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Opinion:  Guild Wars 2  Fights The Subscription Racket
Opinion: Guild Wars 2 Fights The Subscription Racket Exclusive
September 29, 2011 | By Phill Cameron

September 29, 2011 | By Phill Cameron
More: Social/Online, Exclusive, Business/Marketing

[Gamasutra contributor Phill Cameron examines Guild Wars 2's subscription-free model, as ArenaNet lead content designer flatly asks, "If you're paying a monthly fee for a game, what are you getting for your money?"]

ArenaNet's Guild Wars 2 doesn't require a subscription. I didn't realize the significance of that fact until I finally got my hands on the game. It seems like a nice big bonus for players that takes off some of the pressure that other MMOs exert down upon you. Instead, there's a much more impressive revelation couched in that little fact.

So far, MMOs have kind of been wasting your time.

You've got the almighty grind. Hours upon hours killing meaningless mobs to make a bar slowly tick upwards, and see your wallet grow ever fatter. You've got the endless trudging from location to location, nominally a way for them to attach the carrot of mounts to a stick protruding out of your back, but really just a way to tick off another ten minutes of your time. You've got the zen-like trance that you slip into while waiting for a battleground, waiting for a group, waiting for crafting to tick over, waiting, waiting, waiting...

MMOs have been wasting your time, because, quite literally, time is money. If you didn't have all these little, cumulative time sinks, you might get bored. You might even, (gasp), cancel your subscription. So your time is wasted, just enough for you not to really mind, but enough to keep the spread of content thin enough to last to the end of the month.

Gosh, that sounds awfully cynical. But the wool has been lifted from mine eyes, and I have seen the true face of the massively multiplayer. Somehow, it's all ok, though, because I've also seen the alternative.

Guild Wars 2 doesn't waste your time. The fundamentals of how it works seem starkly obvious, in many ways, and the cynic in me is thinking that the reason they haven't been implemented before is because they subvert the time sinks.

Take the Holy Trinity. Tank, Healer, DPS (damage per second). It's becoming increasingly clear that the 'Holy' is there because to mess with it would be sacrilege. Guild Wars 2 does away with it, because, to quote Colin Johanson, lead content designer at NCsoft-owned Guild Wars studio ArenaNet: "The Holy Trinity, in a lot of ways, prevents you from playing with other people, because you spend a lot of time waiting for other players before you can play the game."

It just makes sense. Why should I have to spend my time waiting half an hour for a tank, when I'm an elementalist with a firm grasp over the power of earth? I can just cake myself in rock, and bingo, I'm a tank. People are versatile. They adapt. Fixing them in place seems redundant.

"From day one we already knew we weren't going to charge a subscription fee, and that's informed our game," Johanson said.

It's the same fundamental approach that ArenaNet took with the similarly subscription-free original Guild Wars from 2005. That series -- which sold a reported 7 million units total -- relied primarily upon the sales of regularly-released, standalone installments to the franchise, rather than subscriptions.

That makes it sound like this is the franchise bucking the trend, allowing a business decision to dictate how the studio going to go about their design. However, the impression is that this is almost a liberation, that suddenly they're not bound by how things have been. Building an MMO with a subscription in mind must be difficult, to say the least.

"MMOs have gotten away with it for all these years, and I think the question you have to ask is, if you're paying a monthly fee for a game, what are you getting for your money? If you're getting enough content and enough great service to make up for it, then fantastic. But if you're not, you need to ask why you're paying a monthly fee."

Which could make it sound like Johanson is almost placing a safety net for Guild Wars 2, but it seems more like they're using it to raise the watermark, show players that here is what you can get without a subscription fee. So what are you getting with one?

"The market is going to go where all the major games are going. If Guild Wars 2 is extremely successful, you're going to see other games going without a monthly fee." Which would almost imply that this has been a racket, all along. What, exactly, have we been paying for? Servers?

Apparently, not. "There's an incorrect belief out there that it's more expensive server-wise to run a giant open world game than it is to run an instanced game such as Guild Wars." There's a confidence about Johanson when he talks about the way MMOs are, an assured-ness that's almost akin to an investigative journalist blowing open some great story.

"The server bandwidth now is getting reasonably inexpensive enough that you don't need to charge a fee for online games," he explained. "We made plenty of profit off Guild Wars 1, and that's what we're going to do with Guild Wars 2."

From playing the game, I can't see if there's a con to going without a subscription fee. There are no obnoxious ads popping up telling me to buy an experience boost or some other game-altering bonus. There are no closed off areas with a price tag informing me that for a small fee I can have access to all that extra content. Of course, Guild Wars 2 isn't a free to play game, but the difference in price of just one full retail copy (which subscription MMOs still charge for) to a continued subscription is phenomenal.

It's easy to become somewhat indignant after realizing quite how much the minute to minute of previous MMOs have been dictated by their payment model. Easier still to resent them, but at the same time it's worth bearing in mind that it's only recently that the internet has become quite so fast. Perhaps subscriptions really were necessary five or so years ago, when we didn't have fiber-optics veining the first world. That was then, though. Right now, things are different. We don't have to stand for the subscription model saturating our online experience, and we certainly don't have to pay for it.

