Friday, February 22, 2019

What A Difference A Day Makes : GW2

It's not been the greatest twenty-four hours. I had some bad news about my health yesterday that's going to have a significant impact on my life over the next few months, at least. Before my hospital appointment I spent the morning playing EverQuest 2, which kept my mind off the prospect of a procedure I wasn't much looking forward to.

When I got back from the hospital, having received the news I was hoping to avoid, I settled into doing my dailies in Guild Wars 2 and then spent the rest of the evening in World vs World. It very much helped to settle my mood. Generally I don't play MMOs to escape problems in real life but I have to say that, when such problems occur, those virtual worlds do offer an attractive alternative.

This morning I woke up feeling fairly sanguine. I hope to be reasonably pragmatic about health problems and while I'd rather not have any to worry about, if I do then I'm all in favor of having  something done about them as soon as possible. Now I just have to wait for that to happen.

In that mood I sat down to read Feedly, where I found this bombshell waiting for me. The headline reads

"Guild Wars 2 studio ArenaNet is suffering heavy layoffs, but the game will continue".

Well, that's surprising, disturbing and incredibly unreassuring...

There's a good amount of detail in the MassivelyOP report and also in this GamesIndustryBiz piece. The gist is this:
  • ArenaNet is not performing well enough commercially for NCSoft's liking.
  • The underlying reason is a combination of decreasing income from aging franchises and insufficient progress on expensive new projects.
  • There will be a round of significant lay-offs.
  • Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2 will continue on their present course. 
Songyee Yoon, CEO of NCSoft, summed up the problem:

"Our live game business revenue is declining as our franchises age, delays in development on PC and mobile have created further drains against our revenue projects, while our operating costs in the west have increased. Where we are is not sustainable, and is not going to set us up for future success."

ArenaNet themselves issued this bland statement on the forums:

"We know you have a lot of questions about the future of Guild Wars 2. We want to share with you what to expect moving forward for the game. First and foremost, we are still fully committed to all of our players and ongoing support of the game. We will be moving directly from Living World Season 4 into Season 5 as promised, and we plan to continue a regular cadence of updates and releases.
We know Guild Wars 2 is important to you, and as our players, you are important to us. Rest assured that we are still working to add great new content to the game. We are deeply grateful to all of you for your support during this difficult time."

Reaction on the official forums is, as yet, muted. There's a fairly short thread filled with some astonishingly smug, uninformed or plain self-deceiving comments, largely from people who seem to know little or nothing about NCSoft or its relationship to ArenaNet. Or about reality, for that matter.

Taken together with the recent layoffs at Blizzard and the speculation that kicked off about the future of World of Warcraft,  it's clear that neither size nor market presence gives much of an indicator towards stability or longevity. WoW is the biggest MMORPG of all and GW2 would probably have featured in many people's top ten most-successful current MMORPGs in the west; maybe top five.

I'll get to GW2 in a moment, but in more general terms I think what underpins both Blizzard and NCSoft's actions has more to do with the impending and inevitable decline of the PC gaming market than a decline in interest in the MMO(RPG) genre itself.  For a long time, MMOs were intrinsically bound up with the platform upon which they ran and that platform was almost exclusively the desktop computer. A handful of games were devised for consoles and there have been mobile MMOs as long as we've had smartphones, but until recently almost everything of significance in the MMORPG field came to us via the PC.

That's no longer true. We read all the time about MMOs being converted for consoles. It's pretty much expected now. Some are created for consoles first then ported to PC.

Mobile is booming. The quantity and quality of MMORPGs available for handheld devices increases every day. And, of course, mobile gaming is becoming not just more profitable than any other platform but vastly so.
At sixty years of age, and particularly with reminders of my own mortality fresh in my mind, I'm starting to feel hesitant about the sweeping statements I've been prone to make in the past about this or that MMORPG outliving me. That's beginning to look like an increasingly weak assurance either for me or the games.

If I stick to straight numbers, though, I'm beginning to question how long the ordinary person will be able to buy a new desktop personal computer. Ten years? Probably. Twenty years? Not sure about that. Thirty? I really doubt it. When the home desktop PC becomes a curiosity of the past, where will that leave the MMORPG?

While I do believe that some MMORPGs, as we now know them, will continue to be available virtually indefinitely, what devices they'll be developed to run on is a lot harder to predict. Trying to see things from the point of view of major games developers, planning for the next five years, it's getting ever harder to imagine major resources being directed towards the combination of a genre and a platform both in evident decline.

Getting back to Guild Wars 2, information coming out as a result of yesterday's news confirms an awful lot of things some of us had been speculating about for a year or two. It's been extremely hard to explain how a company with around 400 employees could be so unproductive, so unresponsive and just so all-round slow.

