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ArenaNet Studio Tour

Carolyn Koh Posted:
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ArenaNet of Bellevue, WA had only moved into their new offices about a month when they invited media in for a press open house, studio tour, and hands on play of Guild Wars 2. Founder and President Mike O’Brien welcomed us and led the tour. ArenaNet is 11 years old this year.

“With Guild Wars,” said Mike, “we were wanting to try new things in online gaming. How could we mix RPG and strategy elements properly in an online game, and how could we create a sense of competition in an RPG?”

That was the original mission statement for Guild Wars. It wasn’t an MMORPG and was never billed as an MMORPG. “We never imagined it would be this successful,” Mike confessed. “We were a 65 strong studio when we shipped Guild Wars.  Today, it has sold over seven million copies.” 

In three years they had grown to a studio that was 135 strong and they began to think of the future. Guild Wars 2 was announced in 2007 and the company has pretty much been quiet about the game until last year.  “It was time to make the games of our dreams,” said Mike.

According to Mike, Guild Wars 2 is what he calls a “straight up MMO” with persistent open worlds but still without any monthly fees.  “We didn’t have any monthly fees for Guild Wars not because it was heavily instanced,” he said. “It was an innovative concept and a business model we believed would work.”  ArenaNet continues to break out of the cookie cutter formula then, as they will ship Guild Wars 2 the same way. They will monetize through sales of the box set, not with monthly subscription fees.

“Some games are good games but not innovative games,” opined Mike. “They can still be successful and lots of fun to play, but at ArenaNet, we pride ourselves on our innovation.”

He continued to speak of the persistent world. “Is it innovative or immersive if the same town is being attacked over and over again even after you’ve repelled the attacks? Player actions should count. If a town is under attack and you fail to save it, shouldn’t it burn down? If you win, the town’s not under attack any more is it?” What he was speaking of was dynamic content of course.

“Guild Wars 2 will be a true MMORPG,” said Lead Designer Eric Flannum. “It’s an MMO that feels like an RPG.  Every player will have a personal story. At character creation, players will fill out a biography, and the game will react to this biography.  For example, if you decide that your Norn’s primary stat will be strength, then your personal story for that character will be based on strength.”

In combat there is the ability for any combinations of classes to make up a group as every class has a self heal, there are potions that can be used as well as some healing skills.  Guild Wars 2 stresses on the versatility of the playable professions, doing away with the “Holy Trinity” of tank, healer and DPS classes.  A new class was also to be demoed: the engineer. Just as you would imagine, he uses pistols, blunderbusses and sets mines, throws grenades and sets up healing stations and gun turrets.

Eric also spoke on underwater combat and their take on it. Different skills are available under water, making good use of the Z-axis. Spells that boil and freeze water, encasing the mob in a bubble that floats up and away or drags down to the bottom. Dungeons are still instanced, but the replayability comes from their having a story mode as well as a more difficult exploration mode.

Mike led the tour of the studios, expounding on ArenaNet’s philosophy which is based on teams and team building. The design of their new space concentrated on flexibility. The ability to move, expand, join and split up teams easily. The floors in the office spaces were raised so that all power and networking was built underneath and desks were all on wheels. There were gorgeous views all around and the best views were used in the common areas like conference rooms and game rooms.  In the center of the two-story office space were the “Village Green” on one floor with tables, chairs, easy chairs and coffee tables, all arranged in small groups as well as a coffee bar and fire place to allow employees to gather easily to meet. The floor below was the lunch room and kitchen with cafeteria-type chairs and tables, but a snack bar to die for with two chillers of soda, juices and magnums of champagne, a cereal bar, a snack bar, two large fridges and a wall of microwave ovens.

“We take our snacks seriously,” said Mike, “When you are in the zone, you don’t want to hunger to break it.”

The game room was on the same floor, with consoles, large screen TVs, Rock Band instruments, a foos-ball table, a ping-pong table and a custom built table-top RPG table. Art from the game covered the walls and in the Cinematics department. We found Mike’s desk in the middle of the team. He actually moves around from team to team each week or so that he is more accessible to them.

Guild Wars always had beautiful art, and it has only improved over the years. “We use every trick of the trade to make beautiful cinematics using game art and concept art,” said department head, Horia Dociu. 3-D objects are integrated into painted backgrounds, particle effects like birds and smoke is random so each time you see a particular cinematic effect, it seems different. “We want our cut scenes and cinematics to remain true to what you will see in the game,” he continued, criticizing games that create fabulous CGI trailers to attract attention, but disappoint gamers when they actually get into the game.

We moved from one department to the next, getting sneak peeks at fabulous creatures and exciting animation and visual effects. In another change from Guild Wars, armor now falls into weight classes with professions such as the warrior and guardian being of the heavy class, the ranger, a medium class and the elementalist, a light armor class.  There’s the usual character customization of head, hairstyles as well as body types and armor will be dye-able in multiple areas to allow for a truly custom look. Town clothing are race specific although there will be some for all to share. In addition, the Char will have different fur patterns and the Norn, different tattoos.

The writing department was in a meeting, but Mike said that Guild Wars was known for its story and its art, and hoped that Guild Wars 2 would be known for the same. We ended the tour in the Audio department where we were shown the acoustically isolated recording room complete with floating floor and 300 pound door. There were heavy chains for them to capture the sound of squeaking and rattling chains an old CRT TV with “smash me” written on the screen and an old metal cabinet that they would abuse for sound effects.

It was a fascinating tour as every department lead and head had something to tell us and something to show us. Sometimes they had more than one thing to show, but I think one of the best quotes came from head of the entire art department Daniel Dociu as he ended the tour through the Environmental Art Department by showing what the lighting team was doing.

“Ligthing,” he said, “is the final pass that brings the maps together and provides the cohesive path.”


Carolyn Koh

Carolyn Koh / Carolyn Koh has been writing for MMORPG.com since 2004 and about the MMO genre since 1999. These days she plays mobile RTS games more, but MMOs will always remain near and dear to her heart.