Epiphany

Over the weekend, as I was cooking for, cleaning for, picking up after, and entertaining relatives, out of the blue I had one of those forehead-slapping moments. For months now — maybe even a couple of years — I have been baffled by Blizz’s apparent business model shift from a game accessible to nearly everyone to one that:

  • Is increasingly complex, to the point that it is almost impossible for new players to navigate without accessing third-party explanatory sites
  • Is moving to funnel all game play into a structured end game model
  • Is designed to require ever more game play hours each week in order to reach and maintain end game level
  • Often implements “fixes” that serve to penalize casual players but are in response to elite player exploits or perceived exploits (example: the rules for loot trading in raids)
  • Gives early testing access only to elite players or “image shapers”, and structures entire expansions based on their feedback

WoW made its reputation and early MMO dominance by being a game tens of millions could play and find their own leisure niche in. Anyone with a computer could subscribe and go about finding their happy place picking herbs or exploring or being fierce in the face of marauding gnolls or hanging out with friends in chat or venturing into raids and instances with their guild or a pickup group. And for the most part, players could pursue their pleasure on whatever schedule they wanted — there were weekend warriors, some who played an hour or two every couple of nights, some who played more intensely, some who played only a couple of days every few weeks.

The point is, these players were not penalized for whatever play schedule they adhered to. They could structure their game time to meet their personal goals. Starting as early as Mists, Blizz began to gate significant content behind time requirements. For example, to get certain profession recipes or gear, there were  fairly stringent rep gates, and you could only gain faction rep according to a rationed weekly and daily schedule. It is that last part that in my mind started the slide into “enforced game time”. Suddenly the weekend player — even if they were only interested in profession crafting and not end game raiding, for example — was at a significant disadvantage. No matter how many hours they might have to play on a weekend, they could not “catch up” with the gated dailies that gave them access to their game goals.

In WoD, we saw the garrison mechanism used as a similar hammer. Players had to fully develop their garrisons if they wanted to see the final patch zone (in spite of Blizz’s early fabrication that garrisons would be “completely voluntary”) and garrison development was limited by a resource that could only be earned in measured amounts, doled out according to weekly and daily activity rations. Garrison development was even further impacted by completion of time-bounded quests in the mini game of champions and ships.

Legion, of course, has seen the exponential growth of game mechanisms designed to penalize the non-regular player. I won’t detail them here, as I have written extensively about them for the past year, but they include the chase for AP, the legendary RNG system that rewards frequent play and penalizes infrequent, the RNG aspect of profession learning, and so forth.

Yeah I know, Get to the point, Fi! So here was my forehead-slapping revelation:

Blizz considers the future of the game to be wholly contingent on esports, not on mass appeal. 

Maybe some of you have taken this as a given and are not blown away by it as I was, but that realization finally put into context for me nearly all of the company’s heretofore-inexplicable expansion policies.

Blizz considers the future of the game — if it has a future — to be masses of people watching the elite play it, not so much playing it themselves. Oh sure, they can dabble in it if they’ve a mind to, but doing so will be akin to a weekend touch football game if you love the game of football — the real players get big bucks and you pay big bucks to watch them playing in the NFL.

This explains a lot.

For one thing, the increasing complexity. Professional athletes spend hours understanding and maximizing the nuances of their sport. They are fascinated by the small details of it, and they pride themselves on being able to shape those details to enhance their performance. Is it possible to not pay attention to the myriad of details and still play? Sure, but of course not at the pro level.

In pro sports, it is fairly important to have a dedicated fan base that understands the game from a player level, that knows they themselves do not have the wherewithal to compete at the top, nevertheless they are rabidly interested in how the pros can perform so perfectly. It will be the same with esports.

In WoW, if the goal is merely to keep the current loyal player base, it is not especially important to make the game accessible to masses of brand new players. Sure, some will be brought in by veterans, but in general it is not a high priority to simplify the game or to make its user interfaces more friendly or to gently lead players through quest lines, because most of the current player base already understands these processes.

The shift from subscription numbers as a metric of game success to Monthly Active Users is simply a way to measure how dedicated the fan player base is. Moreover, Blizz wants this loyal player base to stay engaged. This explains the catering to “vanilla” players, the emphasis on “how it used to be in the old days of leveling”.

The strategic goal of esports as game direction also explains the introduction of fast mini-competitions within the game, things like Mythic+ dungeons and Islands in BfA. Players can try these for themselves (have a quick touch football game at the park on Saturday), but the real Blizz emphasis will be on spectator versions of them carried out by the pros.

If you are trying to build an esports fan base to cheer for pro teams engaging in end game activities, then another thing you have to do is ensure every player who reaches level is funneled into those pro-friendly end game activities. Can’t have a whole group of leveled players who care nothing about the core end game activities, who have interest and experience only in crafting or gathering or whatever. So the answer is to force even these players into at least a passing familiarity with dungeons and raids and gearing up and soon Island scenarios.

Last, if you believe the future of the game involves people watching the pros play it, then of course you structure it to favor that aspect. This explains Blizz’s catering to the less than 1% of elite players and world-first guilds. It explains why they do not for the most part allow casual players to be early shapers of a new expansion. It even somewhat explains why they seem to abandon some classes and specs every expansion — if the pro players consider the spec not worthy of serious play, then there is no need to focus any more resources on it. The game is no longer being designed for casual players, except insofar as to give them a taste of what real pro play involves. 

So, yeah, I know — I have veered rather deeply into tinfoil hat territory here. And yes, it may be time for my meds. But think about it and apply Occam’s Razor or lex parsimoniae or any of the standard problem-solving paradigms.

If it is a far-fetched explanation, it is at least a simple one requiring few assumptions.

What do corporate goals mean for WoW?

We recently got the public Q4 2017 report from Activision Blizzard (ATVI), along with the investors’ conference call transcript. The actual report, unless you are a real accounting geek or investor, is pretty dry reading (okay, it is dead boring), but the conference call is often interesting because you can get some excellent ideas of priorities for ATVI and then use some deductive reasoning to gather pretty decent insights into what is going on in WoW and more importantly what the future may hold for the game.

Usually the main content of the conference call is the various CEO’s and financial execs touting how great they did and what they are “excited about” for the immediate future, followed by a couple of questions from the investors. The Q4 2017 transcript went a bit lighter on the canned presentations and included a few more investor questions. Here are some notable quotes from the transcript (lightly edited for clarity), along with my observations:

Bobby Kotick (ATVI CEO): Blizzard delivered their highest operating income ever for year with no major game releases.

Spencer Neumann (ATVI CFO): Blizzard also delivered a $2.1 billion of revenue and $712 million of operating income. Blizzard generated record results for the year with no major game release, fueled by a steady stream of content and events across their franchises, in particular Overwatch, Hearthstone and World of Warcraft. Revenue, operating income and segment operating income margin were down year-over-year as expected given the difficult comps to last year’s World of Warcraft expansion and Overwatch release. We did see some incremental margin compression in Q4, primarily due to additional marketing initiatives. Nonetheless, with 33% full-year OI margins, the team did a nice job delivering the core business while investing in key growth initiatives across the Overwatch League, mobile incubation and MLG network.

What we see here is the CFO doing a bit of reality-speak to amplify the CEO’s comment. Kotick said that Blizz is doing fine, considering that there were no major new releases in 2017. Neumann basically went on to say Blizz actually did worse in 2017 than they had in 2016, but there are reasons for it. Plus, Blizz is still making a profit.

What can we take from this? My opinion, only, of course, but Blizz is still hampered by the cyclical nature of its games. Without major new releases in its franchises, it struggles to compete financially with other elements of ATVI. Pushing constant new “content” (like we have seen in Legion) helps in the off years, but it cannot begin to match the revenue generated by new releases.

This in no way means Blizz is going away, nor does it portend the imminent demise of WoW, but one thing it means is we can expect to see a continuation of what many of us perceive as “enforced grinding” in expansions from now on.

There’s also this —

Amrita Ahuja (ATVI Senior Vice President of Investor Relations): Starting this quarter, we are introducing a new operating metric, net bookings. Net bookings is defined as the net amount of products and services sold digitally or sold-in physically in the period and is equal to revenues plus the impacts from deferrals.

Cut out the accounting babble, and we see that Blizz will now have a separate quarterly reporting category called “net bookings”, where they will be accountable for “goods and services” they sell. They have always been accountable for this, of course, but the numbers were all kind of rolled up into other reporting vehicles. Now, though, it will be a big glaring number that can be held up in direct comparison to other corporate entities like King.

