If you're remotely interested in videogames (and that's a safe assumption, we hope, unless you mistyped EuroGardener.net and just wanted to know if it's a good idea to fertilise petunias with coffee grounds), you may well feel somewhat swamped in massively multiplayer games at the moment.
It's all World of Warcraft's fault, of course. Put something on the market which gets just shy of ten million punters swinging you over ten dollars a month, and you'll make the publishers the world over sit up sharply from their expensive dinners and bellow for copycat games, right here and right now. All of a sudden, everyone wants a slice of that rich, fattening ten dollar a month pie.
Everyone except Jeff Strain. A former Blizzard employee, he left the company along with several other staff members a number of years ago to create ArenaNet, a dedicated developer of massively multiplayer games. They've since sold millions of copies of their Guild Wars games; and they've never asked anyone for ten dollars a month.
It's not that they don't like money. "Do I wish that every Guild Wars customer would pay us $15 every month?", Strain muses when we chat with him about the figures. "Well, sure! We'd love that - but that's not the relationship we have with our customers."
"We know that we make less money per player than an MMO that asks you to pay a subscription fee - but what we trade that off with is having a lot more players, and that has worked out very well for us."
All told, the original Guild Wars has spawned three games to date - not a game and two expansion packs, as you'd expect from a conventional MMO, but three separate games. You can buy any one of Prophecies, Factions or Nightfall and play it from scratch, without having to concern yourself with the other games; or you can buy all three and move your characters freely between the three continents. Either way, you simply pay for the original game, and not a penny afterwards.
It's a model which has worked out incredibly well, despite raising a lot of eyebrows when it was first announced. Millions of players have dipped into the Guild Wars universe, and many, it seems, have been very satisfied with what's on offer.
"We have an expectation, when we're building something like this, that we're going to get massive sales," Strain explains to us, "and a lot of those massive sales are people coming back and playing Guild Wars who have played previous campaigns and had a good time. They're able to come back, and that's great for us. We know we're going to sell well because we've made a commitment to our players and lived up to it."
It's also, however, a model which has taught ArenaNet some very important lessons - and Strain confesses that many things have happened to Guild Wars in the last few years, over the course of three full games, which have surprised the team. The net result is that while many players may be having a great time, Arena.net thinks they can do better - and have opted to take a leap forward and develop a sequel franchise, Guild Wars 2, rather than continuing to add new campaigns to the existing Guild Wars universe.
First, however, the team has added another addition to Guild Wars, in the form of Eye of the North - the first expansion pack for the game, which launched on September 7th. That's "expansion pack" in the traditional sense; it continues the story of the first Guild Wars game, Prophecies, and you'll need to own a copy of one of the previous games to play it.
Strain's explanation for this departure from Guild Wars' model is simple. "Our aim with Eye of the North is not to attract new players," he says bluntly. "It's to make our existing players happy. We've spent 100 per cent of our time on making content for existing players."
As a result, Eye of the North is more a compilation of Cool Stuff than a proper MMO expansion pack in the traditional sense. There are no starting areas; instead, the pack adds a vast range of underground zones to the existing continent of Tyria. Lots of effort has been focused on cool-looking new armour and appearances, while a variety of new mini-games (including a creature combat one that owes much to the Pokemon gameplay system) tie in closely with a new Reputation system.
Tons to keep a Guild Wars fan satisfied for quite some time, then; but Eye of the North also serves a second, more subtle purpose. Strain describes it as a "bridge to Guild Wars 2", and the expansion pack will feature a large number of features which are designed to ease the transition of existing players to the new game.
Primary among those is the Hall of Monuments - a system which is designed to allow players to carry their "legacy" forward to a new Guild Wars 2 character. The Hall is unique to each player, and contains statues representing all of your Guild Wars achievements - epic armour, top-ranked weapons, Heroes you've partnered with, Pets you've tamed, titles, victories, and every other imaginable MMOG achievement.
When you create a Guild Wars 2 character, you'll be able to link them to this Hall of Monuments, and each statue will correspond to a special item in GW2 - be it armour, an appearance, a pet, or whatever. Those items won't be hugely powerful, but they'll look cool, and will only be available to existing GW players. "We've got millions of players who have invested thousands of hours into Guild Wars," Strain explains. "We don't want to tell those guys that they can't carry anything over into GW2."
There are other, more subtle links between Eye of the North and Guild Wars 2, though. One of the more important links is in the form of the new races which are introduced as Hero characters (AI-controlled partners you can bring on quests). Eye of the North features a gnomelike Asura, a giant viking warrior Norn and a bestial Char as Hero characters; in Guild Wars 2, each of these races will be playable.
It would be tempting, then, to see Eye of the North as the swansong for Guild Wars, the last hurrah for the series - but Strain cautions against jumping to that conclusion.
"I think the question is whether this is the last piece of content that we'll package into an expansion and sell," he comments. "I don't know the answer to that. What I do know is that our plan is that as long as there are people playing and enjoying Guild Wars 1, we'll continue to support Guild Wars 1."
"We're not going to shut down the servers - we do have a live team dedicated to the game, we'll continue to do special events and the occasional content. We will continue to support the game; we're not going to force everybody to migrate to Guild Wars 2. Even after Guild Wars 2 ships, we'll continue to support Guild Wars 1. Nobody ever has to worry about us saying, you can't play that any more."
