The Journey of a Thousand Miles

Posted: September 27, 2011 in Off Cuts

Marketing is a double-edged sword. Too much information too soon and you risk burning the audience out. Not enough information and they’ll likely get bored and move on to something else. Gamescom 2010 heralded the opening of the floodgates information-wise for Guild Wars 2 with the world premiere of the playable demo and the reveal of the necromancer profession.

The year since has seen ArenaNet release dozens of blog posts, many featuring in-game screenshots, sound-bytes and videos, covering various aspects of the Guild Wars 2 universe including quite a few behind-the-scenes insights. To date all but one of the eight professions have been revealed, crafting has been explained, several NPC races have been introduced (complete with background lore), underwater combat was unveiled, dungeon information (including video) has been published and one structured PvP map has been showcased and was available to play at the largest fixtures during the 2011 convention season. The behind-the-scenes blog posts in particular have provided a rarely seen insight into the creation of an MMO, and each one clearly demonstrates the passion and dedication of the staff involved.

In the four years following ArenaNet’s announcement that they were abandoning further expansions on Guild Wars in favour of a sequel they have firmly stuck to their design and development principles. No information is released about a feature until it is in the game and working. Even then it is fair game to be tweaked, overhauled or scrapped as testing and feedback dictates.

Such an iterative design process demands time and patience, from publisher, developer and fan alike. The marketing approach ArenaNet have decided to take with Guild Wars 2 is very much in keeping with the game itself – innovative and brave. Not a single fancy CGI trailer to be seen: all the released videos have consisted of concept artwork and actual footage captured from the game engine itself.

While this approach is much more open than that of most AAA developers, there are clear advantages and disadvantages to such a strategy. Fan burnout and backlash against features are the two primary disadvantages in my opinion, with the largest advantage being an unprecedented level of contact and intimacy with fans.

First, the down side. Fan burnout is always a big risk. I’ve been closely following the developement of Guild Wars 2 for a bit over two years now. I’ve had a few periods of disillusionment, mostly after the excitement of an information glut wears off. The bones have been picked over for the umpteenth time and there’s just nothing new to be gleaned. ArenaNet have done a pretty good job of pacing their information releases but given that all the gaming conventions occur around the same time a huge info spike is somewhat unavoidable.

Another major issue is the prejudging of features and professions based on limited information. Transmutation stones (point #3) caused an almost mind-boggling outcry, though this did abate somewhat once more information was provided. The revelation that energy potions were going to be in-game also triggered quite a strong reaction (potions don’t exist in Guild Wars). Here, however, the nature of iterative development came into play and potions have since been removed.

Each profession reveal garnered the usual overpowered/underpowered debates and arguments, plus the inevitable attempts to shoehorn each into one of the traditional MMO holy trinity roles of tank/healer/DPS. Such comparisons are unavoidable as people attempt to quantify and understand how each profession is going to fit into the game, particularly when Guild Wars 2 is throwing the MMO rulebook out the window and have largely invalidated such comparisons.

Now, on to the advantages.

First and foremost, slowly releasing information and relying primarily on word of mouth to spread it is going to build a core group of very knowledgable fans. Dozens of forums, blogs and fan sites of all shapes, sizes, colours, flavours and languages exist for Guild Wars 2. Some are more generalised, others are specifically focussed on one particular aspect of the game. A thriving wiki is already well underway, information having been pieced together from demo videos and convention attendees armed with notepads.

ArenaNet also have a strong social networking presence, with an active Facebook page and a twitter account. I’ve even tweeted ArenaNet staff members a few times over random and minor matters (some not even game related) and was stoked to receive a reply in a couple of instances. Several staff members, in addition to the three community managers, also frequently post on Guild Wars 2 Guru to clarify misunderstandings and even sometimes provide answers from specific staff members if an important question arises.

While I am unfortunately not in a position to attend any of the conventions (I’m Australian and flying halfway around the world isn’t within my budgetary reach as this time) many of the reports I have read from those lucky enough to attend have highly praised how helpful, approachable and friendly the ArenaNet staff are, despite convention stress, jet lag and general exhaustion. That is exactly the type of marketing which will have an immeasurable positive impact.

Starting slow with marketing as ArenaNet have done is smart on a number of levels. ArenaNet don’t have the same kind of money to throw at advertising as the likes of Blizzard and EA/BioWare do. Letting their established core of fans do the initial legwork is far cheaper and, in my opinion, arguably more effective. It’s worked too, the word is getting out. Established and well-known video bloggers, such as TotalBiscuit, and large gaming review sites like IGN and Gamespot have started running regular articles on Guild Wars 2.

ArenaNet haven’t announced a release date so far, yet I am content in the knowledge that each days passing brings me one day closer to playing Guild Wars 2. And eventually, there will only be one more day.

With my first step into Tyria the journey will truly begin.

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