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Jon Wood: New WoW Pets and the Boy Who Cried Wolf

Column By Jon Wood on November 05, 2009

Yesterday, Blizzard announced that they would be adding new items to their shop. Vanity pets, and in characteristic fashion, the MMO world went bat dung crazy. Even my Facebook, which is loaded with MMO folks, was taken over by posts about Blizzard moving to microtransactions.

I swear, the way people react to these things you'd think that item stores were Godzilla and Western players were the poor residents of Tokyo just trying to get away from the damned thing, wrecking everything they know and eating everyone they love.

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For the record, they're not, but we'll leave my personal opinions about item mall based games for another rant entirely. Instead, we'll focus on this particular announcement. Comparing this announcement, by the way, with microtransaction revenue models games, is like comparing apples and zebras. It just doesn't make any sense.

For the benefit of anyone who doesn't know the story, Blizzard announced that they would be offering two new vanity pets for sale at a cost of $10 each. One of the two pets that they are offering will see 50% of its profits go to the Make-a-Wish Foundation. These pets offer absolutely no bonuses or in-game advantages of any kind.

So this decision on Blizzard's part to offer an item for sale above and beyond their subscription fee has everyone up in arms, talking about what a greedy company Blizzard is, talking about how Blizzard no longer cares about gamers, the charity portion is all for show, allowing Blizzard to sneak into your bedrooms at night or some other such thing.


Run! It's a Cash Shop!

So, is this a decision that was made to look at increasing the revenue that is brought in by the World of Warcraft franchise? Absolutely. Honestly, I don't know why anyone would expect anything different from a major, multinational corporation, no matter what product they make. Hell, I know Huggies rakes in the cash for their product and no one complains that on top of all of those diapers, the people at Huggies makes us pay for Baby Wipes too!

My point here is that the ultimate goal of video game companies is to make money. Yes, it's entertainment. Yes the developers do care about the quality of the game that they are making, but no one outside of maybe some of the smallest indie companies (and most often not them either), is doing it out of their sheer love of games and gamers. They have bills to pay, they have profits to make, etc. etc. etc. Such is the way of the world.

So really, we shouldn't be arguing about whether or not Blizzard (or any other MMO company for that matter) is looking out for their bottom line. They are. There is no question, nor should there be.

Now, there's also the outrage at the idea that anyone would have the unmitigated gall to offer item shop items on top of a subscription fee. I'm going to start by saying that while I also can't stand the idea of paying for something twice, I don't think that this is a case of that. I want to be very clear about the fact that I think that it's completely reprehensible for companies to "double dip" in temrs of charging a subscription fee and then charging players extra for useful in-game items that are needed to play and progress in a game and I'd be in line screaming with everyone else if I saw it. That's not what Blizzard it doing.

In this case, they're not asking you to pay for anything that you need to play the game. That's covered in your subscription fee. They're also not asking for you to pay for anything that affects the game in any way. They're offering you something that has the potential to enhance the experience.

When you go to the movies, you pay for your ticket. You expect that you're going to go in, have a seat to sit in, the movie will play properly, the sound will be working and all that jazz. Everything you need to have watched the movie. That's what the ticket covers. Now, the theatre also offers you the option of buying some popcorn, at a remarkably high makrup. You don't need that popcorn to get your money's worth out of the ticket you bought. You don't need that popcorn to enjoy the movie but it might just enhance your movie-going experience. Nobody yells at the kid behind the counter because it isn't included in the ticket price. It's business. I could completely see your beef though if you bought your ticket and they made you pay extra once you got there for sound.


Some things cost extra.

Then, there are those people who are complaining that Blizzard is giving 50% of the proceeds from one of these pets to charity. Seriously? Are you just looking for something to complain about at this point, or are you really complaining because money is getting donated to charity? Yes, yes. I've heard the arguments. People saying that it's "just a smokescreen" that's meant to garner some good PR about the move. Well, yeah. Look, publicly donating to charity will always garner positive PR and goodwill. That, my friends, is a good thing. It gives big companies like Blizzard incentive to give to charities. That's how charities make their big bucks folks. On an individual level, at least here in Canada, we get tax write-offs for charitable donations. It's all about the incentive. In an ideal world, we'd all just give to charity because it's the right thing to do. We don't live in an ideal world.

Finally, I want to talk a little bit about the "boy who cried wolf" syndrome that's happening. I'm going to assume you're all familiar with the story: Boy calls wolf so many times that no one believes him when there's a real wolf.

There are reasonable ways to present options in an RMT fashion within a game. There are reasonable ways to do so even if your game has a subscription fee. By offering vanity transactions only: race changes, faction changes, and yes non-combat vanity pets, Blizzard is capitalizing on an untapped revenue source without infringing on anyone's in-game fun.

By raising a gigantic stink about this particular move on Blizzard's part, the only thing that is going to happen is that next time, when a company actually does do something offensive like charge a subscription and offer game-enhancing items within a store, is that no one is going to listen to the horde of people that are crying foul.

By reacting and over-reacting negatively every time even the slightest thing is done that might possibly be controversial, the voices of the fans get easier and easier for game companies to ignore. This, my friends, is not good for our genre and opens the door to truly unscrupulous actions by others.

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Jon Wood
Jon Wood has been with MMORPG.com since the summer of 2005. In that time, he has served as new Manager, Community Manager and Managing Editor. Before coming to MMORPG.com, Jon spent time as a writer and quest designer for WISH.
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