Thursday, March 24, 2016

4.65. A Con at the 'Con

Not a great toy for kids


I woke up on Goldenrod's couch and was certain something was picking my eyeball out of its socket. Jarred from sleep in a frenzy of blinking, the haze lifted. A spider-bite reaction at 2:00 am gave the sensation of a thousand eyelashes stuck in my eye. Sleeping bags apparently offered little protection from insects, even from within the comforts of honest-to-god living quarters. Bugs get what they want.

I washed my eye out in his kitchen sink, struggling to keep the volume of my late-night disturbance to a minimum. Eventually, my eyelid twitched less, returning to its usual hyper kinetic state, and I caught a glimpse of the moon from the window above the sink. I decided to slip out back for a quick breath of fresh air.

Even in the dead of night, the warmth of California was a pleasant break from Colorado’s altitude. Jealousy set in. I had no qualms when traveling to the coast for business. The heat was wonderful. I also missed the ocean, something always accessible growing up. I never made time for it as a kid; my mind was on other things. How next to score some computer or video game access. Always scheming, plotting by circumstance.

The business portion of this trip hadn't started yet. In a few days, I'd march into our El Segundo office, training teams by day and enjoying the luxuries of an all-expense paid five-star hotel by night. But before that, there was more important "business" to attend to: A two-day visit to the Anaheim Convention Center, and an all-expense paid sleeping bag on my DPS Officer's sofa, keeping company with the various parasites hiding away in the cracks of his house, thirsty for eyeball juice.

It wasn't the first time I'd had a run in with insects harboring an ocular fetish.

One cold afternoon in the fall of 1980, a much smaller version of myself snuck into the thick brush that lined the backyard of our mobile home, far up in the snowy northern town of Flin Flon, Manitoba. I was armed with a tree branch and an intent to stir up some shit. With several neighborhood kids in tow, the lot of us edged up carefully to the grayish paper-mache looking bag hanging from a tree. I tuned out the ominous, faint buzz coming from the gray bag, and with a deep breath, I mustered all my childhood courage and plunged the tree branch deeply into the center of the nest.

Then, I ran like Hell.

A six-year old's legs are no match for the ferocity of a wasp swarm when it comes to collect. Pack instinct defending its nest far superseded the best laid plans of a young child now panicking, arms waving like an inflatable tube man on a used car lot. Inevitably, a trusted soldier landed his stinger directly above my left eye. The sensation of a hot poker sent me screaming for Mom. In tears, I found myself sitting atop the kitchen counter, while my Mother pressed a ziploc bag of ice against a now swollen-shut eyelid.

"Bet you won't try that again," Mom said. Her voice bore the tone of an impending lesson, "What were you thinking?"

"The kids...said I'd be cool...if I did it."

"You mean 'foolish'."

My six-year old brain didn't get the message, "No! 'Cool'!!"

Mom looked back, knowing more but always refusing to play her hand, and answered simply, "...what's the difference?"

Tyrael's Charger,
An exclusive WoW mount announced at BlizzCon 2011

The Right Frame for the Picture

"How's the eye?"

"I can see, Goldy! Here. These seats right here are perfect."

The main conference hall was packed. Goldenrod and I maneuvered through the crowd as quickly as possible, securing a pair of seats reasonably close to the main stage. Every year it got a bit tougher. Each new 'Con filled the hall faster and faster. It wouldn't be long before the best seats in the house were well behind the concrete pillars in the furthest extremities of the auditorium. Good for hiding restrooms; bad for catching a first glimpse at the next big thing.

Excitement kept my realism at bay. A year earlier I was at the head of a wildly successful raiding guild, casual in its treatment of members, hardcore in its approach to getting things done. We were poised to enter Cataclysmic territory. I harbored doubts, but chose to meet them head on by doubling down on discipline and accountability.

A year later, our success was debatable and measured. We held on to progression...barely. Slots were increasingly filled by new recruits (when available) and veterans were doing double- and sometimes triple-duty, leveling alts for the roles that were needed. DoD suffered its third exodus, something I'd formerly felt capable of steering DoD away from. More vets were retiring, pulling out of progression. As a realist, the future looked grim. The energy surging through the BlizzCon attendees helped suppress my concerns, a temporary but welcome distraction.

My unease would return before Mike Morhaime even left the stage.

I liked Mike. He was never smug and forever grateful for Blizzard's fans. As always, he was thrilled to have such a dedicated, supportive community, bringing his trademark youthful, humbled geekiness front and center. He sung the praises of Cataclysm, chatted up patch 4.3: Hour of Twilight, and the legendary rogue daggers. He made mention of WoW's 10th localization, planned for Brazil. And he broke out the nostalgia by reflecting on how Blizzard hadn't changed in its twenty years. I drifted a bit when the topic shifted to the upcoming Heart of the Swarm expansion, transitioning to his infatuation with eSports (I get it Mike, you really love eSports!), but when Mike made mention of an old familiar franchise, I immediately sat up in my chair.

