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The Content Correlation

Jason Winter Posted:
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Every time a new set of quarterly NCSoft financial numbers is due, I try to give a rough prediction of where Guild Wars 2 will land. For the last two quarters, this wasn't too difficult. Everyone expected there to be a sizable bump with the launch of Heart of Thorns, and then a slight downturn in the following quarter.

Last year, however, proved more puzzling to me. Throughout most of 2015, GW2 received virtually no content updates, especially compared to the content-rich 2013 and 2014, and it seemed logical to think that its sales numbers would plummet in turn. That wasn't the case, however, and it got me to thinking: Does ArenaNet really have to keep producing content at a regular pace to make money?

Money talks

Let me be perfectly blunt about what I'm wondering here. In the end, as far as ArenaNet and NCSoft are concerned, Guild Wars 2 is meant to make money. Producing new content and having happy players is great, but in the end, it's the numbers that matter. If they look good, everything's fine. If they don't, it doesn't matter how much people love your game or how much content you produce.

With that in mind, I set out to examine whether the volume of content updates had an actual correlation to Guild Wars 2's sales totals. If it did, then it would show that more content = more sales, which is what we'd generally expect. If it didn't, well, then it might indicate that ArenaNet knew more than we gave it credit for when it essentially punted on the first nine months of 2015.

I took each quarter since GW2's launch and matched its sales figures with the number of releases it had during that quarter. I used the Wiki's list of releases, with a couple of exceptions: I counted the game's launch as a “release,” and I discounted the most recent Shadow of the Mad King event, since it coincided with the launch of Heart of Thorns.

With that in mind, let's take a look at how the game's performed as its received updates:

I've broken down the game into various “eras,” as indicated by color-coding, and broken them out into various groups:

The Honeymoon era is the first three quarters (actually about seven months) of the game's life, where hype was huge and, despite some bumps in the road – the introduction of ascended gear and the lackluster first three months of Living Story – optimism was sky-high. Everything was new, so actual new content updates were, arguably, not really necessary.

Season 1 covers the meat of the first season of the Living Story, when things were settling down a bit but still doing quite well.

Season 2 was the second season of the Living Story, where ArenaNet took a markedly different approach to how it developed ongoing content – and, took a not-insignificant hit to its sales.

The final installment of Season 2 actually released early in the period I call The Dark Times, which was mostly made up of the long content drought between the end of Season 2 and the Heart of Thorns launch.

Finally, the Heart of Thorns era covers the launch of the expansion and the months following it.

The sales the game brought in during the Honeymoon era is unlikely to ever be repeatable, so I'll focus on the eras following it. Season 1, for all the flak it received for its limited-time releases and the divisive character of Scarlet Briar, easily outperformed Season 2 and isn't that far off from the sales generated during the Heart of Thorns era. If you were looking at that alone, you'd easily conclude that more content releases means increased sales.

But then you'd look at the next two eras and scratch your head. In Season 2, releases were down and sales were down correspondingly, so the pattern still seems to hold. Then came The Dark Times, when there were virtually no releases... and still virtually the same sales as in Season 2. That's the part that really befuddled me; throughout 2015, I kept expecting to see lower sales numbers each quarter, but they never materialized.

That's when I got a little scared. These numbers only reflect money that's coming into ArenaNet and Guild Wars 2; it doesn't take expenses into account. And while it's hard to know exactly when expenditures are put on the books – obviously ANet was spending money throughout 2015 on developing Heart of Thorns, even if it didn't see the profit until late in the year – the equivalent sales for Season 2 and The Dark Times seemed to indicate that Guild Wars 2 can turn a tidy profit, whether there's new content being released or not. So, by that perspective, why should ArenaNet go back to a frequent content schedule like we had for Season 1 or Season 2?

A matter of momentum

Maybe because, while the Honeymoon era's sales can't be reproduced, maybe Season 1's can. Even as someone who was there the whole time and didn't miss a release, I'll admit that the every-two-weeks, temporary-event idea got a little fatiguing. Still, maybe sales were high during that period because it had the anticipated effect: to nudge people to log into the game – and spend in the Gem Store – regularly so they wouldn't miss out. For as good as the zones are, the events in Dry Top and Silverwastes just don't seem “special” any more and don't carry with them the thrill that Season 1's temporary content did.

I don't think it would be a good idea to go back to temporary content full-time – and ArenaNet has said that the two-week cadence wouldn't be possible in the long run anyway – but perhaps something like that could still work on a limited basis, maybe a once-per-quarter, two-week event, with some ability to replay it later so latecomers don't totally miss out. They've teased us being able to revisit the Twisted Marionette, and I'd love to see other Season 1 content, like the Tower of Nightmares or Escape From Lion's Arch return, too. Once that's figured out, maybe ArenaNet can return, ever so slightly, to temporary content.

It's also possible that Season 1's relatively high sales were still a remnant of the Honeymoon era, though it went on for so long – and dropped sharply after the season ended in Q1 2014 – that I'm inclined to think it wasn't. Maybe the real problem is that, after the last Season 1 content update on March 18, 2014, we went 3.5 months before getting any truly new content, on July 1, when the first chapter of Season 2 was released. This is reflected in the weak Q2 2014, which added only a feature pack and the return of the Festival of the Four Winds and signaled the start of the downturn that would last for six quarters.

Such a long content gap, from players who were accustomed to getting new content once or twice a month, might have lost Guild Wars 2 far too many players – and, seeing as how the sales didn't rebound once content was more regular in Q3 and Q4 of 2014, it doesn't look like many of them were reclaimed. I hope there hasn't been too much momentum lost from the relatively sparse offerings since Heart of Thorns, but it seems to me that if ArenaNet wants to get back to 2013-sized sales numbers, it needs to find a way to produce regular content without such long breaks in the action.

Or, you know, just make an expansion every year or so. That's feasible, right?


Jason Winter