This week, MMORPG.com was lucky enough to chat to Living World Season 4's developer Andrew Gray, Game Designer Jason Reynolds and new game director Mike Zadorojny, about what it takes to get an episode off the ground in light of a brand new expansion.
When asking about the breadth of content in Daybreak, Mike gave us a great reply about how teams operate behind closed doors, whilst Andrew went on to explain the timeline of development dating back all the way to Living World Season 3 Episode 4!
MMORPG: This release was a triple threat- Story, Raids and Fractals. How long have the respective teams been working on the content that shipped with 'Daybreak'? Were any of these already being developed before the release of Path of Fire?
Mike Zadorojny: Our goal was to start Season 4 of Living World with a bang! By having a completely separate team building Path of Fire, we were able to make sure the teams working on supporting the live game could do so without interruption. Thus, each of the teams that worked on portions of the release – the Daybreak episode, the Twilight Oasis fractal, the Hall of Judgement raid, and everything else that shipped with them - had already been in development as we began the polish phase of the expansion.
Andrew Gray: Episode 1 started development shortly after Season 3 episode 4 shipped, though a lot of that time early on was spent generating a season-wide plan for Season 4. That Season plan, as well as episode 1 itself, went through quite a few iterations, in a large part due to changes to Path of Fire that continued well into episode 1’s development cycle. As the Path of Fire team created new tech and content types – such as bounties and races – we found ways to incorporate them into the Domain of Istan. Similarly, as story beats in Path of Fire changed, we had to adjust to make sure Daybreak was a seamless transition from Path of Fire into Season 4.
Mike and Andrew went off to tell us about the challenges faced in bringing out a release so soon after an expansion, where we discovered that episodes take almost 6 months to develop, but also that the Path of Fire story went through quite a large change that impacted upon the release.
MMORPG: Was is a big challenge keeping a solid release cadence given an expansion just dropped? What would you say were the biggest challenges for the Living World team were that stemmed from Path of Fire's release?
Mike Zadorojny: By having different teams focusing on Living World and on Path of Fireit became easier to coordinate our efforts for a unified story and content strategy. To pull this off there needed to be constant communication between the two teams and each had to be flexible during development when changes happened on the other team. As Season 3 wound down, we made some changes on Living World that would ripple out to affect the Path of Fire team. This meant that we had to make minor adjustments to the story, or to the maps to make sure we were consistent. The same happened in reverse as well, where Season 4 had to make adjustments based on Path of Fire changes.
Andrew Gray: Living World episodes take roughly five to six months to create in an ideal situation, so to follow Path of Fire in two months, the math sort of dictates you are going to be in flight simultaneously. Mount tech was still in development when we started episode 1, the Path of Fire story went through quite a few changes, some of which were not trivial, and greater emphasis on things like the bounty system prompted us to continue to add more content to Istan. Beyond that, logistically, Living World and the Path of Fire team share many resources, up to and including the game director. Luckily we had two game directors this time around, and we also had a great design leadership team to lean on, as well as our own experience from working on two episodes in season 3.
All and all, that was certainly a huge challenge, but I also feel like it helped shape the episode into something the team is very proud of.
We saw miles and miles of feedback on the lack of Meta event content in the expansion, and so we wanted to know how much The Domain of Istan was influenced by the post Path of Fire critique. Andrew goes on to explain that the team knew well in advance that they wanted a meta in Istan, and to me really highlighted the fore site that the team has going in to each release to make sure that, as a big picture, the Living World fits in with both other episodes and the expansion content.
MMORPG: The Domain of Istan is chock full of meta event content. Was this planned before Path of Fire, or did feedback about a lack of this content in the expansion steer the development?
Andrew Gray: By the time that feedback arrived, episode 1 was already well past the point of adding complex metas. The episode 1 team had just come off the meta-heavy Lake Doric map, and we had learned a lot from that map that we were eager to incorporate into our next project. We also spent time playing in the last two Season 3 maps and the Path of Fire maps, and realized that, while we were personally thinking about going straight from one meta map to another, there would be some variety in there to break them up. With all that in mind, we decided early on we wanted Istan to have at least one big meta.
The base concept for Palawadan actually came from retrospective notes for the centaur camp. We really liked that ‘raid the elite zone’ theme. It had a real visceral feel to it where you really felt like you were just totally ruining those centaurs’ day. But we also identified that it put a lot of burden on commanders to try to coordinate that without an associated meta, and that without it running at a consistent time, there was nothing telling players outside the map “Hey, it’s time to go centaur hunting!” So we thought, “what if we combined that feel, with the consistent timing of the attack/defend events in Lake Doric?”
We aimed to do that with Palawadan by making it consistently kick off at dusk, and by making it a map-wide event with multiple broadcasts, without going to the extreme we did in Heart of Thorns by turning off the rest of the content in the map. We also wanted to keep the map’s population consisten, so we made sure the map also had a lot of solo or small group content. We made the Astralarium, Corsair Flotilla, Champion’s Dawn and the Brandstone events with small groups and solo players in mind, and we added some medium-sized group content in the Mordant Crescent Great Hall, Champion’s Dawn graveyard, and the bounties. We really wanted the Domain of Istan to have something for everyone to enjoy.