If most of those people had been working on Guild Wars 2 then you'd have been well within your rights as a customer to ask what the heck they were all doing. The explanation, as many long suspected, is that a lot of them weren't working on either of ANet's Live games at all.

Jessica Price, the GW2 writer who was sacked last year after a very public row, confirmed that while she was still with the company ANet were working on "two major projects", one of which was "indefinitely suspended" even before she was fired.

She also made a very telling statement about what was going on at GW2 while she was still working there:

"For those of us working on GW2, our mandate was essentially to make it look like there was the same level of resources devoted to GW2, when they were actually steadily moving people off of it onto the other projects."

Smoke and mirrors, as many of us suspected. So, where does all this leave Guild Wars 2 players?  That's quite hard to say.

The real concern for anyone hoping to go on playing GW2 for years to come is NCSoft. If ArenaNet was an independent company that had made some poor decisions on future projects and been forced to retrench, we could expect a renewed focus on the one game that does make money. We could expect, as many in the forum thread seem to do, that some of the resources diverted to unnanounced projects would be returned to the core game.

In that scenario, we might even see an improvement in the GW2 experience. Faster response times, shorter content droughts, more attention on meeting cutomer expectations. We might even get an expansion this side of forever.

And, if ANet was an independent company, should things get truly bad we could look forward to an eventual transfer of assets. The Guild Wars franchise might change ownership in a merger or even in some end-of-life fire sale, as we have seen happen to so many other familiar names in recent times. That would ensure at least a few more years.

With ANet being a wholly-owned subsidiary of NCSoft, however, you can forget all of that. The sad fates of both City of Heroes and WildStar tell us that NCSoft has no interest in selling IPs to other potential competitors. If they close ANet, that will be the end of the Guild Wars franchise.

In the short term I'm sure GW2 will persist. NCSoft has culled everything at ArenaNet that doesn't directly support the two Guild Wars titles. The recent, utterly unexpected re-launch of the support website for the original Guild Wars suggests there may even be plans to monetize the older game again.

There are firm statements that planned content will roll out, so I would expect to see Living Story Season Five conclude. That should keep the lights on for the rest of this year. After that, if nothing else has changed, I would expect a final throw of the dice with the announcement of a third expansion.

Looking any further ahead seems futile. At that point it would depend on unknown and unknowable factors including the commercial success or otherwise of that expansion, the health of the PC-based MMORPG market in general and how well NCSoft is doing overall.

GW2 will turn eight years old this summer. Right now, I wouldn't count on GW2 being around for its tenth anniversary. This time yesterday I wouldn't have said that. A lot can change in a day.


  1. Well, first of all, I wish you all the best with your treatment and hope everything will turn out well.
    As for, last two years were pretty good for them and I don't think the game itself will be affected in any way. As of now, they are making around $80M per year, CoH barely managed to beat GW1 in earnings during maintenance period of latter, when it was bringing around $1M per quarter. Wildstar dropped to $2M per quarter in 2015 and it only went down since then.

    1. Thanks!

      Yes, I don't really think there's much of a comparison between GW2 and either CoH or WS when it comes to profitability. And if ANet was an indipendent studio I'd pretty much count on them keeping the franchise going indefinitely - it's self-evidently strong enough. The thing about NCSoft at the moment, though, is the huge amount of money they're making from mobile. If that trend continues, as it most likely will, I wonder how long they'll be interested in owning and operating any non-mobile games?

      Oh well, I imagine GW2 will be around for a good while yet. Too early to panic!

    2. Well, hopefully if NCSoft ever loses interest in owning ANet, they'll just let them buy themselves out. Considering that MO was hinting at them having multiple mobile teams in 2013 and we still haven't seen anything from them except today's statement about cancellation of unannounced projects, ANet is unlikely to ever release anything for mobiles.

  2. Wishing you well with your health and procedure as well.

    As regards to the Arenanet-related media report, I think a phrase on Reddit I saw said it best. 400 employees seem overstaffed for their visible output. Granted, there are three factors here - manpower/labor, -visibility- and output/product.

    Apparently, decisions are pending and affected staff will be given two month's salary, so it's not a "yo, pack your belongings and get out" mismanagement disaster scenario at least. Kotaku jumped the gun on the announcement here for their media scoop.

    Could kind of smell the writing on the wall though, between some staff making their early exits (Colin, John Smith, that lady who was some kind of microtransaction designer) and the glacial pace of new stuff coming into the game.

    The most positive thing I can say right now is that I am still willing to give what remains a chance and continue as if everything is status quo. I hope it's a case of a hard decision that had to be made to, as they say, keep things sustainable. For the sake of the company and their current stable of games. Morale has no doubt taken a hit right now, so a little patience and understanding is in order.

