Why Not Sell Epics?

Walk with me on a thought experiment. When the last Lich King dungeon opens and loot goes to tier 10, what if WoW adds an item shop selling tier 9?

As Blizzard PR, I would immediately describe this as a way of opening content. We want everyone to be able to experience everything in Wrath of the Lich King before Cataclysm goes live, and this is a way of bypassing gating. Of course, you can still earn everything in-game, so we’re not taking anything away from you, just providing more choices for our players.

I would assume that the game designers would immediately recoil, just because they are gamers. The kind of people who make WoW are the kind of people who play WoW, and it became a raiding game because they recruited raiders to design it. Achievers do not sell Achiever content to non- or lesser Achievers.

As a Blizzard business analyst, however, this sounds like win-win-win. First, some number of people will buy the items. That number is probably larger than most would like to admit. This is almost free money, as the content being sold was already in-game, and the item shop already there. Second, some smaller number of people will quit in protest. You lose their $15/month, but that is going to be less than the new revenue. You now have more revenue from fewer players. Furthermore, many of the people leaving are the ones who feel that their previous accomplishments were trivialized. That is, these are the hardcore raiders who are always pushing the bleeding edge of content. These people cost you money. They play 40+ hours a week (with all the costs associated), they place CSR calls that cost you more than $15/month, and they constantly complain that there is nothing to do because they burned through the content as fast as possible. So they now are complaining about something different; who cares? Third, that complaining is just more visibility, where people who disagree with the decision are out advertising it. I am increasingly accepting that there is no bad publicity, since everyone still seems happy to talk about EA games after #EAFail.

I do not like the idea as a player, but I cannot see how it fails to make business sense. Too extreme, too many people would quit? What if they sold tier 5? Would you quit over that? I can get a long way down the slippery slope before many are willing to step off.

: Zubon

47 thoughts on “Why Not Sell Epics?”

  1. I’ve thought this would be a good idea for a while now. If the “game starts at 80” and the design focus is on raiding, let’s get people up and raiding ASAP. The late adopter who has to grind up a character won’t be able to jump in and play with their veteran friends.

    Of course, that means I’d also recommend selling level capped characters directly from Blizzard. Those who want to go through the leveling content (that’s where I prefer to spend my time) still can, but those who want to just *get on* with raiding can go and do so.

    1. IIRC (and I could be wrong here) blizzard have stated they want people to play at least some of the levelling content as a way of teaching them at least partially how to play their class at max level – so I could see “buy a level 55 (since that’s where DKs start anyway) or 65, but not “buy an 80 / 85”

      As for raiding, i’m just curious – have you played WoW lately? the game’s never been more casual-friendly or easy to get into, and “late adopters” are practically dealt with because [tier below top tier] is buyable with normal 5man tokens – so any late adopted just has to grind a few 5mans, and much less so comparatively than the Radiance grind in LoTRO simply because you’ll get 3-5 tokens from any successful run.

      1. Aye, a “buy at the old level cap” or “55 like DK” would be more likely. Even so, that’s easily a week of hardcore playtime to get up to endgame raiding levels. Heaven help someone who picks up the game and starts from scratch.

        (Which is sort of the point. WoW is at a point in its lifespan where there just aren’t all that many new players,and the barrier to entry is high if you want to play with other people. This sort of “skip to the population bump” entry point would be a brilliant way to get people engaged again.)

        Of course, with Cataclysm in the pipe, that’s going to invoke interest in the low levels again… even if it’s mostly alts of established players. At least newbies will have a populated world again.

        On the other hand, if they opened up the sub-50 or sub-60 game completely free to play, that would keep the leveling game populated, too…

  2. But selling t5 would be useless, as that set is a full expansion ago – farming it now just requires a 15-person pickup group, honestly – and maybe 20-25 for the harder bosses.

    But selling gear only 1-2 tiers below the current top? Blizzard can’t really do that after making it clear they want everyone to be able to see most of the content – just look what they’re doing next patch – t9 will be buyable with the tokens you get from 5man heroic dungeons, and those are hardly difficult to farm, especially with their new dungeon system.

    and besides, their CMs have stated only vanity stuff is coming from a cash shop, less than two weeks ago, so that line is still too fresh in everyone’s memory.

  3. hmmm I dunno I think it more likely they would first add crafted gear that’s around tier 8 or 9, but yes from a business standpoint, why not? Why not sell people an even starting line?

