Exploring the Cardinal Sins of WoW's Pet Store
Each week, Chris "Syeric" Coke gives his unfiltered thoughts on the MMO industry. Taking on the news and hottest topics, Chris brings his extensive experience as a player and blogger to bear in Experience Points. This week he examines the expansion of WoW's pet store and how many lessons Blizzard seems to have missed.
World of Warcraft hasn’t been doing well, at least not by WoW standards. In May, it was reported that the game had dropped to 8.3 million subscribers, continuing what’s becoming a quarterly trend of disappointing earnings calls and bolstering the sense that its community is bleeding out. While the game still has more “subscribers” than most other AAA MMOs combined, that reassuring fact is undermined by Eastern players not paying a subscription fee at all and instead paying by the hour. Considering that North Americans are thought to make up the minority of the player base, the increasing decline of WoW in China doesn’t spell good things for the game. Parent company Vivendi is trying to sell off Blizzard entirely. In that light, is it any surprise that a cash shop is being expanded in World of Warcraft? That’s our topic this week, and I’m here to look at just how many cardinal sins it's committing.
From Leader to Follower
Let’s face it; WoW isn’t an industry leader anymore. For a time, every game that came out aspired to Blizzard's success and tried to recreate the Warcraft experience. Their games would be WoW but better and heir to the throne. Instead, they came out as all MMOs do, in launch states, and paled in comparison to World of Warcraft’s years of polish and content. Instead of toppling the behemoth, they fueled its patches with recently acquired ideas. The battle continued in this fashion, the many David's versus the one Goliath, for some time.
Millions of dollars and one Star Wars: The Old Republic later, the industry gave up and made way for free-to-play, changing the landscape entirely. As MMO after MMO shifted from subscription-only to sub-optional or completely free, players spread out like water from a dam. Social bonds previously tied exclusively to WoW now existed in greener pastures and, as players moved, so did their expectations of each MMO to follow. Years of approaches previously written off as gimmicky and untested suddenly became the heralds of modern MMO design. WoW, tried, true and ultimately familiar, showed its age more than ever before. Warcraft was no longer the place to be but one of many.
In short, World of Warcraft was no longer shaping the industry. It was living in it.
Enter the Cash Shop
So I repeat, is it any wonder that WoW is introducing a cash shop? Half-hearted promises of quicker updates and faster expansions can only do so much—especially when you only half-deliver. The expansion of the pet store is an admission of market share. It is a message to investors that a plug is being put in the leaky hull of the earnings boat.
On the surface, the approach isn't bad. WoW isn’t selling levels (though it’s coming close). It’s not selling gear or stat boosts or balance breakers. Instead, what's for sale is an array of pets, cosmetics and experience potions. That’s the shallow appraisal.
Here’s another: World of Warcraft's cash shop is lazy, poorly thought out, and alienates its most devoted players. For a company so steeped in watching industry trends and, erm, adopting other games’ good ideas, the entire approach seems ham-fisted and rushed.
Anyone who's watched the market for a while knows that there are big pitfalls any prospective cash shop can fall into; cardinal sins, if you will. It's time to throw Blizzard a rope.
Cardinal Sin #1: Double Dipping
This is the most common criticism you’re likely to hear: World of Warcraft charges a subscription fee and is audacious enough to ask for extra money. In itself, this is nothing new. The simple existence of a cash shop alongside a subscription option shouldn’t be a rallying cry to start picketing lawns. In fact, real money purchases have existed for ages in WoW. They made millions on their $25 mounts and $10 battle pets and only naiveté would justify not expecting the store to come in-game.
The problem is that most MMOs with cash shops also keep their subscriptions optional. WoW’s is mandatory. While the pet store was on the website, it was separate and ignorable. Now that it’s in-game, the simple presence of its button induces a subtle pressure to pay more. Having a bigger wallets has made an impact in WoW (see Collector’s Editions, TCG items, and Blizzcon schwag) but the impression was passing.
That's not the case anymore. Every gameplay session is underlined by that ignorable, but irritating, little button. Players resent feeling nickel and dimed and when WoW, the most successful MMORPG in history, does it, they have a right to be irked.
