ArenaNet is confident. Confident enough to proclaim it's the best MMO developer around and its upcoming game Guild Wars 2 is the most ambitious online world ever.
Bullish talk, indeed. But, as we discovered while chatting with Mike O'Brien (ArenaNet co-founder, president and, interestingly, the creator of Battle.net) and Guild Wars 2 lead designer Eric Flannum, the developer is ready to stop talking and start showing.
Eurogamer: It seems you're trying to challenge traditional MMORPG mechanics. Is that because you're dissatisfied with current MMORPGs?
Mike O'Brien: It comes from a place of having all these dreams of what online worlds could be and seeing them not fulfilled yet.
It's not just us. We talk to our gamers, our fans, about what we all would love to see in an online world. We all have these visions of, I'm in a world and a dragon is attacking and breathing fire down and NPCs are scrambling, and how are we going to react to that?
What happens if we defeat him and what happens if we don't defeat him? How does that impact the world?
We've had this vision of what online worlds can be, how the things I do as a player can impact the world around me, how people can bounce together and all have the same motivations, for a long time.
To be honest, MMOs have been stuck in a rut recently – a lot of the same game mechanics, the same going around and harvesting quest bangs. We don't need to do that.
Let's get back to the original vision, the original promise, and deliver on some of these things that gamers have been waiting for the industry to deliver on.
Eurogamer: Is there a danger that in changing long-established mechanics you may scare off gamers who are used to them?
Mike O'Brien: Players are ready for something new. I don't think the way that you attract a lot of players to a new game is to say, 'You know that game you've been playing for the past five years? It's just exactly like that. You've been playing that game for a while. Let us show you something new.'
The ways we're changing Guild Wars 2 are ways players want to see. They've played MMOs before and they've seen the current crop of MMOs and yeah, they're familiar with it. But they know there's so much more that can be done in the online world.
An example is story. We've all played role-playing games, too. It's not like there isn't a deep history in our industry of strong role-playing games that tell a great story.
It's too bad most MMOs don't live up to that. There's no excuse for MMOs not to live up to the best story telling you see in role-playing games. It's not like it's an impossible problem.
I know it's a more difficult problem. But it's not an impossible problem to tell a deep, personal story in an online world. We just need to start holding ourselves to those standards.
Players have every right to expect that, and we're going to deliver that.
Eurogamer: What's Guild Wars 2's most innovative feature?
Mike O'Brien: Guild Wars 2 is the first social co-operative online world. We've talked a lot about how you don't even need to form a party. You can form a party, and there are benefits to it, like chat is easier, you can draw on the mini-map, things like that.
But you don't even need to form a party because everybody around you has the same goals you do. When you're fighting you're all banded together. You'll accomplish the same objectives, and then you get rewarded together.
There's never any feeling of, 'Oh no! Some guy's wandered into the hunting area I'm in! Oh no! They're going to steal all of the monsters! I wanted those monsters!' That just doesn't happen in Guild Wars 2. You welcome other people.
When I play MMOs, often I like to spend a lot of my time playing solo. I play a mix of solo and party, like most people do. In Guild Wars 2 it's just a different feeling.
You're out there in the world and you may have started playing solo and then all of a sudden a bunch of people are helping in the same thing you're doing and you guys start following each other around, and together you can accomplish more things in the world than you could have alone.
It just naturally turns itself into a social group environment without you ever having to have stopped and formed a party.
Eurogamer: World of Warcraft has been going for the same amount of time as Guild Wars, and Blizzard hasn't felt the need to do a sequel. Why is now the right time for a Guild Wars sequel?
Eric Flannum: We made the decision to do a sequel a while ago. It was partially for selfish reasons and partially for business reasons.
The selfish reason was we wanted to work on something new. Once players have bought into a game, once they've invested a lot of time in the game, it's difficult to make big changes without fundamentally changing the game.
We respect our Guild Wars 1 players a lot. We know they love the game. There were just so many things we just were, now we've built this experienced team, we've released four titles with this team, we felt like we could do so much more.
But at the same time we don't want to destroy this thing our players love. We wanted to embrace the new direction we wanted to go in.
We had been throwing around a bunch of ideas. Hey, in the new Guild Wars campaign we can do this and this and this. We had a campaign planned called Utopia – a few people know about it – there were a lot of ideas in Utopia that are the basis for what we did with Guild Wars 2.
We started looking at it and said, 'Wow, this is different. If this was a completely new game we could take this even further. We could do really cool stuff.'
We said, 'Yeah, you know what? We should do that. We should go for it. We should be ambitious. We should try to make a game we think is going to be a game changer.'
This is going to be something unique people haven't seen before, similar to what we did with Guild Wars 1, but in new areas.
The impetus was, 'Yeah, let's embrace this new direction and let's not do it at the expense of the game Guild Wars 1 players love.'
We've always said we're going to keep the Guild Wars 1 servers going as long as anybody's there who wants to play on them.
We look at Guild Wars 2 as a continuation of the ideals we started in Guild Wars 1 – the anti-crime philosophy, all of those things - but it takes it even further.
Mike O'Brien: Guild Wars 1, it was our first game as a studio. We were a small team with a small budget. We were a studio nobody had ever heard of before with IP nobody had ever heard of before.
The success of Guild Wars 1 was overwhelming in a great way. We never thought we were going to sell six million copies of Guild Wars 1.
Through that process we were able to build an amazing and veteran team. This team shipped four titles in three years for Guild Wars 1. As we grew as a company and got more and more experienced at this, I realised we have a team that can accomplish anything here.
I've said before and I'll say again: our team is the most amazing team doing this in the business today.
Guild Wars 2 is our opportunity. We've got 150 people working on it. We can accomplish all the things we thought online worlds should always have been accomplishing. That's why we're still ambitious this time. And you see it through everything we do.
I know everybody reads it and says, 'Wow. Sounds fantastic, but I don't know if you're going to pull it off.' Well, that's why we're so excited right now, and that's why we're talking to you right now.
We're releasing a video that shows it all in action and we're inviting people to come to gamescom and play with us, and to watch all these things we've talking about come to life on the screen.
Eurogamer: Mike, you created Battle.net. What do you think about what it's become?
Mike O'Brien: I was very proud to be a part of that effort. They've taken it in a lot of different directions since I've left the company.
I'm not focused on what they're doing with Battle.net. I'm focused on what we're doing with Guild Wars.
I would just say in general that back then, in 1996, I was trying to bring players new experiences and more innovation to online gaming, and here we are in 2010 and I'm trying to bring players new experiences and more innovation to online gaming.
Leaving aside Battle.net, I'm excited to be in a position where we can deliver something new with Guild Wars 2.
Eurogamer: Are you proud to have created something that's become so influential and important in PC gaming?
Mike O'Brien: I've been lucky to be able to work on a lot of exciting projects over my career.
Eurogamer: Would you consider implementing Real ID, where players have to use their real names in your forums and across your games?
Mike O'Brien: You're asking us a question we haven't even considered. It's hard to answer a question we haven't considered.
I'll just say briefly, gaming is about having fun. That's the most important thing. You gotta concentrate on the fun.
People have enough stress in their lives. Let's not worry about the stressful aspects of it. This is an escape.
We make online worlds because people want to hang out in an online world and escape the real world for a while and meet new friends and have fun with their friends.
We should have no barriers between people and making new friends and having fun with their friends.
Eurogamer: Will Guild Wars ever come to consoles?
Eric Flannum: We think consoles are interesting. We have a small group here at ArenaNet that are doing investigation of console technology. But we've no console plans at this time.
The development team is a hundred per cent focused on delivering a great PC experience.
Eurogamer: What challenges are there in transporting the traditional PC MMO experience onto the home consoles?
Mike O'Brien: MMOs can exist on consoles, but there are a lot of challenges. It's not our focus right now.
Our focus right now is making Guild Wars 2 the best PC online world ever created.
Eurogamer: When will the game be out?
Mike O'Brien: That's another question you know we're not going to answer.
You can see we have every bit of the very highest goals and ambitions for this game and for ourselves. We are not going to ship this game until this game is the game that defines the industry and what people want to play.
It's going to be done when it's done.
Eurogamer: I've heard developers say that before.
Mike O'Brien: Some of them mean it and some of them don't. We mean it.
Guild Wars 2 will be released on the PC when it's done.