expect from guild missions?

Colin: It’s really spread out all over the game and it depends on which type of mission you’re doing. There are actually five completely different types of missions and based on which one it is – bounty hunts, for example, is the really basic one, that’s the one that you can get right off the bat when [February’s] release first goes out. You actually have to unlock all the other missions types, so it’s literally going to take months for your guild to build up enough influence to unlock all of them. It’s really a progression here, […] it’s on the whole unlock tree just like any of the other guild abilities, so you make your way down all that stuff and you’ll use influence to kick off missions as well. So, finally, you’ll have a use for that giant pile of influence. Some guilds are probably going to tear through really quickly cause they’ve got huge piles of it but it is going to take a while. With bounty hunts, you can pick which tier of bounty hunts you go on and it randomly generates bosses in different zones that get spawned because the bounty hunt started and it spreads your guild out all over the place. If you do a really big bounty hunt it will actually spread your guild across five different zones, where there is a boss in each and you have, say, 15 minutes to kill all five of them. So, you actually have to split your guild into five different groups and send them to all the maps and find them to take them out.

Are you going to add more guild features?

Colin: [There’s lots of stuff we’d like to add that] we’re not doing in this one but, in the long run, we need to get all that stuff in, for sure. If you look at what features are built in the game, there’s lots of stuff for small groups to do but there’s not a lot of really compelling stuff for larger groups, in particular for guilds, other than WvW. We are really trying to get a lot more of that stuff in for building a good community, that’s a really key component that we have to have. That’s a big focus for us this year. It’s just trying to get a lot more of that “what can my guild do together? How do we interact together? How do we maintain a strong guild and what’s the content we can do and so that will be a really big focus for us”.

Is there any possibility that the UI will help track other people [in guild missions]?

Colin: That’s the type of stuff we’re not building yet but I think that will be included in the list of stuff we’ll be looking into with other guild upgrades. We need to get to the point where we just sit down and start getting people working on it. We’re always leveraged by how many engineers we have, that’s our biggest issue at any given time. It is “how many programmers do we have that can actually code anything?”. The feedback, all this time, is “why don’t you build XYZ when you’re building this instead?” and there’s a bunch of stuff we build that takes designers and artists to do and we have tons of designers and artists and there are certains things that take programmers to do and we only have so many of them. So it’s always [about] managing what they’re doing – their list is just huge – versus content, which is easy for us to do. But, yeah, I think it’d be great for us to go after that at some point as well.

Some of us have small guilds, we don’t have 500 members and some challenges could prove quite hard. Are we going to see any collaboration mechanisms set in place?

Colin: Our hope will be that [collaborations] will kinda dynamically come out of this as sort of emergent gameplay. The bounties, for example, have different tiers so there’s a small tier that you can do – even small guilds can get those – you’ve got three bosses in three zones so maybe 10-15 people can do that, a small guild, and you can pick which tier you want to kick off based on how many people you’ve got online. Maybe one of the things that will come out of that is “our guild is going to do the tier 3 bounty which takes a lot more people to do, so let’s get 3 guilds together and our guild will kick one off and you’ll help us do ours and then you’ll kick one off and we’ll help us do yours” and the 3 guilds all work together to accomplish [it]. I think that kind of emergent gameplay hopefully will come out of that for sure. We don’t really know what to expect just because it is so hard to test internally, to see what guilds are going to do [when all this goes] live. So, some of this is going to [emerge] when we put it out and we’re just going to see how guilds interact with it and what they do and then it will help us determine what other features and additions we need to work on.

Will alliance [cross-guild] chat be implemented some time?

Colin: Anything we can do that will help communication across communities is really important.

Is there any more functionality that is going to be added to the commander book?

Colin: Certainly there will be, that’s on the list of stuff that we’re not working on currently, but down the road we absolutely wanna make that more involved, [introduce] more stuff you can do as a commander. Anything that you guys can think of that are really strong community supporting tools, those are the types of things that we would really want to do this year, [that would] just make it easier to play with other people, coordinate other people. The more of them we can do, it’s just better of the game.

So, you’d like to get as much out in this year as possible?

Colin: Yeah, if we really can, I think that that blog post I did earlier this year was kinda trying to set the table for expectations of what we’re going to do this year. It’s a lot less, you know, opening new zones or things like that and a lot more “let’s take the core of the game and try to make that as solid as we possibly can and build on that and make that a lot better because there’s a lot room for improvement in that and I think that we wanna focus on that.

The commander’s book is character bound rather than account bound. Is there any possibility of that changing?

