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Justin Webb: My Little Pony

Column By Justin Webb on April 27, 2010

In this article I’m going to talk about the Celestial Steed. I’m going to mention the resulting significant shift in the social dynamics of WoW; how to make nickel and diming “fun”; and the double standard that gets applied to Blizzard by the gaming press. Then I might make some inflammatory remarks like “Blizzard’s next MMO will be F2P” and allude to “slippery slopes”. Rabid Wolverines will also be mentioned.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Blizzard recently put a new item in their virtual store – the Celestial Steed. For 25 bucks, WoW players can now buy a spiffy all-in-one scalable mount.

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This news was met in the gaming press with a resounding “meh”, seemingly requiring little further analysis or investigation beyond the fact that the Steed existed. Stories concentrated almost exclusively on how busy the store was, how much money it was making per hour, and that there was a queue … and that the queue was long. Some articles tried to do the math, with the current best guesses at somewhere between 2 and 4 million dollars of juicy virtual horseflesh traded. And there was an overtly patronizing tone in the gaming press as if anyone who bought a horsey must be an idiot. And that’s where the conversation stopped.

Forum dwellers and bloggers continued the discussion, but mostly along the “I can’t believe that Blizzard is letting players buy stuff” lines. Now, this article is NOT about whether you should be able to buy items in a subscription-based game. It’s NOT about whether its “good” or “bad” for the game, or genre – I’ll leave that up to you guys in the forum to cast the deciding vote on that. Instead I’m going to say what I think this all “means”.

In testing the waters, Blizzard pushed very hard to see what the market would bear. There’s a chance, I suppose, that the Steed’s price is as high as it is because they wanted it to be exclusive. Their experiment has shown that players are VERY willing to hand over an extra two-months worth of subscription dues just to get a fancy mount, AND that $25 is nowhere near enough cash to make something exclusive. What they have done is moved the goalposts (again) … slightly. Next up undoubtedly is the $50 mount, followed by the $100 hat, and the $200 unique class, etc. It’s a smart move. This is the kind of hand-waving marketing stuff (”evergreening” their brands; engendering goodwill; “representing the offer”) that Blizzard is really good at.

However, in doing so, Blizzard has shifted the social dynamic of their game. Originally, WoW was a game where visual customization was a direct function of achievement. The redeemable TCG cards and the Pandaren were the first fledgling steps toward becoming an active real-money-transaction game. While, in the past, players were “hardcore” or “casual”, now they can be been divided into “money” or “not money”. In addition, this distinction is beginning to affect in-game social mechanics with the introduction of weird equine profiling. For example, some guilds now have a “no-Steed” PUG policy. Now, I’m sure this is a very conscious (and not taken lightly) decision for Blizzard, and that the (old) age of WoW and the current economic climate both played roles in the “readjustment” of their revenue streams. This is also the kind of philosophical shift that drives hardcore players crazy.

Traditionally, this kind of RMT economics is also called “nickel and diming” because it involves small amounts of cash. It’s hard to justify that term at $25 a pop. But here is where the genius of Blizzard kicks in. To divert your attention from the fact that you are about to actually spend $25 on a virtual mount, Blizzard made the while process … fun. Act now! You are 65,476th in the queue. Time remaining: 8 hours. There’s only a hundred thousand left! Once you have been selected, you will have only 15 minutes to complete your order! Genius. Were any of those numbers actually real? It doesn’t matter! Here’s your pony! Any other game would just take your money and email you a code. But Blizzard makes it so … exciting. They make it sound as if the servers really are groaning under the weight of all the awesome. It must be exclusive if I have to do all this, right? Right?

The gaming press seemed to be mesmerized by the sparkly nature of the Steed, and essentially didn’t notice what had just happened – Blizzard got a free pass. In fact, the overall tone was one of patronizing affection: “Look, the silly players got iddy-biddy horseys. That’s so cute”. And herein lies the double standard.

If any other game had done this, they would have been crucified.

For example, if Turbine announced tomorrow that you could buy a special pony mount in LoTRO for $25, there would be nerdrage visible from space. Does the quality of the game affect the reaction of the press? Can polish make it OK to “double-dip” the consumer? If the pony is sufficiently sparkly, yes. Blizzard gets treated differently from every other developer in the press because they’re just so slick. You could argue that they’ve earned it, but game journalists should at least be talking about the fact that WoW just became an RMT game.

As a further example, when Bioware recently released extra content for Mass Effect 2 at a reasonable price ($7), it was “controversial” and caused a fuss in the press. The mission is so short! It feels tacked on! Note that the ME2 mission probably took a team a few months to create, while the Celestial Steed is just a texture swap on an existing model, and probably took an artist a couple of hours. Blizzard has shown that RMT/DLC doesn’t have to be extravagantly produced content – something simple and pretty can achieve greater goodwill and greater revenue. What Blizzard has managed to do is to take a concept abhorrent to many gamers and make it palatable. They’ve done it in small baby steps. Steps small enough to fall under the radar of game journalists who usually pounce on these kinds of things like a pack of rabid wolverines.

When, Activision says “in 2010 we remain focused on expanding operating margins by growing our high-margin digital/online revenues, directing our resources to the largest and most profitable opportunities”, it doesn’t just mean “sell more ponies!” Blizzard doesn’t normally do anything out of whimsy. They’ve got extremely good at protecting and extending their brands. I think we’ll find that this is an ongoing exploratory probe into what their player base is willing to pay; a way of “training” their (mostly casual) clientele into accepting that RMTs are “normal”. Hmmm, sounds like something you’d do if your next MMO is going to be free-to-play.

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