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How Blizzard's over-caution saved it from a PR nightmare

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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, and esoteroic topics that slip through the cracks.

The Titanic was the largest cruise ship ever built. It was proclaimed to be unsinkable, defying natural laws to those who did not understand how the behemoth could float. In the end, the Titanic sunk not because she was a weak ship but because the ship tried to turn from an iceberg, causing catastrophic hull damage. If the ship had plowed through the iceberg and not changed course, there is a greater chance it could have avoided catastrophe.

While comparing Blizzard to the Titanic doesn't exactly evoke a positive connotation, it should. The Titanic sunk because of mistakes made. Blizzard's conservative game design attitude and philosophy have served it well -- being open to change and modification while holding on to the core concepts of WoW and trying not to deviate in profound, risky ways. The risk sometimes works -- transmogrification, void storage, Raid Finder, Real ID (and soon Battletags), etc. Sometimes, the risk doesn't exactly lead to the best reward -- the Real ID debacle, the vocal hardcore minority and Cataclysm heroics, and the Dance Studio. Blizzard understands that the juggernaut cannot turn too quickly, or it risks the type of deep, jagged incision that sinks the unsinkable.

The Secret World

The life I lead as a writer and the life I lead are, for better or for worse, intertwined. This means that every game I play, every dollar I spend, and every quirky thing out there that I find has some way of coming back around to the business and method of it all. When Funcom released its pricing plans for its newest MMO The Secret World, I was absolutely floored. Everything I had believed to be true about MMO pricing schemes had collapsed before me.

The Secret World was not built from the ground up with a pricing model in mind. Rather, Funcom built a desirable MMO in a robust and compelling setting with a vague idea as to where funding for the game would come from. Funcom knew the math -- how many people would we need for a monthly subscription to work? Is the market currently saturating with monthly subscription MMOs? Free-to-play has gained traction, with micropayments and virtual goods causing limping hobbits, for instance, to spring to effervescent life.

Having your cake and eating it too

Take a look at The Secret World's bizarro pricing structure: a subscription MMO that charges for extra character slots, vanity items en masse, early game power jumps, and lifetime discounts on in-game items with in-game cash. Other games have done it, I know, but this is a game coming out in 2012. Preordering the $49.99 edition gets you the basic game with three character slots, 30 days of game time, access to beta weekends, early access, a character name reservation, an in-game XP boost, an in-game shirt, and an in-game pet with a heal over time ability.

That gets you into the game. After purchasing the regular game you can add on packs to your purchase that give you more items, pets, clothing, and character slots. The Initiate Pack ($14.99), The Master Pack ($59.99), and the Grand Master Pack ($199.99) gets you all sorts of additions to your game, such as a raven flying pet, high-end weapons for your character, and leather jackets for the game's factions, lifetime discounts to in-game items, and, with the biggest pack, a lifetime subscription to the service.

Extra character slots ($9.99) and name reservations ($9.99) are also available before checkout.

Funcom's newest MMO, The Secret World, is everything people predicted Blizzard would turn World of Warcraft into -- a pet and mount money-making scheme of bonuses and extras on top of a subscription service. Blizzard metered out pet and mount sales, taking an extremely cautious approach. Funcom just shot every fish in every barrel.

Blizzard, slow and steady

Moving at a snail's pace is sort of Blizzard's thing in the industry. The giant lumbers through the forest, clearing the tree lines and revealing a clear, easily accessible horizon. It's streamlined, and it takes a while to get there, but it's done. On microtransactions, Blizzard stood fast. Charity pets were one thing, but the pet store mount blew the roof off of the WoW community. Blizzard was in the stickiest of situations -- the Celestial Steed was so successful that Blizzard couldn't ignore it, but it couldn't also give the impression that it was gouging users on top of the subscription cost.

Brand loyalty is incredibly important for an MMO that relies on subscriptions. If you're not playing, you're not paying. Keeping you around is the goal and WoW cannot afford too many gaffes of that nature. Real ID was a blunder, but over time, people found the solutions they needed in the product or the future, Battletags.

A potential PR nightmare

There is nothing worse that fans of a game feeling like they aren't getting what they are owed. Entitlement in MMOs runs rampant, and it's not always because of the players. The Secret World's revenue models were not made to complement each other in the slightest. Two cash avenues were created because it could net Funcom more money, not that if it was feasible or not feasible to run a service on a cohesive revenue model. It stinks of "we will be the next WoW" syndrome, with a promise to investors of 10 million players in a year, and Blizzard's tower lit with the fires of a massive player migration to the gaming messiah. I promise, this time Angel Investors, this time it will work.

Blizzard dodged the PR bullet by staying conservative, dispensing virtual goods at a modest pace. That pace has quickened over the last year, but I believe that Blizzard wanted to get the Heart of the Aspects out early to augment their financials this quarter. Combined with the downsizing and restructuring, the company will be in a very, very healthy state.

Funcom, on the other hand, just set up an MMO that rests on both a subscription and virtual goods store with artificial cash locks on opening further character slots and name reservations. Are you outraged? I kind of am. Doesn't this reek of future indiscretions, piling on the cash store items and leaving those with the "not-free" subscription game are now in an institutionalized system in the MMO genre. If Blizzard did this, just by the very nature of having 10 million people do something, it would have been successful and de facto in the industry, but it hasn't. The Secret World is attempting to make this the norm.

Even me, the microtransaction king, thinks this one smells a little funny. As for Blizzard, sometimes just staying the course is a pretty good plan.
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 mat@wowinsider.com.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, The Lawbringer

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