Blizzard & The Evolution of WoW’s Microtranactions

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…?


  1. I’m not bothered by the microtransactions at this point. I love the mount, and may get it at some point.

    Where I see people freaking out is thinking that they’ll start selling items that actually give an edge in gameplay, meaning those who can aford to will get farther.

    I am of two minds on that:
    1) *Generally*, the people who would be the most upset about that are the ones who have worked the hardest, and perhaps gone the farthest in the game. This will be a small proportion of the players, but the most hard core. Part of me wants to tell them to QQ and move on.
    2) The bigger problem I see with that is that it will become manditory for “serious” players to have said items, even if they only give the most nominal of boosts in the game. In a lot of ways, the game is very homoginized; if you want to be the top of everything, you MUST have the excat spec, items, and rotation to do max damage.

    I like that in Cata they seem to be trying to fix that second one, but as long as there is any advantage at all to be found, the most hardcore people will find it.

    TL; DR: I want a pony and am unfazed by, but understating of, the uproar.

  2. I bought the Celestial Steed this evening (it’s now 2am here in the UK), mostly because I love the way it looks, especially over my old violet proto, and the fact i only have to have 1 mount on my hotbar now, as it changes depending where you are, and takes on the 310% speed IF you have a mount that does said speed.

    So far it seems Blizzard are of a mind to charge for the little things, stuff that makes you connect more with the game. You see it, you want it, you get it, no matter the cost. Just look at Rivendares charger, people want it, so are willing to do over 1000 runs (sometimes) to get it. You may not think your paying for it, but you are in fact paying with your time.

    As long as Blizzrd don’t get greedy about it and start charging exhorbitant prices, and just stick to things that look pretty but won’t change the game or make things unfair to those with shallow pockets, I’m all for it.

    But I DO agree that more free stuff isn’t a bad thing, ever.

    Well, looks ike i GOT my pony, so I shal bid thee all farewell as i fly off into the Azerothian sunset..

  3. Just a note:

    I have seen no less than five Celestial Steeds at the same time in Dalaran and several Lil’ XT pets yelling to the zone at the same time, too.

    Regardless of the controversy, it looks like they hit a financial home run this time. :)

  4. “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.”

    I’m not sure I understand this statement. Where has Blizzard claimed this was some sort of feat?

    Personally, I like the option to pay for some of these pets, rather than have to farm and farm and farm and farm and farm for a rare, hard-to-find pet. They still HAVE hard to get pets. They still have pets you can EARN. These are just another way to get pets. And now, a mount.

    with a 140,000 queue on the store right now, it’s obvious these items are widly popular. And that’s okay. If you have the money and you want to buy them, you do. If you don’t like them or don’t care, you don’t buy them. I don’t understand why people are getting so upset over this? It’s not like Blizzard is going to stop giving us pets and mounts we can earn in-game. And if they DO, that would be the time to complain.

  5. @Music-chan
    Regarding the quoted piece, Ghostcrawler (I believe it was him) stated that new art for moonkin and tree form for druids couldn’t be made because they are too busy. There was also a statement made along those lines when the original paid-for pets came out.

    If the Celestial Steed was a hard-to-get pet, say cross-expansion metaachievement, then that’d be cool. It just annoys me that Blizzard isn’t making enough content – I don’t just mean raids – and then charges and arm and a leg for the mount.

    We discussed the issue further in the both the upcoming WoWCast and MMOCast. They’ll be posted today and tomorrow.

  6. Meh,
    I got both the pet and the mount myself because im a collector. To me they’re optional premium items, those who are willing to pay a little extra to get em will get em, those who aren’t willing can stare at them ;)

    As for content not enough content, im still working on normal mode LK25 so theres plenty of stuff for me to do still between raiding and PvP.

  7. The thing of it is this: these aren’t game breaking items. They’re merely vanity. I wouldn’t even go so far as to call them microtrans items as most microtrans games I’ve played rely on people buying gear/weapons as actual upgrades to the ones found in-game.

    Sure, the Lil’ KT can be annoying and yes, the Celestial Steed is a 310% flyer. As far as I know, there’s no real mechanic in-game that’s broken and even though I’ll never buy either one, I don’t see the harm in folks who do.

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