Cardinal Sin #2: Ignoring the Original Problem
Selling experience potions is a problem and a big one. The simple fact is, after a certain point— say, an alt or two—players become tired of leveling through the same content. It doesn’t matter how good the quests are, after you’ve seen them a couple of times, they're played out. Blizzard's answer to this has been heirloom items and experience boosts. The Enduring Elixir of Wisdom piggy-backs on that concept but for real money.
There is a fundamental problem with Warcraft selling experience potions for cash: they're charging money to avoid designing a solution to the core problem. The vertical, Just Add Levels™, expansion scheme guaranteed that players would eventually want a way to bypass grinding the same content. Suggesting “maybe they'll pay their way out of it” isn't an acceptable solution, not when we're already paying a team of designers to actually design.
The current potion is limited to Mists of Pandaria content. That doesn't matter and players justifying it fail to see the pet store for the testing bed it is. Blizzard has discussed the problem of previous expansion leveling for years. With flagging subscription numbers, how long will it be before a 1-85 potion makes an appearance? If these sell, there will be zero motivation for Blizzard to do anything other.
Cardinal Sin #3: Making it Feel Mandatory
And simply because the above is true, buying experience potions is likely to feel mandatory. Raid groups will need their alternates, friends will want you to join them, and frankly, the phrase “the real game begins at level cap” is no truer than in World of Warcraft. There is powerful social and mechanical pressure pay up on that final level climb. Pandaria is a hike. Leveling at the normal rate for second time can feel so grindy that it’s groan inducing, especially riding on the back of the previous 85 levels.
While everything in the Pet Store is optional, given a little pressure and the general feeling that you just want to be through, you come up with a recipe for begrudged purchases and a more than $14.99/month investment.
Cardinal Sin #4: Designing for the Cash Shop
Blizzard is the king at ignoring fundamental lessons of the last few years, so it’s no surprise that it missed the one on not weighting design toward the cash shop. Selling vanity gear is no big deal when those items can be acquired in-game, but that’s not the case here. In the near future, Blizzard will be selling unique, ethereal headwear for real cash. In fact, these items are right up there with the best raid gear ever released, minus the stats. In the official post, Bashiok calls these “transmogrifiables.” That’s a category and we can expect more of it. Imagine a world where raiding no longer offered the exclusive take on the flashiest gear. That’s a real possibility. Now imagine how raiders, arguably some of the most dedicated World of Warcraft players, will react. And Blizzard doesn’t see this as a problem?
Let's also talk about pricing for a minute. Each of these head items will cost fifteen dollars. Fifteen dollars. That's beyond any form of micro-transaction and borders on price gouging. Then again, this is the company that introduced the world to the $25 sparkle pony, so it's not exactly a surprise. Just like then, Blizzard is setting an exorbitant price because they can count on players keeping up with the Joneses. More troubling, however, is a fact recently pointed out by Rob Roberts on the Horde House podcast: instead of incentivizing players returning to old content - perhaps the content these helms are themed after? - and offering players more value for their existing subscription, Blizzard is more concerned with opening your wallet for a separate fifteen-dollar charge. We can rightly ask: what are the developers more focused on, stocking the cash shop or making a better game?
There are also unique items, similar to those available in the trading card game, but nothing exists that would convince old players to return. Rather, it suggests that if you don't like it, don't buy it. Fair enough, but making an example of wringing existing players doesn't exactly make me want to re-subscribe.
Creating the perception that the design motivations are shifting away from the game and into the cash shop is a big cardinal sin.
These are early days for the WoW cash shop and I propose that we allow it to work out the kinks. But that means players need to rally and forcefully teach these lessons. Take to the forums. Join the 1600 comments on the official post on the new items. Make your voice heard, because here’s another question: If Blizzard is smart enough to rise to the top, to take ideas and refine them, and to become an almost legendary game maker, is it ignorance that’s driving these designs or the simple arrogance that their players will take what they’re given?
Chris "Syeric" Coke
Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight