Guild Wars 2 is now free. You can download and play it right now, for nothing. But rather than a full free-to-play transition, ArenaNet is instead changing what you pay for. The core game is free; the upcoming expansion—Heart of Thorns—is not.
"As we start to release expansions, it raises the question: in a buy-to-play business model, what exactly do we want you to buy in order to play?" ArenaNet president Mike O'Brien tells PC Gamer. "We've seen different games go in different directions. Sometimes it gets pretty complicated. Sometimes you have to buy the base game and then every single expansion so that you can get the latest stuff and play with your friends."
Instead, ArenaNet wants to make things simpler. "We hold ourselves to the very highest standards of buy to play," says O'Brien. "You just have to buy one thing." For the studio, that means making the original thing free.
"We believe that if people love Guild wars 2, they’re gonna buy the expansion pack," O'Brien says when I ask why ArenaNet is doing this. "The expansion pack is such a great value. There’s so much content, not only in the expansion pack but in all the free updates that will come past that." While Guild Wars 2 is now free, it won't receive future content updates—including the newly announced raids. Those are earmarked for Heart of Thorns, which will essentially become the live version of the game.
"And so that makes it really easy for us," says O'Brien. "Let’s make it so that anybody who wants to check out Guild Wars 2 can check out Guild Wars 2. And can really check out the game, not some free-to-play monetised version of the game."
ArenaNet's hope is that, by removing the barrier to trying Guild Wars 2, players will be more likely to buy into the Heart of Thorns expansion and its updates. With that as the business model, O'Brien reassures that their won't be any additional fees beyond the limited, mostly cosmetic ones that already exist in the game.
"There’s no changes to the gem store," he says. "I think that sometimes people use the term ‘free to play’ to describe a business model that can be very aggressive. The game is designed that you can only play so far before you really start having to pay money to enjoy the game. We’re just not doing that at all. This is a buy-to-play game, and we are making the base game—the core game—free. We designed this game assuming that it was a game we were selling. Now we’re not selling it, but it’s the same game and you can experience all that content for free."
There will, however, be some restrictions in place for free players. Firstly account storage—something ArenaNet views as a luxury. Secondly, protections have been put in place against spammers. According to O'Brien, these are all subtle measures. "You can whisper to anybody you want to," he says, choosing one example, "but you can’t create new whisper conversations more than about once every 30 seconds." It's a small restriction, but one that shouldn't impact regular players. "If we didn’t have a subtle restriction like that in place, then a spammer could spam everyone in the game. We would delete the account, and they would create a new account and spam everyone in the game."
Finally, ArenaNet has taken steps to stop new players from disrupting the game's more competitive modes. The example given is World vs World, which will be unavailable until players reach level 60. "If you didn’t have to do that," says O'Brien, "then there’s no way that we could keep people who were being very disruptive from going back into world versus world over and over with new characters. We just make sure that people play the game before they can get into a position where they can disrupt other players."
For O'Brien, it's essential that ArenaNet safeguard the existing community. "It’s really important to me—I think it's really important to all of us—that we protect this great community that we have, and so we’ve been tweaking and tweaking. We've been working on various iterations of this for about a year now, making sure that we tweak and get this right"
I ask O'Brien if he's worried about what effect going free might have on the community—a group that ArenaNet has frequently praised for their helpfulness and friendliness. "If we did our jobs right," O'Brien says, "and I totally believe that we've done this right, new players coming into the game are going to get the full authentic experience, but the community is not going to change. You’re going to have a bunch of new players but it’s going to be the same friendly community—the same protected community—that it’s always been.
O'Brien's message to players is simple: try it. "You don’t have to read a big list of changes and tweaks and restrictions, because we’re opening it up the day we announce it. Everybody can try, and I am confident that when people get into the game it’s going to be exactly the same. The game they are playing is exactly the same game that they were playing Friday, no changes at all."
If you would like to see a list of the full restrictions in place for free accounts, head here.