Q&A: Guild Wars' Jeff Strain

The ArenaNet cofounder tells GameSpot his opinions on gold farming, how the company has managed to survive on a no-subscription online model, and why he feels games have to justify charging online fees.

Guild Wars is an unusual beast among the hordes of massively multiplayer online role-playing games out there; it charges no monthly subscription fees, in stark contrast to other popular titles including World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online. And the strategy is working for ArenaNet, the subsidiary of NCsoft and creator of the title, with the game having sold 3.5 million copies so far.

Guild Wars was launched in April 2005, followed by its first two expansions Factions and Nightfall in 2006. A new expansion, Eye of the North, is due for release on August 31. Guild Wars 2, a completely separate game, is also in production, slated for sometime in 2008. Since Guild Wars 2 will not support characters from the original Guild Wars games, Eye of the North is intended as a bridge between the two, with the Hall of Monuments allowing players to save weapons, armour, and other achievements for retrieval in the sequel.

Jeff Strain is one of the cofounders of the Bellevue, Washington-based ArenaNet, where he currently holds the job title of programmer. Strain leads the production and art teams on the Guild Wars series, and before working for ArenaNet he was the team lead on Blizzard's World of Warcraft, a senior programmer on StarCraft, and a programmer on Diablo.

We caught up with Jeff Strain at the Develop Conference in Brighton, where he was showing off the new expansion.

GameSpot UK: It's a unique business model for Guild Wars to have no subscription fees. How does that work?

Jeff Strain: We've sold a lot of copies of Guild Wars. I think it amounts to three and a half million copies--those were the figures from a few months ago, and it continues to sell very strongly. And you know we're on the eve of shipping another expansion here. The thing we're seeing with the Guild Wars player base is that because of the business model you don't have to be married to the game, you don't have to decide every month whether you're going to stay married or get divorced. You can put it down and then come back when you're excited about something new. So rather than--I think in the traditional model you can get a set of subscribers and over time those numbers kind of drop off--there's a half-life to the game.

What we're seeing in Guild Wars is when we release new content for the game, people who have stopped playing the game come back. We get this huge wave of people coming back into the game. And so, each one of these releases is very profitable for us. The game has done very well and so I think the business model has proven itself in terms of its success. Right now there are kind of two big MMOs out there, and the rest of them are not doing so well. And I think it's a testament not only to the business model behind it but to the fact that the development team has supported it so well since its release that we have millions of very passionate, enthusiastic, and engaged players who keep buying new campaigns when they come out.

GSUK: What are your figures for how many people are currently playing?

JS: That's not a number we announce publicly, but like I said, we've sold three and a half million copies as of April. So we continue to roll strong. In fact, we start selling a lot more when we start approaching a new release as well. So you know we're very pleased with the way it's done. And you know, it's our first game, which is great to come out of the chute with a big hit like this.

GSUK: How often do you add new content?

JS: Well, there are two kinds of content that we've added to the game. There's the campaigns and expansions, and that has been anywhere from once a year to twice a year, depending on where we were in the cycle. And then there's a constant stream of new features and content that we add to the game just as live content. We've really evolved the game over time from where it was when it shipped two years ago. It's a very different game from what it was, and that's because when we release new updates it's not just bug fixes and skill balancing, we introduce entire new systems, like online tournament systems, observer mode, and hero mechanics. These aren't necessarily tied to one product release or another, those three things are just player-based to keep them happy and keep them engaged.

GSUK: Have you ever considered anything like in-game advertising to offset costs?

JS: No. We will never do in-game advertising for Guild Wars. I think that our belief is that every game has a business model that's right for it, and that the design of the game needs to support the business model and the business model needs to support the design of the game. For some games, advertising makes sense; either they're set in a modern era, or you're interacting with cities that have ad space in them and to not see it there would be strange. We don't feel like that's appropriate for Guild Wars. Our goal has always been for Guild Wars that we make less money per player, but we want to have a lot more players. So the focus here is to make a very player-friendly business model and do what's right by our customers and hope that they reward us by buying our games. Which you know, they have, and they continue to do. So could we say, "Hey, thanks for playing, we could make a lot more money by charging $20 a month for the game"? Well yeah, we could do that, but a lot of people would leave.

GSUK: Wasn't it unthinkable in the beginnings of Guild Wars--an online game with no subscription fees?

