The Q2 2016 NCSoft financials were released a couple weeks ago, covering the period from April to June, and they weren't pretty for Guild Wars 2. In fact, as far as the game goes, they're pretty lousy – if you consider $4.75 million per month lousy. Hey Bill, can I get a raise?
GW2's sales of 15,894 million South Korean won (mKRW) in Q2 are its lowest quarter total... well, ever. It's barely half of what the game brought in last quarter (30,557 mKRW) and 17.5% lower than its previous lowest quarter. It's not hard to see why this is the case. The non-raid content drought dragged on for an interminably long time and player dissatisfaction reached an all-time high. There was little to commend ArenaNet on the past few months, and plenty to criticize.
Still, it surprised me a little bit to see such a dip. We'd been in nearly the same situation last year, during the long, mostly content-less period in 2015 before Heart of Thorns came out, and the sales numbers had stayed steady. GW2 averaged 21,065 mKRW in the content-dry nine months directly preceding HoT's launch, as compared to 20,391 mKRW in the nine months prior to that, when Living Story Season 2 was at its peak.
So what was different this time? I think it's related to Heart of Thorns and the positive hype going into the expansion that it ultimately squandered.
Squeezing Blood from a Gem
In 2015, we were all looking forward to Heart of Thorns. We knew ArenaNet was working hard on the expansion and so maybe we were a little more patient and willing to let things slide a bit when it came to regular content updates. Then, the expansion launched, and while it wasn't perfect, it gave people things to do for a while.
It was around February or March that it seemed the rancor about the expansion started to really take form and that, combined with the lack of content, soured more and more people – people who were no longer willing to wait patiently for ArenaNet to “fix” things, or who simply believed that they couldn't. Unlike in 2015, there isn't a big expansion to look forward to, and even if one was announced tomorrow, it would be met with enough skepticism, and even outright hostility, as to make the Searing look like a backyard barbecue.
I honestly believe that ArenaNet is making content as fast as it can to keep up with players' wishes. Without an insider's look at how the company is run, I don't know how to offer suggestions on such a thing without being blindly accusatory. And I also won't get too much into the “communicate more, not less” notion I've been pushing for a while that seems antithetical to how ArenaNet's been conducting its business as of late.
One thing I do think that needs to be re-evaluated is possibly the most negatively perceived aspect of the game players have right now: The Gem Store. While it may seem counterintuitive in the face of diminishing sales, I do think that the repeated shuffling of cosmetic items to the Gem Store should be re-evaluated and that more items should be offered as in-game rewards, if only for a short while. Yes, I know the “these things cost money and the devs need to eat” argument, but seeing as how trying to make lots of money by selling countless items isn't working, maybe it's time for another approach? It might actually generate some goodwill, something Guild Wars 2 is dramatically lacking these days. If you want to tout your game as the “good” kind of free-to-play, act like you mean it.
Point of no return?
Warning: numbers ahead. Put on your math hat.
While looking at my big spreadsheet of NCSoft financial statements for all its games – yes, I need a new hobby – I tried to see if there was any comparison for Guild Wars 2's drop. Several of NCSoft's other titles had hit a “point of no return” where they dropped below a certain threshold and never truly recovered, and it's tempting to equate GW2's situation with them.
Here's one way to look at it: From Q1 2013 to Q1 2016, a span of 13 quarters, here are the sales numbers for GW2, all in millions of South Korean won:
Guild Wars 2
- Max: 37,331
- Min: 19,272
- Avg: 26,208
- Q2 2016: 15,894
Here's Lineage 2, from Q2 2009 to Q4 2011:
- Max: 37,368
- Min: 21,176
- Avg: 30,209
Since then, it's only had one quarter (out of 18) with sales of over 20,000 mKRW, and only barely, as you can see:
- Max: 20,050
- Min: 11,010
- Avg: 15,598
And here's Aion, from Q2 2012 to Q3 2014, where it had just one quarter reporting under 20,000 mKRW:
- Max: 36,367
- Min: 18,347
- Avg: 25,765
And since then (seven quarters):
- Max: 20,125
- Min: 16,775
- Avg: 18,910
During L2's later period, every quarter resulted in lower sales than the minimum of its earlier period; its maximum was lower than all previous minimums. The same applies to Aion, with the exception of the one 18,347 mKRW quarter; its next-lowest quarter was 21,622, which is higher than every quarter since. (You could actually argue that Aion has done this twice, after an amazing start in its first three years.)
To put it another way, once these games dropped off, there was no turning back. They still do all right, and aren't in any danger of cancellation – even GW2's worst quarter is better than City of Heroes' best, according to the information we have available – but there was no reclaiming past glory, no matter what they did, whatever policies they adopted, whatever content or expansions they released.
Here's a visual representation of the quarters mentioned above. Yellow represents a “good” quarter and magenta a “bad” quarter, with orange serving as an “in-between” color:
Once the good quarters stopped coming, they stopped for good, with the exception of Aion's one rebound quarter. Bad quarters, with occasional forays into the in-between zone, became the norm. And neither Lineage 2 nor Aion's first bad quarter was a low as Guild Wars 2's. Aion has still never had a quarter that low. It's a small sample size, to be sure, and it's hardly a revelation to hear that MMOs fade away with time, but it's still a bit shocking to see it spelled out so clearly.
Looking at NCSoft's other games, Blade & Soul showed nice growth three years after it launched, even before its NA launch earlier this year. The original Lineage outright reversed the trend of MMOs going downhill as they aged. It averaged 28,341 mKRW in its first 23 quarters, with very little variance; since then, it's done 61,862 mKRW per quarter, with a low (38,306) higher than its high (31,839) in its earlier period!
Still, if I had to guess, I'd say Guild Wars 2 is going to act more like Lineage 2 and Aion. It'll stick around for a good while, and I don't think anything drastic like layoffs or maintenance mode are on the horizon, but it may never have a plus-sized quarter again, even if there is a new expansion. I'm skeptical as to whether ArenaNet can reverse that trend, but I'd at least like to see it try. (Editor’s Note: And hey, when in doubt? Guild Wars 3 has a nice ring to it…)