Colin: I don’t actually know. I asked the WvW team about that and they had some good reasons for why it’s [like that], for people getting to know who the commander is and they don’t want that concept if you’ve got 20 characters on your account and you log in with each one and there’s a different commander they really want people to get to know and recognize this specific commander. That was the reasoning for making it character specific. If that were to change, if it became less important for a commander to be a known name that people recognize and follow, that could be different, but I think that’s the primary reason [why it’s so].

8965dLiving-Story-High-LVL-Player-in-Low-LVL-Map-590x331It’s a shame that you can just buy it. It’s a shame that there is no prerequisite like a certain number of kills…

Colin: …Or a voting system, where people on your server vote you up? It would be interesting, but it would be hard for us to take it away from people who already have it.

Perhaps the additional functionality that you mentioned could be based on competence and time spent rather than gold and then you wouldn’t have the problem of taking away from people what they’ve already gained. It could be kills, badges, objectives met, etc.

Colin: It’s hard to gauge, because even that would not necessarily be the sign of a great player. But some sort of system that allows them to be rewarded and people to recognize the commander, something like that would be really cool.

Will we see some improvements in the UI, in terms of flexibility?

Colin: Right now there’s really not very much at all that we can do with the UI, like resizable elements or anything, so, hopefully, at some point we can tackle that.

I wanted to finish my personal story as soon as I could, just to get rid of that green arrow on the screen. Are there any plans to let us hide UI elements?

Colin: Yeah, I think the UI team has something about it so that we can consolidate that whole right side of the screen, make it easier to manage and use. That’s still a long way off, cause it would take huge engineering […] to pull off. We do want to have that daily reminder up there too.

There’s a careful balance in the UI, because some of that stuff is the “I don’t know how to play this game, but there’s something telling me what I should be doing right now”, so we don’t want people to be able to get rid of something like that, because suddenly they would have no idea what they should be doing. There’s that very careful balance – there’s enough for advanced players to be able to do things without noobs getting totally lost.

Would you ever consider having players create content in the game?

Colin: I think the guild mission system is sort of a small step in that direction, it’s going to tiptoe down that line. It’s a concept of various content that’s gated by groups being able to kick it off. They’re not actually creating it, they can’t just go anywhere in the world and say “I wanna create content here”, but there’s a whole bunch of content that’s gated before its inception in the world… And I think that’s kind of us telling [our players to] “flip the lottery” to see how that goes.

It’s interesting that the perpetual thing that you battle with in an MMO is how do you create enough content for the players to feel like they always have something new to do. And that you never can keep up with creating enough for the people’s consumption rate. And the only real solution to that is either completely computer generated content where the game generates everything automatically, which potentially loses kind of the soul and that feel of something that’s hand-generated content, or player-generated content and then the question of that is “how you control that stuff that isn’t completely breaking your system or operating outside the rules of the game?”.

You know, this happens with development you see, we build content all the time that’s terrible. And we have a QA team that comes in and tells us “This is terrible, redo it” and we’ll do it over and over and over again until we get it to the point that it’s fun to play. And often times it takes fifty or a hundred people to get that right. Or it takes thousands of alpha testers who’re playing it, giving feedback for weeks until it actually gets good. I don’t think a designer ever has had a good idea that the second they thought of it that is what we put in the game. It’s always been that someone thinks of something and then hundreds of people give feedback, gets iterated on over and over and over again… So the challenge with player-generated content is how you build that process into it where it constantly gets refined and made better until it’s actually [good with the game]. I don’t have a great solution for it but I think that those are the challenges that a game will face and my hope would be that whatever the cutting edge of that is, we actually get that implemented into Guild Wars 2 some day, but it’s definitely a challenge, it’s something we’re gonna have to figure out at some point.

It works for some games though, for Neverwinter Nights for example.

Colin: Yeah it’s just a win, right? As long as it’s fun. That’s the tough part. It’s like.. Neverwinter is a great example. Where, basically, in the original one, players can build all the content. They had really good stuff occasionally. Some of the player generated stuff is fantastic but you had to shift through all the other noise to get down to it. It’s a careful balance you have to walk, with how you open that up so everybody can get the right stuff and have a great time without having to pick through all the stuff that doesn’t make it great.

What about having people at the studio review player made content before adding it to the game?

Colin: That’s the tough part. It’s how you deal with all that overhead, because all you could end up doing is, instead of having a department of developers, you could end up having the exact same number of people and what they do all day is review content that gets submitted. And your pace is exactly the same because it takes them so long to review it all. You’re basically getting the exact same rate of content, so I’m not sure that that’s gonna help them solve the problem.

