Friday, May 20, 2011

Costly friendship - A slippery slope

The "Bomb o' the month" that Blizzard dropped on our heads this time around is without a doubt the news that they intend to implement a feature that will allow you to play with people on your RealID friends list, across server! Great idea. So what is the fuzz all about? Blizzard wants you to pay for it. But wait a minute, Blizzard want us to pay for a lot of stuff, what's the problem about this thing specifically? Yeah, let's find out shall we?

As usual, loads of people around the bloggosphere have already vented their frustration thoughts on this. A quick check on mmo-champ shows that all the last blue posts are responses to enraged players posts on this matter (although the response so far always is "don't make a new thread when there already is one"). I've found some people who think that this should be regarded pretty much as the Sparkle Pony or remote access AH. We don't mind having to pay for those things, so why be upset about this? Blizzard themselves claim that the reason for them to take this extra fee is simply because this features takes a lot of manpower to get into action, and if you want it you'll have to pay for it. As it seems, Blizzard doesn't regard this a basic in game feature, but a flavor feature to the game, much like a mount or pet. Something that won't alter the way you experience the game in any way but esthetically. Players disagree. This is my take on it.

I promised myself I wouldn't turn this into a nerdrage post, simply because I don't think that much about this. When I read about it I rather had this resigned /sigh going through me. I definitely think it's a bad idea, but I feel sorry for Blizzard for taking a decision like this when they're already struggling with their credibility. People are already accusing Blizzard for making design choices of dubious quality, and then they go and do something like this. So why do I think this is a bad idea?

I've never had any issues with the extra fun stuff that Blizzard have offered us to buy. The mounts and pets and even the remote access thingies you can buy to your fancy phone are as mentioned, esthetical. There are plenty of us who are completely uninterested in those mounts and pets, and most importantly, the game has nothing to do with gathering mounts and pets or playing the AH. Those, especially mounts and pets, are extra features of the game, something with which you can indulge yourself if you feel like it. Paying extra for server transfers and the like is much like the fee on respecs, it's partially there as an inhibitor to make sure players don't do it too often. What is the difference to this new feature? WoW is a social game. Everything in it circles around the fact that you do things with other people. How many of you would quit WoW if all of your irl and ingame friends did? I know I would. The reason I love the game is because I can play it with people I enjoy hanging out with. If the game was nothing but nameless faces or even worse, npcs, I wouldn't stick around for very long. No one would argue that no matter how they prefer playing WoW, it is originally designed to be about socializing. Therefore one could argue that Blizzard are implementing a feature that affects a core aspect of the game, but makes it exclusive to those that care to pay a little extra. If the game was about gathering pets and mounts, I'm quite certain we'd be bothered with the possibility to pay extra for a sparkle-pony when we're already paying for the game. In my opinion, that is basically what is happening right now.

I completely agree that we should pay for maintenance and development costs, the monster that WoW has become isn't a cheap thing to maintain. But we are already paying for maintenance and development costs. One could wonder what Blizzard does with those roughly 11 million times 12 Euro they get from us each month (you do the math, but it's a lot of money), if not to put them into these kinds of things? It's not really that simple of course. Blizzard set the monthly fee for the game a long time ago, and thinking about it now, it's quite astonishing that they haven't changed that sum at all during all these years. I imagine that the monthly fee was specifically designed to cover all and any costs that that player could put on Blizzard. That players usage of the game and servers costs them X, add some profit (maye a lot of profit) and voilà, you've got the monthly fee. I don't think it is impossible however, that the cost for the game has increased over the years, so that the monthly fee doesn't cover each players usage as much as it used to. Add really costly features like this one (or so Blizzard claim anyway), and their budget is cracked. Considering that Blizzard take an extra fee for server transfers and things like it, it seems like the monthly fee actually doesn't cover very much at all except server maintenance. Aren't we already paying for everything extra in the game?

