GW2 Interview with Colin Johanson on Dungeons and Underwater Content

At SDCC 2011, we had the chance to sit down with lead content designer for Guild Wars 2, Colin Johanson, and learn more about how dungeons and underwater content will factor into the game.

At San Diego Comic-Con 2011, we had the chance to sit down with lead content designer for Guild Wars 2, Colin Johanson, and learn more about how dungeons and underwater content will factor into the game. Dungeons weren’t active in the demo build being showcased at the ‘con, but underwater combat was, and it was a total blast to play.

In the following interview, Colin gives us an excellent overview of some of the things players will encounter in the dungeons, and what ArenaNet is doing differently with underwater combat to make it an awesome experience for players in GW2.

The Guild Wars 2 Dungeon Experience

"You might be walking down a hall and a wall bursts open and a giant cave troll Kool Aid Mans out of the wall..."

Ten Ton Hammer: In terms of difficulty and group content, how do dungeons factor into Guild Wars 2? Could they be compared to any of the GW1 zones players might be familiar with like Fissure of Woe, the Underworld, or even Slaver’s Exile?

Colin Johanson: The dungeons that we have come in two modes. The story mode is basically pick-up-group friendly. They’re – difficulty-wise – balanced for five random players, and those tell the story of Destiny’s Edge, the guild from the book (Edge of Destiny). And when you finish the story version of a dungeon you unlock the explorable version of that dungeon.

Those are intended to be the super hard, very coordinated group style content like Slaver’s Exile, or Fissure of Woe, or the Underworld. One of the things we’ve done with those is like Slaver’s had a very specific path that you’re going through it, and there were always a lot of different ways you could approach it, but at the end you were headed in the same direction.

With the explorable dungeons, when you get into it you get to vote on which path you want to go down as you progress through it. There are different paths that you can take, and each path provides you with completely different content. So you can come back and play the same dungeon for the same rewards, but experience it in a different way so that you’re not having to do the same content over, and over, and over again.

Then we’ve taken the dynamic events from the persistent world and we’ve hidden them in the dungeons and they have all sorts of different triggers that can happen. Some of them are a random percentage chance, so for example you could be going through the Ascalon Catacombs and you’ll go through it, and you defeat it, and you have a random event where you run into a giant spider boss and you put a torch out in a hall that makes a ghost army that comes out, so you get to experience that stuff.

Another time through, you might be walking down a hall and a wall bursts open and a giant cave troll Kool Aid Mans out of the wall and stands in the middle and comes after you.

The idea is that every time you play this we want to surprise you and present you with stuff like that so it feels like – I used this analogy a couple of weeks ago but it’s totally true – when I go dungeon running in a D&D game the things that make it a dungeon to me are those random events that are happening. Like you’re heading down a hall and enter a trap, or a boss comes out of nowhere, and it’s all about solving that stuff, and kind of that Indiana Jones style solving puzzles.

Ascalon Catacombs 1 Ascalon Catacombs 2

Ten Ton Hammer: That’s one of the hallmarks of a good dungeon master – the ability to come up with those interesting things to throw at you and either catch you off guard, or surprise you in some way when you’re not expecting it.

Colin: Absolutely. And we feel like that’s what our explorable dungeons have to be, to be really exciting for groups to play through them over, and over again. We really want people to play them like Fissure of Woe or Slaver’s Exile where you’re playing them a bunch of times in a row. And the best way to make that an awesome experience is to make it so you know the basics of what you’re going to experience, you have a lot of different ways you can choose to do it, and each time you do it we throw different things at you so it feels like you never really know what’s going to come, like you’re always on your toes playing in your best D&D game.

Ten Ton Hammer: In that explorable mode, it’s all considered to be a set difficulty level though, correct?

Colin: All three paths are equally difficult, and they end different ways usually too. Some of them will end at the same boss which you play differently. For example the Ascalon Catacombs dungeon that we’ve already shown a little bit on, in the explorable version of that, all three of them end with you fighting a giant graveling patriarch. But the way you fight them is three completely different ways.

You could pick one path where you turn yourselves basically into ghosts and you trick Warmaster Grast and his ghost friends to join you as you lead an assault against the patriarch.

