If you’ve had my experience playing Guild Wars 2, you’ve seen few if any in-game hiccups, no random disconnects and no just-trying-to-get-in-the-game server stonewalling. But if you follow online discussion groups, you’ve probably heard at least one or two people complain about stuff like server kicks, problems accessing the game’s guilds, hours-long World vs. World queues and of course the game’s shop-and-swap “Trading Post,” stuck offline since day one.
What’s the story from developer ArenaNet’s standpoint? I took the game’s pulse with company president and co-founder Mike O’Brien as it launched on Tuesday. Here’s what he told me.
What’s it been like the past three or four days?
Obviously the whole team is on a high and exhausted at the same time. We poured five years of our lives into getting ready for this launch, so it’s fantastic to see all the players filling up the world. When we can, we’re playing with them and having a lot of fun just doing that. We’re reading all about the experiences players are having, and as you might imagine, it’s a dream come true to be able to ship a game like this and see the fantastic player reaction. That’s thrilling.
At the same time, there’s also a scramble of, “Oh my god, there’s so many players and they’re playing so many hours a day,” and making sure that we’re able to handle that kind of demand.
What’s going on behind the scenes right now?
We’ve stress-tested every system in the game, but no stress test will get you to the point our servers are at right now with launch, so we’re monitoring every part of the game. It’s a big game, and — you’ve played it, so you know — there are so many moving pieces to it. There’s the game itself, the guilds, parties and friends lists, the trading post, web services and tons more.
It’s like you’ve tried to cram as much stuff as other MMOs-that-shall-not-be-named – that have had years post-launch to glom on content — into this single point of release.
It’s an absolutely enormous undertaking to make a game of this magnitude. We know that the other games people are playing weren’t released yesterday. Players have high expectations, and they deserve to have high expectations. They’re playing games that have had years of polish. We wanted to make sure we took Guild Wars 2 to a very high level of polish out of the gate. We want it to be the best experience players have ever had in an online world.
It’s an incredible challenge, because online worlds are so comprehensive compared to any other kind of game, and Guild Wars 2 is on the high end of that scale. I mean, there are so many things we have to get right. We have to make sure every one of those systems can handle the number of users coming into the game.
But a lot of it is going really well. In areas where we run into capacity constraints, then obviously we focus the programming team on “Why are we experiencing a capacity constraint here?” and “What do we need to do in order to address the issues players are having?”
You’ve been playing the game all weekend, right?
I have, but I’m an intentionally slow player, so — this is embarrassing — my guy’s only level 17. I was going to ask you about these players starting to pop up claiming they’ve already hit level 80. I can’t play games like that. It feels…not wrong exactly, but like missing the point.
I’m actually more like you. I like to take the time — I call it “take the time to smell the roses” — in the game. We really tried to build Guild Wars 2 so that it’s not supposed to be a race. It’s not a race to level 80; it’s a world, so I think you’re doing things right, you know, by enjoying the world.
How’s server stability at this point?
In general the game has been holding up very well and the servers are running great, even under launch stress. We did have to take some things down, like the Trading Post, which as you know has been offline for a while. That’s because, as players started hitting it, we had capacity issues, and we wanted to make sure it’s in really good shape, because it’s such an important part of the game — it needs to work well. Behind the scenes, we’ve got a lot of brilliant people working on that software, and they’ve identified where players ran into capacity constraints, and we’re testing and testing and testing to make sure we get that fixed.
I’ve had no problems to speak of so far, and I know that’s anecdotal, but I was listening to a pretty popular Guild Wars 2 podcast earlier, and all they talked about was how surprised they’ve been that the servers aren’t underwater.
Demand has just been off the charts. We can’t believe the sales volume so far — it’s been way beyond our expectations. We’ve had concurrent users pushing the 400,000 number, and that’s before the game was even on store shelves. This is why none of us have had any sleep for days. And I do think those numbers will only go up now that the game is on store shelves.
We scheduled the headstart [three- and one-day early launch access] so we’d have a chance with pre-purchasers to discover and fix any problems, and we’ve already discovered and fixed several. I think demand is crazy and it’s only going to go up, but I think we’ll keep things running smoothly.
My priority — our priority — is ultimately making sure that players have a great experience. We spent five years working on Guild Wars 2, and we’re going to spend years and years supporting it. If we got to a point where sales continued to be off the charts, and it threatened the experience that players are having with the game, then we’d just turn off sales.
Turn off sales?
To clarify what I mean by that, we sell the game on our website and we also sell the game at retail. And we know how many boxes we’ve created, so we know how many copies can possibly sell through retail. If it gets to the point where sales are so high that it would be unwise of us to keep selling on our website because it wouldn’t leave enough slots for all the people who’ve already bought and all the people we know are going to buy, then we’d just turn off sales.
That would be a shocking thing to do, obviously — not something that you ever see in the games industry — but for me it’s an easy decision, because for me, Guild Wars 2 is a long-term project. I want players to keep having a great experience, and I know if we had to turn off sales temporarily, it’d be okay.
Barring that, this whole “server overflow” concept seems to be working pretty well. I’ve run into a few glitches where sometimes you can’t join another character unless you log out and back in, but aside from little stuff like that, it seems to work amazingly well. I’m used to sitting in queues with other MMOs, where if you leave or get knocked off, it’s back to the end of the line. Here, from launch to actually in-game, it’s about 15 seconds.
We have amazing programmers — that’s what it boils down to. Our team was able to do some fantastic stuff, and on the backend we have some technology that allows us to do things you haven’t seen in similar games. That’s been an amazing release valve for us. It means people aren’t stuck waiting in queues.
That said, there’s still a certain number of total player slots available in the data center, and that’s what I’m going to protect, so that we don’t sell so many copies of the game in the coming weeks that servers start slowing down.