I think the key is how do you build a system that lets players generate content and infinite volumes you don’t have to review but it also works… I don’t know the answer to that. That’s a challenge for all of us to try and figure out, right? That’s what the next step will be some day and whether that happens in Guild Wars 2 or in another game it will be really interesting to see. I hope somebody comes up with the right answer. That’s not easy to solve.

How often do you guys step back from the content you produce?

Colin: All the time. I think one of the really unique things about ArenaNet is [that] the QA team is actually embedded in all the projects. At almost every other game company I’ve worked at or heard of, the QA team is in a separate building. They are not allowed to talk to developers. I’ve heard horror stories about some companies, where they are not allowed to make eye contact with people who work on the game. And if they walked down the hall they need to look down as they walk past. And that’s an experience a lot of QA testers go through. It sucks, right? That’s awful.

And that’s not how you make good games. Good games are made by hundreds and thousands of people who are all giving feedback and so you come up with the best ideas. I think that if you can put your ego aside and realize that you’re never gonna have the best idea, everybody together will come up with it, then you can make really good games.

So we bring our QA team and they sit with all the developers that are part of the process and if any of them says “this isn’t good enough” we stop it and don’t put it out. And we work on it until it gets to a point where everybody is truly behind it. I think that that’s one of the unique things about the company. With our alpha testers we try to do the same, give them a chance to really say “hey, this isn’t working at all, we’re really concerned about it”. There’s a lot of content that people have never seen that we’ve actually just canceled because it wasn’t working and we take it back to the drawing board and we try something else. And that’s part of the develop process that’s behind the curtain. I can’t tell you how many times a specific event in the game got built and done over and over and over again, until it got to the point where it’s actually what you see in the game.

c6d25Guild-Content-2-USED-590x331It seems like a major difference between yourselves and other studios is that you’re willing to be very open with the process. That you’re prepared to go onto a fansite and say “this isn’t ready, we’re going to shelve this” or “it’s not going to make it into this build, you’re not going to see it for another month”.

Colin: I don’t know of too many other companies that do that. That’s really different. It means that sometimes we will make a huge mistake, we will do completely the wrong thing, everybody gets behind it and then we’ll come to realize we did the wrong thing. You have to be able to get out there and be like “hey, you know we really blew it on this, we are responding to that and we are gonna change our plans because of that” and I think if you can be honest about that, it can make a difference too. Certainly we’re human, we make really bad mistakes sometimes as well and as long as we accept that and go do something better we’re going to be ok.

How does it feel having fans hold you to account like that?

Colin: It helps. There’s still plenty of vicious folks who want us to be infallible and I wish we could be. I think we definitely get the benefit of the doubt more often that other studios do, because we at least try to have that level of interaction and honesty with our fans as much as we can do.

How do you go about balancing the expectations of a long standing fanbase with your vision of the game?

Colin: It’s really tough. At the end of the day we have to look at if it’s exactly like Guild Wars 1, we already made that game and if people love exactly Guild Wars 1, they should play Guild Wars 1. And so it has to be something different or we’re going to end up remaking it and build the exact same game we already built. We definitely look at it that way. We know there are going to be some people who aren’t going to be thrilled with Guild Wars 2 because it isn’t Guild Wars 1 and it can’t be. It wasn’t going to be successful because we’d be competing with our own game.

One of the things that is missing that we saw in Guild Wars 1 is the ability to have a normal skill in place of an elite skill. Is this something that’s possible to introduce in Guild Wars 2?

Colin: Potentially yeah. I think some of it is a question of accessibility. Any time that you start adding more and more complicated roles to the way things operate, it gets that much harder for new players to understand how the game works and play it. We have to be really careful with that, like Guild Wars 1 eventually turned into that where by the end was a very niche game. It was very very complicated and hard to learn how to play and it was incredibly fun for all of us who understood it. But for a new player.. we saw very few new players who would get into the game and stick with it for a long time just because it wasn’t that accessible. It was really overwhelming, with very complicated roles so we need to make sure there’s a careful balance. Great depth as you level through the game and the game gets more complicated at a rate you can learn it but it doesn’t completely overwhelm you in the beginning as well.

So on that same stance, there have been some comments that new players have come into Guild Wars 2 and found the learning curve quite steep. What kind of things do you think you’d be able to do to help assimilate new players into the game?

Colin: We’re actually working on that right now. As we look at releasing the game in other regions we need to make sure that the new player experience is as easy to learn as possible. So we’re going back and looking at everything we can do to try to do that and we’re looking for a lot of feedback on that too. We’re evaluating what level players leave the game and what level things should kick in.

Sticking on the topic of skills, there’s bits of information coming in about the march update and WvW skills. Can you elaborate a bit on those?

