The Game Archaeologist: The rise of Guild Wars

Have you heard?!

In early 2005, World of Warcraft mania was rising exponentially, month over month. But even as Blizzard’s MMO juggernaut barreled toward its full strength and knocked opponents out left and right, a new challenger emerged on the scene — and stood its ground.

This would be ArenaNet’s Guild Wars, which launched on April 2005 to great acclaim. Through a striking art style, addictive collectible skill system, and a visionary business model that flew in the face of subscriptions, Guild Wars not only weathered the WoW storm but prospered greatly.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be tracing the story of Guild Wars from its inception through its growth into a powerhouse franchise. What made this game so special — and can ArenaNet duplicate it for a third entry in the future?

What the heck is Triforge?

The year was 2000. A former Warcraft III programmer named Mike O’Brien teamed up with fellow Blizzard alumni Patrick Wyatt and Jeff Strain to form a new studio that would strike out in a different direction. It was called… Triforge. Seriously. And then, because that’s a dumb name, the trio rebranded the company to ArenaNet.

Located in Seattle, ArenaNet began to expand and buckle down for its first game: an online role-playing title that broke the still-establishing rules of the genre. The first step was to develop a new type of streaming tech that would let the team pull off a fast and agile client that could download and update on the fly. This aspect of the project alone took them a year-and-a-half.

With hot talent working on a promising title, it wasn’t long before NCsoft came knocking with an offer to join forces. While NCsoft was initially dubious about the lack of a game subscription (more on that in a bit), it was bowled over by ArenaNet’s technology. In 2002, and without a title officially revealed to the public, ArenaNet became an NCsoft subsidiary.

A year later and the curtains opened on the project. In April 2003, Guild Wars was formally announced with a promised appearance at E3 that May. “We believe that players are going to enjoy experiencing a game that offers technological advances that fundamentally improve the online role-playing experience, and the introduction of a groundbreaking business model for the genre,” Wyatt said in the initial press release. O’Brien chimed in to emphasize that unlike other online titles, Guild Wars would “reward skill and inventiveness” with its balanced design.

An MMO for the rest of us

The goal of the company was to make, as Jeff Strain put it, an “MMO for the rest of us.” This meant an affordable price tag, quick connection, and little wait in getting to the action. “Our design goal when creating Guild Wars was this: If I’ve got 30 minutes before dinner, will I have fun playing this game?” said Strain in 2007.

Right away, Guild Wars caught people’s attention with a lack of a subscription fee (which was nearly uniform for the industry at the time). By then, NCsoft had come around on the subject and was crowing about this aspect. “We thought this could revolutionize the business model for online games,” said NCsoft North America CEO Robert Garriott.

Then there was the skill system. Magic the Gathering’s collectible card design was invoked more than once to try to explain how Guild Wars’ 450 skills would function, especially considering how players would have to hunt down bosses or perform certain tasks to acquire an ever-growing piles of skills. The twist? A character could equip and use only eight of those abilities at any one time.

Instead of hewing to the MMORPG acronym, ArenaNet preferred to call its title a Competitive/Cooperative Online Role Playing Game (CORPG) instead. As the studio argued, the game’s heavy use of instancing, when compared to some other MMOs’ open world designs, put it into a new category of games. That term triggered a long-standing debate in the community over whether or not Guild Wars was an MMO (it is, and you can hush), something you might encounter in a comments section even today.

Players were in for a bit of a wait, especially as the promised release window of “second half of 2004” slipped into the following year. Beta events for Guild Wars commenced the fall of 2004 for “millions” of testers eager to see what this title would be like. And what they found was to their liking, apparently, as word-of-mouth hype built for this game. Players oohed and ahhed over the art style and the snappy response of the client, and the promise of a sub-free game meant that gamers could work Guild Wars into their nightly routine without having to cancel another subscription.

It also helped that players could get into Guild Wars very quickly. The initial client download was just 90kb — and yes, you read that correctly. ArenaNet’s servers would then stream content to players hopefully faster than they would consume it, staying one step ahead until the game took shape on their hard drives.

Let us pray.

The Prophecies have come true

While PvP was meant to be at the core of Guild Wars (suggested by the name of the game itself, even though it technically referred to an event in that game world’s history), co-op fun started to muscle in for shared attention as the development went along. Thus, players joining the game could elect to make and level a traditional RPG character — or select a PvP-only class that was already level 20 and maxed out. This was another example of how ArenaNet questioned the MMO status quo, by giving players more options to enjoy its game.

On April 28th, 2005, Guild Wars (technically Guild Wars Prophecies) began. For a one-time price of $50, players could jump in and adventure in Tyria all they wanted. And boy did they want to! Press and players alike were bowled over by the quality and design of Guild Wars, showering it with praise and strong reviews.

Sales echoed the strong reviews, with Guild Wars moving a million units by August 2005. It was an auspicious start to the CORPG — but would it last? And how would ArenaNet be able to leverage the game’s unique qualities to keep its financials in the black? Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion!

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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