JS: Six years ago, when we first started working on Guild Wars, there was this expectation of belief that a subscription model was the future, and that all online games would be a subscription-based game. And we didn't believe that; we didn't want to see that future happen. What we wanted to see was developers exploring lots of different business models. I think virtual items are very interesting, advertising can work well, subscription-based models are great for some games, I think that's perfectly viable, I just don't want it to be a monoculture, I don't want to see all games trying to do that. And that was definitely the mentality in early 2000--everybody thought that they were going to take their existing franchises, and make an online game and just go and print money out of it. And it's just not feasible; gamers aren't going to have five subscriptions, no matter how great the games are. So I think ... one of the ways that the industry can keep innovating is to take some chances and go and explore new business models. It's worked out phenomenally well for us, and I hope it works out well for other people as well.

GSUK: So do you think that games like World of Warcraft, which charge for the retail copy of the game, plus a monthly subscription fee, are too expensive?

JS: Well, let me put it like this. I think today, unlike four years ago, if you are going to charge a subscription fee, you'd better be ready to stand by it and say why. You'd better be able to explain what you get for your money, because players no longer believe that every online game must have a subscription fee. The notion that you have to charge a subscription fee to keep the servers running just isn't true. And Guild Wars proves that it's not true. It is very possible to make a successful and profitable online game without a subscription fee.

Having said that, there are times when a subscription fee can make sense, if you design your game in such a way that--like if you have a large GM team that is going to be required to hold player's hands, you know, and be present throughout the world all the time, then that's something that if you want that in a game, and there are some great games that do that, then sure--you pay your subscription fee, you pay for that large GM team. Guild Wars doesn't go that route, and I don't think all games have to go that route.

GSUK: Let's talk for a minute about gold farming. What's your opinion?

JS: I think there are two types--there's professional gold farming, and then there's just players who are gold farming. What are damaging to the game are large networks of gold farmers all over the world who sell cash on eBay in exchange for real-world money. What happens there is that it floods your virtual economy with cheap gold. And of course just as in the real world the natural side effect of that is that prices go up everywhere. And so what happens is that gamers like you and me, who just want to play the game as the designers intended it to be played and have fun with it, can't afford to purchase anything. And so our choices are to either farm gold, or to go to eBay and buy gold, and that's just awful. This is not how we want people playing the game.

So we are very vigilant. We are constantly banning accounts--thousands per month--that are engaging in either automated gold farming through software bots, or that we discover to be large networks of professional gold farmers.

If it's an individual player who just wants to spend his or her hours earning gold, it's not somebody that we're going to go after. If that's fun for you and you want to spend your time that way, that's fine. But when you start bringing automated tricks to it, or when you start doing it as a professional organisation, that's when it gets to the point that it can damage the game. And our number one goal is to protect the game for the average player.

GSUK: Why do you think people love MMOs so much? Why are they so popular right now?

JS: I think that they bring a play mechanic to the table that has never existed before--community and playing with your friends. Feeling like you're part of a social endeavour rather than existing in a machine. There's a big difference between you just going through on your own, and you going through with a friend. It now becomes a hang-on activity, something you can do for entertainment rather than a secluded activity. I think there has been a trade-off, and that is in terms of the gaming side of it, what is strictly the best from a game experience point of view, we've lost a lot in many ways by going by the traditional MMO in that it's very difficult for you to be the hero, for you to be the centre of attention, for the story to revolve around you, for you to feel like you're really the driving force in changing the world.

The classic, persistent world in the MMO model is that everything has to exist in this steady state environment, whatever happens has to be undone, everything has to reset, monsters have to respawn, doors have to reopen, bridges have to repair themselves, you can't permanently alter your environment. And I think you lose something with that. So on one hand you're gaining this tremendous ability to interact with people, which is this whole new dynamic which has never existed before; on the other hand you've lost a big part of the powerful elements of the role-playing experience, and so our goal both with Guild Wars, and certainly with our future projects, is to bring those two together and find the balance between them.

GSUK: How else do you feel MMOs should evolve from here?

JS: The entire development team are very focused on creating a player-directed experience; rather than us telling a story and leading them through the story, it's giving players the tools and setting up the environment so that players can create stories on their own. I think in the future MMOs are going to be all about building a world and playing within that world, rather than building a story and setting people in that story, whilst still creating an environment where you can tell a heroic tale, so you can still feel like the centre of the universe. And I think that's a challenge, but everyone's moving in that direction.

GSUK: It's interesting that you've put what is essentially a one-person dungeon crawler in the middle of an MMO for Eye of the North. Can you explain your reasons for doing that?

