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The morals of the WoW Annual Pass story

Pop law abounds in The Lawbringer, your weekly dose of WoW, the law, video games and the MMO genre. Mathew McCurley takes you through the world running parallel to the games we love and enjoy, 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?

After last week's Lawbringer about what happens to the rewards you've accumulated as part of the WoW Annual Pass, many people began sending in questions and comments about the ability to cancel and the nature of agreeing to a year of World of Warcraft service. What many don't realize or just didn't consider was that the WoW Annual Pass is really, truly, a commitment to WoW for a year that also comes with some extras. While you can pay off the year commitment monthly, the commitment stays in place.

People emailed me many different questions and stories about the WoW Annual Pass that I hope I can help with or at least put into some perspective. The ultimate conclusion, for me anyway, is that the WoW Annual Pass is such a new thing, such a different thing, that many people are not accustomed to the way it works, especially after pressing that button and locking in their account for a year.

You make the commitment

One of the most prevalent emails that I received over the last week or so looked a little something like this:
I went to cancel my WoW subscription after agreeing to the annual pass.

The option to cancel was grayed out and stated that I could not cancel until the year was up.

So I guess you shouldn't enter into that thing lightly. I imagine there are ways to get out of the thing, they just aren't as easy.
I'm purposefully leaving out names and stuff from the emails on this one just because of the sensitive nature of account information when talking about this subject.

Entering into the WoW Annual Pass is a commitment to a year of WoW. This is a new concept in the MMO sphere -- not the whole monthly payment aspect, obviously, but the fact that players can opt in to not have the ability to cancel their access for a year in return for products and items in game.

So yes, when you make the commitment to the WoW Annual Pass, you are unable to cancel your account for a year unless there is some kind of extraneous circumstance, one of which involves being deployed overseas, at least according to the U.S. customer support. Once the commitment is made, it's hard to break, as many contracts are. The sentiment of "not entering into the WoW Annual Pass lightly" is the comment that needs to be stressed the most.

Here's one email that I received that discussed one player's issue. He added the Annual Pass to his account but shortly thereafter realized he needed a break from the game.
Mat,

I read your article on "What happens if you break the WoW Annual Pass 12-month commitment?" on WoW Insider. It was a great article. It appears to me that you find the legal pieces interesting so I thought I would share my story regarding breaking the Annual Pass commitment.

It is nearly impossible to 'cancel' the annual pass once you have signed up for it. I recently signed up for it, then had some troubles in the game so decided I needed to take an extended break from WoW. I noticed I could not cancel my account via battle.net, due to the fact I had signed up for the annual pass. I sent in a request to cancel via the web and it got turned down. I called support and the request was turned down, they told me that "Once you sign up for the annual pass you can only cancel for a handful of reasons, one is if you are being deployed over seas." I called billing and talked with them and they said that there is no way to remove it from the account but offered to allow me to bank my time, so I could take a break and then have my time be used after my extended break, but they would still charge me months.

Thinking that was going to be my best opinion I was going to accept it. After I hung up I thought I would call back and ask for the contract that I agreed to so that I could at least read it. Once I was in contact with billing again and asked for the contract and explained that I wanted to take a break but just wanted to review the actual contract I agreed to, he said they could remove my billing information from the account and that it would cause the annual pass to lapse, thus getting me out of the Annual Pass. I feel bad about not keeping my word to Blizzard, but I needed a break from WoW at this point. Keep up the great work, I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.
What's interesting to me is not the difficulty to cancel the WoW Annual Pass but rather the options available to players who are trying to get out of the agreement. Blizzard customer service and support has always set a high mark in the games industry, providing players with a pretty substantial experience for support. I know that in the past I've had a lot of issues, and they've been solved in a speedy, helpful manner. The WoW Annual Pass is one of those areas I feel like Blizzard has the ability to be the best at customer service, considering the whole concept is new to many of us.

A new concept

When the news came during Morhaime's presentation to investors during the earnings call a few weeks back that WoW's subscriber numbers dropped to 10.3 million players, a lot of the numbers lost were attributed to China and the surrounding Asian markets. As we have discussed on the WoW Insider Show, the Weekly News podcast, and other venues, the way players subscribe to World of Warcraft in Asian markets is drastically different than what we are used to. Rather than pay per month for unlimited game time, Chinese players purchase literal game time that they can use at PC clubs to log in and play. When players have exhausted their available or accessible content, they just stop playing. There is no need to log in for a few hours a week or even a few hours a month because they don't pay a flat fee for a flat month of game time. Combined with Morhaime's statement about players consuming available and accessible Cataclysm endgame content faster than ever, you can understand why the numbers dropped off quite a bit in Asia.

We are accustomed to things our way in Europe and the United States -- you pay your monthly fee, and the game is available to you. If for one reason or another you do not find yourself particularly enjoying the game or you are waiting a few months until a new content update is going to be released, you can stop payment on the account and reactivate when new content becomes available. This is even encouraged, as your characters never leave and never die while you are unsubscribed to the game. You just lose access.

Most of the confusion and the small amount of frustration that players are experiencing coming from the WoW Annual Pass is not because of some inherent unfairness to the players or some draconian plot to keep your accounts active. People are just genuinely confused because the status quo is changing. Subscribing to something like a year of an MMO is antithesis to the way we've payed for MMOs for the last 10 years. Blizzard is again trying to change the paradigm of account payments in order to keep an aging game relevant.

The morals of the story

There are two morals to the story of the WoW Annual Pass and one lesson for Blizzard to take away when dealing with players and the new subscription model. The first moral of the story is that change is harder than most people want to admit, especially when it comes to a game that we've been playing for a long time. The WoW Annual Pass is not something that is required, but it is something you opt in to. Players are making the choice to do something new, and some are regretting that decision. The lesson to take away as a player and a consumer is that when faced with the new, the different, and the unique, you have to step back and feel it all out. The first guy who bought horse armor for Oblivion felt the same way, I promise.

The second moral of the story is that our $15 a month is a lot more than people give it credit for, especially at a time when our video game dollar is spent more spread out. A $15-a-month commitment (much less an annual commitment) is a sizable burden for players who do the MMO jump. For WoW players who see no end to their enjoyment and subscription, the Annual Pass is a no-brainer because it's more stuff for free with their original subscription price. For players who want Diablo III for free and who jump from MMO to MMO or MMO to newest console release, the pass might not be the perfect opt-in. There are lots of different personalities at stake here, all working to figure out what's best for them.

Finally, the lesson Blizzard can learn from the WoW Annual Pass is to not let it turn into bad press. The easy correlation can be made in many circles to grabbing on and holding tight to whatever subscription numbers still exist. That's not the case. At 10.3 million subscribers, WoW is still doing better than any MMO in the United States, Canada, and Europe. WoW isn't going anywhere, either.

While the Annual Pass is a commitment, a contract, and an agreement signed by the players, I would urge a sense of understanding on Blizzard's part. We're in new territory, just as much as you are, with the WoW Annual Pass. From what I've seen so far from emails and stories about people having problems with the WoW Annual Pass, Blizzard has been the factor that finds a way to work with players. Remember, this isn't about collecting the money but rather keeping subscribers. Those are two completely different concepts.

This is how it should be, at least for the first iteration of the service. The players who stay with the commitment, get their cool horses and free games, and eventually sign up for this promotion when it undoubtedly comes around again will be the driving force for more consumers to pick up a year's worth of WoW. Be that accessible company that listens to the players and helps. You're already doing it. Don't let the ironclad nature of things get in the way of making the WoW Annual Pass a positive news item.

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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