People who think this is an ok idea are getting hung up on the "pay" part. That's not really the problem at all. No one has voiced a peep of concern about all the stuff we already have to pay extra fees to get. The problem is what we are paying for. They've always kept esthetical/practical (like server transfers) on one side, and game mechanics on the other side, and they should be put firmly on different sides. The reason I think this is a bad idea is because it's really taking a step down a slippery slope. So if one game mechanic is ok, what is next? Would you mind if Blizzard decided to implement features that allowed you to get shorter dungeon queues, or get to do any dungeon by choice and still have it count as random, as long as you paid a little extra for it? These are all things that don't break the game, but they do give an advantage to some players, if they pay a little extra. And then? Giving extra talent points to people who pay? Allow them to run faster? If we accept one step in this direction it could become difficult to stop if the next step comes. And giving game advantages to people who pay for it is a really dangerous thing to do. I'm not saying this would do that, but it's definitely not a step in the right direction to avoid it.

I've got nothing against micro-transactions or games that are built up using them - in fact I think they're a great way to  charge for a product and hopefully lead to a future where customers pay exactly for what they want instead of a huge sum containing everything from production cost to the CEO's new bathtub. But they are still two different ways of charging, and taking it too far will alter the concept of the game. Blizzard, and we, have to be aware of that.

What it comes down to is if we really believe that Blizzard are forced to take an extra fee to be able to implement a feature like this. If yes, then we have to ask ourselves (as some bloggers already have), what do we prefer: paying a little extra monthly fee to make sure that Blizzard can afford all of these costs, or just pay extra for them when they come, if we want them?

It's fascinating, because you can compare it to a society
. Do you prefer paying a lot of tax and having society pay for stuff, or do you prefer to have low tax, and just pay a lot for stuff yourself when you need/want it? There are pros and cons with both systems. If you have high tax, there is a chance that your hard earned money goes to stuff you're uninterested in. I wouldn't be very happy if they increased the monthly fee in order to make server transfers free of cost, for example, since I don't server transfer very often. But on the other hand, the problem with having everyone pay for their own things is that not everyone can afford it. I'm one of those people who probably wouldn't have the money to pay for many extra features in the game (I've only ever paid for two race changes over the last 5 years). I don't think it's a matter of want. It's not that I don't want the sparkle pony and therefore I don't care that it costs extra money, but want this feature, and therefore am bothered that it costs money. As I said, I don't think much about this at all, because I've actually don't have any out of server RealID friends. On the other hand, imagine what a great tool this would be if I could befriend some of you guys out there and we could do dungeons together? Or if I could finally get to play with some of my irl friends with all those off-server alts that I've got. Which, as mentioned, is what the game is all about, right? This tool won't have a major impact on the game, or my playing, but I would be lying if I said that I didn't want it and that it wouldn't be useful to me.

The problem with this, as I touched upon, is that it is opening the gates to allowing players to buy themselves advantages over other players. We're definitely not there yet, and I don't want you to believe that I think we're on the way to certain doom with this. But one has to draw the line somewhere, and Blizzard are moving that line - we don't know where it will end up. The reason you want to separate the two worlds is because no accomplishment will be worth anything, if everyone knows that you can buy yourself to it. WoW is about e-peen to a large degree, and a lot of that will disappear if you can buy yourself the fanciest gear and items. I'm not saying that has to be a bad thing, but it will definitely alter the game significantly - do we want that? At the moment, this game is based on skill, not on who has the most money to buy themselves to the top. Personally, I prefer it that way.


  1. Amen Zinn

    I havn't dived too much into it yet, I'm waiting to see the exact price, will it be subscription or a one pay off? But regardless, the Blue called it "premium", urgh I'm not sure I like that word.

    My opinion about the costly matter though is, it's a matter of priority for Blizzard, of where they choose to put the development money.
    We shouldn't pay extra for a better social service (the irony).

    But they want money for what is considered average game development "it's costly to develop" - YEAH so what? I bet LFD and Argent Tournament weren't cheap!

  2. The argument about paying for the development cost is inaccurate. It's only a separate feature on the surface. In the implementation -- the development, server maintenance, and so on -- it is a small increment over what they already support.

    A more accurate way to think about it is that they are dividing their customers into different subsets and then extracting money from them separately. By dividing the customers up this way, they make more total profit. In the abstract I have no problem with it.

    In the concrete, though, I don't like the social implications. Unlike with ponies and pets, people are going to be pressuring each other to take the service. People are going to ponder a server transfer, but then realize some of their friends don't have the service. There will be awkward guild chats where one person is about to switch servers, and only some of the people in the guild are still going to be able to group with them.

