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Guild Wars 2 Column: Changing What It Means to Create & Play an MMO

By Neilie Johnson on January 21, 2014

This week, Guild Wars 2 embarks on an ambitious four-part finale to a story that's been fifteen months in the works. Beginning with The Origins of Madness, players will begin to understand the strange signs and world-wide wonders they've witnessed and see what those mean for the future of Tyria. They'll also see just how serious developer ArenaNet is about changing what it means to create and play an MMO.

Throughout 2013, ArenaNet's used its Living World content to test the limits of narrative possibility. It's been the perfect way for the Guild Wars 2 team to experiment with story ideas both serious and frivolous, as well as to gauge the kinds of stories that resonate with players most. One thing players have been clamoring for are stories that have more permanent effects on the game world. Fortunately, that's right in line with ArenaNet's own objectives. 

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Game director Colin Johanson says the team is “chomping at the bit” to see the players' reactions to The Origins of Madness (and its three subsequent chapters):

“I think the way that people perceive the story of Guild Wars and what Living World can mean for our game...I think all of that will be changed by the time this story comes to a close. If ever there is a time to log into Guild Wars 2 and experience something that maybe you're not gonna see in another MMO anytime in the future, get into Guild Wars 2 now and be a part of these final four releases.”

By now, most players are aware of the villainess Scarlet Briar and know she's behind some unsettling recent events. They're also familiar with the strange probes she's placed across the land for some yet-to-be-known purpose. What they don't know is Scarlet's ultimate plan. For the last year, Tyria's been beset by spies and pirates, violent altercations and political conspiracies. But why? ArenaNet hinted at Scarlet's motives through an online story called What Scarlet Saw, but little of the in game narrative explained what the evil Sylvari genius was truly after. This week, everything we've seen so far will start to make sense.

If your comprehension of the events of 2013's a little sketchy, the Guild Wars 2 website has a handy recap by Johanson. Once you're up to speed, you'll be ready for the main events of The Origins of Madness—namely, two epic fights against two new bosses—a giant Jungle Wurm and a giant Marionette. Both will require large-scale player coordination and cooperation, and both will reward players, albeit in different ways. Johanson talks about the two bosses:

“The Jungle Wurm encounter is sort of on par with the level of coordination, gameplay and skill that Tecoatl required. It's kind of our next giant, open-world mega-encounter where hundreds of people come together and try to overcome. Because of that difficulty, it's got some pretty awesome and unique rewards on it [like] unique minis you can only get from the Jungle Wurm. There's a new sub-set of weapon skins, and there's a lot of really awesome rewards that come off of him compared to other bosses in the world. The Marionette encounter is much more casual, more approachable. It's a ton of players coming together to battle, but the amount of skill and coordination is much lower. We want people to go there, have fun, experience the story more than anything, and a lot of the rewards you get from the Marionette actually help you progress the story.”

How awesome is Taimi? Yeah, a LOT awesome.

During our chat, Johanson told us that in addition to the two new mega-monsters, there's a third part to The Origins of Madness that players will have to seek out on their own. His reference to the Marionette rewards relates to this, since it provides players with important clues regarding Scarlet's past and current plans. “Players are going to be able to go to a location for the first time where some of the pieces of the puzzle of Scarlet's story will be put together. This release gives [players] a component of seeing how she got to this place.”

Without question, Scarlet's a compelling character, though not exactly the kind you'd expect to inspire hero worship. Or is she? Johanson also revealed that The Origins of Madness will introduce us to a new character, an Asura prodigy named Taimi who's unhealthily obsessed with Scarlet. The young Asura's the ward of well-known golemancer Zojja, and as such, has a way with golems. Actually, she rides one, which is a convenient way to follow Scarlet around Tyria and show up in the Shiverpeaks just in time for the fireworks to begin. It should be interesting, seeing how much trouble Zojja's ward can get herself into, and what Zojja ends up doing about it...

In addition to boss fights, narrative insight and a new main character, The Origins of Madness promises to bring cataclysmic changes to the Tyria players have come to know. Though theories abound regarding what the climax of the current season might be, according to ArenaNet, only a handful of players have guessed correctly. “By the time the story comes to a close, I think that we will have done something with the live storyline that very few games have ever tried to do,” Johason says. “ I think people are going to be extremely excited, not only about the storyline that we have going in our world, but where it's headed as a result of that storyline.”

When asked if he was worried about players not enjoying the outcome of the current season's events, he had this to say:

“We like to do things a little bit different from everyone else, we like to try to push the envelope, we want to innovate the industry, we don't want to just copy/paste what's been doing before. That comes with the possibility of great success and always the risk that you might do something that your player base doesn't respond well to. But if we're smart enough to listen to people's feedback, at the end of the day we'll always be able to succeed.”

Since its inception, story has been a critical component of Guild Wars 2. Through its Living World content, it's tested not only the limits of narrative possibility, but how narrative can affect gameplay. The ArenaNet team has made no secret about using story to drive the game's evolution; further, it's proven that commitment to story through the controversial decision to avoid releasing traditional expansions. Thus far, the approach has made for a game that flows more organically and that's different from the other, more gear-centric MMOs. Beyond that, Johanson confirms what story means to him:

“I think the biggest thing that gets me excited is when I go in game, and I see people talking about [the story] everywhere. When we get to the point where the core audience of the game is all talking about it in game, that's when we've really succeeded.”

Despite Johanson's enthusiasm, the ArenaNet team's Living World efforts have thus far met with mixed success and mixed reactions. Still, they remain confident that taking chances and collaborating with the community will make Guild Wars 2 the MMO players have always wished for. I guess we'll see. Either way, this Tuesday ArenaNet rolls the dice on its four-part Living World finale starting with The Origins of Madness; they won't know until it's over whether that gamble truly pays off. 

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