17 July 2013

The Last "Domino?"

News came out recently that venerable king of the MMO heap World of Warcraft would be implementing an in-game item shop in the near future, perhaps as soon as the next major content patch.  It is actually going to be rolled out in Asia first and so far Blizzard is being rather coy in terms of what exactly will be on offer through this shop.  It is assumed that the current selection of pets, mounts, and conveniences will be present so that one no longer has to go outside the game to access these resources.  But now that Blizzard has taken the step of placing items for purchase directly into the game client itself, the possibility now exists for a wide variety of other items to be made available such as experience boosts, reputation boosts, or even gear.  And as noted, the version rolled out on the Asian servers will include some kind of XP buff for purchase.  So what does this mean for the future of WoW?  Let's engage in a little wild speculation.

Option A:  The Beginning of Free-to-Play

The first, and perhaps most logical, conclusion that presents itself is that this is the first step in an eventual "free-to-play" conversion for WoW.  This would obviously send shockwaves throughout the entire MMO industry and almost certainly spell the end of mandatory subscriptions as a payment model.  Now on this point, I've said before on this blog that F2P is not going to likely create any new customers for a game like WoW because by this point pretty much everyone who has wanted to try it has already done so at this point.  I still maintain that as true.  But there is another side to that point that I think Blizzard may be well aware of.  At this point in its life, there are far more former WoW players than there are current WoW players.  How many of those former players could be enticed back, even on a "part time" basis by the game dropping its subscription?  And how many of those former players would be tempted to buy a pet or two, or a snappy new flying mount, or a cool piece of cosmetic gear while they are around?  I think there is a huge potential for this, and I think Blizzard is sensing it too.  And let's be blunt... every minute a player would spend in WoW is a minute they won't be spending in one of WoW's competitors, which also has to figure in Blizzard's thinking.

Every new expansion creates a flurry of new interest in the game.  Sub numbers typically pick up early in an expansion, peak, and then drop off towards the end.  But this "cycle" has been accelerating, especially with the last two expansions.  The sub decline for Cataclysm happened much sooner, and I am guessing that the same will hold true after Pandaria.  And so while Blizzard continues to make good on "box sales" for each expansion, their ability to retain players across the "life" of an expansion is getting worse and worse.  A switch to F2P (or I suppose more likely "buy-to-play" actually) could help solve that problem and increase revenue over the entire cycle of each expansion.  Players wouldn't feel compelled to rush through all the content of an expansion and then drop their subs when they run out of things to do.  They could approach the expansion at their own pace, and Blizzard could concentrate on distributing the "incentives" in such a way as to encourage people to keep dropping in from time to time. 

Option B:  The Sucking Sound from your Wallet

This is worse than a Steam sale!

The second possibility is that Blizzard is going to start just straight "double dipping."  They are going to maintain their mandatory subscription and then in addition begin to offer more and more items for purchase within the game itself.  Unfortunately there is precedent for this line of thinking as well.  Ever since Blizzard first started offering account services, and then later pets and mounts, for cash it has already amounted to a certain level of "double dipping."  Some players protested from the outset, especially when pets and mounts became involved.  But because the "shop" was external from the game itself, it "felt" less obtrusive than if it were actually in the game.  So in actuality, Blizzard has already been doing this for quite some time.  The only difference is that now, they are placing the interface within the actual game and removing that sort of "barrier" that created an "out of sight, out of mind" scenario for those who wanted to believe that Blizzard was not already engaging in "double dipping."

The other fact of the matter on this point is that Blizzard is still Blizzard and WoW is still WoW.  What I mean by that is Blizzard may simply think that by and large players will continue to pay their subs and now buy items from an in-game store.  Where else are players going to go?  Where is the competition?  People have been trying to knock WoW off the mountain top for years now and no one has succeeded.  Blizzard may just be saying, "We're leaving money on the table by not doing a cash shop.  People will use it.  Just do it."  And so a cash shop is what we get.  Now perhaps this will end up being Blizzard's "Xbox One Moment" where the customers finally get up on their hind legs and say, "No!  We aren't going to use it!" and they end up having to do some backtracking or reformulation of their concept.  But I think it is very possible that the thinking at Blizzard is precisely that players will tolerate it and that they are losing potential profits by not incorporating an in-game shop. 

The Titan in the Room

Another factor to bear in mind here is the status of Project Titan.  With Titan having been essentially scrapped and restarted from scratch, WoW is going to have to carry the torch for Blizzard for at least a few more years.  Now I don't know which of the situations I posed above is made more likely by this fact, but it is something that has to be kept in mind.  It may be that Blizzard was looking for a way to "wind down" WoW but now it has to be kept going and so steps are going to be taken to ensure that WoW stays as profitable as possible for as long as possible.  One could argue that it was (and still is) inevitable that WoW would become F2P at some point.  But the fate of Titan and the emergence of this item shop makes that a more relevant question than ever before. 

My thoughts?  I think Blizzard is going to "hold out" and keep the subscription running as long as they can possibly maintain it.  They will go F2P (most likely B2P) at some point, and I can't guess when exactly that will be, because I don't think they have a "target date" for it.  I think they are going to roll out as many supplemental income streams as possible, bring in as much money from as many sources as possible, and only cut the strings on the subscription when it reaches the point where requiring the sub is hurting their profitability.  Now that day may come the day after they roll out the item shop in full, or that day may come several years from now when they are finally ready to unleash Titan.  It really depends on how the market plays out and how WoW players react to the various things they are presented with in the item shop. 

Would I play F2P WoW?  Almost certainly.  They would have to adopt some pretty draconian non-subscriber restrictions in order to "prevent" me from coming back to the game.  I think I am far from alone in that category, and I think that is why ultimately Blizzard will give a lot of serious thought to some form of F2P conversion.  But that day won't be today, or tomorrow, or probably even this year... unless as I said, this item shop creates a sort of "Xbox One" type reaction from their players.  Time will tell, but it would seem that the last major "domino" in the old subscription regime has started to tumble.

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