  4. When the next patch comes out, T9 will be buyable for badges which is the incentive to get people to keep running heroics.

    If you sell those for cash instead, that takes out a lot of the incentives to keep the instances going.

    So it’d be better to sell T8, use T9 to incentivize 5 man content, and T10 for current patch raids. One interesting side effect is that it wouuld be very tempting to just unsub when a patch comes up you don’t like, because you know you can always come back and throw down some cash to gear up.

    It’d be interesting. I think they’re onto more of a winner to sell heirloom gear though and let you gift it to people.

  5. Crazy stuff. There has been quite a shift in the perception of RMT since DDO went free to play. Before DDO, comments were almost universally negative, even about games that only sell convenience items such as Runes of Magic. After DDO, people are starting to discuss things constructively and would even allow equipment sales, something that is against the RoM design philosophy, for example.

    Strange world!

    1. Which is funny, because DDO does not sell items that are powerful or game changing. The most powerful item there is is a +2 sword, and you can get that within your first four hours.

      1. Yes, that just adds to the weirdness. But the fact that DDO is doing _anything_ of this sort has now legitimized the practice for all American MMOs :)

        1. It just goes to prove how easily people distort facts to support their worldview. For someone who wants RMTs selling powerful items, DDO is a premium example of how successful a game doing just that can be… when DDO does not do that.

          Quite the contrary, the successfulness of DDO’s transition is about how well-implemented within the game the DDO Store is (ie it does not feel tacked on) and how careful Turbine was at not angering us too much.

          Got to love the confirmation bias!

        2. The negative perception surrounding F2P MMOs with item shops has been fading for a few years now. It certainly wasn’t DDO that got that ball rolling – though it may currently be the best example.

  6. I don’t know much about WoW, but I did quit LOTRO for a number of reasons, after playing since launch with a lifetime account I got after 1 year of monthly fees. One reason was lack of end-game content.

    Why not sell end-game content? MMO devs are already exploring RMT/Micro-payments/etc for cosmetics and other items or buffs. If a large number of players are eating up your content and begging for more on the all-you-can-eat plan of $15/mo, then you’re missing an untapped market and opportunity to MAKE MORE MONEY. Sell optional end-game content for what it costs to make it plus whatever profit you want. You satisfy the hardcore players and extract more money from your customers. It’s win-win.

  7. There is a lot of business sense in that idea.

    I think you might be able to appease some of the “achievers” by re-skinning the gear to make it look less shiny but give the same boost in stats. Even downgrade it from Epic to Rare status if necessary.

    1. Or simply change the color. It is amazing how perfect some A’s must have it. One stat point less in each slot, will make so much difference in perception.

      1. I think if there was a risk that gear could be recognized as ‘not properly earned’ people would avoid buying it in the first place. The status is as important as the stats. It wouldn’t make business sense to Blizzard to make their product so much less attractive.

  8. I am sure that if I would buy myself raid gear… that this would piss off a lot of raiders who “worked hard and long” for their items.

    But we live in a time where even one of my most casual MMO noob friends runs around in full Ulduar and by now Coliseum gear.

    So the epeen status of Tier sets has diminished already.

    So we have two different aspects why people could oppose this:

    1.) keep money out of my game – an almost ideological point of view, but I can sympathize with it
    2.) some things should be gotten through skillful play, not bought. It diminishes the feeling of achievement that players if they try hard to get something and I just come along with the same gear from the shop.

    IMO we need to focus on things other than a primitive itemhunt in MMOs, then we would not even discuss the sale of gear, if it is good or bad, at all.

    But well, seems we are all focused too much on getting the next best item. I blame the more and more stale item progression system that most MMOs have subscribed to nowadays.

    1. Yes indeed; make the *play* the key, at all levels, and kill the “endgame” mentality. Vastly undermine the importance of items.

      Of course, that’s pretty much a new game at this point.

  9. T9 is already buyable with badges, as is T9.5-equivalent. You can be just as well geared as anybody just by doing the daily heroics. The only stuff you can’t buy with badges is the very highest, item level 158 stuff. When T10 drops with the new patch, that will also be buyable. Just saying, it’s already out there (but not really commenting on the meat of the article–I’m feeling lazy and tired this morning).

  10. First off, since when do the hardcore spam customer support? Don’t you think CS gets a LOT more calls from little Billy because he can’t figure out how to add skills to his hotbar? The forums, sure, but CS?

