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The Lawbringer: Paying for addons and APIs

Pop law abounds in The Lawbringer, your weekly dose of WoW, the law, video games and the MMO genre. Running parallel to the games we love and enjoy is a world full of rules, regulations, pitfalls and traps. How about you hang out with us as we discuss some of the more esoteric aspects of the games we love to play?

Not unlike most topics featured here on The Lawbringer, this one started with a blog post and a subsequent link to said blog post. CCP, the creators of MMO darling EVE Online, recently announced that players and customers could charge for third-party applications, utilities, and websites as long as the creator purchased a license. This is a fairly unprecedented move. CCP is probably the only company who could get away with this right now, but more on that later.

This story got my mind spinning about what this means for data feeds all over the MMO world, how Blizzard's free APIs coming out soon will change the way people make apps and utilities for WoW, and some thoughts on for-pay addons.

MMOs have spawned an impressive gray market of features, apps, utilities, and services that exist only because players are willing to partake in them. From Eve Online ship "fitting" apps to gold selling, the gray market lives alongside virtual worlds, and it is fascinating to think that these industries only exist because of the success of the genre. Recently, Blizzard previewed its own APIs that it would be releasing for web developers and app creators, providing easy-to-parse information to these development communities. This stuff isn't free, of course, which is interesting amidst the news that CCP would be charging a license fee for for-pay versions of utilities that make use of its APIs.

What is an API?

In the absolutely very basic sense, and the commenters will correct me, an API, or application programming interface, is a set of data or rules that programs can use to "talk" with the information provided. If I ask the API for a set of information using a specific set of characters or conventions, it will spit back that information to me so long as it is formatted correctly. It's not really how things work, but conceptually, a program is asking something for information in a specific way, and is getting the information it needs to display. (Don't yell at me too much, programmers.)

EVE Online, along with many other MMOs, makes its information available to people who want to use it. Since the beginning of the game, EVE has forbidden players in the terms of service from charging for applications or utilities, keeping the use of the company's APIs and information streams available for free-to-use functions only.

World of Warcraft has similar language in the addon policy, only allowing players to create free addons and additions to the game. Blizzard has been a thorn in many addons' sides over the for-pay issue, mostly coming down to advertising for donations within the addon itself, creating premium features that put addon function behind a pay wall as with Carbonite, or for charging for beta access to addons, like the most recent problems for TukUI. Blizzard wants zero addon functionality behind a pay wall, and does not want players to be bombarded with ads for for-pay donations or services within the game itself. (Coincidentally, with the new community site, I've been having trouble finding the addon policy page, so if you guys could help out, that would be totally swell.)

CCP is in a unique position

Many people believe that CCP's EVE Online is the only MMO on the market right now who could get away with charging a yearly $99 license fee to create for-pay applications. Why, you may ask? Why is CCP the only one in the MMO game right now who could do such a thing?

It happens to hinge on the EVE Online player base and the type of player that the game attracts. EVE's economy is unlike any other MMO you probably play. In-game currency, called ISK, can be used to purchase game time from players who have paid for that game time with real money, essentially exchanging real money for ISK. If I have money and want ISK, I purchase game time and sell it to a player for ISK. If I have ISK and want game time, I trade for it with my in-game currency.

The universe of EVE Online is no stranger to financial transactions, and the players are no strangers to understanding that things cost money. The game world is set up so that corporations spend huge amounts of time, resources, and currency to build up their massive empires and hold onto their resources. The audience app developers cater to for EVE applications are ready to pay for an app, and the best apps will make back that $99 license fee easily. Depending on the information and APIs released, you could see some very successful applications.

Or maybe CCP isn't...

In the past days since starting this article, CCP has taken in community complaints as to the high price of the license and is revisiting the whole pricing structure. Maybe the playerbase isn't as accepting to the high charge as I thought. With a lowered "token" based price, we may see a completely different environment for player-developers utilizing these features. Coincidentally, next week's Lawbringer is all about Aurum and EVE Online, so you'll have to tune in for that awesome show.

... which brings me to WoW

The World of Warcraft player base has a different understanding and relationship with the economy of the game and the economy revolving around the game. WoW players do not have the ability to trade money for gold in a legitimate way -- it all exists in the seedy gray underbelly of the game world. There is no "purchase game time for someone else" aspect that EVE prides itself on.

Addons in WoW have always been and will always be free. You could point to specific examples of leveling guides and other flukes, but there is just as good a free option over the pay option. In fact, with the changes to the way the game questing model works, I am absolutely unsure of why anyone would need a for-pay leveling guide at all. That seems like the biggest waste of money to me, especially for how much they cost. Nothing in this game needs to be paid for to be played efficiently.

Blizzard has taken a different approach to the way players interact with the economy of WoW and real cash -- the pet store. Out-of-game transactions impact only your WoW license and add on features like pets and mounts. They do not give you liquid assets in the game world itself. We, as players, have a monetary relationship with real money that exists completely out of the game.

Blizzard's history of fighting against for-pay addons

The last thing Blizzard wants is for a player to feel like they have to spend more money outside the game to be competitive inside the game. Over the course of WoW's life, only a few addons have ever really been banned or explicitly targeted, and even fewer of those were over for-pay issues. Carbonite was targeted for offering premium services and advertising for an upgrade within the addon itself at the height of its popularity. "Nothing behind a pay wall," said Blizzard. More recently, popular UI compilation Tukui was targeted because of beta editions for the PTR of the compilation were only available to donators and premium subscribers to the community.

As for the for-pay leveling guides, I don't really know why Blizzard hasn't gone after them. They have an in-game component that you cannot download from the company for free to put together yourself and use proprietary information when telling you where to quest. Something has to feed that information. Since no third-party programs are allowed either, maybe I'm just ignorant of the issue. Also, don't email me about it, for-pay guide creators -- we already had that fight, remember? Suffice to say, there is a lot of money in for-pay guides, and players should never feel like they need one to succeed. It's a shame.

Blizzard would never charge for their APIs or their usage because they never want a for-pay option to be the ideal or the norm. Armory apps, character sheet apps, item databases, etc., will all remain free. Blizzard can take the hit on administering those information feeds because it can. And, hopefully, new apps will populate the proverbial countryside just like what happened with EVE once these APIs are introduced en masse. We are living in good times for potential WoW apps coming down the pike.

Will we ever see a system like EVE's in WoW, where players can purchase one very specific item with real cash that can be traded for gold in-game? Probably not. Again, it's all based on market conditions and the ability for people to manipulate numbers, and the last thing Blizzard wants is for people to have to get their day-trading license to make the most gold off of a month of game time. I mean, look at the price of a monocle these days ...

This column is for entertainment only; if you need legal advice, contact a lawyer. For comments or general questions about law or for The Lawbringer, contact Mat at mat@wowinsider.com.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, The Lawbringer

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