ArenaNet president talks microtransactions and the risks of going subscription-free

Guild Wars 2 Female Centaur

Guild Wars 2's payment model is one of the few things it has inherited wholesale from its predecessor. When ArenaNet announced their plans for a subscription-free MMO back in 2005, they were consciously moving in a different direction to the then-entrenched practice of recurring monthly payments. Seven years later, the MMO industry is a different place. Free-to-play is on the rise, and the amount of MMOs with compulsory subscriptions is dwindling - but no-one, as yet, has borrowed ArenaNet's balance of boxed games and expansions with no monthly fee. During a recent visit to the studio, I had the opportunity to sit down with ArenaNet president Mike O'Brien for a chat about the industry. So why hasn't the Guild Wars model been copied?

“I'm gonna be honest with you - I think it's because MMOs are very expensive and very risky to make” O'Brien explains. “[Back in 2005] we said look, there's a real problem with MMOs today, and that is you can only play one of them. You're going to sign up for a recurring monthly credit card payment, and you're not going to do that for a lot of different MMOs at once."

It's no longer reasonable to expect a player to commit to only one game, O'Brien suggests. "We're gamers, right? You're a gamer. Don't you love to be able to experience all the new games that come out? And we said, seriously - MMOs are going to be this way? I have to pick one or pick the other, and if a new game comes out that I'm excited about I have to cancel my other subscription and subscribe to this other one instead? Why do they have to be this way?”

The decision to reject paid subscriptions wasn't an easy one. “With Guild Wars 1 we took a big risk. We were a young company, and we said we're going to try a completely different business model for MMOs. We've carved out that territory, and I think it's been really nice for us that other people have stuck to the monthly subscription and let us own the entire territory of our business model for five years.”

“You know it's not going to last”, O'Brien continues. “You see a lot of success in MMOs that don't have monthly fees, however they monetise. Free-to-play or premium microtransactions, whatever. Now everybody's catching onto it, and there's going to be a lot more diversity in MMO business models. And as a gamer I've got to say - thank god.”

That diversity, however, is a double-edged sword. MMOs are a business, and the purpose of a payment model is to turn a profit. When O'Brien took the lid off Guild Wars 2's microtransactions system last week, he was careful to emphasise that ArenaNet are always thinking of the community's needs alongside their own. When I suggested that microtransactions effectively split a playerbase between haves and have-nots, he disagreed.

“Microtransactions should unite communities. It shouldn't be the case that there is a group of players in the game that I would really like to hang out with, but they've decided that anybody who hangs out with them needs to spend 30 hours a week playing the game. We've taken a one-two punch as far as our philosophy goes. Punch number one is that Guild Wars is not that kind of game anyway - Guild Wars is not a grindy game, and Guild Wars is not a game where your success is dependant on whether you have the right gear.”

“Punch number two is that there's now an equivalence between time and money. If I'm a player who can play the game a lot and there's something I want, I don't need to pay for it. If I'm a player who can't play the game a lot, but I want things in the game also, I can spend money on microtransactions."

O'Brien acknowledges, however, that players will need convincing. “The reaction we expect from the world is scepticism. It should be that way because there are a lot of games out there that are doing really dicey things with microtransactions. We hold ourselves to high standards, and as we've tested things, we've put this stuff in front of our core beta test group and said, 'you guys should be holding us to [those] high standards.'”

It all comes down to risk. ArenaNet are taking a chance on the fact that convincing players to spend money in-game will be better, in the long run, than coercing them. We still don't know exactly what will be for sale nor how it'll factor in to the game as a whole, so the onus is on ArenaNet to follow up talk with action. The fact that O'Brien is willing to talk candidly about the risks, however, shows that they're taking player concerns seriously.

“We're betting our entire company on Guild Wars 2, and so we need to have the relationship with our fans where we're giving content that people value. If people value the work that we're doing, then they're going to pay for the work that we're doing.”

Chris Thursten

Joining in 2011, Chris made his start with PC Gamer turning beautiful trees into magazines, first as a writer and later as deputy editor. Once PCG's reluctant MMO champion , his discovery of Dota 2 in 2012 led him to much darker, stranger places. In 2015, Chris became the editor of PC Gamer Pro, overseeing our online coverage of competitive gaming and esports. He left in 2017, and can be now found making games and recording the Crate & Crowbar podcast.