That’s a completely different ending than one of the other chains where maybe you set up a trap for the graveling patriarch and you get a bunch of cannons and everything and you lead him into a room and get to unload on him.

So each one has a very different ending, so even in that case it feels different but you’re fighting the same boss at the end. But there’s definitely equal difficulty on each of those paths; that’s one of our design goals. So there isn’t that situation where you go let’s take the right path, that’s the easy one. And the dynamic events help with that too because you can always have those happening on any path.

Ten Ton Hammer: Will there be NPCs outside of story mode that you’ll encounter within the dungeons? I suppose one of the closest things that springs to mind might be some of the quests you can do within Sorrow’s Furnace that can only be obtained within that zone.

Colin: Yes, definitely. It varies very greatly from dungeon to dungeon. For example in the Ascalon Catacombs one I was talking about, the whole first part of it is fighting your way up to a Durmand Priory camp and when you get there you’re presented with three plans of how to catch the graveling patriarch.

There’s an asura who presents a plan, a charr who presents a plan, and a human who presents a plan. They tell you you’ll need to make a decision to vote which way you want to go and you pick whose plan you want to pick. Whichever one you pick, that character comes with you for the rest of the dungeon and is actually an active combat part of the dungeon for you. They’re going to be telling you lore and talking about stuff that you experience as you go through it.

But there will definitely be some of that kind of thing you mentioned from Sorrow’s Furnace. A lot of that is actually going to come through the dynamic events that occur within the dungeons.

Ascalon Catacombs 3 Ascalon Catacombs 4

So you may, for example, have one where you’re walking down a hallway you’ve never been down before, and at the end of the hall there’s a guy stumbling towards you and he’s being chased by a horde of creatures. If you manage to save him, potentially he unlocks another dynamic event somewhere in the dungeon you couldn’t get otherwise.

There are going to be characters like that persist through all of the explorable dungeons. Sometimes they’ll be there, and sometimes they won’t. Sometimes they’ll be in areas you would never think to go. Maybe you pull a torch on the wall, and that opens a secret door and you go into a room and there’s a guy who has been hiding in there for 30 years because he’s too scared to get out of the dungeon. Those kinds of characters are going to be mixed in there too.

Ten Ton Hammer: Will there be anything that’s maybe the equivalent of the PvE only skills like Light of Deldrimor in GW1 that will ping hidden things on the map to help you discover some of the event content?

Colin: Right now we don’t have plans to do anything like that. Instead, we want them to be world interactions. So you’re doing things like pushing on a wall in a fireplace and you find a secret exit in it. We want it so that everyone can discover that stuff, so you don’t need to bring any one specific thing to do it. Everybody can do it, and they’re doing it based on their own ingenuity and sense of discovery.

There might be some bundle items scattered around the dungeons you can pick up. Like you might find half of a stick, and when you get half of a stick you could stick it into the wall and try to pry something open. But it won’t be something that you need to build ahead of time and need to bring with you.

Ten Ton Hammer: So maybe we’ll be able to find more jars of bees!

Colin: Yeah, that’s a great example. Maybe you’ll throw a jar of bees at a creature, and he runs away and smashes through a wall and opens up a new portion of the dungeon you’ve never seen.

Ten Ton Hammer: That would be awesome.

Colin: That would be cool. In fact, I’m going to go back and talk to somebody about that real quick…

Ascalon Catacombs 5 Ascalon Catacombs 6

Underwater Combat and Exploration

Ten Ton Hammer: With the underwater combat, you’ve taken things in a much different direction than other MMOs that have utilized underwater zones. Weapon skills will be totally different, or even things like the necromancer’s death shroud skills will be totally different.

Given how extensively you’ve approached core combat with the unique skills, how much underwater content can players expect to be able to experience in the game?

Colin: We looked at games that have done underwater in the past, and we argued for a long time about whether we should do underwater in this game or not. It was like a six month discussion before we ever even started building it. And through that time we kept looking at other games that have done underwater.

Over and over and over again, everything that we saw was slapped in. It wasn’t a feature, it was just something you could do, and the gamplay wasn’t very fun when you were underwater. Usually when you were there you wanted to get out of it as fast as you could. Or you had some breath health meter where it’s like you’re down there and have to get right back out again.

