Believe it or not, Blizzard Entertainment has run a “hybrid” business model – subscriptions and microtransactions – for World of Warcraft for years. The company hasn’t been incredibly forthcoming about discussing it, let alone promoting the fact, but it’s made a non-negligible amount of extra money from this side business. I am speaking of the services it provides to players that are not happy with their current situation. Services include name changes, server transfers and now faction alterations and can range from a $10 to $25 charge. Blizzard charges players for these services to essentially penalize those that attempt to name change or move servers very often. A reasonable, if self-serving excuse.
Shortly before the new year, Blizzard altered its hybrid model policy by including the sale of in-game content. Yes, the in-game pets are frivilous items, offering no gameplay advantage, but it was the company’s first step towards paid content. Blizzard claimed that so much development time went into Lil’ KT and the Pandaren Monk that it had no choice but to charge for their creation. In truth, the companion pets are some of the most complex non-combat pets in the game, with multiple animations and, in the case of the Pandaren Monk, a unique skin and animations (and possibly model). To smooth over the transition from paid services to paid in-game items, Blizzard promised to donate half of the Pandaren Monk’s proceeds to Make-A-Wish. The sum ended up being a donation of a cool $1.1 million a few months later. That means 220,000 monks were sold at $10 a pop.
Read the rest of the editorial after the break.
Blizzard’s next ploy was to tap into the love of licensed Blizzard products, while still catering to the infatuation the WoW audience has with decking out their avatar. The lovechild born out of this marketing ploy was to hit players with double the cuteness, a plushie that came packaged with a code for a matching in-game pet. The loot bag came at an increased premium of $25. Now that Blizzard had set the precedent for $10 pets, it was inclined to raise the price when it included a touchable object. Skins aside, the pets were far from a unique offering (video above), meaning that little development time was spent on them relative to the Pandaren Monk. For all intents and purposes the only resource used was the design and manufacture of the plushies.
The latest round of in-game microtransactions are the recently announced pet and mount tandem. In the near future, players will be able to purchase Lil’ XT (another boss shrunk down and made too cute) and a Celestial Steed. Being the first purchasable mount, it is no wonder that the Celestial Steed is highly unique. After all, Blizzard has to show that the developers are doing their job to enable them to charge (price TBD $25, is it still “micro?”) for the sparkly pegasus. Lil’ XT is the ugly duckling this round.
Blizzard has mastered its audience. Over the course of the evolution of WoW‘s microtransactions the company has gone from providing very basic automated services to selling content that had previously been given away as part of a paid subscription. And few people mention that there is even a microtransaction model! I understand that it is basic economics, charge what the market can bear, supply and demand, and all that. What gets my goat is that Blizzard pretends that it’s doing players this great feat by giving animators and artists time to make unique non-combat pets or mounts. That’s something the company has always done.
Don’t kid yourself, Blizzard is not having developers slaving over these items for weeks at a time. For each pair of items offered, only part of them – the Pandaren Monk, plushie design (outsourced) and new pet skins, the Celestial Steed – have been unique enough to cause an additional workload to an employee(s). Yet, both cost the premium amount…and sell like hotcakes.
I’ve begun to wonder how long Blizzard can keep this act up. With F2P alternatives becoming more competent and polished, and incoming titles like The Old Republic hoping to reinvent the genre, I believe that Blizzard will have to go back to giving us items as carrots on sticks. That being said, there are still months available for the company to be hit by a blizzard…of our money. Yea, I went there.
It should be obvious by now that microtransactions are here to stay, but what are your thoughts on the current scenario? Is Blizzard changing the rules as it goes in an attempt to figure the audience out? Does it not bother you because it’s entirely optional, or are you annoyed by the relative lack of extras a paying subscriber gets? Would you prefer tiered subscription models to access *all* content? Isn’t that the reason we subscribe in the first place, to get access to the content…?