Sunqua Peak: Journey to a Sacred Land

by Cameron Rich on September 11, 2020

Hey, everyone. My name’s Cam, and I’m here to talk about our new fractal, Sunqua Peak. Today we’ll talk about the philosophies behind its design and dive into the processes we followed during its development. Sunqua Peak is very special to us and took an enormous effort from everyone involved. Be warned, there are light spoilers for the fractal below! If you haven’t yet experienced Sunqua Peak and want to go in blind, turn back now!

Seriously, this is your final warning.

Still with me? Awesome. Let’s jump into it.

Impetus—The Journey Begins


It feels so good to be able to say that. Or…type that? You know what I mean. From the beginning, we knew we wanted this fractal to be players’ first taste of Cantha in Guild Wars 2. What we didn’t want, however, was to spoil the surprise of visiting Cantha in our upcoming expansion, Guild Wars 2: End of Dragons. The need to satisfy both goals created a difficult challenge, but one we were eager to tackle.

First, we brainstormed a bunch of ideas for when this fractal would take place. Setting the fractal in ancient history, the far future, and alongside the story of Guild Wars: Factions® were all candidates at one point early on. But something about these time periods didn’t resonate as strongly as we would have hoped. We wanted a setting that would feel strangely familiar to players, something that bordered on the uncanny, as though you were traveling through a forgotten memory. Ideally, players should know where they are almost immediately but still experience the wonder and awe of stepping into a new world for the first time.

This led us to a time between the end of the storyline in “Winds of Change” and the start of Guild Wars 2, a period only briefly mentioned in the records of history; an era when Cantha was on the verge of radical transformation in the eyes of her citizens—and indeed, the whole of Tyria.

With the “when” figured out, the “where” quickly revealed itself. One of the early decisions behind this fractal was to reuse aspects of a previous map from another fractal that was scrapped in favor of Shattered Observatory. This fractal, internally called “Mountain,” saw players climbing a mountain in the middle of a furious storm. This setting provided the basis for our new fractal, and the themes therein helped to inform both its mechanics and general flow.

Once our setting had been locked in, we got to work building a brand-new map that fully realized our vision.

Ideation—Working Together

Fractal development starts, like any video game, in a stage called preproduction, or “pre-pro” for short. During pre-pro, the team focuses on high-level details. What is the setting? What are the themes, both visually and narratively, that we want to focus on? What is our target audience? As we answer these questions and set our goals, a plan begins to take shape.

Each profession begins to outline their vision. Narrative designers set the stage and tone of the story and begin to outline the characters involved. Artists create mood boards and set visual targets for their work. Programmers research and develop new tech and tools to use in creating content. Game designers plot out the flow of gameplay and begin to prototype mechanics. QA analysts and producers help us plan our development time line and ensure our work is stable and sustainable throughout. Though it may seem that each individual is “in charge” of their own aspect of the game, it is only when a team works closely together, sharing ideas and inspiring solutions, that our greatest works are crafted.

As the team nears the end of preproduction, they create a “pitch deck”—a visualization of their plan presented to a group of individuals representing each profession in studio leadership. Everyone gets a voice in the conversation, offering critique, concerns, or approval. At the end of the pitch, the team either returns to iterate on the plan and address critical feedback or receives the green light to move into the next phase of development: full production.

Implementation—Nuts and Bolts

The Sunqua Peak project held a few key themes that we followed when building out the fractal. We aimed to focus on an emotionally intelligent narrative, one that focused on bringing calm to a turbulent space. To achieve this, the team worked together to express the emotional tone through each facet of the content.

To start, our map artist set the stage, creating a moonlit Sunqua Peak, and wrapping it within a terrible, vicious storm. Keep an eye to the sky, for as you journey through the fractal, the weather will shift in response to your actions.

As the environment began to take shape, Narrative and Design worked closely together to craft the story and characters. Many hours were spent ensuring that each emotional beat served the greater whole, and that the series of events was conducive to the repeatable nature of the fractal content format.

In turn, our story informed the mechanical language of the fractal, and it inspired gameplay that was deeply connected to its narrative. “Weathering the storm” became one of our central themes, which led us to focus on visually powerful, high-damage signature attacks that required group coordination to endure, especially at higher tiers of difficulty.

This process continued until we felt that a sturdy framework had been built on a solid foundation. Once we reached that milestone, it was time to drill down into the details and flesh out the core encounters.

Iteration—Follow the Fun

In the process of development, there comes a time when you’ve successfully put together the structure of your game, but the experience fails to reach its potential. Sometimes the delivery of your story isn’t hitting the right notes, or perhaps the core gameplay loop struggles to engage players for more than a couple hours.

When these moments arise, there’s a common saying we often use to guide our development methodology: “Fail faster and follow the fun.”

This phrase embodies two major philosophies. First, it’s better to try, fail, and try again than to spend that time attempting to make things perfect the first time around. Iteration is key to success. Second, as you build and test your game, look for what elicits the most joy from the player, and focus your efforts on enhancing that experience. Even if it means cutting something you really wanted to be in the game that just isn’t working.

When developing fractals, we attempt to follow this mantra as closely as possible. For Sunqua Peak, we knew development needed to jump into a rapid iteration cycle with frequent playtesting so that we could quickly identify the fun and have time to capitalize on it. To achieve this, we split the content of the fractal into separate playable chunks.

The final boss combines all the mechanics taught throughout Sunqua Peak into one epic encounter, so it made sense to start development there. When a mechanic needed to be tweaked or refined for the boss fight, those changes would propagate down to the rest of the fractal. And if that mechanic wasn’t working out for any reason, we could safely cut it without needing to revisit and rethink other encounters.

This top-down development method enabled us to fix bugs, action on feedback, and efficiently push new builds at a rapid pace. Toward the end of development, we were testing new iterations two to three times per week!

In Conclusion

This fractal started earlier this year as a call to action to create an experience that served many different purposes: to give a taste of Cantha, to provide a memorable story, and to challenge players in new and interesting ways.

As the year progressed, development evolved and adapted to meet the needs of changing to a work-from-home environment. The story within the fractal took on new meaning as the team faced new challenges, embodying the feelings of hope, courage, and love that we tightly hold on to.

I hope you are able to find joy in playing through Sunqua Peak. Gather your allies and set forth to bring peace to a place of turmoil…and for those seeking to take on the Harbinger’s Challenge, remember: together, you are stronger than you could ever be alone.

Never doubt that.