With more than 3 million units sold, legions of passionate fans and heaps of critical acclaim, “Guild Wars” is probably the most popular massively multiplayer online game you’ve never heard of.
It’s easy to see why. Blizzard Entertainment’s “World of Warcraft” is a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut, with 8.5 million worldwide subscribers. “Burning Crusade,” the expansion to the original game, sold an estimated 3.5 million copies in just one month.
“Because of those big numbers, and because ‘WoW’ is the first subscription-based MMO that’s broken out of hardcore market, [Blizzard] gets a lot of attention,” say Jeff Strain, co-founder of ArenaNet, the company that developed “Guild Wars.”
But small, scrappy ArenaNet thinks it has plenty to brag about, too. In seven years, Strain and its co-founders, have taken a pretty radical idea about online gaming and built it into a successful company.
Beginnings in Battle.net
The idea, an online game without monthly fees, was born in 2000. The dot com boom was about to bust. Strain and the two other ArenaNet founders, Mike O’Brien and Patrick Wyatt, held big-time positions at Blizzard in Irvine, Calif. All had been involved, in one way or another, with the company’s string of successful franchises: “StarCraft,” the “Diablo” games and the “Warcraft” games.
O’Brien was the original creator and champion of Blizzard’s Battle.net, a free service that let gamers go head-to-head against each other online. Because it was free, it was an instant hit — and, as Strain puts it: “one of the single most important and positive decisions in the history of that company.”
But Battle.net was expensive to maintain. And Blizzard was looking ahead to “World of Warcraft,” an extension of its popular “Warcraft” games played completely online. It was a pricey proposition, requiring constant care and feeding. But the upkeep would be paid for by the $15 monthly subscription fees.
Traditional MMOs like “World of Warcraft” and “EverQuest” are based on this subscription system. And the whole design of these games is indivisible with the business model: If people are paying $15 a month, they want to get their money’s worth. So developers architect gameplay that rewards those who spend hours and hours online killing rats for experience points. For these players, time spent leveling up is a badge of honor.
'MMO for the rest of us'
But Strain, O’Brien and Wyatt wanted to do something different. They wanted to create, as Strain puts it, an “MMO for the rest of us.” Those folks who may have played their fair share of “Ultima Online” as teenagers, but were now looking for something that didn’t require five hours a day to feel satisfying.
“Our design goal when creating ‘Guild Wars’ was this: ‘If I’ve got 30 minutes before dinner, will I have fun playing this game?’” says Strain.
It took the trio a year and a half to build their “secret sauce,” a smart publishing system that would let them stream cool new stuff to players in real-time, rather than the massive downloadable patches used by traditional MMOs.
Plenty of naysayers
There were plenty of naysayers, including, at least initially, Robert Garriott, CEO of NCsoft North America, the company that would go on to acquire ArenaNet in 2002.
“Back in the day, everyone was looking at subscription-based games,” he says. “That seemed to be where the action was and the money was.”
In the end, Garriott — and NCsoft — was swayed by the quality of the technology — and the pedigree of its creators. And, ultimately, by the fear of being scooped.
“We looked around and thought: ‘what would we feel like if one of our major competitors released a product like this?’” says Garriott. “We thought this could revolutionize the business model for online games.”
By the time the first “campaign” — which is what ArenaNet calls the stand-alone installments of “Guild Wars” — rolled out in the spring of 2005, the game had generated good buzz. “Guild Wars” was — and is — stunningly beautiful and meticulously detailed. Ex-Blizzard guys were running the show. And, NCsoft believed in them. But still, some in the industry and the game press believed “Guild Wars” would fail.
By August 2005, “Guild Wars Prophecies” had sold 1 million units. The following April, ArenaNet released its next campaign, “Guild Wars Factions” and followed it up in short order with “Nightfall” in October 2006. At the end of last year, the company announced that the game had sold a total of 3 million copies worldwide — a bonafide success by any metric.
“Certainly you can look at business model as a big reason for the success of ‘Guild Wars,” says Strain. “But another reason is that people who love games but don’t want to spend their whole lives playing games can enjoy playing ‘Guild Wars.’”
But despite this success, “Guild Wars” exists mostly below the radar. Although the company’s games have a passionate fan base, some hardcore gamers sneer that it’s tailored for newbies, and lacks the mechanics of a traditional MMO.
“They want ‘World of Warcraft’ with no monthly fee, and I don't think it's fair,” says Amanda Rogers-Hays, a 36 year-old “Guild Wars” fan from the U.K. who often plays the game with her husband. “You’re never going to please everyone, and we enjoy the game for what it is.”
'There's no obligation to play'
Like many players on “Guild Wars,” Rogers-Hays was new to MMOs when she started playing the game a year ago. And for her, the lack of a subscription fee was a definite incentive. “I can walk away from it for a week, a month,” she says. “There’s no obligation to play ‘Guild Wars.’”
But “Guild Wars” also has a number of fans that have played plenty of MMOs in the past — and found them wanting. Thom Gavin, 39, has been playing games for 25 years and online games for 10.
“I have played games that require a fee and have found them to be hardly worth the original price,” he says. “This is simply not the case with the ‘Guild Wars’ franchise.”
Many fans cited the constant updates to “Guild Wars” as a major reason to keep playing. Log in around Christmas and you’re likely to find a winter wonderland complete with candy canes and gingerbread men.
“They try to keep it fresh with these little mini-events,” says Rogers-Hays. “They don’t have to do these things. But they do it because they obviously love the game,” she says.
The next phase
At the end of 2007, ArenaNet will ship the final installment of what has become the “Guild Wars 1” set of games. But this chapter, unlike the previous, full-fledged campaigns, will be an add-on, the company’s first expansion, called “Eye of the North.” It will add new content, wrap up the storyline, and cost fans less than the $50 they'd pay for a campaign.
“Eye of the North” will also build a bridge to “Guild Wars 2,” whole new game scheduled to release in 2008.
So why are some fans freaked out? Because “Guild Wars 2” adds some features that are typically seen in those other, traditional MMOs. And because fans are used to getting a brand-new campaign every six months or so — not some cheesy expansion pack. Expansions are what other game developers do to milk their hard-up fans between full versions. Could ArenaNet be forgetting its fans?
Strain insists that ArenaNet is not messing with success — or their loyal fan base. But “Guild Wars” is now seven years old. And each stand-alone campaign had the tricky proposition of having to appeal to new players — and existing ones. It was becoming complex — even bloated.
“The campaign model is designed to bring people back in a cyclical fashion,” says Strain. “The expansion is meant to support our existing player community.”
Whether “Eye of the North” can hold over players until 2008 is another story. “Waiting will probably drive me to start watching TV again," says Gavin. "But I will be first in line to get [the new version] when the time comes."
For those fans that like their current “Guild Wars” just fine, Strain asks for their indulgence — and trust.
“’Guild Wars’ has been a phenomenal success, and we’re proud of it,” he says. “We’re not going to ruin it by making it more like every other MMO on the market.”
© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints