Hell, it has famously been said, is other people. Play enough games online and you'll come to understand where Sartre was coming from. Many online games can feel a lot like No Exit—a world populated only by the meddling, the griefing, and the incompetent, where even death isn't an escape.
That being the case, it's all the more remarkable that Guild Wars 2 actually makes me glad to see other people. Aside from Thatgamecompany's Journey, I've never played a game in which that's true. Other than the momentary adrenaline rush I get when I see a player in Call of Duty or Gears of War before he sees me, I rarely feel happy to see anyone online. But in Guild Wars 2, my emotions upon seeing others run from happy to excited, even to relieved, if I'm overmatched in a fight. (The only anger I'll feel is when I see a similar-looking elementalist who's ganking my style.)
That's not an accident, not by a long shot. A couple of weeks ago at ArenaNet's offices outside of Seattle, I sat down with Guild Wars 2 lead designer Isaiah Cartwright to talk about how ArenaNet designed player-love into their game.
"We really wanted every player, when they see another player, to be happy to see that other player," Cartwright said. "We found that when we were playing other MMOs that that wasn't true. One player comes over and attacks your monster, and you're like, 'Woah, dude! Back off, he's mine!' Or, you were on a quest of some sort and you were trying to kill some boss, and you get there and another player is fighting it and killing it. You started to resent players in other games. You started to seek out little corners of the world where there weren't players, so you could do your stuff. And so we tried to solve that—[the problem of] hey, we're in a big MMO, but we're playing alongside people and not with people."
"We ask, 'Is there any reason why I dislike another player?' And if we ever have that feeling, we get in a room and we talk about it."
One of the approaches ArenaNet took was to ditch the quest model embraced by other MMOs like World of Warcraft. The quest model superimposes the quest structure of single-player games into an MMO format—you go to a quest-giver to get your orders, carry them out, and return to complete the quest. Cartwright said that makes the world feel very static.
Guild Wars 2 does have quests of a sort—the "heart quests" where players go to a quest giver and take care of some baddies or clear out some traps. But those events can be simultaneously attacked by a number of people, and are much faster if done with other players. And the biggest move away from the quest structure are the dynamic "events" in the world that pop up wherever you happen to be (sometimes in the middle of heart quests, even). Everyone playing the game knows them well—that familiar chime plays, and a big orange circle appears on your map. I don't know about you, but my first instinct when I hear that sound is "Yes! I wanna go join the fracas!" At which point I make a beeline towards the spot where the explosions are happening. This does not happen to me very often in video games.
Cartwright talked more about the ArenaNet approach. "The entire time we were doing it we were like, 'This seems so common sense! Why isn't it common?' But we realized that's because it's harder. There's a lot of problems to solve. I think some of the way we approach it is we just played the game, and we think of it ourselves. We ask, 'Is there any reason why I dislike another player?' And if we ever have that feeling, we get in a room and we talk about it."
The team had to test the game to remove some elements that put players at odds with one another. "Originally when we had events," Cartwright said, "we had events that had fail states and success states. We still have that, but there would be this event going on where there's a [character] that's gonna summon a big bad monster. And they're on the way, leading up to it. And if you fail that event, a big monster spawns. And if you stop her, it doesn't spawn. What we found is, some players want to see the big bad monster, and so they're like, 'Don't do the event!' But some players do want to finish and [stop] the monster, and so you have conflict. Now, some players are disliking each other. We started getting in the game and some people were like, 'Hey, don't do that.' And so we said, okay, what did we do wrong? When you see another player, you should be like, 'Awesome! I have another person here!'"
I think it's safe to say that ArenaNet has achieved their goal. Every time I join a high-level event, I'm happy to be surrounded by so many other players, to have support if I go down and to add my powers to our mutual benefit. Every time I'm wandering the wilds, I'm thrilled to see another player and to spend a few moments by his or her side, helping one another out. And whenever I see a downed player on my map, I rush over to help out. In most games, hell may be other people, but in Guild Wars 2, other people are a blessing.
Well, except that one floozy who was wearing my exact armor with an identical color scheme. She can just go jump off a cliff.