A number of WoW Annual Pass subscribers are upset over a change to the Annual Pass terms, which now grant access to the Mists of Pandaria beta test over successive invite batches as opposed to the originally advertised "when it goes live." When the Annual Pass was announced at BlizzCon, I had never dreamed that Blizzard would let in press, fan sites, players, Annual Pass holders, opt-in players, and more at the exact same time. It has not been the norm for Blizzard to run things in such a way, but these days, it's hard to expect the norm from Irvine.
My honest reaction to this whole controversy is that in the course of four weeks, it won't be a huge deal because a majority of people looking to get beta access immediately will probably have it. The people who have or had beta access will do what a majority of players do -- play for a little bit, check out the pandas, show their friends, and then they're gone until release day. That's fine and dandy, no doubt about it, but a lot of the rhetoric coming from the community is that beta was a chance for them to try the game and see for themselves. That's not what a beta is about, in principle.
As it turns out, Blizzard has been talking about beta invites going out in waves since shortly after making the announcement at BlizzCon, where beta access for Annual Pass subscribers was confirmed. On Oct. 25, 2011, support forum blue Vrakthris posted:
Only two days after wrapping up BlizzCon did Blizzard see things already turn -- numbers have been calculated, and it looks like there are going to be a lot more people in this thing than they thought.
Just poorly worded marketing
Many subscribers are citing the original text of the Annual Pass blog post that said access to the Mists beta would be guaranteed when the beta went live. Mike Morhaime also stated during the opening ceremonies of BlizzCon 2011 that "in addition to getting Diablo III free you will also get guaranteed access into the next World of Warcraft expansion beta when it goes live." You can easily read into his statement that a player will be given immediate access to the beta when it goes live. That's the plain text, right? Well, you don't get to asterisk a press conference, and the statement almost feels a bit puffed up for the fans to get excited about access to the beta.
If we want to get nitpicky, Morhaime focused on the "guaranteed" part of the beta access and not its timetable. "When it goes live" is not necessarily "the moment we flip the switch."
Technically, Annual Pass subscribers have guaranteed access to the Mists of Pandaria beta when it goes live -- a guaranteed spot. Due to foreseeable limitations in server hardware and architecture, in addition to the reasonable expectation of what beta access entails, are we really surprised that it might take some time to dole out the beta invites? What about the very fact that you never have unhindered access to a beta, as there are no promises when the servers will be up or down for testing, since it is not a retail product?
Remember when the first successful MMO launched and the servers crashed? You do, because that's how most MMOs enter the market -- crashing and burning before they got out of the gate. The unforeseen dramatic MMO launch is an imagination of the past. These days, you need infrastructure that supports the rush. So why then didn't Blizzard realize that so many people would want into the WoW Annual Pass and have to swap to the beta wave system?
Simple -- Blizzard's never done something like this before. Pets and mounts in the store are one thing, but a year commitment is an entirely different product for a type of gamer who might not even exist. That turned out to not be the case, but could you imagine if we had been at BlizzCon 2011 when Mike Morhaime announced the WoW Annual Pass and the crowd had been silent? You'd be able to see the sun against the Durotar sky, finally not blocked out by the wings of thousands of Tyrael's Chargers.
Business development does all that it can to open up new markets for revenue, and the Annual Pass turned out to be a hit. When the beta became too huge for "immediate" access, the circumstances of the present changed the rules.
Law and our society are concerned about the "reasonable" everything. What does the reasonable man do when he backs his car out of the garage? We need a concept of reasonableness so we can have a point of comparison for our topic of discussion.
The reasonableness of the statement "you will get beta access when it goes live" is sound when the number of people who signed up for the Annual Pass was that of a reasonable beta server, yes? Or, in Blizzard's case, a company of Blizzard's size with the assumed cash flow and operations that come with that size, and a reasonable number of servers for beta testing. When over a million people want in, the task becomes unreasonable. What about the layman who sees beta access and assumes?
One million players downloading the Mists of Pandaria client, even over a peer-to-peer system like the Blizzard downloader, is still taxing. Then there is the back end process of creating invitations, flagging accounts, running support, fielding a million more phone calls about a technically unsupported beta ...
Do you see where this is heading? A million people signed up for the Annual Pass. More sign up every day. More people signed up for the Annual Pass than most MMOs have in total population. The Mists of Pandaria beta client alone is already a healthier, larger game than tons of MMOs out there. Blizzard should have expected this response -- and for the most part, it did.
Game development is fluid
Making promises about game development is a fool's errand. Ask any game developer. The best you can do is trust in the schedule and milestones, arm yourself to the teeth with food and high spirits, and make a damn good game. Somehow, it all works.
Zarhym posted about the current state of the beta and what is available to the tiny number of people who got in so far, which have mainly been press, an initial small wave of opt-ins (most likely to test the system and get people downloading the client), and some Annual Pass subscribers (again, to see if all the knobs and switches work.) Currently, the continent of Pandaria isn't even up on the beta servers, meaning a good 95% of the game is absent from testing.
The Mists beta is, as of this point, an extremely limited experience. You can throw a million people onto four servers and watch them complain on the forums, but that's not really fun. I have a feeling that this could all have been avoided if Blizzard let everyone download the client and only give access to the invite waves, just to placate those who wanted to have the client ready to go when they did get invited.
Is it our fault for being excited about a compelling program? Not at all. Should we expect clarification from Blizzard? I think an explanation of the terms is perfectly acceptable. Remember, at least you're getting in before the unwashed masses, and the players who signed up day one of the Annual Pass are getting priority.
The real issue here is not the commitment made or the money paid but something deeper. Many players had the assumption and expectation of how things work without understanding the mechanics behind a million-person live roll-out of a game admittedly not ready for release. The real problem is that players' feelings were hurt immediately after an exciting information reveal.
How will Blizzard rectify this situation? I don't think it has to. Players, however, feel like the company must answer. Over the course of the next few weeks, everyone in the Annual Pass promotion will most likely get the chance to be a part of the beta like they were promised -- a place to log in to once or twice, roll around on a pandaren, and log out until release.
Edit: I added a bit to this paragraph to make its intent a bit more clear. Please excuse me.
This one is going to hurt. Oh, this is going to be painful, specifically for those of you emailing me about subscribing after the wording was changed. If you're one of those people who gets a little queasy around boilerplate, you're going to want to scroll back up. I'm so sorry. Just rip the Band-Aid. Just rip the Band-Aid...
This column is for entertainment only; if you need legal advice, contact your lawyer. For comments or general questions about law or for The Lawbringer, contact Mat at firstname.lastname@example.org.