During the final beta weekends, players jumping into Guild Wars 2's structured PvP maps may have noticed the first signs of its broader e-sports aspirations, like the tournament tickets granted as rank-up rewards. The first Guild Wars had a booming competitive scene - it is, after all, an MMO named after its PvP mode - and according to systems designer Jonathan Sharp, the sequel is going to take things much further.
"We have this great big iceberg of what we want to do" he says. "Right now what you have is free tournaments that you get into, where you get your tickets to get you into the paid tournaments. [The paid tournaments] have better rewards - you can actually get gems through those, so it's more of a case of putting money on the line and somebody's going to get some really cool stuff."
There'll be daily pickup tournaments as well as monthly and year-long contests. Players will also be able to customize tournaments to run among their friends and rivals. Tournaments are hot-joinable through a shooter-style server browser. "If there's two of us we can be matched with three other people and then fight somebody else in a five on five. That's really cool, and we're trying to grow the community there."
A spectator mode is on its way, Sharp says, although ArenaNet aren't willing to show it off yet. The game has been built with spectators in mind, however. "We looked at sports when we were designing Guild Wars 2 from day one" Sharp says. "Usually there's only one focus point - usually the ball. Guild Wars 1 never really had that. You were just kind of hovering around a flag point where people were interrupting each other and if you didn't know the game you didn't know what was going on. We looked at the League of Legends, The StarCraft 2s, the TF2s, the Counter-Strikes. We looked at those and we said, 'what makes these so good?'. A lot of times, there's only one focus point."
Guild Wars 2's three launch PvP maps are all based around capturing and holding control points as a team. Build up a high enough score and your team wins. On the surface, it's not that far from the first game's Alliance Battles, or World of Warcraft's Arathi Highlands and Eye of the Storm battlegrounds. Each map has its own unique features, however, from Dota-style creeps to massive siege weapons. These are intended to add an additional dimension to the competitive game.
"We're trying to make things really easy to understand for new players" Sharp explains. "With the spectator mode, what we're trying to do is have these three capture points that they have to focus on, and then the secondary objectives. Because that's consistent across everything you don't have to relearn the rules all the time. You don't have to relearn basketball if you're playing pick-up ball, college ball, high school ball or professional: they use the same rules throughout, which is what we're trying to do with conquest. We're trying to model it after a sport so we can say that once you learn the base rules, there you go, you can just spectate and understand."
The other side of the equation is the design of skills themselves, Sharp says. "You can see the firestorm coming down, nobody has to tell you that. Somebody puts up a wall, you see the wall. You don't have to explain that he gets +7% when he hits that guy - you just see this big ass thing in the world, and say it's a firewall: you go through it, you're going to get burned."
Beta players have raised concerns about the amount of visual noise that can occur in big fights, and I put this criticism to Sharp. "That's the balance" he says. "You want to communicate enough that people understand, but if you over-communicate then people can't understand, visually there's too much. We have a lot of tools internally that threshold that stuff. So if there's three or four fireballs in your general vicinity you're only going to see the ones that impact you the most. It's the same thing we use in world vs. world, though we find in PvP that it's not as bad because usually it's just five on five."
ArenaNet see a future for Guild Wars 2 as an e-sport with a wider audience. "I can't go into too many details" Sharp says, "but if you walk through the office on a given day there's people watching streaming. We're watching and we have plans to do some of that stuff."
Grabbing the attention of external spectators means building up personalities within the community, according to Sharp. "A lot of that comes down to - for a lack of a better word - drama. Like Kobe Bryant, he's got a new point guard that just came on his team - Steve Nash - they don't like each other. How's that going to work out? I want to watch those games now."
"We want to have those tournaments in places where players can grow and become celebs. If you watch the streams for League of Legends, guys like Reginald - he's a well known solo mid player, he just got famous and people love to watch him. The sport grows through word of mouth, through the players - and if he gets traded to another team, there's drama there. You build up this stuff around the sport, which is really important not just in the game but on the outside of the game.
Within the game, however, ArenaNet are looking at ways for players to express themselves and build up that kind of personality. The later beta weekends included customisable 'stomp' finishing moves, the way that downed players are executed in PvP. These can be bought from the gem store or earned through ranking up.
"The artists just go crazy with it" Sharp says. "We'll allow you to have just the ranked stuff, but we also have a lot of funny stuff. We might have different things that only show up at different times of the season so you can do things that are very festive. We have a really big system that we can put anything into."
They won't all be silly, however. "We have plans for things that are going to be much more character-building" says Sharp. "Stuff that a necro might want to do that a warrior wouldn't really care about, and stuff where a warrior would be like 'oh, that's awesome, that really fits my character'."
Structured PvP could end up being one of Guild Wars 2's surprise hits: we're already excited about world vs. world and dynamic events, but we've not seen an MMO house a successful e-sport before. It's another item on the growing list of ambitious things that ArenaNet want to do to the MMO, and it'll be fascinating to watch how it pans out.