It's been a torrid time for Guild Wars 2 maker ArenaNet. At the end of February, the studio cut a third of its workforce and people who had worked there for more than a decade walked away.
NCSoft-on-high reportedly said revenues were falling and the business was not sustainable, and for the first time, Guild Wars 2 - and ArenaNet - looked vulnerable. In one fell stroke, two unannounced projects and 143 staff were gone.
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A cloud of concern lingered. Was Guild Wars 2 in decline? And if two unannounced projects had been cancelled, what would follow it?
Until now, the studio hadn't been talking. It shut up shop to weather the storm. But at EGX Rezzed 2019 in London, I had the chance to talk to long-time ArenaNet employees Linsey Murdock (lead Living World designer - there for some 13 years) and Andrew Gray (senior game designer - there for 15 years) about what had gone on.
"It's been hard," Linsey Murdock began. "ArenaNet is very much a family. One of my best friends who got hired about three months after me [has gone]. We even have families - there's quite a few couples at ArenaNet, and there were multiple couples where one was laid off but the other wasn't. Really sad; we're all sad for all of those.
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"They gave us the day off to go home and process it, and a lot of us met up with people who knew they were being laid off and we commiserated. It's been hard," she reiterated. "The building's a little bit more empty."
Murdock and Gray didn't detail the timeline of events surrounding the lay-offs but nodded a kind of confirmation to it being sudden, as it sounded in Kotaku's story.
But both Murdock and Gray were unequivocal in their praise for ArenaNet and how it handled the lay-offs in comparison to other companies. "Everybody I've talked to said this one was handled with the most compassion and care - that it was really unusual," Murdock said.
"One person said he'd been through lay-offs where afterwards there were holes in the wall and they had armed guards escorting people out. Whereas, at ArenaNet, everyone was hugging each other, crying together, trying to be supportive and create a community around the people who lost their jobs, helping them get new jobs. That's still ongoing. We're all trying to pull with these people."
The community pulled with ArenaNet, too, offering support under the Twitter hashtag #Love4ArenaNet. Lead game designer Jennifer Scheurle shared a picture of a wall inside the office covered with notes of community support - some handwritten, some drawn, others printed out. "Oh man, I cried," Murdock said. "That got me. All our players coming together and showing love really meant a lot to us."
ArenaNet's statement, at the time of the lay-offs, read: "We can confirm that due to the cancellation of unannounced projects, ArenaNet will make staff reductions. This is part of a larger organisational restructuring within NCSoft in the west, but the Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2 game services will not be affected, nor is any upcoming game content cancelled."
I didn't entirely buy this. How could losing 143 people - more than a third of the entire studio staff - not affect the studio's main game, Guild Wars 2?
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I asked, and an ArenaNet PR began telling me, "The way it affects the team is guys who had been pulled off Guild Wars 2 and started working on new projects: a lot of them moved back. In terms of the Guild Wars 2 core team, I wouldn't say it's changed massively."
So people have gone from the Guild Wars 2 team?
"It has impacted but-"
Linsey Murdock cut in: "We also got a lot of people back. So in terms of quantity of people on the Guild Wars 2 team: not very affected. But some people who had moved onto other projects came back."
According to Murdock, it's business as usual for Guild Wars 2. The current fourth Living World story season will climax with Episode 6: War Eternal, teased at Rezzed - and containing a new flying dragon mount, the Skyscale - and there's a fifth season on the slate.
"We announced Season 5 [and] we fully intend on making Season 5," Murdock said. "We already have our plans pretty well in place for that.
"We had to make some adjustments, and really those were about saying, 'You know what? This is an opportunity for us to assess whether we're just doing this because we always have - or because this has been the pattern for the past two seasons - or shall we refresh things a bit and do something a bit different?'
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"Our fans have been asking for that - for us to do things a little bit differently and not be formulaic, so we took this as an opportunity to do that, to assess and make the right decisions for the game."
More to the point, "Guild Wars 2 is still going very strong," she said. "Very strong. We still really believe in the property, we still really believe in the game and it's still doing very well.
"Any game, as it ages, has a natural, slow decline - I don't think Guild Wars 2 is any different in that way - but we declined slower than anyone expected because there is still such interest both internally and externally for the game. We're still bringing in great revenue with micro-transactions. It's not going anywhere."
But now two fairly big unannounced projects have been cancelled - big enough to have occupied 143 people, anyway - how does ArenaNet go about following Guild Wars 2? Can it now cope with a theoretical Guild Wars 3?
"We've always got - we're always working on some other stuff," the ArenaNet PR said.
"Every studio does," Murdock echoed.
"It's the way you future-proof the studio," the PR said.
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And what, specifically, happens to those unannounced - are they dead forever more, or shelved for another time?
"We would prefer to think of them as shelved," Murdock said.
Lay-offs are awful for the people who lose jobs - and our best wishes go out to those at ArenaNet who did - but they take a toll on those who remain, too. They feel an emptiness around the studio where friends were, and their confidence takes a severe hit - after all, they've seen what can happen.
"We've been trying to be very careful to allow people space to process the trauma of what happened," Murdock said. "Whether you got laid off or not, you all experience a shared trauma, from leadership on down. All of us did.
"It doesn't necessarily feel like we're trying to pick ourselves back up; it's more like: breathe, take a moment, make sure you're healthy, make sure you're in a good place - here's resources that can help if you need help - and then work your way back into the swing of things."
Andrew Gray said he'd felt "a renewed sense of camaraderie" at ArenaNet, as people rallied around and lent on each other for support, and he ruled out any such notion people would be expected to work harder to make up a workforce deficit.
"I'm in the trenches, so to speak, and there's none of that," he said. "There's nobody sitting behind us saying, 'You sure you don't want to put in that twelfth hour?'"
"Really it's quite the opposite," Murdock added. "'Are you sure you can do this without having to crunch?'
"[Andrew] and I have had many, many conversations about this - not wanting to bite off more than we can chew because we care so much about this game. If we're being too ambitious with our scope and not being honest with production and leadership about scoping too high because we just want to make it so much, you can find yourself working too much, working those late hours. We don't want our people doing that. We don't want people getting burnt out because they work late hours for any reason. Even if it's because they love it so much they want to work those extra hours: no."
Never, Murdock said, in the 13 years she's worked at ArenaNet has there ever been any mandatory crunch. "Nobody's ever asked me to work overtime," she said.
"Nope, never even implied," Gray added. "Never even like, 'OK we're not saying you have to, but you see everybody who doesn't, gets in trouble' - none of that."
It's for reasons like these, Murdock and Gray feel ArenaNet has been falsely maligned of late. This began last summer with the controversial firing of a writer called Jessica Price, and another called Peter Fries, for heated exchanges on Twitter with the Guild Wars 2 community, and ratcheted up tenfold with the recent lay-offs.
"It can be hard at times being a developer and not being able to speak for the company," Murdock said. "It can be hard not to say, 'hey wait a minute - they're talking about me and they're wrong!' You don't really have those opportunities."
"We've been here for a long time and there hasn't really ever been bad stuff," Gray added. "[What people write is] difficult to read. 'Why are they saying all these mean things?!' That's not us. It's seriously not."
"Everyone I've talked to says ArenaNet has the healthiest culture of any place they've worked," Murdock continued.
"It can be hard for people outside of the company to get an accurate picture of what happens internally, especially when there's a lot of eyes on us and a lot of reporting on us. You always have to take these things with a grain of salt.
"ArenaNet is a really wonderful place; it really does feel like a family. It really does feel like a very collaborative place where we're all trying to accomplish something great together that we love, that we're all really passionate about."