Confirming rumors, ArenaNet announced today that the Guild Wars 2 core online game is going to be available for free, starting today. At the same time, ArenaNet is preparing a paid expansion pack, Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns, for launch on October 23.

The Seattle-based company announced the changes at the PAX Prime event in Seattle.

The coming expansion for the fantasy role-playing game will include a new system for raids as well as all-new content.

Mike O'Brien, cofounder and president of ArenaNet.

Above: Mike O’Brien, cofounder and president of ArenaNet.

Image Credit: ArenaNet

ArenaNet cofounder and president Mike O’Brien told GamesBeat in an interview that the aim of the company is to offer a simple business model and lots of value for gamers. When NCSoft-owned ArenaNet launched Guild Wars 2 three years ago as a massively multiplayer online game, it took the bold step of selling it for a $60 flat fee. It decided not to charge a monthly subscription as Blizzard Entertainment does for World of Warcraft, and it also declined to make the game free-to-play, where you start out playing for free and then pay real money for virtual goods inside the game. O’Brien calls the company’s model “buy to play.”

“We’ve been championing the simplicity of our business model for years,” O’Brien said. “People questioned our viability, but it has worked out.”

O’Brien said that the model worked very well, and now the company hopes to stoke demand for the core game by making it free.

“We’re confident that players are going to like it and then will pay for the expansion,” O’Brien said.

When Guild Wars 2 launched, it earned a 90 out of 100 rating on review aggregator Metacritic. It has sold more than 5 million units to date, O’Brien said. And the company has delivered more than 40 content updates for players, fulfilling its pledge of providing additional free content for a long time, he said.

Game director Colin Johanson said in an interview with GamesBeat that the new Heart of Thorns expansion will have a new form of challenges for players. ArenaNet will offer regular updates for its “living world” expansion as well. That means there will be new story-driven releases similar to episodic TV series.

Heart of Thorns will follow a similar model, where updates are available for free for those who paid for the expansion. O’Brien said the company decided not to aggressively monetize the loyal users through microtransactions, as most other online game companies do.

The expansion has a new approach to leveling up called Masteries, which replace traditional number-based progression once players reach level 80 with a system of contextual and skill-based abilities to pursue and earn. There is an entirely new profession, the revenant, for players to master, along with new elite specializations that add new skills, weapons and abilities to every existing profession in the game. The base price of the expansion is $50.

There are also group progression features including guild halls, where players in guilds can claim, explore, and eventually architect and customize giant maps within the game world, and player-versus-player (PvP) Leagues, where teams competing in PvP are given a roadmap to develop their skills and earn status and rewards.

In the raids, players can gather in groups of 10 to attack instanced content, using newly acquired abilities to overcome increasing challenges until a big boss battle ensues. The raids will be action-oriented, and players will have to use active strategies such as weapon changes or ability modifications on the fly. They’ll have to use combos, dodge, roll, and position for attacks.The raids don’t rely on the conventional tank, healer and damage dealer “trinity” to take on challenges. Instead, all players in a group will need to step up and support, control, and do damage in encounters in order for the group to succeed.

The game still has microtransactions, but you never have to “pay to win,” said Johanson.

ArenaNet has more than 300 employees.

Guild Wars 2 expansion

Above: Guild Wars 2 expansion, Spirit Wall

Image Credit: ArenaNet
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