There's big news in the Guild Wars 2 camp today as ArenaNet announces the original game will be available for free, right now and for evermore.
Do not interpret that as "free-to-play". Guild Wars 2 never had a subscription fee, only a charge for the game itself - and it's that charge that's being removed.
There are some small restrictions placed on free accounts to prevent abuse from the gold-farming black market. Buying the upcoming Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns expansion removes all restrictions.
ArenaNet also announced 10-person raids are coming to Guild Wars 2, and that they represent the most challenging content in the game. The first raid will open shortly after Heart of Thorns arrives (2015 but date still TBC), with subsequent 'wings' to open thereafter. New raids will be regularly added to Guild Wars 2 in the future.
I spoke to ArenaNet co-founder and leader Mike O'Brien, and Guild Wars 2 game director Colin Johanson, ahead of the company's PAX Prime announcement today. Their announcement was streamed earlier on the Guild Wars 2 Twitch channel. The top portion is about being free, the bottom part about raids.
Eurogamer: When I read "play for free" I panicked because of the connotations suggested by a different arrangement of those three words. Can you give people some reassurance about what you actually are doing?
Mike O'Brien: We have been championing the buy-to-play business model for more than a decade, and it's really working for us [the game has sold more than 5m units to date, a briefing document said]. Obviously the response to Guild Wars 2 has been fantastic - we have a lot of new players coming into the game right now as we're getting ready for the release of Heart of Thorns.
Really it comes from a place of figuring out what we want the complexity of the business model to be. With a buy-to-play business model, when you start releasing expansion packs, you get to make this choice: you get to say do we want it to be that every time a new player comes into the game we get to sell them the base game and each expansion pack, and there's all these pre-requisites? Or do we keep it simple? It was always the case that buy-to-play meant you buy one thing and you can play the game. Without expansion packs that's so easy.
We want to keep things easy. We're already bundling the base game [with Heart of Thorns] - why not take it so that anybody who wants to try Guild Wars 2 can try Guild Wars 2?
I know the things that people in their minds are [thinking]. 'Well are you going to monetise the game differently? Does this change the Gem Store?' No, none of that. The Gem Store is the same Gem Store that it always was. Guild Wars 2 is a lot of content - it's a really big game that maybe other people would try to piecemeal - [and] we're just givin' it, you know, we're making it free.
Eurogamer: To be clear, the free Guild Wars 2 experience, that's the complete and unrestricted game?
Mike O'Brien: Right, so, it is the complete game and it has important restrictions on it. There's three categories of restrictions.
The first category is that it comes with less storage: fewer character slots and bag slots. We thought it's fair that people who get the game for free don't get as many character slots and bags [as those who paid for it]. It's something that comes into play later, when you're loving the game, and you want to upgrade. And if you upgrade, if you buy Heart of Thorns, then you're instantly switched over to... you get the whole thing anyone who ever bought the game ever got.
The next category of restrictions is things that we did in order to make sure RMT [Real-Money Trading] can't just abuse free accounts. And these are really subtle. We'll publish a FAQ that has a whole list of these things - people aren't really going to notice these things for the most part.
There's one that people will definitely notice: free accounts have access to "/say", so they can say anything they want to on the map. But they don't have map-wide chat. And the other example is whispers. They can whisper to anybody they want to but they can only start a new whisper conversation once every 30 seconds - so it's actually really generous. We've tested this a lot, and tweaked and tweaked and tweaked, and as you're playing, you don't really notice - nobody starts new whisper conversations that frequently that they would even notice. Really, the only time they'd notice, is if they were in there trying to spam.
You can't create a bunch of free accounts and use them to bot the game, [or] sell gold you got from botting the game, [or] spam the game - things like that. They are chat restrictions and there are some subtle economy restrictions. You still have access to the Trading Post - you have access to all of the most commonly traded items on the Trading Post. You don't have access to really thinly traded items, [and] you can't just directly send stuff to other players without a trade. The accounts can't be used to abuse the game.
The third category is restrictions on when you get access to things. The most significant thing in there is World versus World. World versus World you get access to at level 60 if you're a free account. [Bought accounts can try WVW from any level - characters are automatically adjusted to level 80 for the battle.] Again, the restriction is in place because that's a place where you could disrupt the game experience for other players, and we don't want it to be disrupted.
Eurogamer: And the only way to upgrade to a full account is by buying Heart of Thorns?
Mike O'Brien: We're not selling the core game anymore; anybody who buys Heart of Thorns is a paid account, and that's what we're hoping people buy.
Eurogamer: Will there by anything new - is anything changing at all - in the Gem Store?
Mike O'Brien: We are not adding anything related to play-for-free. We are in the middle of an anniversary sale in the Gem Store, so there's going to be things on sale everyday this week, but none of it really is play-for-free. We're not changing the Gem Store.