So we were like, alright, if we’re going to do this we either do it completely or we don’t do it at all. There are maps in the game that are primarily underwater. Entire maps as big as this one here [Referring to the Cornucopian Fields map showcased in the current demo build for level 28 characters] and they’re completely filled with dynamic events that chain across an area, and they’re all underwater.

Underwater is just as important as everything that you do on land. We have entire personal story chains that take you down under the ocean. So we did all of that with skills to take into account the fact that we really wanted to make that a core feature and part of the game.

We had to invent races to help fill those areas up. There’s the quaggan and the krait. The Krait were actually from GW1, but they are a huge presence of our underwater stuff. And then the undead from Orr are spreading out from under the ocean, so that’s a big part of that narrative underwater. Undead have control of a lot of the oceans.

Ten Ton Hammer: What kind of things will you be doing with underwater maps in GW2 that will improve upon some of those areas from other games you’ve looked at, or make underwater combat and travel a bit less disorienting for players? For example, are you adding in mechanics to help players figure out where they’re at on a map in terms of depth, and combat awareness?

Colin: Very much so. We’re very aware of the problems that people have navigating the Z axis and understanding what they’re doing. And honestly, when we first put underwater combat in the game, we actually ran into the same problem. A lot of people could figure it out, but for a number of people it’s really just disorienting to navigate that Z axis. And so we tried to take some elements of the game and have them communicate to you where you are and have a better sense of what’s going on.

The deeper you get in the ocean, the outside of the screen changes a little bit to try to give you a sense of depth, and give you a little bit less visibility and a little more haze as you drop down. So it feels like you’re actually like a scuba diver who is going down deeper and deeper into the ocean. Then as you start to swim back up, that starts to clear up so you have a better sense of which way you’re going on the Z axis.

Also, from the content perspective, the spawns and the content you experience are layered on certain levels of the ocean, just like what you would find in a real ocean. So up around the top of the ocean, it’s generally very safe. There are not a lot of creatures up there, if there is there’s usually a lot of ambiance or little things floating around on the top.

GW2 Underwater 1 GW2 Underwater 2

The next layer of the ocean is mostly neutral creatures, and you can choose to fight if you want to, but it’s a lot of larger fish and dolphins, and big angler fish. You’ll see those and know, alright, I’m in the mid layer of the ocean based on the spawns that I see. Now, you’ll encounter some aggressive stuff in there. There will be sharks occasionally and things like that, but we try to have a strong ecosystem of these oceans so you understand.

Then you get down to the bottom, and the bottom is where you see a lot of the aggressive stuff, and it’s where a lot of the events happen. So you always have that bottom of the ocean floor to kind of navigate off of, and to use that as a point of reference.

We try to keep a lot of the content tied towards the bottom of the ocean or around the bottom so you always have a point of reference. The areas above it are more for exploration, for getting a sense of depth, and a real sense of exploring these parts of the world.

Ten Ton Hammer: Will there be any elements of the event system that might alert you to where on that Z axis a nearby event is taking place?

Colin: Right now we actually have this in game, and it’s not incredibly clear so we’re going to need to do a little bit more to make it clearer. But the event markers actually have a little arrow up or down on them that shows you if it’s above or below you on the Z axis. And we don’t just do that on water, we actually do that on hills and on mountains so you know that it could be on a different level of the cave than the one you’re on.

Also with the events, we try to make them really visual so that you can kind of just look and see there’s all this stuff going on, and know that’s the area you need to go to. If there’s a quaggan town that’s under attack, and the krait are coming in kidnapping all the cute little quaggan, you’re going to see the quaggan town all over the bottom of the ocean. You’ll see krait swimming in from different directions harpooning them and taking them out of there.

So you don’t have to use your map to understand where you have to go. The world should be showing you all of that by your experience and what you’re seeing on the screen instead of having to follow markers around.

We'd like to thank Colin and the rest of the ArenaNet team for taking the time to talk with us during San Diego Comic-Con 2011. For the necro fans out there, be sure to read's exclusive interview with Colin on combat roles, necro tanking, and more!

To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Guild Wars 2 Game Page.

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