ArenaNet announcing that the core game for Guild Wars 2 is going to become free to play is a defining moment. For a game that has sold over 5 million units, it’s likely strange for many looking in to see such a successful game make a transition to a model commonly seen as a last resort. Although it’s largely true that many MMO’s that move from a subscription model to free-to-play have done so because they’re seen as failing, it’s also a valuable means of lowering the barrier of entry to ensure a bubbling population and one willing to spend little and often.
Team Fortress 2 and the likes of League of Legends have pioneered free-to-play to the point where microtransactions and access for all is not only profitable, but undeniably healthy when it comes to sheer player numbers. In 2014 Riot, the developer behind League of Legends, earned over $600 million and this year is poised to be the first developer to earn over $1 billion. Even more startling is the fact that CrossFire, a game I’d never even heard of until recently, earned nearly $900 million alongside Dungeon Fighter Online.
Although Guild Wars 2 is a very different product to those mentioned above (AreanNet are managing an entire game world and its content as opposed to just producing a new Hero skin or Hero) it’s not difficult to see why they want a slice of the free-to-play pie. Dungeons and Dragons Online, one of the early adopters of a hybrid free-to-play model saw more than one million new accounts made, with revenues increasing during the period by 500% during the period. That was back in 2010 and for a game that was once struggling, it has continued to grow ever since. Even Star Wars: The Old Republic saw revenues of over $100 million in 2014, with revenue anticipated to grow this year.
Guild Wars 2 has, for several years, produced a constant and healthy income stream for AreanNet and NCSoft. Although recent results have shown income to be relatively flat (as opposed to in decline like WildStar) it was inevitable that the game needed an ability to not only monetize further on their content but to also continue to grow their player base. Even though the game is popular and continues to sell units (it still performs better than and/or equal to Blade and Soul and Aion in terms of revenue) it’s reached the point in its lifespan where it can’t solely rely on its existing player base. Intermittent spikes in users when a Living World content update arrives or when there’s a significant discount on the boxed copy isn’t providing the growth it needs and we are well past the point of word of mouth or reviews holding sway over people leaving their favourite game.
By removing the barrier to entry, ArenaNet are not only tempting those who already play free titles (the likes of Dungeons and Dragons Online or Star Wars: The Old Republic) but also those who’ve never played an MMOG before, those who have but don’t want to pay out for a boxed copy (regardless of how cheap) and those that are just looking for something new over a weekend. The result, ArenaNet hope, is an increase in new users, longer retention of players and importantly, the purchase of Gems and/or Heart of Thorns (preferably both). If the likes of Star Wars: The Old Republic, a game that few could deny is critically inferior to Guild Wars 2, can earn such eye watering sums of money, the potential for ArenaNet is now limitless.
I know that free to play has a poor reputation among many in the genre because traditionally, the transition to the payment model is synonymous with failure, but also because there’s a sense that when the drawbridge is lowered, the rats flood in. Having played my fair share of free to play titles over the years I have to say that the communities “there” are no better or worse than I’ve encountered in Guild Wars 2. The nature of being online and the fact free to play increases player sadly ensures that the number undesirables does the same. However, let’s not pretend that Guild Wars 2 doesn’t already have them in abundance. Only several weeks ago I was told to “die of cancer” because I happened to have killed someone in structured PvP. Will the number of people saying this or similar to me increase? Yes. Do I care? Absolutely not.
Reporting players, ignoring them or blocking them takes seconds and for the number I’ve had to do over the years, it’s not even worth thinking about nevermind pretending it’ll become a major issue. The only other obstacle facing Guild Wars 2’s switch to free to play is Gold Sellers and in all honesty, ArenaNet already go above and beyond most other developers. By ensuring all newly created accounts require SMS authentication, combined with a fair but robust ruleset that severely neuters unscrupulous players and their ability to peddle their wares, I honestly fail to see how it’ll ever intrude on a player's ability to have fun.
I’m incredibly excited about the next few months and not just because of Heart of Thorns but to also see, from a player and financial perspective just how much of an impact going free to play has on Guild Wars 2. I’ve no doubt we’ll see several players vocalize how it’s the end of the game and its community but having already met some wonderful players who are brand new and seeing all the fresh Charr arriving out of the Black Citadel I can’t help but think that a few minor niggles will be outweighed by an abundance of positives.
Guild Wars 2’s deserves success, more so than many games in the genre, and it deserves zones that are busy, structured PvP that’s full and World versus World that’s competitive. Most importantly, it deserves the success so that ArenaNet can invest even more into their game and its content. I’m not suggesting free-to-play is going to fix all the issues with Guild Wars 2 but I can’t think of a single instance where an influx of fresh players has ever truly hurt any MMO. Quite the opposite.
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