Most massively multiplayer online role-playing games have some sort of rogue class, but none are quite as roguish as the newly revealed Guild Wars 2 Thief. Kotaku spoke to developer ArenaNet about what raises this stealthy stabber above the rest.
When ArenaNet initially announced the Thief class last week, the image that came to the mind of many gamers was that of today's standard MMO rogue, sneaking through the shadows, building up combo points, and hitting weak points for massive damage. Your typical rogue class wears light armour, sacrificing protection in order to take foes down quickly. They'll take more damage, but the battle is generally over a lot quicker than were a warrior covered head-to-toe in armour fighting the same creature.
That's what everyone expected the Guild Wars 2 Thief to be. A brief mention of something called Initiative Points fuelled the flames, with folks concluding that this was just another combo-point building rogue a ‘la World of Warcraft.
ArenaNet's Eric Flannum, Jon Peters, and Isaiah Cartwright explain to us how wrong that conclusion is.
Been Caught Stealin'
For one thing, this Thief actually steals.
And not just the swiping a spare potion off of an enemy sort of stealing either. This is stealing with a purpose.
"The Steal ability creates an item in your hand that switches your skills," explains designer Isaiah Cartwright. Different stolen items will give the Thief different abilities. Stealing a branch from a Treant gives him a giant club that can be swung hard to great effect. Stealing a seed from a plant may allow the Thief to grant his team a temporary buff.
Stealing is also where the Thief's stuns come from. Where traditional MMO rogues are often built around keeping an enemy locked in a stunned state, killing without fear of retaliation, for Thieves in Guild Wars 2, stunning is a special occasion.
Giving the Thief the ability to steal items also means a lot of work for the game developers., as every creature in the game needs its own special stolen loot table. Designer Jon Peters explains the team's approach to tackling the problem of sticky fingers.
"We came up with a lot of items that would fit in a lot of creatures," he says. "If the enemy is a bird, it'll likely drop feathers, for instance." Placing enemies into categories gives designers time to create all sorts of diabolical stolen goodies without being overwhelmed.
Roll for Initiative
Most classes in Guild Wars 2 rely on two types of power: Energy, a long-term measure of power; and Recharge, a short-term timer that dictates when the next special attack can be launched. Thieves replace Recharge with Initiative.
We came up with a lot of items that would fit in a lot of creatures.
Peters tells me that Initiative was initially designed for the game's heavily armoured Guardian class, but once it was created the team realised it was perfect for the Thief class. Here's how it works.
Instead of waiting for Recharge, every Thieve has an Initiative meter consisting of ten points. Each special ability in the Thief's arsenal costs a set number of points. Once used, these points recharge at a rate of one per second.
It's a system that makes the Thief a very complex and strategic class to play. Do you blow all of your Initiative points at once in a massive display of deadly acrobatics, hoping to fell your foe in one fell swoop? Or do you start off firing double pistols, move in with the Leaping Death Blossom, strike again with your daggers, and then use your last initiative points to cloak? Stealth in Guild Wars 2 runs on a timer, which would allow you a few precious seconds of Initiative recharge before the enemy uncovers you again.
The wise Thief player will know when to retreat and recharge.
The system has a very modal feel to it. Players will be able to mix and match skills, creating their own combos.
Or maybe they won't.
Despite the intention of making the class as easy-to-understand as possible, the team believes that many first-time Thieves will find themselves dying horribly. Players are used to going toe-to-toe with monsters, and the Thief is built around hopping in-and-out of combat. If you don't know when to back off, you're going to die.
They might also have trouble seeing how the Thief fits into Guild Wars 2's system of making sure each class can fit into any role, from damage to support to tanking.
"We're making sure he fits in different ways," says Peters.
The Thief might not be able to tank a creature in the traditional sense, but he can peel a monster away from the group and keep it occupied, or use caltrops to slow a group on incoming enemies. The helpful group buffs obtained by stole items slides him into the support role, while a well-managed Thief should be able to handle doing damage quite readily. They can dictate the pace of battle in Guild Wars 2 like no other.
The Thief is a unique and complicated class, and it won't be the last.
"We've gone from the most basic professions and gone into the stranger ones; the ones that break our rules," says Eric Flannum. "We've got two more unannounced, and those are quite different in the way that they play."
So When Can We Play?
Visitors to PAX East in Boston this weekend will be able to play starting today, with a new demo build of the game giving players access to both the Thief and the Guardian, as well as the starting zone of the giant, boisterous Norn race.
As for the game's release, ArenaNet is planning to get closed alpha and beta tests running in 2011. Whether or not we'll see the full game launched is still up in the air.
"We don't even known when we're ever going to be ready," says Flannum. "We never know when we're going to get thrown a curve ball, so it's really hard to say."