    That aside, without the hardcore playing WoW, Blizzard would be missing 95% of the UI in WoW right now, along with many of the ‘features’ they have now ‘added’. Not to mention that pushing the bleeding edge of content is basically beta testing it. Somehow I don’t think little Billy would continue to bash his head against a ‘broken’ boss, exposing the flaws and getting a patch to re-align things. God help the sub numbers if 25 little Billys do kill a boss, but he bugs out and does not drop loot. My guess is the little Billy population would simply walk away.

    1. My brother is a bleeding edge hard core raid player. According to him, they talk to CS a lot. Since they are on the bleeding edge, they are always pushing content to the edge and finding bugs, glitches, and things they just couldn’t do. They also make complaints about lack of content, or content designed poorly (in their opinion), or even not enough “good” players to form a successful group. Heck they had their whole guild transferred to another server just to be with a more skilled group of players.

      They are also rather “self-important” so they feel they deserve interaction with Blizzard.

      1. So wait, are you saying the game would be better off WITHOUT a dedicated group reporting bugs and glitches before the masses see them? The hardcore of any game have always been paying beta testers, it comes with the territory. And why are they talking to CS about a lack of raiding content, what is that going to accomplish? Those complaints are far better left for the forums, where a dev (and not a GM) might see them.

        1. I’m ok with hard core raiders leaving any game I play. I do not raid, so the time spent on raid content is wasted on me.

          Besides, this whole thing is a thought experiment. I’m not suggesting anything should happen.

          1. You might not raid, but my guess is you do run 5 man instances? Because many of the bosses in later 5 mans are modified versions of early raid bosses, once the devs see what works. Again, the bleeding edge do the beta testing for everyone else. Without them, Billy Casual gets to face Rag ver1. Good luck to him.

            Plus my guess is you have also used a mod or two, mods that were created by those hardcore players. Billy Casual sure as hell is not going to spend the amount of time it takes to make something like scrolling combat text, quickbars, decursive, mailbox, etc. WoW with only one hotbar would be far less enjoyable, would it not?

            1. I only duo in WoW. No 5 man anything ever. I do have 5 or 6 mods but none that I can see being developed for raiding use and none of them you have mentioned above. Regardless, if there was no raiding there would be something else, hopefully something I would want to do. The other people that also like to do that might make mods I like and find bugs.

              I don’t think raiding is required in order to make a game better. I still feel the game would be more enjoyable to me if the raiding and the raiders both left. The devs could focus on making the game I want to play. Which is why, perhaps, WoW is not my favorite MMO to play.

              There is a ton of content in WoW I will not ever see except via screenshots and videos or watching over my brother’s shoulder. I’ve seen what goes into raiding and I’m not interested in it.

            2. Well I’d argue that a duo-only player is the exception to the rule in WoW or most other MMOs. So for you, yes, removing all raid content would indeed benefit you. Of course, by doing that it would likely remove many of the players who, like you, are paying and funding future content, be it raid or otherwise.

              As for mods, you do you at least some of the ones I mentioned, as combat scroll, monkeybars (or some version of it) and mailbox are now built into WoW. That famously polished UI is not the work of anyone paid by Blizzard, but rather those who are paying Blizzard.

            3. I can agree with you there, I’m talking about what I want. I may be a unique flower, but I’m the most important flower there is. To me.

              Out of curiosity, what is mailbox?

    2. Hitting the original question: hardcore players will place more support calls. We hit more bugs, and we hit them more often. If they are new bugs, hey, free beta testing. Quite often, though, I would hit known bugs, occasionally the same one multiple times per day, and it required a CSR to fix it. See my time in the first year of City of Villains for examples.

      All costs considered (wages, facilities, overhead), if you consume 1 hour of CSR time per month, you have wiped out any profit on your account, and you may have offset out all revenue period. There may be other benefits to having someone stumble over all the bugs, but the third time this week my Mayhem Mission is bugged in CoV, no one is gaining from that customer service transaction. Hardcore players can repeat content faster than you can patch it.

  11. Why would you pay more money to play the game less? I don’t get the idea of using cash instead of heroic runs to gear up at all. It must be a huge pain in the behind to jump into raids right away as any class without any first hand experience in 5 mans.

    1. “Why would you pay more money to play the game less?”

      Why do some people say “the game starts at 80”? For them, the leveling game is a barrier to play. Sure, skipping it is “playing less” for someone who likes it, but for someone to whom it is a chore, the ability to skip ahead would be fantastic.

