by Darkartiste May 26th, 2010 The ZAM staff continues its in-depth coverage of the upcoming sequel by delving into the mechanics and reasoning behind the game's battle mechanics. As we have mentioned in our last two Guild Wars 2 stories, we had the incredible opportunity to take a trip to the ArenaNet studios, where the development team is hard at work on the sequel to one of the bestselling MMO (and PC) games of all time, Guild Wars. In this interview, we sit down with designers Isaiah Cartwright and Jon Peters to discuss how the combat system has been developed for the sequel. ZAM: How do the combos and tactics that we’ve heard so much about in the developer journals work? It seems like a very “real time” sort of effect for an MMO… Isaiah Cartwright: The biggest thing that has allowed us to achieve this sort of comboing system is the fact that we’re changing the way we do skills. In Guild Wars 1, the designers would come up with the skills and then we’d hand them off to a coder and the coder would create the skills for us. That worked really well in that it gave us a lot of skills rather efficiently and the skills did exactly what we wanted them to do, but that didn’t give us a ton of room to experiment. Every time we wanted to come up with some crazy weird idea, we couldn’t really do it because of the process involved. It also meant that the coders were spending a lot of time doing pretty simple code. This time around, we really changed the philosophy in how we create this kind of content. The programmers now build us a lot of pieces, and the design team sits down and puts them all together. What that allows us to do is come up with lots and lots of ideas that we then turn into something cool. Additionally, the programmers now spend their time making these neat little building blocks rather than crafting out each skill. ZAM: Whatever they provide you with, you essentially try to make the coolest skill possible… Cartwright: Exactly. And since designers always have the mindset of trying to break (in a good way) everything that we’re given, when we come up with something cool we then go back to the programmers and ask them if it’s okay to have this neat sort of effect in the system. Sometimes they respond by saying, “Oh my gosh…how are you doing that?” After they determine how we crafted our idea with all their pieces, they may take it back to the workshop and come up with a way to do it more efficiently in the game. In the end, it just gives us a ton of experimentation possibilities and we can come up with these things very quickly, which means that we can have a whole variety of different ways to interact with monsters in the game. The different combos really came as a result of this sort of programming / design philosophy, and we’re really pushing ourselves to see what can be done with the tools that we create. We’re constantly pushing each other to do more, and the end result is something very cool. ZAM: It seems the combos will be very difficult to balance. What happens when a monster is faced with five different characters all shooting off combos that lead to some supernova explosion of awesomeness? Cartwright: That was one of our biggest hurdles at first. In Guild Wars 1, we came up with so many ideas that we realized we’d created a system that allowed us to create a whole variety of possible combinations, but each time we added something it just expanded the matrix of possible combinations even further, and thus the balancing that we had to provide on those skills that we created. Going into Guild Wars 2, we wanted to figure out a way to make the entire gamut easier to balance. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve limited the scope of the skills that we allow players to use. ZAM: That’s 10, correct? Cartwright: Right, and five are based upon your weapon. What that allows us to do is look at the “pools” of skills that you’re drawing from and know that players are going to have certain types of skills always employed, whether that’s a weapon skill, a support skill, etc. We then have a much better idea of the number of builds that can be created, and now we feel that characters will have at least some weapon, some healing and some tools to use while they’re playing. Then it’s up to us to make all the weapon, tool and healing skills as cool as possible. What would happen before is players could go out into the world with eight different tools on their bar. So then – as game designers – we’d have to reduce the bonuses from those tools because one guy is bringing all of them to bear in the battle at once. After that everyone else who goes to pick up one of those skills realizes that it’s very weak as a single skill because it was balanced to perform in a “max” sort of situation. Generally, Guild Wars 2 became so much easier to balance simply from that one adjustment. ZAM: And it helps reduce the number of “bad builds” out there, right? Cartwright: Right. We know the number of combinations, and we know it’s still large, but we can make each skill a player brings to the battle with him very powerful. Thus we have fewer combinations overall, but what we do have is that much bigger and better in the long run. When I used to balance high level combat, I’d have to run through 100 different viable builds with 40 of those being the best-of-the-best, and that was out of 500 different builds in total. With this system, I expect to have a lot more possible builds that players can actually use, which makes it