Inside the World of Guild Wars

Unless you’re a hardcore gamer, you’ve probably never heard of Guild Wars, and that would be strange, because after World of Warcraft, it’s arguably the biggest success story in MMORPG gaming. Its 2.5 million player base makes it second only to Warcraft, but it’s not even listed on MMOGchart.com, the online world tracker that’s become, if only by default, the industry standard. Guild Wars isn’t strictly an MMO (the publisher, NCsoft, refers to it as a CORPG, for “competitive online role-playing game”), and that might partly explain the relative dearth of attention: the industry isn’t sure how to categorize it. Then again, the lack of monthly subscriptions is probably another part of the problem: the industry isn’t sure how Guild Wars makes money, or is nervous that they do.

But how exactly can a company profit from a game with millions of players online, without charging regular fees? That’s something I wanted to know too. To get that answer, I talked with Robert Garriott, CEO and President of NCsoft of North America (and brother to Ultima creator Richard “Lord British” Garriott), and asked.

Guild Wars from the Server Side

When NCSoft acquired Arena Net, Guild Wars’ developer, Garriott and his team discerned an audience not being served by the traditional subscription-based MMO. (“There’s a large number of people who don’t want to pay 15 dollars a month”, as he puts it.) Guild Wars was designed from the ground up to capture that niche, with community and help tools that minimized the need for frequent customer service– a key money sink for MMOs. By Garriott’s estimate, Guild Wars incurs 80% less support costs than NCsoft’s more traditional MMOs, like their Lineage series. There are no Game Masters in Guild Wars, wandering around the world settling disputes and helping players—and charging NCsoft by the hour.

The other cost-saving feature comes from economy of bandwidth. MMO players know all about long download times, when a game has an update, with patches that often exceed 100 megabytes, and thousands of players simultaneously piling on, to get it. (“It can cost us a million dollars for an update patch,” Garriott says of other NCSoft MMOs. “You peak when you release a giant download.”) By contrast, Guild Wars streams its updates in small chunks, depending on what part of the world you’re in. “Instead of having peaks of bandwidth usage… [the update] streams it evenly over time, so the costs don’t peak.” Numerous areas and quests in the world are “instantiated”, meaning specially created only for a small group of players, and that also minimizes bandwidth, since it means tracking less player data across the wider world. Garriott estimates 100,000 people play Guild Wars across the US and EU at any given time, and 1.5-2 million total every month—and still, connection costs remain manageable.

MMO as Book Series

But how does NCsoft make money without monthly subscriptions? Here, Garriott likens the Guild Wars revenue model not to other MMOs, but a series of fantasy novels. The game comes with numerous sequels and expansions, which add to the world and the larger narrative. “You buy one book, you buy number one, number two… We figure people will read all of the chapters.” The risk is that a player buys just one, but, says Garriott, “If we can provide a compelling enough game, people want to play through the whole game.” As of a few months ago, 2.5 million people have bought Guild Wars. (The next standalone edition, Nightfall, goes on sale this week.)

Guild Lessons

So far, most MMOs based in the US/EU are monthly subscriber-based and adhere fairly closely to design elements innovated by early online worlds like Everquest and Ultima Online. Robert Garriott’s fear is too many developers are rushing to recreate World of Warcraft, and will end up with twenty imitations that don’t grow the market. “People should be taking risks to do different things and try to expand the market and business model and game design,” he says. If Guild Wars keeps succeeding, they may have to.

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