Zen Of Design

The design and business of gaming from the perspective of an experienced developer

WoW Hints at Potential Free-to-Play Future, Supposed Industry Insiders Get Silly

So Blizzard has confirmed what everyone who has actually seen the numbers behind a free to play game have actually suspected – they are in the process of debating whether this is the right time to take the game to be Free-to-Play. Not really a surprise when they’ve already confirmed that, whatever their next game is, it won’t be a subscription-based MMO (and if they are thinking of anything even remotely novel, using WoW to test their technology and design ideas isn’t a terrible idea). I’m so happy to hear a developer actually come to this from the basis of, I don’t know, information, that I’m going to choose not to quibble with Tom Chilton about a couple of places they claim to be uncertain where they really don’t need to. Instead, I’m going to train my ire at, of course, the anti-monetization community that has congealed on Gamasutra, much the way that old milk congeals if left unchallenged too long.  So let’s fisk!

I know this maybe to much to ask, but what if it made a graceful exit instead of “whoring” itself out?

I know this may be too much to ask, but what if we reserved the term ‘whoring’ for when a company actually, I don’t know, ASKS FOR MORE MONEY FOR THEIR PRODUCT?  If WoW were to go Free-to-play, they’d probably have something like 4-6M people show up, and even if they offer a premium option like SWTOR and LOTRO, the majority of those players will pay nothing to play, and the grand majority of those players will pay either as much as they do now, or less. Blizzard would also likely abandon the upfront cost to play (i.e. the box), which would push the price down for casual gamers even more.  But that would be ‘whoring’ because they might be asked to pay five bucks for a character slot that most MMO players don’t even need or use?

What if they just find away to gracefully shut itself down and find a way to honor long term players instead of this.

What if, in order to ‘honor’ your favorite bar and your circle of friends, I burnt down the bar and put all of your friends in the witness protection program?  Look, the game still has 7M subscribers, and likely still has huge concurrency numbers every night.  Taking away something that those gamers find fun to aspire to what you feel is a nobler time is, well, really freakin’ stupid, as well as a great way to get sued by your shareholders.

Maybe only in my fantasy world. But maybe even in a business sense if they played it any other route they could have a magnificent opportunity to boost their brand and reputation, besides doing what we would expect from a industry that only speaks in dollars and cents.

Or maybe they can prove they aren’t all about dollars and cents by giving away a game that at this point has about fifteen years of development behind it FOR FREAKIN FREE.  Again, because this appears to not be clear to anyone, but: MOST GAMERS WHO PLAY FREE GAMES WITH MICROTRANSACTIONS ACTUALLY CHOOSE TO PLAY FOR FREE.  As mentioned previously, World of Tanks boasts that they monetize at an unusually high rate — that high rate being 25%.

I’m curious if wow would have catered to its original player base, instead of reaching for a wider audience every step of the way, if it would still be going strong (see EVE online)

If WoW raids still played like they did in Vanilla WoW, the game would have utterly fallen apart by now.  Back then, a tiny fraction of players were doing their endgame content, and a truly tiny portion was actually finishing it all (I think I saw an analysis that less than 0.5% completed Naxxramus when it first came out).  Going more casual friendly with their endgame content is, ironically, the only way they could have continually fiscally justified making it.

As for overall, well, the game is approaching 10 years old now, and I hate to break it to  you, but 10 years is a long time to play a game.  Most people find other hobbies and interests over the course of an MMO’s lifespan and wander off.  Finding new blood is essential, and an MMO left to its own devices actually becomes more impenetrable as it ages.  Now, some games have very strong bounceback patterns (i.e. people come back because their heart is still there, or they want to check out an update).  It turns out one of the things that is the strongest deterrent to that behavior is… having to type in a credit card number.

I think they should take more responsibility for turning the game into something that was not sustainable.

