Interview: Colin Johanson, Game Director of Guild Wars 2

In a world where MMO’s are growing in popularity, it takes a lot for one to stand out from the rest. With the MMO genre split between the Pay-to-Play and Free-to-Play category, both of which have great titles, the one game that stands out the most among fans is Guild Wars 2, love child of ArenaNet and publisher NCSoft.

We  got talking to Colin Johanson, Game Director for Guild Wars 2, and asked him about the franchises’ past success, as well as the future of the game.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

How would you say Guild Wars 2 has been received since launch? During that time, you’ve contended with expansion packs from World of Warcraft and Rift, but also the free 2 play elements of The Old Republic, The Secret World and much more. Can you share any figures with us today and talk about the game’s overall reception?

Its been incredible. We’ve sold more copies then we imagined we could. We’re over 3 million copies right now, the fastest MMO in the west to reach 3 million copies sold. Since Christmas, we’ve been seeing the player base steadily rising, unique logins have been going up and those are all really strong numbers. It’s very hard in our industry to have that kind of launch, settle into your core player base and then see that base start to grow. Its very rare to see that happen and it only happens in the strongest games. That has all happened to Guild Wars 2. We’re in a really good place and we’re really excited about everything that’s happened to date.

How are you continuing to build on that success? Tell us more about your plans for 2013? What are you working on?

The biggest thing were doing is not sitting around and celebrating our achievements. We’re basically saying that we need to continue to build on that success and keep going. So, every month since last October,  we’ve put out a major release to expand the game for free. We’ve done holiday festivals, we’ve also done multi-week festivals in the game with all sorts of new content for players to experiment with. We’ve done new updates and opened up new areas in the game. We’ve already got a lot of new content and events in Guild Wars 2, and this year, we’ve also started kicking things off a living storyline in our game. It’s very much like your favourite TV show. We literally have a storyline that’s going on in the world right now and that story will continue to build as we go forward every month. It’s a really true storyline that’s carrying out across the game world. To give it a good parallel, you get to the end of your favourite RPG , say Skyrim. and you think “I wish I could keep playing in this world forever with new storylines”. We’re basically giving you that game. Every single month, we’re continuing to add new stories that let players experience fresh elements whilst driving new stories in the game and its all for free.

Are you intending to further develop elements you’ve already created, or are you aiming to fundamentally change the core of the game, and continue to add dynamic new features that further diversify the overall experience? What I’m asking is, can we expect unexpected new features in Guild Wars 2 this year?

Erm, really both. The last 6 months have seen us primarily take the things in the game that we’ve built and expand on those and add new types of content. This month, we have our guild mission system rolling out where guilds can effectively go to places in the world and create content that everybody gets to experience. They’ll kick off an event and it will say “this is the guild that created it” and then everybody can come and join them if they want to. We want to build on those concepts, but also really expand on the systems we’ve got in place, continue to add more and more content to those, but also innovate it in a way that we can expand the game going forward. Ideally, you don’t have to go and buy a new game to experience the next great features in MMO’s. Instead, we are going to be building those inside of Guild Wars 2 and continuing to expand on the world so we’d really like to do both.


We’ve seen you tweak and tinker with the dynamic levelling system? Can we expect more of that or do you think you’ve finally achieved a happy balance there? How would things changed if you were to increase the level cap?

We’re still tweaking the system just a little bit. The February release will see some tiny little changes, but we are getting really close. One of the worst parts of traditional MMO is that your buddy gets the game and you have your max level character. They roll a new character and your choice is either make a whole new character to play with them or you don’t get to play with them at all. Then you wait around for like 60 hours until they get a high enough level to play with you. However, we built this system so you can always play with your friends wherever they are in the game. You can go to where they are, you’re set to the same ability level, you are a little bit more powerful if you’re a higher level character, but you can always play with anybody anywhere in the game. It opens up the entire game so you can always play any of the content and experience it as intended, and we are really happy with where that system is right now. We’re doing some tiny little tweaks here and there, but for the most part, it has kind of settled in to what its going to be.

What about PVP? What is being added to the game in 2013?

Well, PVP is a big focus for us for sure. I’d say it’s the one part of the game which we need to develop the most. I think, fundamentally, with PVP, our first strategy is to build our base. We’re trying to get in all the core features that you need to have a really strong core PVP element. It’s something we have a lot of experience with from Guild Wars 1 and we’re going to do a lot of it with Guild Wars 2 as well. Once we have that really strong base, core set of features and experiences in Guild Wars 2, we’re going to start expanding on that and building on the competitive aspects of it. So we’ll start adding tournaments and a spectator mode, so shoutcasters can actually start broadcasting games and recording them. We’re doing all the elements that you would expect from a great e-sports game. But that’s kind of the next step. We’re going to build out into that element, and really start growing it from there. Our goal is to be the predominant MMO in the competitive PVP space and we’re building towards that this year.

