The Game Archaeologist: The rise of Guild Wars

    
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The Game Archaeologist: The rise of Guild Wars

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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miskav
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miskav

I truly wish a sequel to GW1 was made.

GW2 was such a massive disappointment as a longtime GW1 player. And no other game has come close to giving me as much fun as Guild wars has.

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Axetwin .

I believe all remasters are a scam, but I would happily allow myself to be scammed if they remaster GW1.

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K8 D

My first mmo-ish game. I have it to thank for some of the best friends I still have today. It also helped me as a teenager struggling with asperger’s and anxiety. Getting on ventrilo and getting to know my fellow guildies made me learn a lot of social skills that might have been much harder to learn face to face. So thankful for this game! It was worth every penny. EDIT: Ventrilo, not discord lol

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Loopy

Thanks for getting me on the nostalgia trip Justin. Now i whipped out my old Guild Wars: Factions box and realized after installing that i don’t have access to my old email used for this game any more.

I submitted a support ticket, but this is definitely killing my momentum..

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Jim Bergevin Jr

Thank you for this Justin. I already look forward to next week. Guild Wars was my first official foray into MMOs after years of my friends bugging me to try this and that, and not really being happy with any of the ones they were playing – especially the subscription fee. It became one of only a very small few (i.e. count on one hand) games that really sucked me in to the point I would play on a daily basis and often pull overnighters because I just couldn’t stop playing. I still continue to play on a regular basis to this day, and look forward to dedicating a full week of play time and streaming during the anniversary in April. I hope you guys at MOP do a few more introspective articles on it that week.

I remember downloading the beta in 2014 and creating a character on a laptop that was barely 3D capable at the time (I still have that character – remade after the beta wipe of course). It inspired me to go out and build my own PC just so I could play the game on my dial-up connection at the time. I got married three days after it launched, and my first child was born later in the year. This game was really the third major influence on my life in the last 15 years.

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rayraycharlie

Love this game and I still have it installed on my PC. The network and streaming tech was far and away better than anything I had seen at the time. I lived in a rural area and used Direcway satellite internet. I was able to play this game with 4 friends from all over the country and communicate using ventrillo, all with no noticeable lag.
If I hadn’t had so much fun in GW1, I might have given up on MMOs completely (I’m not sure if this is a good thing tho….).

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Anton Mochalin

“If I’ve got 30 minutes before dinner, will I have fun playing this game?”

Never played GW1 but this very question led me to finding GW2. It’s really surprising that only very few MMOs answer “Yes” to this question because the potential market is huge – from people who are too busy with their education/careers/families to gamers who want some distraction from their “main” game from time to time. And all those people are willing to pay money for those 30 minutes before dinner if those are 30 minutes of quality entertainment.

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Oleg Chebeneev

TBH almost any MMO can answer yes to this question. If you have fun playing the game, you can always find fun activities to do for 30 minutes. Be it finishing few quests, doing some crafting or killing some mobs.

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Anton Mochalin

But with most MMOs that would mean approaching the MMO as if it’s a singleplayer game. Then yes for example the combat can be a lot of fun especially if you’ve picked a class which fits your playstyle or has interesting skills etc. Or you can read all quest texts and many MMOs have much to offer to those who are into lore. Or you can just enjoy the scenery or explore the world. But there’s no difference in this case from playing a singleplayer game with good lore or good combat. The whole idea of MMOs is that there are other players around you which can influence what you’re doing. For example you’re seeing a higher-tier mob and decide to attack it because you see another player waiting for someone to help with that mob he (and you) would be unable to kill on one’s own. Most MMOs would try to push you to making a party with that player by only allowing to share loot with party members or something like that. But you don’t want to make a party when you have 30 minutes before dinner. Most MMOs want the players to establish social connections that would keep them in the game. That leads to MMOs’ engame being mostly those not-very-massive types of content like dungeons and raids. One levels up in a massive open world with a massive amount of other players around to end up doing instanced content with the same group of people over and over again. Probably good for those with no social connections but not that interesting for those already having enough social connections IRL and/or in other games.

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Oleg Chebeneev

I bought the game when it launched and just couldnt get into it. Was too addicted to WoW and liked it better. Cant even tell all things in GW I disliked back then. Definetly wasnt fond of instanced world. But after few days of trying, I returned to WoW.

hurbster
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hurbster

To be honest, the lack of jumping was painful. While I enjoyed the first two expansions (although I do remember argueing rather vociferously for a ‘neutral’ path in factions, a bit too loudly for some devs as I recall), I literally got half-way through Nightfall and got bored and quit. Never played GW:EN (har-har took me so long to work out that title) and went back to WoW.

hurbster
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hurbster

I liked it. The only good murdercatdogbastard was a dead one in those days.

easy.JPG
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rayraycharlie

Nice! The bows skins were so awesome.

hurbster
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hurbster

Celestial Bow skin as I recall.