Cross-Realm Grouping

Recently, Blizzard Community Managers posted of an upcoming feature: the ability to invite your RealID friends, via, to a 5-man group in World of Warcraft. This would cross server boundaries. If your friends are on Argent Dawn, but you’re on Proudmoore, you can group up and run dungeons.

Great, right? Playing with your buddies?

There’s a catch. A portion of this feature will, according to Blizzard, be part of a premium service. Premium being something paid for above and beyond your subscription fee.

To date, premium services have included either highly specialized or seldom utilized. Server Transfer? You might do one or two in your time playing World of Warcraft. Character Name Change? Maybe once, maybe never. What about the Mobile Auction House or Mobile Guild Chat features? Pretty cool. If you see value there, namely in playing the Auction House whenever and wherever you’d like, or checking in on your guildmates while you’re on the subway to schedule a raid later on that evening.

These are all useful services that went above and beyond the norm, and involved some form of ‘meta’ game control outside your game client. But now, things have changed. A fundamental aspect of the game, 5-man grouping, is on the block to be monetized.

1. It is a douchey move to, in any way, charge you to play with your friends. At the very core of this argument is the fact that some aspect of playing with your friends, across server boundaries, is going to cost you. Imagine if your cellphone carrier charged you more to talk to your friends, rather than have friends & family “circle” calling be cheaper or free.

2. This opens the door (further) to more monetization, and your subscription dollars counting for less. A few years ago, a feature like this would have been free. Indeed, features just like this have been made available for free to subscribers. Sometimes they were part of an expansion pack, but more than often they were included in your subscription fee. I’m looking at features like:

1. The Armory
2. The Keyring
3. Shaman Totem Bar
4. Cross-realm Battlegrounds play (random matchmaking)
5. Cross-realm Looking for Dungeon play (random matchmaking)
6. The Equpiment Manager
7. Authenticator account security
8. RealID Friends and Status Updates

I could list more, but you get my point. Imagine the very near future, where a feature like a Tabard Manager will only be available as part of a premium package. Or, perhaps everyone will have the ‘Starter Tier’ of the Tabard Manager, which will take up to 20 tabards out of your inventory, but for anything beyond that you need to pay the premium fee? Which leads me to…

3. What portion will require premium access? Will you only be able to do, say, 5 dungeons with your friends a week, with more requiring someone to have premium access? Or will they perhaps deny you Justice or Valor Points, or subtract an amount from the total reward, unless you are a premium subscriber? Where is the line drawn, and will premium access in this situation provide a gameplay advantage, even a slight one, over someone without it? Which leads me to…

4. Blizzard’s VP said they would not go down this road. Rob Pardo made a now-famous statement in 2008.

Pardo was asked if Blizzard had considered implementing micro-transactions in World of Warcraft. “We chose to go with the subscription-based model instead of that approach,” he replied. “We’ve taken the approach that we want players to feel like it’s a level playing field once they’re in WoW.”

“Outside resources don’t play into it – no gold buying, etc. We take a hard line stance against it,” he continued. “What you get out of micro-transactions is kind of the same thing and I think our player base would feel betrayed by it. I think that’s something else you have to decide on up-front instead of implementing it later.”

Oh Rob, you silly goose. A few years later, and look how things have changed. Focus is moving away from included features to premium add-ons, while still maintaining the same subscription price. More microtransactions and services are appearing.  Some are auxiliary, while this most recent development strikes at a very core element of WoW gaming: grouping.

Really, I think Rob’s comments above are more in line with the ‘old’ Blizzard, whereas this recent monetization scheme speaks of a ‘new’ Blizzard — one that has been steadily growing since WoW became such a huge product. I highly doubt that the spirit of the Blizzard of Yore would be to make money off of a game system that allows already-paying customers to pay more to play with their friends. And yet, at the very root of this, that is exactly what they are doing.

I’m waiting to see where this goes before I make a decision, but I am indeed displeased by the direction they’re taking. The outcry from the community has been pretty severe, with most subscribers stating they will not use this feature and chastising Blizzard for trying to profit from it. Some players who were on the fence have decided this is too much, and they’ve quit. Still, I doubt Blizzard will rethink this.

Perhaps when they lose another 600,000 subscribers, they will.

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