Colin: The WvW progression system doesn’t give players skills, it just gives them new abilities that are specific to WvW. For example, if you are standing out in a field and you are fighting 1 on 1 against a player the abilities do not make you more powerful than anyone else in WvW. They just expand your ability to operate in WvW. We don’t want to create a system where like five years from now someone who has leveled way down the tree is able to just kill everybody else. Instead it just makes you more functional. It gives you additional abilities that help your capacity in WvW, but doesn’t make you more powerful. An example could be “potential carrying of more supply”.

I take it this is a passive thing, it’s not slotted in your bar?

Colin: Correct.

So the intentions are with not allowing players that have been in WvW for a long time to bully new players out of the format?

Colin: Correct. I think that that goes against core design philosophies so we would never want to do that. You’re more functional but not more powerful I think that’s the best way to put it. We might do some things like you’re better using siege weapons which could be interpreted as slightly more powerful but it’s only in very specific situations, when you’re on siege and everything. I think that’s maybe far enough away from the core issue that maybe it’s ok. We would never like give you more strength, more power or anything like that. We don’t want to touch that stuff.

Does that same assumption apply to any potential increase in the level cap? Traditionally an increase in level means an increase in power.

Colin: I don’t know at this point. We’re really not focused very much on that stuff. We’re really focused on how do we make the core live game we’ve got as strong as possible, so we haven’t really looked that much into the answers to those questions would be yet. But certainly at some point we may raise the level cap and with that it could mean that your stats all go up by 10 levels, but leveling is easy enough in Guild Wars. It’s not really a big deal if we’re going to do that.

It’s more about the gear. If a character is kitted out in exotic gear and the player leaves the game for 8 months and comes back after the level cap goes up they have to get a whole load more stuff.

Colin: I think in other games that’s super frustrating and I hope that we’d not do something along those lines. I think that we can do things that are unique to Guild Wars and are different than that

Is there any potential addressing of the WvW achievements, some of which are nearly impossible to do? As they are, they’re going to take a very very long time to do.

Colin: We’ve got a team looking at all the achievements stuff and they are picking through and try to identify anything that they can do to make achievements more fun, more visible, better rewarding, all of that.The other guys who redid the January’s achievement system, in February they are updating it with a bunch of new achievements. They’ll give you rotating achievements to pick from. So, over time they’ll be looking at all the achievements to kinda make them more interesting.

Are there plans to add more ways for WvW players to earn Ascended gear without having to leave the WvW environment?

Colin: It’s coming. We are still figuring out the best way to put them in there, so it doesn’t feel like it’s just stuck on or doesn’t fit in with what we’ve got. Certainly, in the short term you can at least earn the laurels to pick that stuff up. We want to make sure that every day there are enough daily achievements that are WvW completable, so that you can always earn your laurel every day. And then with the new choice system we want to make sure that at minimum you can just play WvW and complete that to get those ascended items. Right now, for a PvE player there are two ways to get them. There’s random luck chance and then there’s a guaranteed eventual timeline, you get them from laurels. WvW only has the guaranteed timeline that you can get them from laurels, there’s no random jackpot type element and so we need to identify what’s the best place to add it. The WvW team is working on that, but that stuff will end up in DubvDubs eventually.

Are there plans to look at the money aspect too? Playing WvW isn’t seen as being as rewarding as PvE for money.

Colin: I think that’s something else they’re looking at as well. We want to have every part of the game to be as rewarding an experience as possible, so you don’t feel that you have to go to this one place and that’s the only place that you play to get rewards. We want to encourage people to spread all over the game. That’s the best possible thing for our game, so we don’t have abandoned zones or abandoned areas and we need to make sure that’s a big push for us this year. To make sure that all of that is going on.

Are we going to have some reasons to get back into the starter cities like Divinity’s Reach?

Colin: Yeah, I think at some point we’re going to have to start to do that too. I think when we talk game wide that the cities would fall under that category as well.

The 30 minute timer on siege in WvW. Is there any chance that with some of these new abilities that engineers have a way of making it last a bit longer?

Colin: We’re not planning that right now but you never know!

Having to tap siege every 25 minutes is the bane of my life. Why was the timer put on the siege? Was it so that you don’t end up with troll siege equipment stopping you from putting down useful ones?

Colin: Yeah. Every item in the world costs server bandwidth for us and an infinite number of items infinitely generated means our servers can get into trouble. So that is why it’s there basically, yeah, it’s to save bandwidth for us.

—– Colin goes to wash his hands as food has arrived while Craig from NCSoft has 4 plates of food arrive due to a menu misunderstanding and tries to hand it out to people. —-

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *