We chat to lore and continuity designer Jeff Grubb about the game's launch, the recent beta weekends and how its business model compares to others such as the traditional subscription and now popular free-to-play.
Guild Wars 2 has obviously been in development for a long time, and has seen several delays. What were the main reasons it took so long to deliver the sequel?
"Well, we never said it was delayed because we never told people when we were going to release it!
"We did that for a very good reason and it's the fact that we didn't want to put ourselves to a timetable where we must deliver by the end of 2012 and then find ourselves in a situation where we have to cut features or not develop things as much as we'd like.
"We'd rather get it correct, and we received a lot of support from NCsoft, our parent company, who said, 'When it's ready'. We would go to conventions and people keep saying, 'When's it out?' And we would say, 'When it's done'.
"So many MMOs - and games in general, but MMOs in particular - have come out half-baked, they aren't quite there yet, and the way the market is now you really don't have the opportunity to grow.
"It's not like seven years ago where you could come out, and if you stumble out of the gate and then make it grow and develop and say, 'Oh, people like this content' and slowly build your audience this way.
"Right now there's a huge flow of people who come in the first month and you really want to have the table out and the buffet ready and everything prepared for them so they can enjoy it right now.
"I think the market is a little bit more unforgiving, so that's one reason. One of the reasons why it has taken us so long is because when we released 'Eye of the North' give years ago we said 'we're going dark for a couple of years' and we're going to start developing the new game, and this is also unheard of.
"You don't usually say, 'Hey guys, we're not going to say anything for a while'. We did a lot of groundwork, a lot of preparation but we're also an iterative company, we basically go back, we don't leave well enough alone. We say that's good, how can we make it better? We have a new mechanic here, how does it change everything we've done previously?
"The phrase I use is that we're creatively fearless. We're unafraid to go and rip up a few floorboards to make sure it's a better game. I think we do have a better game but we also have been working very hard on this. To be honest, all of us back at the office are ready to be done!"
I bet you guys are relived it's drawing to a close.
"It's exciting right now. Everyone at the office is tucking bits in and doing final play tests and making sure that all the cinematics fire, and a million and one different things that have to be ready before we throw the doors open.
"I'm sure most of us would simultaneously like it to be done, but then we say, 'Yeah, we need two more weeks to do three more things that are really cool'. It's been a really good team; a very strong team, we've been together most of the whole time and I think it's going to be a really good game."
You've been doing beta weekends for a while now, how has that prepared you for the launch?
"It's prepared us on the one hand from the idea of how our story and our dynamic events stand up to a huge number of people.
"We've played with QA, we've played with friends and family, but these are fairly small numbers compared to inviting everybody who has bought the pre-release copy into the game all at once and saying, 'Here, go run some humans and tell us what you think'.
"There have been changes as a result of the beta weekends; we learn how the story is flowing with a massive number of people, and how do we break that up?
"How do we keep that as an enjoyable experience? How do we build the scaling so it still challenges people and isn't just a huge hoard of people just running from one zone to another?"
I assume you've obviously looked at other MMOs and tried to avoid their mistakes around launch?
"It's a big challenge. Literally one of the big things that have guided us is that there are things we love about MMOs and things we don't love about MMOs.
"We want to address the ones we don't like and we want to strengthen the ones we think are good ideas; our world versus world is the idea of three servers going against each other, and we built on that, for example."
You've said that the first one wasn't an MMO, but this one you've decided to call it that. What would you say is the reason you now call it an MMO, and what has made you go in that direction?
"The original Guild Wars was heavily instanced, you'd have these outposts where everybody was in, but as soon as you got out of town it became very lonely, very fast because you were going for an instance of you and your party.
"You had to group up if you were going to have other people going with you. You would go into these wide areas where it was good as you had the domain to yourself, but you never really had the chance to run into somebody you hadn't invited at the outset.
"Here we've flipped that type of thing, the world is persistent, the world is massive, the world is everybody running around in here, so now you are going to encounter other people.
"Our next question was what does that mean? We don't want people to steal kills from each other, we want people to group up naturally; we don't want to force people to group up because did that in the original Guild Wars and it worked for us for that type of game, but we never called the original an MMO. We never called it a massive multiplayer, it was an online RPG.
"The new one we are calling an MMO because we are embracing that persistent environment and solving a lot of the problems that people have, with the fact they have to play with other people in the same area.
"No-one is going to get the reward that you were going to get. Your skills work with other people's skills, your events scale up accordingly.
"One of the things we learnt early on is that if other people participated I can't take five guys and stand over here, and just being there makes your job harder. I have to be part of the fight in order to count to increase how tough they are."