If one wanted to start the discussion that a content-oriented raidgame is not sustainable, that’s a good discussion to have.  But that’s not what’s being argued here.  What’s being argued is that WoW, by going more casual-friendly, made the game LESS sustainable.  But virtually every major shift they’ve made has actually focused on making the game MORE sustainable.  Broadening the reach of raids, implementing the token system for gear, working hard to get entry level players within reach of top-end players, and replacing skill trees with their current system are all changes that were designed to make their content easier to create, reach more players, and make it easier for guilds to backfill new players into important roles.

Look, I’m not saying that WoW made no mistakes – there are certainly things I would have differently.  But MMOs are best when they have a full, bustling population and communities are vibrant, and you are constantly fighting against inherent churn that is natural to the genre (because players find other games, other hobbies, or discover girls, for example).  Sustainability STARTS with getting more people into the front door.


  1. WoW is the white elephant in the room, the wolf at the door and the 900-pound gorilla eating everyone else’s lunch. All the quotes you cited are examples to me of people with perspective borne on very natural reactions to the desires of 1) wanting something for nothing 2) wanting to be recognized for spending time in an activity meant for enjoyment and 3) not really understanding or appreciating how anything happened the way it did, in the time that has passed and the future no one has experienced.

    It’s easy to dismiss remarks made by people who ought to know better, but it’s awfully cynical to assume that just because they ought, that they will. No one really knows how the sausage gets made, but not everyone who works professionally on making MMOs really should care.

    So that’s where these comments come from. Remember when we thought message boards were easy to disregard? BOOM, REDDIT IN YO FAEC.

  2. A culture of entitlement has come to surround entertainment – online gaming in particular – and it’s not hard to follow the reasoning that created it: I don’t need games, therefore they have no intrinsic value, therefore they should be completely free.

    It’s an outlook that leads to the demonetization of any business model that is too transparent about monetization, which any new model is going to be, simply by virtue of reopening the wound, so to speak, that has long since healed over for previous models. Subscriptions received a similar response in their younger days.

    The argument, for better or for worse, is that players don’t want to be reminded that they’re spending money. But what we’re seeing is that there’s actually a whole market of gamers who don’t really care about that very much, that they’re willing to spend more than the traditional gaming grognards, and that it takes less investment to get them to do it.

    Business follows money, so the results are rather predictable within our economy. What the old school folks are really asking for amounts to games as art, rather than business, made for the public good and funded purely as a form of cultural enrichment. And given the cost of making games, that represents a level of idealism that’s just not very realistic.

  3. I think free to play is the clear way to go on a single player “mmo” that is story driven and has some multiplayer components. Subscriptions are the better fit for virtual worlds, which the industry has all but stopped creating. Virtual worlds retain subscribers because there is no content to exhaust – the content is the community. A cash shop breaks the authenticity of the virtual world by introducing outside items into its circle.

    On the other hand, cash shops hardly affect anyone’s experience in a game like SWTOR, because players so infrequently run into one another. Buying a race car mount or “10x xp boost” or whatever else doesn’t disrupt the game world which is players running from one pack of exclamation points to the next by themselves. There is no immersion.

    It isn’t a one price fits all situation. Price accordingly, whether you build a virtual world, or a mediocre video game.

  4. I have to contest a small portion of your final statement, here: “Sustainability STARTS with getting more people into the front door.”

    While this is an admirable position, it completely neglects the absolute fact that the competitive core is equally important to overall numbers; the community of online games tends to thrive with the addition of third party content.

    In the typical online game, without the third party sites full of theory-crafting, raid boss strategies, clan wars, and similar player-generated content, the player base dwindles. The casuals won’t find the content to be self sustaining if they can’t find out how to succeed.

    Casual players, contrary to their mantra of “Don’t care have life”, actually tend to want to feel they’re accomplishing the same things. However, without devoting the hours of napkin math, practical tests, and raid wipes that are needed for progression through content that’s actually challenging enough to hold people’s attention, the success is much harder to come by.

    Sure, any game can hold on to some number of players, that’s not hard. There’s always die-hards. But proper long-term sustainability comes, first and foremost, from retaining the third-party content providers who give the casuals what they want. I sincerely doubt any team could actually provide in-game content and the equivalent of the third party content in a timely manner, with a F2P budget, at the same time.

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