|Did you not get the memo?|
Update 2: At Blizzcon 2013, Blizzard officials stated unequivocally that free-to-play is not a direction they are looking to take this game any time soon---if at all. This post still serves as speculation for what a free-to-play Warcraft could look like while preserving the "sacred" aspects of the game.
Update 3: January 2015 reveals datamined information from patch 6.1 that hints at a "Veteran Edition," that many are speculating is a free-to-play version of the game similar to the "Starter Edition," but with less restrictions.
Microtransactions are likely coming to WoW in the not-so-distant future. Are you ok? I'm ok. It's gonna be ok.
Behold: Enduring Elixir of Wisdom. Because of the info contained in the item's tooltip, the assumption is that this particular potion will be sold via an in-game store for real-world currency. Granted, we don't know exactly how this elixir will work. My guess is that it will only be available to players who have one max-level toon, and whichever character uses this elixir will experience an XP boost that lasts until they reach max level. That's right---a permanent augmentation. We also must assume that if there's going to be an in-game store, it wasn't built to hold just one item. Which got me to thinking: could WoW eschew the subscription-based model it has relied on for the last nine years in favor of revenue from the in-game store?
I think we're fast-approaching that time.
This inevitable shift, I would argue, relates to and could be very well driven by what I'll call the "pay-to-enhance" model we see with smartphone/tablet apps and their microtransactions. For many apps out there, users can pay a nominal fee for the application itself, or they can opt for a free version that has limited functionality and/or supports development through advertisements. For example: I use the free version of Words with Friends. If the advertisements I see at the end of each turn annoy me enough, I can pony up $1.99 for the full version sans ads. But that's not all---there are a couple of game-enhancing features players can also purchase from Zynga, the game's developer.
Could revenue from the in-game store rival the numbers Blizzard pull in each month from subscription fees? It's theoretically possible, but I don't think very likely. Subscription dollars look sexy as hell, I'll admit, but Blizzard are aware of World of Wacraft's age, especially when held up to newer MMOs---they can only demand such a premium as long as they're offering an experience we players can deem "worth it."
Though it's unclear how long Blizzard will churn out World of Warcraft expansions, we know there's one more coming our way, at minimum. Realistically, we're probably going to see several more---they're not going to spend a ridiculous amount of time updating character models just to stop supporting the game. However, because WoW is the juggernaut that it is, I can't even wrap my head around how a brand new player would make sense of where the game is now---how they could become entranced and remain an active, paying subscriber for years to come, let alone how Blizzard will keep content fresh for their long-time playerbase. Because of how big the game is, and the significant barrier to entry allowing a player to easily get into the game---a Battle Chest, the latest expansion, plus a monthly subscription---Blizzard simply can't count on new players to provide a significant portion of their revenue.
Unless they removed the most significant part of that barrier-to-entry for anyone wanting to play WoW: the monthly subscription. I can name a dozen friends who would either buy the game or resub were it not for the monthly fee: WoW is a game, but one that involves a significant amount of invested time to make meaningful progress, which on its own is fine. But when tied to a monetary value---time played vs. money spent---things get trickier. Because at some point everyone has to ask the question: is it worth it?
WoW's playerbase is getting older. Busier. Having more demanded of them by life in general. Blizzard must do something significant to attract a new generation of players---a generation that is used to test-driving free versions, paying for addon packs, and receiving reflexive feedback for their actions. A "time invested equals guaranteed results" experience. I'm not saying they remove the challenging, trial-and-error elements of WoW--- they can facilitate a much easier entry into the game while re-energizing their current playerbase by making the game more fun and immediately rewarding, yet still continue to provide the challenging, awe-inspiring content that hooked so many of us almost ten years ago.
Given everything we've seen as WoW ages: LFD to LFR, cross-realm zones, Real ID friends, not to mention the forthcoming virtual realms and flex raids---doesn't it seem like this might be a natural path to follow, removing the final significant barrier-to-entry that essentially prevents players from enjoying Azeroth?
Wow, Ross. All that from a datamined elixir. Yes, indeed. Read on for my take on how it could look.
Purchasable vanity and enhancement items
I've listed some of things we might find in this in-game store above, like transmog enhancements and pet battle items. Players could fork out some extra dough to acquire their riding/flying skills early. Maybe some would pay to have their guild bumped up a few levels. I won't say they'll place a monetary value on gold and free it up for purchase just yet, but I also don't think it's out of the question, especially outside of a subscription-based game. Hell, you could stick raid consumables in there, for example. Players in the position to use them could surely acquire these items the normal way with their professions, but perhaps they assess the time they have vs. how much will be spent getting the items and decide $2 is worth it. Granted, the effects this could have on the in-game economy---not to mention player psychology---are staggering.
If you think patches are coming at us too quickly, Blizzard's going to get it right in my speculative version of future expansions. Patches might come slower than they do now, but the content will be broader and more tangential. The plot will move more quickly and will resolve the character arcs of some of our favorite names. There may even be less patches overall. Expansions will be more akin to finished products at release and consequently easier to digest. The focus will be on progressing through the storyline in order to experience the MMO-ness of this franchise via end-game play, where player options become more tangential, much like now: raiding & PvP, scenarios, challenge modes, pet battles, the Brawler's Guild, etc. With virtual realms and flex raiding a reality, it would seem like Blizzard is already placing the mechanisms necessary to complement this format.
...and released digital-only
Optional content to be purchasable via the in-game store
Holiday content was a novelty for maybe the first couple of years. I get the feeling that nowadays it is mostly tolerated, maybe ignored. Blizzard will revamp how they approach this extra, "fun" content and gate some of it behind a pay wall. Purchasable content will be considered optional content---stuff that doesn't provide your character with a statistical advantage over other players. Blizzard will be able to keep this content exciting and fresh---many players won't think twice about handing over a couple dollars every now and then for access.
Especially since there's no monthly subscription to pay.
A subscription-based option will remain
Lastly, Blizzard doesn't completely abandon subscriptions. I know---I lied. Well, mislead you. You can still pay a monthly subscription, though it won't be as expensive as the current one is. Subscribers will enjoy certain perks. They'll receive a set amount of currency to use in the in-game store each month. All of the "optional" content will be accessible to them for free. They'll be guaranteed beta invites and early access to the patch test realm. They'll receive preferential treatment when Blizzard release beta keys for new titles. There is a special subscriber-only Blizzcon ticket sale. There are additional bonus items a player is supplied with each month. Finally, subscribers can get new expansions at a discount.
So...have I completely lost it in this way of thinking? While a free-to-play World of Warcraft isn't something most players would bet on, I can't help but feel we've been subtly heading in this direction for some time. Keep in mind, smartphones---and apps---didn't exist as we know them today in 2004 when WoW was launched---the first iPhone wasn't announced until 2007! The effect tablets and smartphones have on how people experience gaming can't be ignored. Will the way people are now consuming much of their gaming entertainment affect the way Blizzard serves content to the next generation of gamers? Abso-freakin'-lutely. I don't believe the subscription-based model has many years left without some serious revamping. If my hunch is correct, Blizzard has been planning this for years.
It's just a matter of how far Blizzard will go in its quest to please the loyalists while appealing to the wider masses. A part of me hopes they keep heading in this direction.
How 'bout you?