Where will your PVP experiences be different to other MMOs on the market? How do you keep things fresh but maintain a true Guild Wars spirit? Perhaps you might do something with sPVP or even designated Guild PVP with new objectives and aims?

Well, we haven’t ruled anything out at this point. I think that our first step is just making sure that all of the core elements that you would expect from a Triple A, top flight competitive game are there. Giving you the ability to build your own arenas and set your own rules and our custom arena is something that’s coming in the future. That ability to actually have a shout caster spectate games and broadcast what’s going on in them. Those are all things we are doing later this year and are key components that we need established in the game to really grow that. We have our matchmaking and ratings system coming out in about a week. This will mean people can start playing and moving up and down the ratings list for our gamers. Its really important to start getting competitive players to start competing with one another. We also want to build on the rewards that are available to players for PVP and make that an even more rewarding system. Then we are going to start going down the checklist of what you would expect to find in a top flight game and some of that is stuff we are going to innovate, specifically for Guild Wars 2 and do something unique. We will talk about that a little bit later down the road, but we certainly want to build that out into the game you look at. If you’re thinking “i want to play competitive PVP in the MMO space” Guild Wars 2 will be the first thing you think of, and we are on our way to getting there.


Why do you not charge for a subscription model? Are you considering micro-transactions for certain things, or will monetary expansions down the life be enough to sustain Guild Wars 2 for the next few years?

Well, you know, we’ve used that model for 7 years with Guild Wars 1 and its been extremely successful for us. It allowed us to make Guild Wars 2 and will allow us to make whatever we make in the future. It works just fine. Every company has to decide for themselves what model is good for them and their customer base. For us, we find the no subscription model a better fit for our game. Players can put it down for a couple of months, go play other games and come back to it and not feel compelled to have to login to it every month. One thing that we really like about it is it puts pressure on us as developers to be really good at our jobs. If we aren’t making compelling content every month, then players don’t have to come play our game. There’s not a monthly fee that’s dragging them back in and so it really forces us to get out there and make really strong, compelling content every single month so people want to log into our game and see the new stuff that’s going on. Its scary, but at the same time a really nice thing to have that driving us all the time. We do have an online store where you can purchase additional things. One unique thing is that there’s nothing in there that you need to purchase, its all just bonus extra stuff. You can play the game forever and never need to buy that stuff because it doesn’t make you stronger than other players. Plus, everything you get from the store, you can earn in game. You can just earn gold and actually go purchase those things from the store as well. Its purely optional and designed for collectors.

Do you have any information about an upcoming fully-fledged retail expansion for the game? Are there any details you can share?
Expansions are something we are always considering. We are currently just focused on making the core living world as strong and compelling as we possibly can and just really strengthening the base game and expanding on that as well as giving it a month to month amazing experience for all our players, that’s our major focus right now

What is the most significant development change you’ve made since launch? What’s the one major thing you want to improve on in 2013?

(Laughs) Good Question! I would say the most significant development change is actually a little bit of a change in strategy for how we operate. I think that if you look back on last year from the launch of Guild Wars 2 to December, we wanted to have really compelling content every month and we had a couple of really fun festivals in Halloween and Winters day for Christmas. We had an opening of a new part of the world and a storyline that led up to that with The Lost Shores, but those were more sort of self contained pieces that had a story to each one of them and I think that our goal for 2013 is really trying to take that living world concept, that ever changing game, and really build on it to a whole other level. That idea that I talked about of this living storyline where literally the game has a story that constantly keeps changing and doesn’t end and you get new storylines added all the time. They really drive everything that’s going on in the game world. I think that is the biggest thing that we’ve kind of shifted into gear and we are putting a real focus on that concept, you know, of having this serial TV show kind of theme to the way that our content plays out, and then everything were adding to the game fits under that theme of that storyline that we’re doing and I think that is a big change for us. That is a huge challenge, it means that we have to be able to produce content rapidly, we need to constantly be able to release it so these storyline fell like they are building and there’s always new things going on in the story, and that’s something we’ve only just started to get into right now and I think that if we can be successful at it, its going to be extremely rewarding for our players.

Big changes are coming up in the world of Tyria. When it comes to MMO’s, I personally fall in and out of love quicker than Taylor Swift. But with Guild Wars 2 being constantly updated, it is like living in a real fantasy world Something most MMOs fail to do right. See you in Tyria!

About the author

Craig Tester

Craig has been a gamer since he was a kid when he spent hours playing games. This lead him to writing about games and has had his work featured in Knave Magazine and various sites such as ShopTo, This Is My Joystick, Nerd Reactor and many more