What Other MMOs Can Learn From Blizzard's Premium Services

By Adam Ma on August 3, 2011, 4:59PM EDT

Say what you will about Blizzard Entertainment, but they are absolutely unrivalled when it comes to scheming up new ways to part people from their money. Where other developers get tossed under the bus for suggesting things like 60 dollar vanity monocles or pay-per-dungeon setups, Blizzard somehow manages to get away with selling in-game mounts for millions of dollars, or selling the same game with patched content three times to gamers over a four year period with almost minimal fuss. The latest in their devious trickery: adding cross-server party invite capabilities to allow friends who may not be on the same server the ability to group with one another. It's an undeniably cool option for anyone who has ever spent time on more than one server in the game, but the key points of the feature are still largely in debate. Either way, options like these are the sort of things that shape the future of gaming, for better or for worse.

World of Warcraft's attempt to make every single aspect of its game accessible to just about their entire community is something to admire to a certain degree. It may have lowered the bar on how difficult online gaming is since the days of Everquest and Ultima online; and one can argue that in streamlining the games system for dungeons, battlegrounds and raids, that they've almost decimated individual server personality, but it's a system that works for Blizzard. As a game WoW has its fair share of flaws "“ and then some, but as a giant gaming social experiment the MMO is second to none. WoW has taken every single opportunity to adapt and evolve in becoming the most successful social game on the planet, excluding those web browser titles, by keeping an open mind to what would keep players around. That, and giving players a taste of what's to come just to make them want it that much more.

Though no official word has been given on the Real ID Party feature costs, Blizzard has been kind enough to let its community know that such a feature is free 'for now'. In fact, they're going so far as to explain that this feature is available for testing; a clever way of letting their entire player-base get a taste of the feature while at the same time gauging what an appropriate price for such a feature will be. Real ID Party was also tossed out there with minimal warning, meaning that most players had a chance to test/experiment with the feature before learning that some sort of cost may be applied to it in the near future.

At a time when the entire MMO gaming community is freaking out over things like micro-transactions, the idea of a Real ID Party premium service makes me feel like I'm taking crazy pills. Who is up in arms about this? Practically no one. Some are expressing concerns that a feature that allows cross-server partying may simply not be enough (PvP and Raids are currently not supported) while others merely feel like the entire experience is neat, though perhaps not neat enough to spend a few extra dollars on. Absent almost entirely are the people who generally claim that such a feature will annihilate the need for servers to exist anymore, or that being able to group with anyone from anywhere will absolutely trivialize content, or that charging for such a service is similar to spitting on players who have paid for things such as faction transfers or race changes. Everyone seems generally content, and that's the way any developer would want it to be. So what's the difference between this particular feature (which has yet to even be given a price or have set limitations applied to it) and every other company out there? The way it's been delivered.

There was no messy leaked email, no speculation of features put forth with limited details, only a simply service in it's beta testing free for everyone to use as they hash out what its worth might be. It means that above all else players will be the ones to test, develop, and eventually determine the value of such a service without having to simply speculate what everything might be about. Price will always be a factor in the long run, but actually being able to work with and utilize a feature in some way before even discussing costs means that players naturally have a lot less to complain about.

Now of course this sort of business model (specifically Real ID) is only viable for World of Warcraft, but the same sort of logic can be applied to any other game as well. Why give a community the chance to blow a situation out of proportion when you can lay down the groundwork on a medium that they can actually participate in; such as providing screen shots of in-game items that would be available for purchase, or a video breakdown of content only available with a premium subscription. Words alone often fail when most people have a hard time reading past the first few sentences of any subject before hitting the reply button, and there are certainly multiple avenues developers can take to reach out to the community. Why limit yourself to just forum posts?

There's a reason that Blizzard manages to get away with these sort of things and it's because of the way they handle their community. Every single MMO out there has its dedicated fans, and learning how not to offend them should be a top priority. Rival developers shouldn't be looking at Blizzard to see how they can emulate their game, but rather learn from how they handle their own player-base and manage to keep the core majority happy. Sure, WoW may not be everyones cup of tea, but at the very least they've always been upfront about the cost and content of every single premium service they've launched. We're seeing it now with cross-server party mechanics, and with announcements upcoming on Diablo III's auction house that will let players sell items in game for real money. It's important that industry development teams start to think outside the box instead of letting Blizzard pave the way.

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