Once you get off from speeding across the desert on a Raptor, or flying through the Maguuma treetops, coming back to the ground can feel sluggish and painstakingly slow. We wanted to know if Fractals, the game's most widely accessed instanced content, might see some upgrades to incorporate gliding and mounts. Whilst Jason's response is fair and makes the obvious point of Fractals being a core game experience, it’s disheartening to know that whilst Raids might see Gliding and Mounts included, that it is not on the table for future Fractals.
MMORPG: Once again, the new fractal- Twilight Oasis- shipped with a fun way to move around on the special action key. These really help to get rid of the 'Glued to the Floor' feel that instanced content has after the beauty of current open world movement. Is there any chance going forward that, despite being part of the core game experience, fractals might see the inclusion of mounts and gliding?
Jason Reynolds: First and foremost, Fractals are a feature of the Core game. We do not require Core players to have gliding nor mounts, which are technical features of Heart of Thorns and Path of Fire, respectively. Secondly, mounts are a welcomed addition to the open world, and they lend themselves quite well to traveling long distances or resolving movement puzzles inside of specifically designed instanced content, but Fractals were never designed with mounts in mind. All things considered, Fractals as a whole will likely never see player mounts, but that doesn’t mean specifically placed mount-type mechanics won’t find a place in future releases.
Time and time again, players are asking for a 'Story Mode' or similar experience when it comes to raiding. It's a tricky spot to handle, difficulty in my mind is what keeps raids enjoyable, but the story is incredibly interesting and deserves to be experienced by anyone who desires it. So we wanted to get a definitive developer stance.
MMORPG: Hall of Chains is an incredible raiding experience, and is looking like the most difficult raid wing to date. Is the team satisfied with the current difficulty? Similarly, is there any feeling that too much game story is being locked behind the raid content?
Mike Zadorojny: Hall of Chains was planned to be more challenging than previous raids. As with every release there are always small adjustments you wish you had made before launch, after seeing how players have conquered the content, but overall this was a strong raid wing. Because of the difficulty of raids, both in terms of the encounters and of organizing ten players, we specifically choose not to have the main story of Living World take you into them. The stories that we explore in the raids are designed to be side stories or things that can stand alone to give context to why our heroes need to overcome these challenges. Sometimes we will have the stories of raids be related to mainline events, but not witnessing these smaller events doesn’t negatively impact a players understanding of the Living World story.
It was extremely heartwarming to see the developers have such a passion for the original game, and Andrew Gray and the Living World team not only went through documentation and the Wiki to keep the lore up to date, they went back and played Nightfall together! It is no wonder, in my mind, the team is going back to these Guild Wars 1 stories, given their history and experience in the base game. There has been feedback that the game has been throwing back to the base game just for the sake of nostaliga- but from Mike and Andrew's reply I genuinely believe that there is a strong passion from the game's developers to re live and expand upon the first game's rich lore and story.
MMORPG: How much does the team rely of the advice from the original Guild Wars 1 story when writing about such historical content? Does the story go through a lore and continuity check before release?
Mike Zadorojny: Anytime we touch events or characters from the original Guild Wars we want to make sure that we’re honoring the memories players have of the previous games. Many of the developers on Guild Wars 2 were either developers or fans of the original games. It is a privilege to carry the torch of previous legacies 250 years into Tyria’s future.
Andrew Gray: The episode 1 team has something like a combined 15,000 hours in Guild Wars, and I started my career as a designer working on the Guild Wars: Beyond War in Kryta content alongside Linsey Murdock, who is now the Lead Designer for the Guild Wars 2 Live Team. Suffice to say, Guild Wars is close to our hearts, and continuity and showing respect to the established lore is always in the forefront of our mind. As soon as we decided that the story would take us to Istan for Daybreak, the whole team rolled Nightfall characters and played through the content on the island. Countless hours are spent on the Guild Wars wiki (Thanks, wiki community!) and combing through internal documentation. We also have some “old school” narrative designers like Bobby Stein and Peter Fries who are great at tying the old world and the new world together. A lot has changed in 250 years, but identifying and including appropriate callbacks helps remind people that, while the island is a bit more “Praise Joko-y” than you may remember it, it’s still the place you learned how to handle a scythe or spear a decade ago. It’s still the island that introduced many of you to Elona.
Our last question was something pretty close to my heart- the development cycle of WvW and PvP. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like we will be seeing any kind of bundles releases for the game modes. Bundles releases are so strong since it gives a definitive time in which we know we will be getting content for the game modes, as well as at least a modicum of communication and a potential inclusion in the AMAs that accompany Living World Releases. Mike will be sticking to the current release pattern, and we will be seeing WvW and PvP updates when they are ready to ship.
MMORPG: Living World is seeing bundled releases with other game content like Fractals and Raids. Is there any possibility of WvW or PvP joining in on these bundled releases, or will they be sticking to their own cadence separate from the rest of the game?
Mike Zadorojny: We felt it was stronger for the WvW and PvP teams to release their updates on their own terms, when they felt were ready, rather than holding anything back in order to make a specific Living World release larger.