Experience Points: WoW - a Cash Shop Too Far

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.

Conclusion

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

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Nerfed
# Jul 28 2013 at 7:58 PM Rating: Excellent
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Having to buy things on top of a monthly subscription is pretty stupid. If the game were free to play, sure. However, when you're dishing out a brand new games worth of money every 2 to 4 months (30-60 dollars) plus $40 for the latest expansion every so many years it is kind of insulting.

But the real issue, in my mind, isn't the micro transactions or even the potions. It's the mass watering down of the game. Every patch the classes become more and more homogenized to the point there isn't much of a difference. Great for "game balance" where game balance means "every class is equal to me", but not so great for playability.

The removal of group quests, elite areas in explorable, and the ridiculous overpowered characters up until you hit heroics leaves the leveling process so easy it's boring. In trying to make it "more approachable" they removed any challenge from the game. Let me rephrase that, they left one challenge: keeping your eyelids open.

I'm a casual gamer, and many of my guild members were far more casual than me. Even THEY were complaining about the game being too easy. Instead of giving choices (the most important part of an MMO), they removed the challenges altogether. Making the game more accessible to casual and new players is great, but not when the solution is "obliterate any challenge so people don't get frustrated ever."

I was hoping that with cross-realm zones they'd bring back the group quests. Nope. Some of my most memorable experiences were running group quests in the Plaguelands (or Negrand, or Borean Tundra, or...) Sure it sucked when progression was stuck on those because of a lack of players. Providing a way to continue the story without completing the group quest would be great, but they made it impossible for gamers who desired a challenge to experience anything before level cap.

An MMO is about the journey and process, but Blizzard has made it squarely focus on level cap. Leaving you with months of playing through tediously boring and easy levels.

In practically every other video genre in existence, higher levels results in higher difficulty. Instead, with WoW, we see the higher we get, the easier it is, until you fall face first into raids so easy that even non-raiders are falling asleep in them.

Those wishing to experience old content are penalized such as the removal of justice points at level 70 and 80 heroics. There is no reason why players who wanted to run as a group as level 80 characters shouldn't have been able to follow the progression if they are allowed to lock their XP. Abusing the justice points for max level? Fine. Give them "vintage points" only usable on outdated gear. Problem solved.

Again and again the answer by Blizzard isn't compromise, but full on extremes. Leaving players disoriented, frustrated, or bored. I left after 8 years. Not because I was burnt out, but because anything that I use to like in the game, that I wanted to experience again, had been nerfed into oblivion. We tried running old content with at level characters. BC dungeons was so horrifically nerfed that it wasn't fun anymore. The only people sticking around that level to play those were people who wanted that experience!
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# Jul 26 2013 at 10:39 PM Rating: Decent
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Id love to add to the hatespam on Blizzards forums but I am not going to resubscribe to do it. Its one thing for a game to have a cash store when its F2P such as EQ and EQ2. I completely agree its bull to expect so much money when people are allready paying you $15 a month to play your game.

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Agree with some of that.
# Jul 22 2013 at 7:35 PM Rating: Decent
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@lovguild
Blizzard took Everquest and made it for the average gamer. Everquest was capped out at something like 100,000 players before WoW came along and showed the industry that an MMORPG could get many many more players. If you aren't an average gamer, then WoW probably isn't for you. What one individual person enjoys is subjective, what 8.3 million people enjoy is statistics.

@Article Cardinal Sin #2
This isn't a problem. Leveling should take a long time and be a journey. The vast majority of people who level alts aren't raiders, they are more casual players. If you don't enjoy the leveling progress get your guild to help you power level through it, but it exists for several reasons. One, it provides a journey, a story, and scale to the world around you. Another reason, is that when you get players used to a high rate of progression you train players to expect rewards for little to no work. These players get to max level and expect everything to come easy, when they don't they cry and/or quit. Which would be fine but because Blizzard wants to keep those subs they then end up having to provide fast easy rewards at max level. This is bad for the game in the long run, and Blizzard is doing it to themselves.

@Article Cardinal Sin #3
Well frankly they shouldn't exist unless you can get them in game, and even still trivializing the leveling experience is bad for the game. If you want the rewards you should be willing to put in the work. When you start allowing people to get the same rewards for money, you trivialize actually working for your rewards in the game.
Was a junk game anyways
# Jul 20 2013 at 3:25 PM Rating: Decent
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I thought this writer was supposed to know about these types of games?