Diablo III had been in development, quietly, for nearly ten years; now, the beta loomed and keys were coveted. Would he surprise the audience and grant us all some keys? As the crowd chanted for the beta, Mike waved down the rising commotion and announced he had something better:

World of Warcraft players would get Diablo III absolutely free.

Goldenrod and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised, silently exchanging a Scooby Doo WHA??

Settle down. There's no such thing as a free lunch. Someone always pays.

Mike then explained the details of the offer. Diablo III would come free to WoW players committing to one year of subscription fees. In doing so, WoW players would not only get Diablo III free of charge, they'd also secure a guaranteed spot in the next WoW expansion beta, and access to an exclusive in-game mount, Tyrael's Charger.

Mike's reveal sent the BlizzCon crowd into chaotic elation, eyes focused on the screen behind the Blizzard CEO, mouths agape at the awesome looking mount. Something didn't feel right. My mind began putting the numbers together in different combinations, trying to decode the pitch and identify this uncomfortable vibe now taking a hold of me.

Framing a deal
(Source: "Framing" @ Medium)

Spinning the Wheel

In seven years of playing World of Warcraft, of all the players that crossed my path -- the casuals and the hardcores, the PvPers the PvEers, the decent and the indecent -- I cannot recall a single instance of a WoW player ever uttering these words, "Yeah, gonna be cancelling my sub next month, got a new game to play!" The notion that WoW players would decide between WoW and another game struck me as surprisingly shortsighted, almost as if Mike, himself a gamer, didn't know his own audience. If we were a WoW player, chances are, we fully intended to return to Sanctuary for the loot grab.

I gave it another consideration. Was there truly a portion of the WoW community that played WoW and nothing else? Ok, perhaps there was. But what kind of a gamer was this particular player -- a gamer for which WoW defines their gaming experience. I imagined it very unlikely this demographic would be interested in anything other than WoW. Their choice would be WoW, period. So, throwing in a free copy of Diablo III made no sense. They wouldn't play it.

To summarize:

  • WoW + Diablo Fans: Already in their year long sub. Planned to spend another $49.99, extra, no longer necessary.
  • WoW-Only Fans: Already in their year long sub. Never planned to spend $49.99 on Diablo III, was never a "choice" to them, but were happy to enjoy the mount / guaranteed WoW beta pass for spending nothing extra.

So, if the entire WoW community was already in it for their year long subscription, and that community was made up of either players already committed to playing Diablo III or players with zero interest at all in playing Diablo III, where did this "either or" part of the deal come into play? Who was it that Mike was truly pitching this offer to?

The Diablo III-only fans?

A WoW-subscriber paying $14.99 / mo. x 12 months was already in with a commitment of $179.88 for the year. Purchasing Diablo III traditionally (at a retail cost of $49.99) would have upped that investment to $228.87 for the year. By contrast, a Diablo III-only fan's annual investment in Blizzard amounted to the mere retail cost of the game: $49.99. Blizzard stood to make far less money on Diablo III than it did off WoW subscribers.

...unless, perhaps, they could make one last move to increase a Diablo III-only fan's ability to pay a little more. Convincing Diablo III players to commit to a WoW sub they had no interest in, carried the potential to increase these players' investments into the company by about 3 1/2 times.

Even before the pitch left Mike's lips, Blizzard was guaranteed to sell many millions of copies (let's call this 'x amount of copies') of Diablo III at retail ($49.99). Now, with his "free" offer, a percentage of that same 'x' were now going to sell for $179.88. None of this considers the potential that a few of those Diablo III players might convert to full-time WoW players, the game that keeps on paying (Blizzard).

If Mike had gone up on stage and said, "Diablo fans, I've got a great surprise for you all this year. How would a handful of you like to pay us  3.5x the retail cost of Diablo III, and we'll give you a mount you'll never use in a game you'll never play?" I'm fairly certain the audience would've gone silent, though knowing gamers, the boos and profanity would've followed quickly. But this is exactly what the deal was, spun to the hypothetical WoW player, struggling to decide which game to play.

Framing our consumer perspective is nothing new, and certainly, nothing new to Blizzard. Those who might take an even strong conspiratorial stance, blaming greediness as a result of the Activision/Blizzard merger, I can assure you it wasn't. Take two minutes and read about how the rested XP system, developed for Vanilla WoW, was first designed as a penalty.

As early alpha testers earned less and less XP the longer they marathoned their playtime, they grew irritated at the perceived lack of freedom to play as they chose. Did Blizzard pull the system? Quite the contrary. They raised XP 200% across the board, then slowly reduced the player's gain back to 100%. Perceived as a bonus, alpha testers carried on, without a further complaint. Yet the end result, taping a person's effectiveness off after extended play, remained intact.

Traditionally, I'd never been suspicious of Blizzard's intentions; I understood they were a company and, at the end of the day, had their own upkeep. But everything about this deal gave me pause: who it was targeted to, the claim that WoW players would be deciding between one game or another, the actual profit gains they'd enjoy as a result of giving out something for "free." The BlizzCon crowd screamed "COOL", but I couldn't shake the feeling we were all being taken for a ride.


Jackwraith said...

Yep. And part of that ride was Diablo III itself, which was designed to be remarkably similar to the approach of that "deal", since it was intended to be a constant money maker via the real money auction house. Of course, that was only the greatest of the flaws that nearly killed the Diablo franchise. You remember when BNet had the feature that announced how many players were playing each game on the netowrk ("There are 2 million players playing World of Warcraft!")? They removed that feature a couple months afterwards, when you could see that 4 or 5 times the number of people were playing the 13-year-old Diablo 2 than were playing the brand new Diablo 3.

It's now rooted in the American mindset that "a company is in business to make money." That's not true. A company is in business to do something, by which it makes money. Blizzard had long stated that their goal was "to make great games." And, of course, making great games made them a ton of money. But there was a period there where I think the erroneous definition snuck into their mindset and D3 was only the most obvious example. It had been in development for a decade but wasn't a good game and essentially served only to make money via the RMAH. They later reversed course and, with the expansion, put back in all the elements that the fans had been told by game director, Jay Wilson, "weren't fun." D3 is now a good game and the auction house is long gone. I remember it wasn't too long after then that Team 5 mentioned that they had designed Hearthstone "to see if we could get back to just making a great game." Much success! The company seems to have gone back in that direction with all of its titles lately, which is good to see, even though I quit WoW a couple months after Warlords dropped and have no plans to return.

Still enjoying the blog, even if we differ on what defines certain labels, like "hardcore" and "casual." ;)

Anonymous said...

I want to devour the ending.... NAO. But patience...

Feeling sad not just for the ending being nigh but seeing the pieces both unfold and unravel as to how things ended.

I hope that these last entries help to give peace and closure to what transpired.

Chris Paterson said...

I don't understand your logic. You seem to be assuming that all WoW players obviously stay permanently subscribed, so the annual pass was a no brainer for them. But that's not true, there are a great many players who subscribe when there's new content available and then unsubscribe a month or two later while they await the next patch. These were Blizzard's true target - folks who subscribed half the time, who could perhaps be tempted to commit to more in return for goodies. And it worked well for Blizzard; I heard many such players lamenting their decision, months into 4.3 :-)

Anonymous said...

I agree with Chris Paterson, I had the same feeling when they announced Diablo III and the year long subscription 'deal'. For the first 9 years I played Warcraft it was always by the 60 day card, never wanting to commit a full year's worth of money. The incentive of lower immediate cost vs long term payments was an easy choice for me, preferring the longer term. When they offered the pony and the free D3, my mind went right to the idea that they were targetting me, wanting me to be locked into a full year of a game that, in my early opinion, would be drastically different than the one I'd been playing through vanilla, bc and wotlk.
I wasn't wrong, but I did end up enjoying Cata and MoP, staying right through till the first 6 months of WoD where I left to find a private wotlk server. That was the fear I'd always had when thinking of locking in for a year's subscription... what if what I'm enjoying now will be completely different from the future, and it'll be too late, I've already plunked down the money for a full year's sub.
Interesting link to the 'rested xp' framing. The things you learn from this blog, thanks Shawn!


Unknown said...

I'm with the other guys here. They were bleeding subs really badly in Cataclysm, so they were doing anything they could to get their revenue back.


Shintar said...

Yeah, what the three commenters above me said. I don't think the annual pass had anything to do with Diablo players in specific, it was about getting people to commit to a full year's subscription while the next expansion was still quite far out and there weren't going to be any more content patches after 4.3. There was a lot of buyer's remorse on display in the WoW community as the months went on.

Aztek said...

It should be noted that you only had to hold a subscription for 12 months not pay for 12 months up front. I personally went with 2x 6 month as that was the longest time you could buy (one charge was immediate, the next 6 months later). You could opt out of the deal at any time, all you needed to do was cancel your subscription.