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Samuel Wissler
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I played GW1, but none of the expansions. I have to disagree with the story and cutscenes in the original game. I thought they were quite good, and took the game leaps and bounds ahead of WoW which had no cohesive story to speak of.

The 20 level limit was also something I liked quite a bit. It let you focus on character skills and skill combinations, and it also made having alts to experience the different classes so much less painful. Less level and gear grind also meant that PvP and the endgame in general has much less of an entry barrier which is something every MMO these days still struggles with.

GW1's weaknesses were where the game stuck with traditional MMO game mechanics like finding groups and getting to new towns.

Todd Boyd
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Johnny, I have no idea what you mean when you say, "skins". Please elaborate. Are you talking about the armor set meshes?

Melinda Vasquez
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Speaking of clueless... first of all, GW1 wasn't about the level. Yes, it's easy to get to level 20, but that's the whole point. There was so much to do once you hit level 20. "Wasn't any more goals or things to achieve"? Did you even actually try?

Second, the article is about GW2, not about GW1... they are completely different games. Take some time at and read all the things they are creating for GW2 before you compare GW2 to GW1!

Sean Madden
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Do you hate all MMOs, or just GW1?

sean lindskog
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Dream on. ;)

A change in the payment model of MMOs will not cause some kind of grand redesign of MMO gameplay. Whether the MMO is subscription, pay-for-expansions, or pay-for-stuff, these 2 core MMO design elements remain:

1. The company wants you to keep playing their game.

2. Players typically invest far more hours into an MMO than other non-MMO games. As a result, it is very difficult for the company to create interesting content as fast as players consume it.

This is what makes MMOs grindy and filled with time sinks. This will not change with the payment model.

David Eckelberry
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The subscription racket? That's sort of funny, really. Did someone write this article 4 years ago?

The subscription model has been dying for years and Guild Wars had nothing to do with it (hello, microtransactions and free-to-play).

Sean Madden
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Well, "they're not dead yet". The Secret World and SW:TOR are 2 MMOs with confirmed subs coming out late this year/next year.

Guild Wars 1 and Guild Wars 2 are unique in that they are not "free" or "sub". You buy the game at full price, then you can play as long as you like for free.

Most "Free-to-play" MMOs are not free at all: either the majority of content is walled off and requires a separate purchase, or the in-game store is designed so that people MUST spend real money in order to compete. (or both)

GW2 will not require you to purchase microtransactions or subscribe. I can't think of any other MMO on the market like it.

Mark Harris
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The original Guild Wars came out 6 years ago... so it's entirely possible that it had some effect.

Hans Mueller
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"So far, MMOs have kind of been wasting your time. "

And we blind fools fell for it. An implied insult is still an insult. Thanks for showing us what you really think of the mental capabilities of most current and past MMO players.

If that's the attitude of the GW 2's player group (or even the devs) I will stay far away fromt the game.

Michael Joseph
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Maybe it's beyond time for the classic grinding gameplay we've seen in MMOs over the last 15 years and CRPGs over the last 25 years to be mocked?

At some point, RPGs have to go back to the expressive freedom provided by their pen & paper roots and start moving beyond the stale monsters standing around in a field doing nothing but waiting to be killed for the 9 millionth time stagnation festival.

Seth Blakely
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@Hans: Now you're just being nit picky

David Eckelberry
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If Guild Wars had something to do with it, shouldn't we see more games using its business model, instead of the now-standard F2P MMO model?

Jonathon Walsh
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To many of the other posters... This article could have just as easily been written as, "Guild Wars 2 Fights the Free to Play Racket" and raised many valid points in that direction.

Anyways I think the article misses one of the MOST important things (to me at least). If you want to play PvP in GW2, you don't have to go through a bunch of bs to get there. From day 1 you have the option to participate in fair structured PvP ensuring that the ONLY thing determining a winner is your team's skill. This completely bucks the trend of all P2Win and Sub based MMOs that have great PvP combat mechanics, but completely ruin the experience by putting up a huge barrier and making it very dependent on which side has done more content/obtained more gear.

A few years ago I declared myself 'done' with MMOs, but GW2 is likely to change that stance because it looks like a game that actually respects my time rather than wasting it (which was my problem with MMOs).

Mike Griffin
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Nobody else has had the balls or long term vision to duplicate the Guild Wars model of "Buy the full priced game and expansions, and online access if yours free, forever."

Oh sure, some blips on the radar like Global Agenda, where at first not charging a subscription was a cautious accident -- as the developer realized they'd be insane to charge a sub. Ultimately we see how Global Agenda turned fully free-to-play this year. Giving up the ghost.

Which brings up a good point: Let's be honest with ourselves, for the most part completely free-to-download and free-to-play games are poop. They're frequently shallow copycats of previously successful premium MMOs. Each major free-to-play hub is lucky if it has even one title which can stand toe-to-toe with a low end AAA premium MMO.

Need evidence? Almost all of the best, most fleshed out and highest quality -current- free-to-play MMOs all began life as subscription-based titles. Lord of the Rings Online, Champions Online, D&D Online, EverQuest 2, Age of Conan, and so on.

It's no coincidence that these games are often notably higher quality than the quagmire of cheap knockoff free-to-play MMOs that were conceived, designed and released under strictly free-to-play guidelines. Those F2P titles so rarely have the budget, the team, the support, the (initial) size of live teams, etc. that the aforementioned premium-turned-F2P games all benefited from early on in their existence.

I think the Guild Wars model represents a happy middle-ground, with sufficient revenues from full copy sales to provide for high quality games and upkeep, extended into slightly-lower-cost follow up expansion chapters.

However, I don't believe the days of premium MMOs are over. I think it's becoming a very niche model to select.

If you're a well-funded company like Trion Worlds, you can get away with it and actually prosper. Rift is still hundreds of thousands of subscribers strong. The Old Republic, similarly, won't have a problem sustaining its premium model for years to come. Both titles have very large teams that can fundamentally deliver the 50 cents a day of entertainment, support and updates to justify a 15 dollar a month subscription.

But that path is quickly closing for a lot of developers, replaced by the high potential for sheer volume of users plus microtransactions that a completely free-to-play title promises. Witness SOE's recent backtracking of DC Universe to subscription-free, or NCsoft's introduction of the fully free edition of City of Heroes. Sign of the times.

In light of all that, one could argue that GW2 represents the ideal hybrid of every MMO design and business model to date, but trimmed of the fat and baggage associated with premium or free-to-play.

Seth Blakely
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I think u make some good points Mike but I think we're looking more at a shift in the future of MMO's from sub to F2P rather than just a sorting of AAA vs CCCrap.

The thought is that $15.00 a month is constant and dependable income (after a game has established itself and the player base is settled), but ultimately that income is capped. The only way to increase it is to add more players. The only way to add more players is to try to appeal to a larger player base. Then you start altering and adding content and then it starts to get messy. Subs on top of the original purchase also alienates alot of folks because it feels like companies are double dipping.

The thought behind F2P is that, while more volatile, the ability to produce revenue is unlimited because there is no cap to a player's ability to spend. You also have the ability to make your game available to anyone with an internet connection because they don't have to make the decision of which game they'd rather buy. The catch is that the content in that game has to be solid to hold their interest. They can try to appeal to a wider player base by generalizing their content, or they can try to focus on a particular niche or more hardcore gamers and have a smaller but more devoted player base. Imagining the pros and cons for either route or any in between is not difficult and we all know all the talking points anyway.

I believe that sub MMO's will be around for a while yet but I don't believe that F2P games are absolute crap; nor that the sub gone F2P games changed their business structure because they couldn't cut it in the sub world either. Why would you limit how much money you can make? Even Blizzard's Diablo III is going to play around with F2P like concepts: like a real currency auction house in which they take a cut of all things sold on (which I'm actually very interested to see how that plays out). There's greater risk in the F2P arena most certainly but I think the chance of reward will drive people to take that risk. As for the games that are developed by folks willing to risk it, honestly, I think they're going to be better than anything we've ever played someday :)

The thing I love about ArenaNet is they're risk takers. I believe the industry is changing and I think they're leading the way; whether or not that way is the right one to go is yet to be seen. I do know that reading interviews and reviews about GW2 is like a breath of fresh air and I can't wait to see what they do.

P.S. I'm an optimist and giddy as hell about going into the games industry; so I think everything is awesome :)

Dylan Tan
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To be honest, I enjoy the comment more than the article itself. Thanks for providing such a valuable comments.

Jo Schmo
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As a new MMOer but old RPGer(I played Doom a lot when it first came out, albeit it's technically a 1stPS), I only have experience with one F2P MMO, and it is only really "free" if you have A) VERY nice in-game friends, B) TONS of time everyday to spend on farming, or C) Dollars to spend on it. You can get to level 70 easy enough, but without pricy gear you can't really PvP at all...really. And it's a game with really good PvP dynamics. If you only want PvE at max level, you're pretty much stuck with guild boss-farming, regular farming, or helping out friends to level. The game was very balanced when it first came out, and servers were always busy. But after several years it's become a game that mirrors RL ecomonies/society: a handful of big spenders and old players grandfathered into the upper elite...and the rest of us. Gear stats largely overshadow actual skill now. These game mechanics changes were made over the course of a year and now all servers humm a cool "smooth" status. It's too bad.

Let's face it, the in-game economies are PvP driven. Competition brings out the best AND worst in all of us and online gaming is no different. Think about all of those hackers everyone has encountered throughout the years. Yet PvP is what drives most players interest after they've been exposed to enough roleplaying. So any attempt at leveling that playing field and reducing the unbalance a fat wallet brings should be applauded by every single gamer worth thier weight in Doritos. F2P is probably the MOST expensive way to play IF you want to be PvP competitive.

I actually thought a small monthly fee is the right way to go to ensure balance. Something like a measly $10 a month is pretty much affordable by everyone, even in this economy. But if ArenaNet can pull this off with only the initial purchase in mind along with a few expansions, more power to em. If it does work, and the game provides balanced PvP...I can definitely see this as drawing in hordes of disaffected players from other games.

Good Luck GW2, can't wait to try you out!