JS: There's always been a discussion about the difference between single-player gaming and multiplayer gaming, but I think what we've really come to realise is there's another category that's just as important, and that's buddy gaming. Two-player is its own category--it's not just a reduced case of multiplayer. Two-player is a very different type of gaming than three-to-n player, because it kind of reflects more the personal relationships you build, whether it's dating or your best friend, or your spouse, there's an intimacy there that you don't have with a group. And so we really wanted to support not just single-player gaming but dual/buddy gaming.

But what we realised, which is even more important--I think a lot of people think of people as a type of gamer. For instance, you, Emma, are a single-player gamer, and Martin here, he's into multiplayer gaming, but that's not accurate. Most people like to play in different styles at different times. Sometimes I want to hook up with a group of friends, sometimes I want to hook up with one friend, a lot of times I just like to play on my own. I don't like to be forced to play a game that enables one type of play over another--I like to be able to choose how I want to play the game, based on how I'm feeling at the time. And what we wanted to do was add support in Guild Wars so that, if you want to play by yourself today, you're perfectly capable of doing it, if you feel like hooking up with your best friend today you can do it, if it's Saturday night and your whole group has gotten together for a play experience, you can do it. So we don't force you to be a type of player; instead, we give you the flexibility to play the way you want to play today.

I think that's something that has really been a strength of Guild Wars, that we allow you to play the way you want to play today.

GSUK: What's your personal opinion on the system wars? How do you see it playing out--the 360 versus the Wii versus the PS3?

JS: Online gaming experiences will continue to thrive in the PC world. I think as much as people say that voice communication is the future, I think there's a strong role that the keyboard's going to continue to play. And right now, PC continues to be where the online gamers are, and I think that will continue to be where the innovation is. On the other hand, I think the consoles are finally getting to the point where they understand that from a business model perspective, and from a publishing perspective, that they're going to have to change their traditional way of thinking in order to really attract the big MMO developers and bring that game to the consoles. And I think Sony is definitely leading the way with this. They get it. They understand that a company like NCsoft thinks of its business as a service, not as building products.

Guild Wars is a service to our customers--we are not selling you a product, we are selling you a service. Even [for] a game that is not a subscription-based game we believe that. Certainly that's the case for something like Tabula Rasa, it is a service. And given that, we can't go down a path of publishing on a platform that treats its games as products, and where there's no provision there to continue having an ongoing relationship with those customers. So, you've probably seen the announcement of a partnership between NCsoft and Sony, and that's kind of the foundation--Sony was willing to readdress the way games are published on their platform and embrace that notion that for us we need to develop a long-term ongoing relationship with our customers. So, I'm very excited to see that happen. I've gone on record in the past saying that the business model of the consoles needs to change in order for it to be attractive to us, and Sony has stepped up and really addressed that. So, I'm looking forward to, as we go into future products, seeing how that relationship works out for us.

GSUK: So, any plans to bring the Guild Wars series to the PS3?

JS: There are no definitive plans at this point. We are still evaluating our options. But we certainly have a lot of console fans...

GSUK: What did you think of the new E3?

JS: My perspective was as a developer representing a game there. For me, being able to walk the floor and see what my competitors were up to, that was certainly gone. I felt like it was a little more sterile as a result and that the excitement was missing. It is true that by moving into an intimate setting you're able to get a more in-depth look at where we're going, but I think that overall, just in terms of the industry excitement, I'm kind of sad to see the hoopla go.

GSUK: How do you feel about the recent closure of Auto Assault, which tried to do something different for the MMO genre?

JS: As a gamer, I was thrilled to see somebody try something different, and even though it didn't work out for Auto Assault, I hope that other companies and NCsoft will continue to try new things. Not everything that you do that's innovative is going to work out, and I think there are some real lessons that we all learned from Auto Assault. But I give them major props for being innovative; I hope to see more people breaking out of the kind of sword-and-sorcery fantasy online genre a little bit more in the future as well. One of the things I'm excited about Tabula Rasa is that its new, it's innovative.

GSUK: Can you tell us anything about Guild Wars 2?

JS: I can't really tell you anything new right now. We talked a lot about Guild Wars earlier this spring in terms of look and features. But since then it goes without saying that we've been very focused on getting the expansion wrapped up. Guild Wars 2 will be available in some kind of beta or public event in the second half of next year.

GSUK: Thanks for your time.

Written By

Want the latest news about Guild Wars 2?

