Before Blizzcon, the biggest question I heard people asking about WoW’s subscription model is “will they ever go free to play?”. It’s a good question. Numerous other MMOs have dipped their toes – or dived headlong – into the FTP market. It works for LOTRO, it works for other games. I’d read people wonder whether Star Wars TOR would be the last paid subscription MMO.
Blizzard has been playing around with various revenue models. Things like the purchasable mounts and pets are a very high end microtransaction, which is what Free to Play games live off of. I was actually surprised that there haven’t been cheaper items for sale yet, or a Blizzard fake currency. Many games make you buy Points or System Cash or some other unit of currency, which you then use on microtransactions. There’s a lot of reasons for that – everything from the “it’s not real money” effect to it making impulse buying more likely. Blizzard doesn’t do that. Their microtransactions have yet to affect gameplay. And there have been remarkably few of them.
Then there’s the D3 real money auction house, and the infamous tradable kitten pet – Blizzard experimenting with ways to let players turn in game gold into real world money, and vice versa. Since neither is live yet, no one has any idea how much success either of these will be – but it looked like Blizzard was thinking about heading down that path. Another bit of support to people who thought WoW might someday go free to play.
But then came Blizzcon, and the announcement of the WoW annual pass: sign a contract that you’ll stay subscribed for a year, and you get a shiny horse, access to the Pandaria beta, and Diablo 3 as a digital download, included. (Not “for free”: There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. It’s the “free” cell phone you get with a two year contract).
Maybe some people reacted “meh”. At this point everyone I know and play with has signed up. That has huge implications. It tells me my raid is going to be around – so I can continue to invest time and angst into it. It tells me that I’m going to see these people for a year – so maybe I should Real ID a few more of them. It tells me that they are all potential D3 game partners – see above note – and by the way nobody else wants to be a wizard, right, so you can send me all your loot?
The implications for Blizzard as a whole are even stronger, though. Having created this deal, I see it as highly likely that next year or 9 months from now they will announce another set of incentives to get people to sign on for a further year. And after that…. well, I think after that it’s not going to be the WoW Annual Pass. It’s going to be the Blizzard pass, and I believe there will be two levels:
Level 1 gets you access to Battle.net and the standalone games like Starcraft and Diablo. It’ll be cheap, like $7 a month, but as they integrate more and more services into Battle.net – and therefore need more and more resources – it’s going to be hard for them not to try to find some way to get the Starcraft players paying monthly.
Level 2 will be the full Blizzard pass. It will allow access to Starcraft 2, Diablo 3, World of Warcraft – and the new MMO that they’ll be announcing, the one that is supposedly called Titan. And it’ll be more expensive than a current WoW subscription, probably along the lines of $20 a month.
Blizzard doesn’t just want your WoW money. People get bored of WoW, but gamers are more likely to turn to another game than another hobby entirely. Blizzard wants to be the other game you turn to. They’ve got a triple threat: the best RTS out there. A hack-n-slash game that has all the depth and background and assets that only Blizzard can provide. And the number one MMO – whatever detractor say, WoW is still king. And it will still be a top MMO in two or three or five years when they announce their new MMO, and I would bet good money they learned from Everquest’s mistake. Everquest released Everquest 2 while Everquest was still amazingly popular – and it gutted the game, split the playerbase between EQ and EQ2 players. Blizzard doesn’t want that to happen to WoW. Figuring out how to launch the next industry-topping MMO without killing their golden goose is probably not easy.
I could be wrong. I hope I’m not. WoW is a great, great value for my entertainment dollar ($13 a month, times 2, we already have to have high speed internet anyway. We can’t go to a movie that cheap. Heck we can’t get a babysitter that cheap). A Blizzard subscription would be even better.