The game is set 250 years after the original, how does that sort of time span allow you to in terms of setting up a story and a world?
"From a mechanics standpoint it allows us to make major changes.
"The monk no longer exists, because we wanted to get rid of the dedicated healer and the idea you must have a dedicated healer in your group to survive. We spread healing abilities through all of the classes, so we ended up without a monk.
"Previously you could build your skill with individual skills, we found that people would find a good build and never change it, so it really didn't matter that they had all these different components, they would play and just use five things.
"So we basically attached the skills to weapons, so if I've got the dagger I have the dagger skills, if I have the pistol I have the pistol skills and I have a handful of utility skills that I can use that will make my character special and would give me an edge in particular types of combat.
"The distance of time helped us for mechanics, so it's not like we say that it's the next day and all of the mechanics have changed. From the story end it allowed us to grow out the races a lot more, we made the humans much more embattled.
"[A lot of places were lost] and Lion's Arch was wiped out when a dragon first arrived and has been resettled by a whole bunch of different races and they're all pirates.
"So basically, it allowed us to evolve the world. The Charr were the bad guys, they had no redeeming morals. How do we make them the good guys? We've never seen Charr women, what's the story there?
"That's a hook that we used and developed into the idea that the Chaar that we were fighting, they were the Flame Legion who were controlling the Charr and since there's been a rebellion and the Flame Legion have been disposed, and now other legions have coming to the fore and they have different morals and they're also trying to battle the Flame Legion who are trying to remain on top."
I imagine that was quite difficult to make all these stories fit together with so many branching paths. Did you take a diamond approach where everyone starts at the bottom and it branches out and then everyone comes back in at the top?
"It's more like a triangle because there are so many opportunities at the beginning, and your choices go forward and after about 30 levels are racial problems, the Centars with the humans and various inventions with the asura, and over time you discover the danger of the dragons.
"You start as a bit of a big deal, a local hero and you develop over time that there are greater challenges out there in the form of the dragons.
"About level 30 you make a decision about what order you're going to go into, and orders are the various groups, pan-racial groups that have different attitudes of how they're going to take on the dragons. How is this best way to fight the dragons?
"The Durmand Priory, the Order of Whispers, the Vigil, all these are different organisations and your story joins in at that point with what choices you make and they can continue to grow.
"Finally, all the orders come together to invade Orr and take on the elder dragon Zhaitan. All the roads lead to Orr, but the path you take will be different depending on the choices you make."
Does that make it difficult when you're designing post-release content, as obviously there are so many choices to begin with?
"It depends on what the nature of the post-release content is, because are we going to have more stories, are we going to have more steps, are we going to have new areas we want to explore?
"We haven't answers to all those questions yet, as we've been concentrating on getting the game done, but what we've got in the world is so many stories we haven't told, so many things that we've said is a really good idea but lets concentrate on Zhaitan for right now, so secrets we have not revealed yet.
"When we do post-release content, it will be the type of thing where people not say, 'Oh, this is something new', it's, 'Okay, that makes sense, that fits in with everything else you've been doing'. You've given enough hints that when you see something new that it already feels as part of the world."
Did you consider when doing the sequel doing a subscription or even a free-to-play model?
"No. The no subscription fee was so much in our DNA from the original Guild Wars that we would get a smaller market but willing to pay however many dollars every month.
"It's always been looking at that. We've also been looking at micro-transactions and we use the original Guild Wars as a test bed. What did people like? What did people accept? What did people feel was excessive, both in cost or power?
"People like interesting items or different items, but not turning it into a game where you basically have to purchase to beat this bad guy. That's not an option; you can get more experience, you can get more crafting, you can boost things like that but we aren't going to mis-sell you a sword +1."
What do you think about MMOs and the direction they have gone in recent years? It's shifted from a subscription model to free to play.
"That's happened only very recently. There have always been, among the AAA games, it's been [that] you must be subscription-based and we were this weird little exception - oh there's Guild Wars over there. They do very well, but they don't do subscription fees but we don't want to talk about them.
"There's also been a lot of small, independent free-to-plays that don't charge you except for micro-transactions, so we've been in this middle bit and what I've seen is a lot of cases where we've seen a subscription-based game come out and then it goes free to play.
"I think that's difficult from a design end, because you're designing with a particular of ethos.
"Since we are no subscription fee, we're designing a certain way, and if we did a subscription fee game it would be weird as we'd have to do things that we aren't currently doing in the game.
"And I think it applies the other way; if you have a subscription fee game and you suddenly go free to play, how does that affect your design? It basically blows your initial business plan out of the water."
Guild Wars 2 is available tomorrow (August 28) on PC.