Guild Wars 2

Guild Wars 2

Follow

Discussion

73 comments
ColdfireTrilogy
ColdfireTrilogy

Hey mister, the reason your game can do a no subscription model is because 90% of it is instanced on the group leaders PC ... i think it would be a little absurd to make you subscribe to a game that is run on your OWN PC ... wow on the other hand has a 15k player cap online per server which many servers are always full. That requires a BIT more hardware than instanced gameplay .... might want to be a bit more explanatory when saying stuff like P2P isnt necessary anymore. Maybe for GW in its instanced gameplay it works but not for a realwold MMO

orcmonkey3000
orcmonkey3000

GW 2 sounds amazing...I wonder if the indication that it will be available as a beta in the second half of '08 still stands? Though I did hear somewhere that it won't be an open beta...but whatever, I'm happy to let them take their time on it. Better to wait a little for a great game than have a sucky one now! GO GW2!!!

Lapizal
Lapizal

Guild Wars 2 only PS3 ? that would be the best--better graphic, if you're think PS3 controller don't have enough buttons then you're wrong, cause hey can make combination for skill.

godoo
godoo

GW2 will be cool but i wish we could take one character as a lead into the series...like: you have to travel forward in time to save tyria once more! only be allowed to take one character and that character could never go back intime, like to the old ascalon days or w/e...because i like my perfect ranger XD

firefox10210
firefox10210

in-game ads in guild wars..hmm...seeing a honda banner in ascalon would be pretty weird

FallenAngelXBL
FallenAngelXBL

Guild Wars is free of fees because NC soft have another hundred or so games that have fees to help fund it lol. Either way, guild wars is cool, i just haven't played it in a while. GW2 FTW

doomwarrior235
doomwarrior235

Guild Wars 2 is going to be awesome, I have really played the other Guild Wars games out, so now I'm going around and getting a bunch of free mmorpg's off Game Spot.

pmb0163
pmb0163

OMG! I cant wait! HURRY UP AREA NET!!

Adam_the_Nerd
Adam_the_Nerd

GW2 on the PS3? That sucks... really bad. Stupid exclusives. Can't we all just get along? But whatever. GW2 hurry the hell up!

Niffirg6
Niffirg6

its kinda dumb when they make new campains. like when factions came out, nobody ever played proficies anymore, and when nightfall came out, eveyone left factions and profices was even MORE empty. why not make the new expansions on the same map, and not mkaing a whole new world. just the same map gets a bigger in every expasion. =D

fatalsunny
fatalsunny

I can see guild wars becoming PS3 exclusive... that would suck ass

cer3brus
cer3brus

Guild Wars is the best game ever and Guild Wars 2 will be too.Period.

ryanritter
ryanritter

Omg i cant wait for this game. I have GW and EoTN and i love them! I think the idea of being other races than human is a great idea. cant wait for the beta.

Littleman29
Littleman29

I was reading about Guild Wars 2 in an old issue of PC Gamer an I really think they have some good ideas out there for this series. For example, the random events or the World vs World battles. When I saw that sneak peek, I was amazed at NC's idea to implant these ideas into MMOs without subscription fees of any kind!!! Shoot, forget about the PS3; PC GAMERS FOREVER!

S3th1982
S3th1982

sounds solid, now if only they could toss the fee for tabula rasa. I was super excited until i found out about the subscription.

thenarkallaptar
thenarkallaptar

I have never really had any problems with any of the Guild Wars games. Very solid series and it sounds like there staying that way.

NeoNavarro
NeoNavarro

I highly recommend at least trying Guild Wars it's a great game and who knows you may end up liking it.

SedeoInedus
SedeoInedus

I bought Nightfall the other day- it's so far proven itself to be a sound investment. I am now looking forward to GW2- especially after that little discussion!

Unr3al39
Unr3al39

That's cool. It sounds like the only problems I had with Guild Wars are going to be fixed in Guild Wars 2. This guy knows what he's talking about.

VenDaler
VenDaler

Sounds like this guy has got his head on pretty straight. I will say, Guild Wars has some cool technical online features and no monthly fee. ArenaNet, can I work for you?

Icekxg
Icekxg

Cool guy, he seems really down to earth and knows what gamers like. Guild Wars is a great game that I've been playing since the first beta and can't wait for GW2!

Desgardios
Desgardios

Can't Wait till guild wars really evolves. If you think Guild Wars is good now wait until Guild Wars 2 where a persistent and more interactive world take on a new level.It is in my belief that Guild Wars 2 will be Anet's trump card in the on-line gaming world.

