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.

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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.

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