  3. So to the thought about "we have to pay for the development costs." I agree, development must be paid for.

    And so I do, once a month. It's called a monthly subscription fee, and it's the catch-all as far as I'm concerned. If the monthly subscription fee doesn't cut it, then raise it. Otherwise, it's less than honest any way you look at it, and I hate that.

    I very much agree that this represents a slippery slope. I half-jokingly tweeted that I looked forward to the rationalizations that would result from them making T13 helms a "premium service".

    But only half.

    Because, what this represents to me, is the start of the good old fashioned "Kimchi game" cash shop, where you play for "free" but not as well as your well-heeled companions paying upward of fifty USD/mo in the cash shop.

    My friend that plays such games gives me a look and wonders what the hell I'm on about. I wish I knew how to articulate it.

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  5. I'm pretty much with Grimmtooth on this; the monthly fee is meant to cover the development costs for features.

    I have no issue with people paying for estethical things like extra pets of mounts - or even the Auction House and Guild Chat in your phone.

    But, as you say, the game is built up around being a social arena where you play with friends. Being able to queue for dungeons with RealID friends to me isn't an esthetical change - it's a gameplay change.

    I'd rather they just added more pets/mounts to the store to fund it to be absolutely honest. Because having those makes no difference to anyone else, it's purely for looks.

    Being able to get a full party with RealID friend.. over a group of strangers.. That's a big thing.

    It's definitely a slippery slope. What next feature will be "premium"?

  6. @Ironyca
    Yeah, I agree that it feels like were paying for past mistakes...

    I didn't quite follow you there ^^ (Not smart enough) but I think I understood that you mean their fee-system is more advanced than I explained, which wouldn't surprise me, I'm a doofus when it comes to economics. But as you say, the point isn't really how they take our money - but for what. It matters more than people think.

    "I half-jokingly tweeted that I looked forward to the rationalizations that would result from them making T13 helms a "premium service"."
    That is exactly the prospect I am afraid of. Cash games differ from other games. WoW is a lot about bragging rights, and the only thing you can brag about in cash-games is that you have a lot of money. I'm not afraid Blizzard will end up there, I'm really just wishing they'd put some more thought into these kind of decisions, because they scare people :P

    "I'd rather they just added more pets/mounts to the store to fund it to be absolutely honest."
    Hey, that's not a bad idea. That's actually probably a big reason for why they sell those pets already, now that you mention it. Never thought about that. I totally agree that that would be a better solution.

  7. You have some great readers Zinn.
    Ohken fx said it really well with regards to how the funding for development works.

    I also can't help being struck with the irony in the most successful MMO in the WORLD, to be needing MORE money to make a simple feature (with half it's code already in the game) that enables people to connect even further. SAY WHAT?

    Sometimes I'm annoyed with how some approach the whole issue, especially when people talk about not needing it anyways, so they don't care. How can you not care when the future implications of this step can be HUGE.

    I guess the question is: What is okay to charge extra for on top of a sub? And where do you think there is a line?

    Justifying it based on it being "a service" would include the WHOLE game (what in WoW is NOT a service then?), so that doesn't mean anything, although that's the most widespread pro-argument I've seen as of now.

    Justifying it as "costly", is almost lying (I think at least), Ohkens comment explains it really well.

  8. I think you hit the nail on the head with this one Zinn.
    This whole idea just comes off as dirty or "evil" business imo. I would be all for just raising the monthly subscription costs a bit if they need more money to fund development.


  9. Hey Zinn,

    Read again what "Ohken" said, it's actually very easy to understand if you reread it a couple times:

    "they are dividing their customers into different subsets and then extracting money from them separately. By dividing the customers up this way, they make more total profit."

    That is what they are doing, and it's called economy, the one you and I live happily with all year long.

    Sure it would be nice to be able to play with you across servers, sure it might make a tiny insignificant difference in that you just might gear up faster if you get to play with real friends instead of anonymous players, but the difference is so insignificant, and they have kept to the line for so long, I'm personnally not worried we end up paying for gear, that's just irrational thinking.

    BTW, blizzard are making huge profits on Wow, it's a real cash machine, they have no problems funding their developments, this is really just a new source of extra money.


    PS: I disagree more about the remote AH. When you have that, you can actually make a lot more money than if you don't, and you can therefore buy gear that others can't.