  12. I don’t agree with this. Personally I go as far as supporting RMT for fluff, but that’s about it. Getting into power items tastes like “burning the village to save the village”.

    Does it make business sense? Yes, but only up to a point. The point is right here:

    “Second, some smaller number of people will quit in protest. You lose their $15/month, but that is going to be less than the new revenue.”

    That’s an assumption, and a dangerous one at that. Nobody knows this for sure and it’s a huge risk to take. The result of this is not something that can be extracted from surveys because a lot of dynamics are at play.

    Essentially and simplistically, one paying subber at $15 equals a guy who buys three items a month at $5 a pop. There’s no guarantee in the world that the buying guy will keep buying those three items (at such a high price point for an item, might I add) indefinitely to cover for the missing sub. Most likely the bulk of the item buying population will initially purchase what they need/have been missing for the first month or two, then largely cease to purchase until they need something again, which might be months down the road. We’re talking about the most utilitarian part of the player base in the end.

    You can see this when you plot it out. If they lose, say, a million subs over this, they have to count on a million buyers to shell for three items every month to cover it just to be back where they started. If (what seems to be most likely) the next month the buyers decide to buy two items instead of three, since they’re still riding on their previous month’s purchases and naturally they need less this time around, the amount of buyers needs to be ~33% higher. They’d need another 330K buyers to break even. If on the third month the buyers only need one item, they’d need 660K more buyers to break even and so on.

    I don’t think anyone in their right minds would exchange a steady, essentially infinitely renewable source of income for one that is limited, random and more than likely progressively dwindling on top of all that. It is progressively dwindling because unless we’re talking about the top percentile of buyers with money to burn, sales of items will eventually taper out.

    (a) The more powerful the item, the less likely it is to be replaced in the short-medium term. (b) Personal attachments to the item might even be stronger on many players than if the item was found. “Hell, I paid $5 for this sword, I’m gonna milk it for all it’s worth beyond reasonable expectations of usage”. (c) Unless you’re permanently injecting the game with items, there will come a point that no items truly need to be replaced or upgraded.

    1. I’d also add that the loss of an item-buying customer becomes far more important than that of a single sub paying one. Those against buying items will leave and not come back, and unless you somehow manage to keep the item-buyers not only happy enough to stay, but also happy enough to continue buying at a rapid clip, you hurt yourself long-term.

    2. “a steady, essentially infinitely renewable source of income”

      That’s a huge assumption on the other end. It might just be that the number wonks over at Activision have seen that there is indeed financial sense in these shifts.

      That said, yes, item decay is one of those things that makes Puzzle Pirates’ economy work. You get used to it, especially if you realize that the devs still have mouths to feed.

      1. Agreed, Tesh. It is an assumption, but in the framework of WoW and the example of the OP, it’s an already proven assumption.

        We’re not theorizing about a game that launches with this scheme from day one. We’re talking about WoW which, by this point, has 5 years of proof behind it that subs are steady and constantly renewable. Hell, that’s the whole point of a sub isn’t it.

        We already have tons of examples that subs work this way and so they remain (if left untouched and not intersected with boneheaded moves like an NGE). Under normal conditions, subs are in fact steady and renewable. And they’re not as fickle and sensitive to change as it seems.

        Of course no one can anticipate 100% how the playerbase will truly react to any given change or move, but every year we have more data as to how they have reacted in the past, and build from there.

        1. It’s not the steady income bit that I’m nitpicking, it’s the “infinite” part. The market changes. Businesses that don’t keep up will have problems. If you’re angling for a four year life span or so (thanks Spinks!) or looking at Raph’s MMO lifespan curve, that’s far from “infinite”… and you should plan accordingly.

          That said, yes, the predictability of the revenue stream is a boon to devs using the sub model. No argument there.

    3. Solid argument. Two thoughts while I’m away from a real keyboard. First, the numbers are very important there, as a million is likely high, and we need the entire rest of the population to make up the lost revenue, not an equal number to those who quit. If we lose ten, we could replace them with ten buying 3 items per month or thirty buying 1 per month. If the proportion lost is small, we do not need much shopping to replace them. Second, how about item rentals on the Wizard101 model? Now that is some shiny evil to keep the spice flowing.

      1. Yeah, a million is likely to be very high. But in the end it’s still the same dilemma: Exchanging a constant, dependable source of income for one which is variable from period to period and inevitably tapers out over time.

  13. Why play?

    That’s the key question with all this creeping monetisation. You will hit a point when you’re standing in Dalaran with all your hard-worn epics and you just think “What’s it all for?”