EVERQUEST is the game everyone has had to copy, and to this day has the BEST content out of all the other games. Even it's own EQ2. Not only that the game is gaining players once again. People are returning bringing new players in because they know where it's at and always have since the day the they thought they left EQ behind.

Took me exactly 2 months to reach end game raiding in WOW. That is pathetic. Not pathetic, EASY. Like a small child's game. Candyland comes to mind.

That is the problem.

There was never anything great about this game, and never will be.
yeah, but...
# Jul 19 2013 at 1:57 PM Rating: Excellent
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Syeric wrote:
1) EVE is still growing, yes, but there is also an option through gameplay to get out of the subscription fee. The most dedicated players aren't paying a regular sub and are instead staying active through PLEX. The problem is that WoW has no such option. It's just overly expensive extras. And WoW was failing despite the cash shop, that's why it's being expanded.

Which does bring up an interesting point. How does WoW eventually make the F2P transition if they go that route? I suppose we could debate whether or not this is going to happen, whether it is likely, etc. But assuming they go the route of other MMOs eventually they'll need a cash shop.

People may not be requesting one, but that doesn't mean there's not going to be a need for one in the future. In that case better they work out the kinks now. We can look at something like SWTOR for an example of just how painful the P2P -> F2P transition can be. You want make sure you get it right before you scare your players away by making them pay for action bars or something.

Syeric wrote:
2) Experience potions are common, that much is true. But I whole-heartedly disagree that they don't have much of an effect and is in fact greater. Most heirlooms stop working at 85 cutting the XP bonus down to 15% (unless this has changed?). The experience potion gives a full 100% bonus when you're willing to pay out.
The 100% bonus really is high. I want to say the boosts I normally see are more in the 25% - 50% range? Maybe that's why I see them as less of a problem, they're simply a smaller boost. In the end though it's something that is useless to an end-game player, and shouldn't diminish competitiveness at that level.

Syeric wrote:
3) After you've leveled through the content once or twice, it becomes less fun. When you're in a guild and leveling up a character to fill a role, the goal is to get to the level cap as soon as possible. After 85 levels, you're likely to just want to "be there." It's a common complaint and the reason why players have been clamoring for an instant-level option for years. Suggesting that they just stop playing ignores that there are parts of the game that they enjoy. Heck, I enjoy leveling in WoW, it's one of my favorite parts, but I don't want to do the quests more than once. Especially not when huge chunks of the pre-endgame are already based on doing those same quests on a daily basis.
But you don't have to do the quests. That's the beauty of the dungeon finder, XP through battlegrounds, etc. There's virtually no reason to do the quests again, saving the ones that are related to important rep grinds of course. Compared to how it used to be you have so many more options. You can skip entire zones if you'd like, with a full set of heirlooms you may do this with some frequency.

It's certainly a valid criticism in my mind, but has less to do with the XP boosts than the content that's being consumed. For me personally the biggest problem was repeating the same rotation over again and again. Every enemy had similar mechanics, and launched me into the same rotation. Other than PvP there was very few fights I did anything different. 8 year old fight mechanics and such.

Syeric wrote:
4) Just because other games do it doesn't mean it's good. Other games sell $5000 runes and $2000 pets too. And in many other games, you can attain those same item sets through normal play. In the end, it really doesn't matter how it's done. When your players start to feel that you're designing for the cash shop and extra money rather than rewarding the money they're already giving (or just focusing on building a better game) you are, without any doubt, creating jaded players.
Perhaps the question should be: How much time do they really spend on the cash shop? How much more content are you getting from that time?

If they're selling things like +XP boosts and re-skinned armor and mounts, I'd argue it's not very much. If you consider the amount of money they'll bring in. That money pays the salary of the people who make actual content you consume. The question may instead be: how much less content would they be able to produce without the additional money from the cash shop?