a larger group, but it’s much easier to balance overall. Speaking about combos in particular, we want to be able to have the sort of “three guys shoot into a firewall to create a supernova!” sort of experience, but we don’t want to take that so far that we end up having the same sort of problems that we had in Guild Wars 1. The way we approached it was to look at all the skills and find the most visceral sort of combos that we could come up with. Of course, we’re still playing around with everything, so things could change and adjust. It’s really all about how the entire system works when we’re actually in the game – how it feels and whether it’s fun. Jon Peters: The skills in the first game were also much more complicated because we spent so much time on each skill before we even implemented it. We had to say exactly what it was going to do so the coders could actually make the skill work. This time the skills are a lot simpler and they all come from this subset of tools. So, for example, you could have a bowshot that shoots a flaming arrow. But someone else could shoot their regular arrow through a flaming wall, and it then receives the flaming arrow properties. It’s not like we are suddenly generating a new tool by having this combo out there. We already have fire arrows, normal arrows, and fire walls. ZAM: Basically you could save space if you wanted. Peters: Right. So you don’t have to have everyone in your group have fire arrows, because all you need is an elementalist that can drop a flame wall down for you. Our combos aren’t doing many things that weren’t already in the game, it’s just giving you an additional way to do them. Cartwright: The other thing we’re trying to push for is this idea of actually playing together. When you go up to a person in the game for the first time, there should be a fun way for the two of you to interact together. So when an elementalist comes to a party, he can throw a fire wall down, and that’s the sort of feeling we’re trying to get people to interact together. ZAM: Are these combos always associated with tools? Or are they two weapon sorts of skills? How does someone actually begin a combo? Cartwright: We’re still really playing around with it. Y’know, it might be the case where we do end up finding that we need some set rules with the combo system, but we’re really still working on it and iterating it. We always try to think big and then back off. Peters: And with the cross profession combos, we’re really trying to do things that are always really visual and really obvious. Of course, there are other less obvious combos, like dropping an AoE to knock down an opponent to assist your allies. But we do try to make many of the combos very visually explicit – if you see a giant AoE cloud and you shoot something through it, you expect something to happen. Cartwright: We also have some loose categories of combos too. For example, the fire wall and arrow combo might be in the “throw something through the AoE because it’s going to get cooler” set of combos. So, in the game, you’ll just know what to do when you see the combo goes out there. You won’t need to look at a chart to figure out the best skill to use with a particular combo. ZAM: But could you do something like that where a group essentially specs out their characters to have the best combos available? Cartwright: Definitely. We’re certainly going to have a depth of complexity there, because when we think something might be too simple, it’s really easy to add elements to the game. I mean, it’s a constant juggling act between balance, number of build options, and everything else we have to factor in. It’s all about finding that sweet spot. Luckily, we have 200 employees now who can constantly get back to us and let us know if we’ve done something cool or really dumb. It makes for a very iterative sort of environment. It’s like all the questions that you’re asking… we’re asking ourselves the same questions and trying to answer them. Peters: Our ability to create things and then iterate them so much faster really creates a much more cohesive system for us. ZAM: Environmental weapons sound awesome. Can you tell us a bit more about them? Cartwright: I’ve always thought of those weapons as a blast back to games like Double Dragon or Final Fight. You could be randomly wandering around the world and suddenly you’d pick up a whip or a knife and you’d be stronger for it. And that’s really what we were shooting for in GW2. We wanted people to be running around and all of a sudden see that object out in the play field and say “Ohhhhh….a rock!” On top of that, we’ve made it so that many of the environmental weapons react differently depending on what class picks them up. Since you’re already running around with a pretty badass weapon to begin with, we had to make sure that the rock (or whatever) you picked up was absolutely awesome. That sort of idea, again, allows us to come up with all sorts of different combinations between the classes and the environmental weapons. It also allows for different types of gameplay. We might have a really hard encounter in the game, but all we’d need to do to even the score is drop some environmental weapons out there for the players to pick up and use. ZAM: That concludes this segment of our combat and skills interview with the Guild Wars 2 team. Check back in a few days for the conclusion of our interview! And check out all the new screens and concept art that have been added to the Guild Wars 2 Gallery.