Colin Johanson: The way we update the Gem Store is staying exactly the same.
Eurogamer: And that's a statement about the future of the Gem Store too?
Mike O'Brien: That's right: we're not changing the way we monetise the game.
Eurogamer: The other question related to all this is whether becoming free has anything to do with people leaving the game and you trying to fill it up again?
Mike O'Brien: It's kind of the opposite, because we are doing this at a time when lots of new players are coming into the game.
Heart of Thorns is an expansion that adds a ton of endgame content... and we really wanted people to be able to build up their accounts, their characters, to get ready for Heart of Thorns. People are interested in the game right now, people are coming into the game anyway - if our players want to get their friends into the game what more perfect time to introduce them?
Colin Johanson: We have a really unique, cool opportunity here to do this at a time of strength; I think that is very rare. This is the highest Metacritic score of a new MMO in the last decade; this is a game that's done extremely well for us; and we're showing extreme success this year since we announced Heart of Thorns. It's a rare opportunity to do it when everything is going really well.
Eurogamer: Are there any plans to do similar when a next expansion comes out - give the base game plus that expansion for free?
Mike O'Brien: I get what you're asking... I think it's too far down the line to talk about that.
Eurogamer: OK let's talk about raids, something fairly typical to other MMOs. Why are you only putting them in Guild Wars 2 now?
Colin Johanson: There are a couple of answers to that. Heart of Thorns as an expansion is really our answer to where we want the game to go in the future ... and a lot of people are asking for more stuff to do with their level 80 characters. That's consistently been the message that we've heard: 'We love this game but we want more to do at level 80.' And one of the biggest things our players have asked for is they want the ultimate challenge in Guild Wars 2. They have a lot of fun things they can do already ... but they're really looking for the next tier of challenge beyond that. And that's really where raids are coming from. It's the ultimate challenge, 10-player content for Guild Wars 2.
Eurogamer: The ultimate challenge suggests an ultimate reward, which in other MMOs tends to mean new tiers of equipment and the associated gear grind. How are you rewarding people?
Colin Johanson: Well we're going to talk more about rewards with raids in the future. A lot of it really is the ability to defeat these incredible challenges - gain additional Mastery abilities and Mastery points that you can use to continue to progress your characters. That's a really key component of it.
When we talked about Guild Wars 2 at launch, the thing we wanted to focus on was we wanted to innovate in the MMO space: let's take a game that does the things MMOs do really well and build on those, and the things that MMOs don't do well, let's turn them on their head and do something different. And we've applied that same concept to raids: let's get rid of barriers to entry, let's get rid of things that traditionally hold raids back. It's everything that raiders are looking for without all the headaches.
There's no attunement systems that you have to go through before you do each individual raid; each new raid doesn't introduce a new tier of gear that invalidates all the work of the old raids that you've done. We want it that when you beat a raid, six months later beating that raid should still be a big deal. We don't want to add things later on that suddenly make that content trivial. And we think that's what raiders are looking for; when they beat something they want it to stay that challenging for the future, so if somebody else beats it that's a big deal too. And we want to give you great rewards that tie into that - Legendary rewards even, and we'll talk more about that in the future.
Eurogamer: How exclusive will the raids be - how hard is this content going to be for people already sizing them up in their heads?
Colin Johanson: It'll be the most challenging content in Guild Wars 2, period - that is the goal of what this content should be. We really want you to feel like when you go in, you're going to have to work together, use all the components of the Guild Wars 2 combat system ... so that everybody has to rely on themselves and one another to overcome our challenges. And that means that you're going to have to play these encounters over and over again until you master them, defeat them and move onto the next encounter in the raid.
And the idea is, once you're able to beat the raid ... we're going to add more raids to the game in our live strategy as well. Raids are going to become a huge part of our live strategy for Guild Wars 2. So even when you're able to finally defeat one, you have new ones to look forward to in the future with challenges you can overcome and defeat.
But this is definitely the hardest thing that we've done in our game, and it's something we want our players to look forward to being able to get to the point where eventually they can defeat it.
Eurogamer: And are raids coming this year?
Colin Johanson: Yeah, so, the first raid for Guild Wars 2 is part of Heart of Thorns. It's split into three wings that we'll open. The first wing will open very shortly after the release of the expansion. We want to give people enough time to basically collect up their Masteries, to get their Elite Specialisation unlocked, to enjoy all of Heart of Thorns and all the core content that's there. Then we'll add the first raid wing. And then we'll be opening the other ones after that, after people have had enough time to really work their way through and defeat the first wing.
We've committed to releasing Heart of Thorns this year, and that's all the date we've committed to so far. And we'll come back and talk more about that as we continue to beta test.
If you pre-purchase Heart of Thorns you can join in with those beta events, the next of which runs from 8pm BST Friday, 4th September to 8am BST Monday, 6th September.