    I would have a hard time raiding with people who have owned WoW for 2 days and just mash Sinister Strike while doing decent dps simply because they’re in full Ulduar epics courtesy of Daddy’s Credit Card.

    Think also about the poor games company exec. If he implements this and it goes smooth he’s just doing his job. If he implements this and it goes horribly wrong he’s The Guy Who Broke WoW and will never work again.

  14. It’s just supposition, but I think Blizzard will draw the line at selling items that affect stats. With their stance on gold sellers they will likely never sell any type of currency, gold, tokens, or otherwise. I think they will eventually start selling mounts, bags, more pets, bank tabs, respecs, costumes, and any other non-stat based items. The only exception they might make is for the experience boosting heirloom shoulders, and maybe a few other heirloom items.

  15. “I would have a hard time raiding with people who have owned WoW for 2 days and just mash Sinister Strike while doing decent dps simply because they’re in full Ulduar epics courtesy of Daddy’s Credit Card.”

    I hear this a lot, and it’s terribly classist. For one, how would you know? Two, what business is it of yours? If the player is contributing and not being a jerk, actually doing well *playing* the game, what possible place does anyone have telling him he’s not welcome?

    If he’s an idiot, sure, get away, but there are plenty of idiots who have played through the existing framework. Do you automatically accept them because they did so, and ignore *how* they play?

    1. It’s not a matter of telling him he’s not welcome. It’s about me not wanting to play with people who don’t have basic game knowledge.

      The old model was level slowly > learn your class > do end-game 5 mans > learn your class > start raiding > learn your class as you wipe loads > be an uber raider and have lots of shiny epics.

      The new model is just the last step of the old model. Destination without journey.

      Not a game I’d want to play. The guy who bought is epics is welcome to what’s left when I leave. Maybe he’ll pay someone to turn the lights out when everyone leaves.

  16. The “mashing sinister strike” takes care of itself in any guild slightly more than casual, since it already is a problem and they manage to take care of it (by uploading and analyzing combat logs) so that’s a non issue.

    However if the people leaving are some of your biggest beta testers, always raiding on the test box, giving lots of good bug reporting feedback, then that will hurt the game in other less tangible ways. But the question is would they be likely to leave? It is hard to tell. Someone that consciencious and hard working may not care what happens 2 tiers behind his current progress, he’s in it for other reasons. When Ethic’s brother guest wrote a post here he seemed to have that attitude. It seemed in the last big patch it was the people still struggling in Uld (farther back than the bleeding edge and beta testers) who were the ones complaining about the badge changes.

  17. I’m sure Blizzard will get there eventually, but I doubt it will be before cataclysm. They are very slowly expanding their cash shop options; testing the water to see the response. I’d actually expect convenience items next, before straight up loot. Things like teleport rings, some way to boost xp gain (maybe a potion to fill up your rest bar?), etc. I’m curious to see what effects these experiments will have on the next Blizzard MMO. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see it launch with some way to up sell you.

    There will be bitching on blogs and the forums as they add more things for sale, but I’m not sure that will translate to a lot of hardcore achievers actually quitting. A lot of the people who would quit over it will already have quit over “welfare epics”. And you need those to retain more casual players between expansions.

    I’m not personally very happy about the increase in cost of MMO games we are going to see in the near future, and I’m very worried about the incentives it places on the design of game systems. However, it does make business sense, and I don’t think we’ll be able to avoid it for much longer.

  18. Hell, GW is still selling maxed out PvP characters with all the skills already unlocked (or have they stopped doing it? I have no idea).

    Since GW is not a gear game, but a skills game instead, it’s a minor interpretive step to take to realize they’ve been doing exactly this and the sky hasn’t necessarily come down on them yet.

    The trick is that GW has never been a sub-based game. Maybe that’s why the earth hasn’t opened to swallow them yet.

    1. A small but important clarification:

      “Hell, GW is still selling maxed out PvP characters with all the skills already unlocked (or have they stopped doing it? I have no idea).”

      Guild Wars does not ‘sell maxed out PvP characters’, so much as PvP characters are already maxed out. You have the ability to create a character at max level, with max attribute points from the word go. That said, they do charge for skill and equipment unlock packs…

      Guild Wars 2 will be similarly tailored to the skill>time crowd, having PvE characters and equipment brought to a set level when entering a structured PvP zone. It will not require any RMT at all to be entirely competitive from day one.

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