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World of Warcraft Column: The Impact of WoW’s Instant Boost to Level Cap

By Christina Gonzalez on March 03, 2014

Last week, word got out that Blizzard had set its price for boosting a character to level 90 after the World of Warcraft Warlords of Draenor expansion is released. There was already speculation going on, given previous leaks that included surveys with Blizzard asking players how much boosting a character up to cap was worth to them. It was thus pretty inevitable that we were going to see this sort of thing come to the shop. The settled upon price, as we know now, is $60. For those buying the expansion, they will get one character boosted up included, but for others, they’ll have the option to pay in order to save a lot of time. Blizzard eventually responded to the leak, confirming the pricing and explaining the cost. Yet, from a community perspective, there are a few serious questions that have come up as a result, and the response has done less to quell them than stir up more criticism.

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For better or worse, depending on your personal opinion, World of Warcraft has had the most significant impact upon the MMORPG genre for a single game. Blizzard, as the numbers leader, can take risks. With subscriber numbers generally down over time, it’s easy to dismiss this a cash grab, though the implications go beyond mere desire to line some pockets. Blizzard’s own response to the ability to buy character boosts is more than a little bit paradoxical. In speaking to Eurogamer, Blizzard’s Ion Hazzikostas declared the decision to sell the boost in the shop was because players that get the boost to 90 with the one included in the expansion will probably want more than one boosted character. Players thus won’t have to buy more than one copy. That $60 price point? Blizzard didn’t want to “devalue the accomplishment of levelling”. So, instead of buying what might be a $40 expansion, a guess based upon Mists of Pandaria’s launch price, players can pay $60 for just the boost option.

If that reasoning sounds a little arrogant to you, you’re not alone. Offering a boost to 90 as an expansion preorder bonus is a nice way for some players, including those who have been away a while, to catch up. People can pay the price of one average AAA game for the privilege to avoid playing the game. We’re at the point where a pass for the person with spare cash to skip the entire game except for high level content at cap is upon us. Some would probably call that the ultimate low point of cash shops, especially for sub games. How could someone say with a straight face that slapping a $60 price tag on the ability to skip all the game’s content and be max level instantly doesn’t devalue leveling?

The “value” in leveling doesn’t solely come from time spent doing so, and $60 might feel insulting to some players who have spent hours loyal to the game, leveling up a series of alts that someone with deep enough pockets can now come in and do instantly. One thing Blizzard seems to be unaware of, or willfully ignoring, is that an MMORPG community is (or was, if you’re more cynical than I)  built upon journeys. These journeys that we take together, separately, with one other player, or with an entire guild. If we all skipped to cap in an instant, the game wouldn’t be the same. There wouldn’t be a foundation. Might as well be playing a lobby game like a MOBA at that point.

Additionally, if you have several people wanting to join the game with boosted first characters or even alts that haven’t played their chosen classes before, it might create a palpable skill gap. This is something that can be common in freemium games with cash shops selling boosts of any kind. People buying their way into additional XP or boosted leveling have less time to learn their classes and don’t benefit from the experience that taking their time might give them. The whole community can feel the impact of players with little attachment. Game designers assist quicker leveling, however, with many games tossing XP at you quickly or lowering their curves.  While even WoW has taken a faster leveling pace over the years, there’s value in leveling that goes beyond mechanics and time.

That isn’t to say that this is wholly negative. Let’s face it, sometimes we want to level up more than one character and skip some of the content we’ve already played through several times before. That’s reasonable enough, and it’s probably how this boost option will be most frequently used. It also puts the money in Blizzard’s pocket rather than that of a leveling service and might reduce some spam. Still, the idea of this option is something to keep our eyes on. In WoW, a decade-old game, the impact upon the community will not be so stark. The game is more than established and this option will probably be used for alts, for the most part. But the real problem lies in if this item is a success.

If this boost to 90 becomes a successful premium option, we might start to see something similar in newer games. Beyond just simple XP boosts, will there be level packs or boosts to cap in future shops? Bypass 10 levels instantly for $20! The original Guild Wars did let you instantly boost to cap if you were more of a PvP player or were raising alts, but it was an option available to everyone for free. If paid boosts to cap catch on in newer games, it could be a bit of a disaster, breaking down the idea of community further by creating a fast lane with a toll gate in subscription games. WoW can do this because Blizzard can risk it. But a younger, less established game launching with or adding a similar paid option soon after launch would probably gain those community-related problems mentioned earlier and then some.

Christina Gonzalez / Christina is a freelancer and contributor to MMORPG.com, where she writes the community-focused Social Hub column. You will also find her contributions at RTSGuru. Follow her on Twitter: @c_gonzalez

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