It is almost a week on from the announcement that staff lay-offs were coming to Guild Wars 2 publisher, ArenaNet. As I begin to look back on the fall out of a pretty catastrophic wipe, Thursday morning is creeping up on me, and it seems like an appropriate time to sit and take stock of everything that has happened.
While Steve already encapsulated our initial reaction to the unfolding story, things have moved on and it bears returning to this arena for one last look at what it means for ArenaNet, how it will impact Guild Wars 2, and why this particular set of lay-offs is different from the other corporate cost-cutting that seems to be cutting a swathe through the gaming industry. Not long after NCSoft CEO Songyee Yoon advised ArenaNet employees that
“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, “
News started to trickle out about the situation at ArenaNet and, for many of you, it may be an old tale. In fact, if we had really stopped to read the signs, it might have been apparent much earlier that things seemed a bit amiss. Back in 2018, Mike Z sat down with us at Gamescom and revealed that Guild Wars 2 would not get a third expansion, at least not any time soon. Instead, the Seattle studio would plow on with the Living Story, an episodic injection of content that periodically expands the frontiers of Tyria while edging the narrative of the game further forward. It's a formula that has worked relatively well for some time, and after the incendiary pace of Living Story Season 2, it finally seemed that this might be ArenaNet settling into a sustainable cadence that suited the studio.
Unlike previous Living Story seasons, however, the fifth round of world-shattering events was missing something. While early iterations of Living Story were shoveled out the door at an astonishing rate, ArenaNet always seemed to be working on something in the background. ArenaNet launched Guild Wars 2 with roughly 200 staff. That number isn't definitive, but it's one that was bounded about back in 2012. This is worth mentioning because papered between the cracks, is a development studio that has ballooned significantly from its inaugural size and now outputs content that is really best placed to retain the game's current player base. It seems that while at least part of the balloon in staff numbers would have accommodated previous expansion work, this change in strategy to a purely Living Story model makes it seem a little ludicrous that roughly 400 people would be working on a six-year-old game and its episodic updates.
While we can argue the case that this is necessary to make background changes, introduce new tech, and expand the game in new ways, the fact is that a six-year-old game is deeply complex, and Guild Wars 2's free content updates, new systems, and innovative design do inevitably make Living world more about retaining players than grabbing new ones. Just as the Dame, Bowman, and Steve mentioned in the latest Gamespace Game Show, entry for new players can be difficult at best, and expansions provide a fantastic jumping on point as punctuation point for huge narrative arcs. They also give a definite boost to revenue streams and media attention, as the numbers from NCSoft show around the launch of Path of Fire.
This decision to set out on a consistent content model is set against a backdrop of an increasing cutthroat financial market. Revenue expectations from shareholders continue to rise across every economy, with successful games like Tomb Raider missing ludicrous sales expectations of 14.9 million units across EU and NA, the market has become a meme of itself in some respects. Taken against the ever increasing expectations of the tech bubble, a stable game with a sustainable plan to hold on players and generate consistent revenue might as well be a failure. This without even taking into account the financial pressure of ArenaNet's two unannounced projects, one of which was apparently in permanent suspension for some time and the other in a long term development arc.
NCSoft is, additionally, more than ever, now focused on the performance of games like Lineage M and Lineage 2 Revolutions. Profit from mobile franchises, as seen above, has clearly focused the Korean publisher towards the mobile market, and with dwindling interest in PC markets, the NCSoft 2018 Media Day revealed a swathe of games, all of them mobile.
With all of these pressures, it’s not surprising that Living Story just couldn’t keep the dragons at bay.
So How Is This Any Different?
Lay-offs happen in the Video Game's industry all the time, and while this is another unfortunate event, there are some differences with ArenaNet. While the layoffs are ejecting some stellar talent from the studio, many massively important figures are returning from canned projects to work on Guild Wars 2, confirmed both by Mike Z and departing dev Matt Medina. Many of the NCSoft realignments push ArenaNet nearer to their 2012 relationship with NCSoft, and Guild Wars 2 certainly did good number back then. However, the difference with this particular wipe was the reaction of the community. I've broadly talked about the lead-up and response of the corporate side, but the staff reductions at ArenaNet revealed a little to the broader gaming community about what makes Guild Wars 2 special. The #LoveforArenaNet hashtag trended throughout the 26th February, giving players a rallying cry to express their condolences. Long term staff members and guilds from across the game shared the moment's that made their time in Tyria unique, and players even ran a "Celebration of support and love" in Lion's Arch.
Notes of sympathy are expected around lay-offs, but the response to Gaile Grey's social media announcement of her own redundancy garnered hundreds of responses. Most of all, the reaction from ex Arena Netizens, in particular, Philip Holt’s post over on Linkedin speaks to a culture of family, where employees give over more than just their day time to a company that thrives on creating remarkable experiences. More than colleagues, I heard the word friend used this week, and to many players that is what we are losing. Not just the developers, the creators, or the quasi-celebs but a bunch of friends that love their game as much and completely as we do. That's what makes these lay-offs worthy of note. Not the encroach of mobile gaming into a market where sit-down multiplayer games struggle to part people from their cash or the result of management decisions, not the projects that might not see the light of day and the expansions that weren't meant to be, but the impact that culture can have on both developers and their players.