[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.