    I hope it's a wakeup call that will be ideally and eventually taken the right way, and clearer focus and direction and proper management of resources help the company make the u-turn around a rocky road. But as a bit of a pessimist and a realist, I'm also bracing for a less than ideal outcome. We'll see.

    The best we can do for them right now is to not feed a media frenzy, give them space and hope things improve (for everyone - players, remaining staff, laid-off staff that can get back on their feet quickly and be happy elsewhere.)

    1. Thanks! I just thought I'd get my health issues out there in case I end up having to take a (hopefully short) break from blogging in a few weeks.

      The "400 employees" thing has been a running joke for years now. As I've said often, EQ2 probably has less than five per cent of that number of devs and yet they manage to put out a decent expansion every year, two or three major updates with at least as much content as an LS episode, and something new for each of about four times as many holidays as GW2 even has. Almost any MMO you can think of is more productive.

      There's been a widespread belief among WvW players for a year or more that there's literally only one developer assigned to that game mode. I doubt it's quite that bad but self-evidently there aren't enough to do most of the work that needs doing. It's been kind of hard to judge because even at the best of times ANet always seems to work much more slowly than almost any MMO company I have ever seen. They seem to take months to do what others would do in weeks and days to fix what others would hotfix overnight. Maybe they've never had enough people on the core game. Perhaps they've spent the last five years with the majority of those 400 people working on projects that never came to anything. If so, you can see why NCSoft might have lost patience with them.

      Looking forward, I think the biggest danger is NCSoft itself deciding to bail from the PC-MMO business. If Mobile continues to be their biggest earner and they believe that will only grow then "securing their future" might mean something very bleak for anyone not willing to go mobile. More likely, I think, would be a focus on better monetization for the Guild Wars titles, which ought to mean producing an expansion in a timely fashion. It seems apparent that the Gem Store and interest generated by the Living Story can only take them so far.

      I really think, if they want to keep afloat, they need a minimum of a full expansion every other year, just to keep their name in the public eye and the money coming in. Either that or they will have to start selling the LS Seasons instead of giving them away and I can't see that flying.

    2. Perhaps they've spent the last five years with the majority of those 400 people working on projects that never came to anything.

      Having just finished Jason Schreier's "Blood, Sweat, and Pixels" that sounds like a very real possibility. I was quite surprised to read that it's apparently not that unusual for a studio to have a significant chunk of its workforce on random projects which may or may not work out, and some of which may not even have been fully approved by the higher-ups.

      With that said, these staff cuts don't sound like a big threat to Guild Wars 2 to me - though they might be a sign of ArenaNet suffering from bad resource management, which could end up affecting them negatively in a different way down the road.

      Also, here's another person crossing their fingers for your health problems working out OK!

  3. I add my echo to the chorus of well-wishes with your coming treatment, Bhag. Hope it all goes to plan and you come out fine.

    GW2 has occupied an interesting space for a while. They've acknowledged several times that the engine is not the easiest thing in the world to work with, hell, it was the most common answer given for why they didn't want to work on full dungeons any more.

    The content they added for Heart of Thorns was beautiful, but the scale of it was pretty light for a full expansion. Sure, it also covers the Living World stuff...

    ...But when is Guild Wars 3 coming? I would assume this is where some of their staff had/have been siphoned off to? To work on a new game with new engine that isn't so painful to build new content for, to ultimately speed up their content pipeline and ability to monetise?

    1. Thanks!

      Hmm, GW3. I wish...

      ANet have claimed fairly consistently that they have no intention of making another Guild Wars sequel. The plan was always to run GW2 "indefinitely". I've written before about how unlikely I thought that was to work. Whether one of the cancelled projects would have been GW3, though... now that would be very interesting to know. It would be a little early for them to have started on it before GW2 had it's second expansion, I would have thought - anything beyond the planning stages, at least. I guess they could have been working on it instead of a third expansion?

      There has to be a good chance that, once the lay-offs are done and people have left the company, some information about what they were working on will leak out. I'm sure there are NDAs in place but almost every time something like this happens, someone makes some kind of anonymous infodump and we all have to assess how true it might be. I'd love to know what they were doing all these years!

  4. Best of luck with your health issues!

    1. Thanks! I don't even have a full diagnosis yet, got to have more tests. Right now I feel fine so business as usual until I know more.

  5. My best of wishes to you, may everything turn out well!

    GW2 never really klicked with me, but I definitely hope it won't share CoH's and Wildstar's fate anytime soon regardless.

    1. Thanks!

      I think GW2 probably has a much better chance than either of those of coming out ahead but I was still motivated this morning to check the progress of Camelot Unchained and Pantheon, just in case...

  6. I don't comment often, but I've been reading for upwards of 8 years now and wanted to say good luck with your health, Bhagpuss. Hope it all goes well for you.


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