WoW has fairly high standards for balance and gameplay, and those kind of things could rapidly fall off as their income diminishes with the falling subscriptions. Subscriptions being some 30% less than they used to be is a big dent in the income. I'd rather have a refined game with a cash shop than a poorly balanced game without one. If they have to sell more sparkle ponies to do that, well than so be it. For better or for worse it's the way the industry is heading. Micro-transactions are huge money for minimal effort. They'll keep the content up, simply because if people aren't actively raiding, or PVPing, or whatever, they won't be around to buy elf bikinis at $5 a pop.

Anywho, disagreements what they are, good conversation is good. Smiley: grin
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Relaxed
# Jul 19 2013 at 10:34 AM Rating: Excellent
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@SomeProteinGuy:

I'm not worried about WoW dying or not being successful. In fact, I think they'll probably make lots and lots of money on this cash shop and their subscriptions. My article stems from the perception problem their approach creates. WoW is declining. They're still big but nowhere near as much as they used to be and their focus should be on smart design based in what the players are actually asking for. Did anyone really want a cash shop?

You took the time to write out a well thought out response, so I would like to respond to your points.

1) EVE is still growing, yes, but there is also an option through gameplay to get out of the subscription fee. The most dedicated players aren't paying a regular sub and are instead staying active through PLEX. The problem is that WoW has no such option. It's just overly expensive extras. And WoW was failing despite the cash shop, that's why it's being expanded.

2) Experience potions are common, that much is true. But I whole-heartedly disagree that they don't have much of an effect and is in fact greater. Most heirlooms stop working at 85 cutting the XP bonus down to 15% (unless this has changed?). The experience potion gives a full 100% bonus when you're willing to pay out.

3) After you've leveled through the content once or twice, it becomes less fun. When you're in a guild and leveling up a character to fill a role, the goal is to get to the level cap as soon as possible. After 85 levels, you're likely to just want to "be there." It's a common complaint and the reason why players have been clamoring for an instant-level option for years. Suggesting that they just stop playing ignores that there are parts of the game that they enjoy. Heck, I enjoy leveling in WoW, it's one of my favorite parts, but I don't want to do the quests more than once. Especially not when huge chunks of the pre-endgame are already based on doing those same quests on a daily basis.

4) Just because other games do it doesn't mean it's good. Other games sell $5000 runes and $2000 pets too. And in many other games, you can attain those same item sets through normal play. In the end, it really doesn't matter how it's done. When your players start to feel that you're designing for the cash shop and extra money rather than rewarding the money they're already giving (or just focusing on building a better game) you are, without any doubt, creating jaded players.

Thank you for the comment!

Edited, Jul 19th 2013 12:35pm by Syeric

Edited, Jul 19th 2013 12:36pm by Syeric
Relaxed
# Jul 19 2013 at 1:54 PM Rating: Excellent
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Also, I have no idea if this just ended up being a double post or not... Smiley: lol

It was... Smiley: rolleyes

Edited, Jul 19th 2013 1:01pm by someproteinguy
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meh
# Jul 19 2013 at 9:59 AM Rating: Good
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The sky is far from falling.
Its just WoW rapidly becoming from "The King" to "Another Generic MMO".
Dude, relax
# Jul 19 2013 at 9:32 AM Rating: Good
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Meh. Nostalgic as the next person, and it's kind of sad to see the once great MMO finally go this way, but lets take a deep breath and think for a moment.

1) Eve has a sub + cash shop, they're still growing. As long as the items aren't mandatory purchases you aren't going to kill anything off. If WoW is falling down despite the cash shop the problem isn't with the cash shop.

2) +XP Potions are among the most common items in MMO cash shops. One of the most tried and true "paying for convenience items" in those shops. Honestly, they don't have that big of an effect. Not any more than given someone a couple of heirlooms. If leveling is fine now, it's not going to change much.

3) There's no reason the +XP points should feel necessary. If they do, let's think of why that is. Is it just poor content? Are you too obsessed with keeping up with the Jones'? Are there just better things out there to do? Really if you aren't having fun, don't play it's that simple.

4) Common criticism of any cash shop. One more place they'll throw re-skinned gear for extra $$$. Everyone knows what's a cash shop item and what came from a raid. It's not like the sparkle pony was an in-game status item or anything.

Anyway, in the end maybe you shouldn't re-subscribe. Go out and play some of the other games that do this kind of thing well, and then come back to WoW with some perspective. Sky isn't falling chicken little.

Seriously... Smiley: oyvey
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