GriffinLord602
GriffinLord602

well i agree with everything he says, but i love guild wars i have all expansions...but what p's me off is that my account got banned for nothing on it, cause i thnik i got hacked...so i was pretty annoyed with them, and even when i emailed them they said i had to send them a fax of my activation cards...... but il get that sorted out im sure.

comthitnuong
comthitnuong

Glad he doesn't support in game ads for Guild Wars. They would feel so out of place.

LafinAtchu
LafinAtchu

Man these armors better rock in GWEN. I got FOW for my Dervish and I'm currently trying to hang on to the 300k i got for new armor for my Ranger. Just 30 more days I keep saying. But as cool as the Primeval was at first, I'm getting sick of looking at it. Thankfully with the new recent changes in DoA I'm no longer fearing GWEN to be be this all out super hard area only for the l33t. Looks like its going be more on par with UW, FOW, Sorrows Furnace, and TotPK. At least I hope so, cause thats where most people still like to go.

Merl57
Merl57

Wow Jeff really understands his customers, and that's why I love guildwars. But no way in hell im paying for tabula risa for subsrcipton fee, I would buy it if it was on the same GW model

Darwin_11
Darwin_11

Why can't Tabula Rasa be like this too? :angry: I don't have the time to get married to a subscription based MMO.

glhx1rush
glhx1rush

Nice! The more I play GW the more I like it, and I've been playing it since day one. I'n deff not a Sony fan, but if they do bring out a PS3 Version, that would be great. The more players, the better!

mc2much
mc2much

Guild Wars rocks! Need it on 360 tho other wise ill have to buy a ps3 (if it comes out on ps3) =P

vandrius
vandrius

Guild Wars is actually one of my favourite on again / off again games. I love the way you can just jump in and play single player if you want, just as well as joining a group of people for pve or pvp. WoW I played to death as well, but... it lacks a certain something that I love GW for. One thing is freedom - the GW skills and limit on 8 at a time is brilliant. Different tactics work, there are always counters... etc.

NeoNavarro
NeoNavarro

I liked guild wars a lot when it first debuted back in 05. But, it didn't last too long for me WoW was a much better game all around.

KnightsofRound
KnightsofRound

I really respect this guy. I completely agree with pretty much everything he said, especially the thing about subscriptions fees. Pretty much every developer thinks if they make an MMO and charge for it they will be making money angels in no time.

radiocreed
radiocreed

I wish they could tell us how many active players there are right now. From the total sales figure of 3.5 million copies sold, I would assume there's at least 1 million active players.

igl
igl

i want ur baby jeff!1

Oktoberfest
Oktoberfest

I really wish they would release some PvE emphasized Guild Wars with like a much higher level cap or something

danyjr
danyjr

Jeff Strain and O'Brien (from ArenaNet) and Bill Roper and Schaffer brothers (Flagship studios) are the ones that Blizzard will really miss, and this interview tells you why.

Kojo1
Kojo1

Guild wars is an excellent game, not just because it is free, but because of the quality of game play as well. I cannot wait for GWEN and GW2.

feanorkms
feanorkms

The man is gold in my book, he said Guild Wars will never have in-game advertising. Would love if other developers followed that mottto.

jazilla
jazilla

Man that guy has designed some monster games. Some really very good titles in there. It makes me so excited to play GWEN and GW2.

Pete5506
Pete5506

GW is a good game since its free

_Sargon_
_Sargon_

Good interview, really does show they are interested in player experience. If they could accomplish what they have their sights on, in the topic of making a game make you feel like the hero and having the environments able to be altered, that would be a great MMO - how it would work, i wouldn't know though. Live long guildwars!

torak101
torak101

Very, very few MMO's are worth a monthly fee, In fact there is only maybe one or two that really are worth the charge. Grats to these guys for not only making a great game but thinking outside the box and finding a new way to do business.

dergy
dergy

i play GW. and i love it. it's free. and thats all i ever asked for

Dace67
Dace67

I agree with a lot of what he said but have to laugh at how badly he dodged the "system wars" question.

blackIceJoe
blackIceJoe

Guild Wars will be great if it comes out on the PS3. I had to buy a better PC to play GW and if I can just play it without making a better PC I will be thrilled.

runstalker
runstalker

Can't wait to see ArenaNet's artists working on a next-gen engine and open-world design in GW2. I was on the fence about the next GW expansion, but when I found out it was dungeon/catacombs-based, I was sold -- because ANet's dungeon artwork is superb. Seriously, I love their style.

Arcanum
Arcanum

Congrats to the GuildWars developers, they got it right the first time, and have continued to make improvements. I've been playing almost since it came out, and still do so. Cant wait for EotN.