Okay, so after making a complete ass of myself last week with my outdated opinions, I thought I’d talk about something this week that’s a little more broad and general while we wait for Mists of Pandaria to launch. Yep, it’s true. Even today, though we vocal minority of MMO hardcore veterans often downplay its importance, World of Warcraft still carries the torch as the biggest major MMORPG in existence. It finally dipped below 10 million subscribers, though I expect that will change with the release of its coming expansion. Even with Guild Wars 2 and the hype monster running at full-steam, I’m willing to bet that plenty of former Azerothians will try out Pandaria’s content for at least a month sometime before 2012 is over. But one wonders something else as WoW nears its 8th anniversary and the “Hybrid” business model continues to gain traction in the western market: How long will Blizzard hold out before offering a robust “Free” option?
Here’s what I’m proposing, nay betting, Blizzard will do in time: Instead of a straight up “freemium” hybrid model, Blizzard should open up all of WoW’s 1-60 content for free, populating the now long-stagnant lower level areas, and monetize it with various cosmetic and convenience items. Hell, the monetization is already there with the plethora of extras you can buy on Battle.net, so why not add in a “Bazaar” to the UI and let people spend their Blizzard monies, perhaps even what has been earned in Diablo 3, on WoW trinkets and baubles to fluff up their experience? And then, once players have hit 60, offer them reduced price upgrades to further expansion content, and require subscriptions for anything Outlands and beyond. You already give players unrestricted access to the 1-20 game, why not add the last 40 levels and help keep the lower half of the leveling content populated?
Now, there’s probably no real reason for Blizzard to institute this anytime soon. Their biggest “contender” just recently announced its F2P switch, and any temporary dent they made in the subscription revenue is certainly not being felt much these days. But I personally think it could be a great move, if they were smart about it. If you give someone 60 levels to get invested, as opposed to 20, I expect many more would convert to full time subscribers to see the expansion content. I also think it’s only a matter of time before an in-game store-front is added to WoW. I expect Titan will come pre-built with one, and I think the devs in Santa Monica are just waiting and watching what others learn before implementing their own. Add in their already existing Blizzard currency and I’m frankly surprised it hasn’t been announced already.
What would they sell? I think a better question to ask about someone like Blizzard is what wouldn’t they sell? I don’t think they’ll ever add in “game winning” purchasable content to WoW. Even Blizzard doesn’t go that route. But I do expect that when (not if) an in-game store is added, every mount, cosmetic armor, pet, and so forth under the sun will be for sale. It stands to reason, judging by the amount of people that bought sparkle-ponies, that Blizzard could make more money from in-game sales in WoW than they do in subscriptions already. Scoff and giggle, but I’m betting it’s true. There are already people who pay up for extra stuff religiously and subscribe, so if you remove that barrier of entry for 60 levels while offering up shiny goodies, I’m pretty damned sure that people will open their wallets for rocket-cars and motorcycles that carry their friends in side-cars.
Let me end this by saying let’s face it: what WoW was when it launched in 2004 it will never be again. But as a fun diversionary theme-park that’s nice to return to now and again 8 years later… there are few competitors to its sheer volume of content and diversity of in-game options. It’s about as fully featured as an MMO can get. It’s not serious. It’s not a world I want to “live in”. But it’s just as fun as Cedar Point is to a Roller Coaster enthusiast. There are plenty of rides to hop on, even if the bad food and sugary candy makes you sick and you have to look at really weird people all day. If there’s anyone left in the world who hasn’t played WoW, knocking down that barrier for 1-60 would be the way to get them in, if the free trial hasn’t already. And if you want some folks to play the game who haven’t in ages, maybe never did even hit the original level cap? Give them that goal and don’t ask them to re-subscribe to obtain it… just charge them money for the really flashy horses and I’m sure you’ll reap in the dough.
That’s just my two copper, Blizzard.