On Saturday, August 29, ArenaNet president and co-founder Mike O’Brien announced at PAX Prime that the core version of Guild Wars 2 (essentially the game minus any instanced Living World content) would be available free of charge for anyone who wishes to play from that point forward. Free accounts will have certain restrictions placed on them to deter scammers, botters, gold sellers, and general ne’er-do-wells from engaging in shenanigans, but are still functional enough to enjoy the game and have a pleasant experience. Despite these precautionary restrictions, however, the announcement was met with mixed reviews from the community for a multitude of reasons. Some people fear the dreaded “fremium” monetization model that often comes with an MMO’s transition to free-to-play. Others are convinced that the game will become infested with trolls, scammers, and other unruly inhabitants. However, after carefully considering Mike O’Brien’s words during the announcement, I am thoroughly convinced that this transition will not only be smooth for players and profitable for ArenaNet, but that it will be beneficial for the game and its community overall.
To start off, let’s explore one of the more basic complaints about the announcement: “I paid for a game that is now free.” This is only a problem in a very specific context. Players who paid anywhere from $10 – $150 for the game (depending on sales and which edition was purchased) and got more than 100 hours out of it really don’t have too much to complain about. Essentially, time spent with a product dictates its value as much as the product itself, provided the product is well received. If I pay for a product, and I spend 100 hours enjoying it, it doesn’t matter if it becomes subsequently available for free, because I got to enjoy that product while I could only do so for a fee. People who refrained from purchasing the product at that time and now enjoy it for free did not get to enjoy it while it was only available for a cost. Of course, this logic is only sound when it concerns large periods of time, like it does in the instance of Guild Wars 2 (three years). However, that is not to say that every gamer expects 100 hours of enjoyment for their money. There is no hours-played/cost ratio that magically pleases everyone. In fact, I would say that anyone who purchased the game, enjoyed it, but was less than 100 hours into their experience at the time of the announcement is validated in feeling a bit miffed. However, and I know this sounds cold-hearted, that is such a small minority of players that, from a business and community standpoint, it doesn’t really affect much. It is nevertheless unfortunate for those individuals; but the point here is that in the grand scheme of things, most of the pre-existing player-base has gotten their money’s worth at this point in the game’s life. As the age old saying goes: time is money!
So, now that we’ve established that, for the most part, the switch is not an issue of monetary fairness; let’s explore some other related claims that have been floating around recently. For one, the claim that since Guild Wars 2 is now playable for free, the gemstore will turn into a fremium wasteland of pay-to-winnery. This theory simply boggles my mind because aside from the fact that free accounts will have gemstore restrictions placed on them (more info here), Mike O’Brien clearly stated during his reveal that how ArenaNet runs the gemstore will not change in the slightest with the implementation of this model:
“A lot of you have to be asking: now that the core Guild Wars 2 is free, does that mean Guild Wars 2 is changing its business model? Does that mean we’re going to be like one of those free-to-play games that are all about monetizing free players? And the answer is no. No, it’s not changing. Guild Wars 2 isn’t changing; the gemstore is not changing. It’s all exactly the same as it always was. The game experience stays the same, we’re just opening it up to more players.”
But what enables them to do this? Don’t they need to make up for the lost revenue of box sales of the core game? Well, if what they are going for works out, no. While the core Guild Wars 2 experience is free, the upcoming Heart of Thorns expansion still has a standard unit price of $50. So, ideally, making the core game playable for free will actually increase unit sales via free players picking up Heart of Thorns when they discover they really like the game. Furthermore, the steady flow of free players into the game over time will theoretically create a steady stream of unit sales, as well as flat out increase gemstore sales and the overall player-base. Of course, all of that hinges on free players enjoying the game enough to make a purchase, but I doubt ArenaNet is worried about that. Their game has already proven appealing to millions of players around the world, so the quality is there; they’re simply opening it up to a new market that has likely never experienced it. If all goes according to plan, this will end up being a fantastic move for the game, its developers, and its community.
Which leads me into a very important point: free access to the core game will work wonders for the sPvP community. With ArenaNet really pushing for Guild Wars 2 to become more prevalent in the esports world, making the game readily available for anyone who wants to have a go is a huge step. Having no barrier for entry is key in promoting a game’s competitive scene. Combine this with the fact that Guild Wars 2 sPvP is truly compelling and riveting to watch, and we are potentially looking at mass growth in the game’s sPvP scene over the next year. Furthermore, on the monetary side of things, we have sPvP leagues being added with Heart of Thorns, which will be extremely enticing for anyone wanting to be seriously competitive in sPvP, generating further unit sales.
Finally, I feel like what is bothering a significant portion of the naysayers is the “free-to-play stigma.” It’s very real. There’s a condescending attitude, particularly in the MMORPG community, that many paying customers adopt toward free-to-play titles, and many Guild Wars 2 players feel like they now are being lumped in with that group label. Many players now feel that since the core game is available for free, they simply can’t play the game anymore on principle. I’m sorry to say that I really don’t have a solution to this as it’s a silly complaint at best and is not a good reason to stop playing a game you enjoy. ArenaNet has implemented free access to their core game in a very unique way, and it’s abundantly clear that they have thought carefully about that decision and taken the steps necessary to ensure that the gameplay experience won’t change for existing players.
So don’t freak out. Don’t panic. Your game isn’t going anywhere. It’s right where it’s always been, and it’s healthier and has broader horizons than ever before. With the massive influx of free players into the game, the community is going to be larger and more diverse than it ever has, and it’s up to the veteran, elite, and hardcore players to ensure that these new players receive a warm welcome so that the game we all love can flourish.