"Having said all that, certainly it's going to be the focus of the development team, starting after the release of Eye of the North - we need to focus on Guild Wars 2 and really get that product into shape. So, no, we're not going to cut off support, but whether we do future expansions, we'll just wait and see."
And so to Guild Wars 2; ArenaNet's second venture, but their fourth game. The very fact that we're talking about a sequel at this point reveals just how far the team has come from the conventional model of massively multiplayer games. Round about now in its lifespan, the average successful MMOG is sitting back on its laurels and sucking down the ongoing revenue from hundreds of thousands of hooked players. ArenaNet, meanwhile, are busily working away on the future.
"Because we are not a subscription based game, we can't just sit back and expect our players to pay us every month," Strain says. "What we need to do instead is give them new stuff to play with, new content. So, one way or the other we're always introducing new content to Guild Wars."
"The real question was, do we continue introducing new content into Guild Wars 1, or do we step back and evaluate what we've done with this game."
"We're very proud of what we've done with Guild Wars 1. As you know, it's very different to other online games. We've taken some pretty bold chances, not only on the business model but on the design of the game."
"Some of that has worked out fantastically for us - it's clear that the business model has worked out, I think the fundamental design mechanics of the game have worked out very well. Some other things, we would like another chance at. We would like to re-evaluate and re-do them."
Hence Guild Wars 2 - which Strain confidently describes as "the ultimate Guild Wars game", incorporating all of the ideas which the team has dreamed up based on feedback on the original title, but still fundamentally maintaining the core of the Guild Wars experience.
"We are introducing things like persistence into the world," Strain continues, "but we're retaining the core of what made Guild Wars fun, and what made it unique. We're also re-addressing some of the fundamental things like how the e-sport PvP works relative to the role-playing content, we're making a lot of refinements and enhancements to that, to give those communities more directly what they want."
Feedback from the community has been core to the design of the new game, with the team regarding Guild Wars as a successful experiment from which many lessons can be learned.
"One of the exciting things about GW2 is that, because we're starting from a position of having run Guild Wars 1 for two years, we've got millions of players around the world and we've got so much data to look at," Strain enthuses. "We very closely pay attention to the feedback, and we know what works and what doesn't work."
Which, of course, leads to a very obvious question - what does work, and what doesn't work?
Strain ponders for a moment. "I think that a couple of things surprised us," he begins. "First of all, it was always our expectation that after the release of a new campaign we would have a very large player population, and then we would see that substantially decay until the next release, when people would come back."
"We always knew that releasing new content would pull people back into it, and again, that's one of the strengths of the business model. But that decay curve did not turn out the way we thought. People start playing the game, and they keep playing it - even though we did not specifically engineer sticky, grind mechanics to keep people playing week after week after week, they do."
"We have introduced new features into the game, like title tracks - which did not even exist in the original Guild Wars - and that is to fulfil the needs of those players who just don't want to leave the world. So, that kind of caught us off-guard. We didn't really expect it. The daily player population of the game has only ever gone up, from the day we released the game. That took us a little bit by surprise."
That's not the only important lesson which ArenaNet has learned from Guild Wars, however. The team originally planned to launch a Guild Wars title every six months, but radically scaled back their plans when it became clear that for many players, this pace would simply be too fast - a key lesson which will be carried forward into Guild Wars 2.
"I think the other thing we've really learned is that it's very possible to create too much content," Strain confirms. "If we had released campaigns every six months, as was our original plan, I think we would have overwhelmed our players very quickly."
"We had to throttle it back a little bit, because while it's true that you'll always have hardcore players who will spend the first three weeks and blaze through everything there is to see, the vast majority of your players don't play that way. They'll take six, seven, eight months, take their time, smell the flowers, and poke their noses into every little corner. They want to see everything."
"I think that was something that we learned as well. Rather than putting things into huge batches and dumping it out every six months, I think that going forward we're going to look at other ways to spread that content out a little bit more, so that it's not so overwhelming."
For now, ArenaNet is playing its cards close to its chest regarding gameplay specifics in Guild Wars 2, but Strain's comments certainly make it sound like there are a few intriguing changes being wrought in the company's development studio - with a move towards smaller, more regular doses of content suggesting an almost episodic nature for the game. From what's present in Eye of the North, we can also assume that the lands of Tyria and the other continents introduced in Factions and Nightfall won't be left behind - especially since it's been confirmed that three of the new Hero characters will be playable races in GW2.
"We get a very good feeling for what would make the ultimate Guild Wars game - you know, in a perfect world, how the ultimate Guild Wars game would work, that's crystal clear in our minds," Strain muses. "So from a design standpoint, it's coming together very quickly. A lot of times when you start a game, it takes you a couple of years to work through all the various branches you could possibly take with the design, but this one is really well solidified."
"We've got the technology team working on the new graphics capabilities, the design team has done a phenomenal job pulling the design together - as soon as this expansion is wrapped up and out the door, the vast majority of the content team is immediately going to start building all the content."
"So we've got the structure in place, we've got the bones in place," he concludes. "Now we just need to go about filling in all the detail. It's coming along really well."
Guild Wars: Eye of the North is out now. Guild Wars 2 is expected to arrive some time in 2008.