Remember the turn WoW took when ATVI imposed the “Monthly Active User” reporting metric? The game started a long slide into “enforced grinding” — everything became RNG to encourage the “just one more nickel” Las Vegas gambler approach to gear, Legion brought us artifact weapons and the never-ending chase for AP, professions became months-long slogs to max out, leveling new characters became longer by about 33%, and so forth. Again just my opinion, but the introduction of MAU as a reportable metric was a significant factor in bringing the game emphasis redirection we saw in Legion.

So how might the introduction of “net bookings” change the game? Certainly there are some obvious possibilities, like pushing Blizz store sales (can you say, “Purchased character boost”?) and Blizzcon virtual tickets. There are also some less direct avenues, such as really hyping spectator participation for M+ dungeon competitions — so far, this is “free”, but of course everyone is subjected to advertising, which in turn inevitably results in revenue in one way or another. Not to mention, how long these events will remain free probably depends on how popular they become.

But there was another somewhat ominous thread during the conference call.

Spencer Neumann (ATVI CFO): We expect in-game revenues to be a primary driver of our growth for both the top and bottom line. Coming off a record year in 2017, we expect in-game net bookings to grow by a double-digit percentage in 2018 as we continue to innovate and deliver more engaging content to our players.

We expect Blizzard to grow year-over-year with the release of World of Warcraft’s Battle for Azeroth this summer. I am glad to say the presales for Azeroth kicked off last week and are off to an encouraging start. In addition, Blizzard has exciting plans for live ops and additional in-game content across franchises, including Hearthstone’s three expansions in 2018 and Overwatch’s in-game events.

At this point, I am likely veering into some tinfoil hat theories, but here’s a trend I am seeing:

  • Just before Legion went live, ATVI imposed the MAU metric on all its companies, including even the subscription services like WoW. This never made sense to me, since if players are sending the company a set number of $$ every month, who cares how many hours they play, or indeed if they don’t play at all?
  • Now that there are established MAU baselines for all ATVI games (including WoW), there is a corporate push to maximize “in-game” sales and services. Presumably, this push came about because of some math projecting new revenue from expected average active player response in that area. And the first part of the above quote tells me that ATVI is really going to lean on their companies to meet their expected “in-game net bookings” goal for 2018.
  • Blizz has thus far done a good job of keeping extraneous commercialization out of WoW. They have prided themselves on their principle that the game is a not “pay to play” genre, and they deserve credit for that. But I am wondering if they will be able to hold the line in the face of what is clearly a corporate push to sell sell sell? Will we see things like in-game advertising? Rare in-game mounts that players have been grinding for years for sale in the store? Special-skinned hunter pets for sale?

There might be zero WoW fallout from the push for in-game revenues, but I am going to remain watchful on this one.

Last, a couple of  miscellaneous interesting quotes (emphasis mine):

Blizzard finished the year with 40 million monthly active users, continuing a sixth quarter streak of 40 million monthly active users or more.

I am not sure I have had a baseline number like this for Blizz before — it would be nice to know what that number is specifically for WoW. (Also, if the MAU had dropped to 1 million, would we have had a comment like “Blizzard finished the year with 1 million monthly active users, continuing a sixth quarter streak of 1 million monthly active users or more”?)

Hearthstone’s monthly active users increased year-over-year this quarter as players enjoyed the latest expansion, Kobolds and Catacombs and the introduction of new free content. While net bookings did not match the prior expansion’s record performance, players did log more play time, which brings me to our second strategic pillar, deepening the engagement. For Activision Blizzard and King overall, daily time spent per user was over 50 minutes for the second quarter in a row, placing us on par with Facebook’s time per day across Facebook, Instagram and Messenger. Now, that 50 minutes per day is just the time spent in our games; it does not include the growing popularity of watching our games on other online platforms.

Some day we will look back at Legion as the good old days, when “enforced grinding” was just getting started…

Blizzard will also start to see the benefit of its investment initiatives, as we expect the Overwatch League to be profitable in 2018, its first full year of operations.

I don’t play Overwatch, but I guess all of Blizz’s hype on it as such a major franchise led me to believe it must be a money-maker for them. Apparently not yet.

And, though I am not going to go into this in detail, the conference call really hyped ATVI’s “all in” stance on esports. There is no doubt they see esports as one day rather soon being as big and as all-encompassing as the NFL or any of the top soccer leagues, with screaming fans and godlike heroes and everything else that goes along with it.

And with all that, my head hurts. I believe a weekend is in order. See you on the other side.

Activision Blizzard earnings and what it means for WoW

Activision-Blizzard (ATVI) published its Q2 2017 earnings report a couple of weeks ago. I usually write about these reports, but decided not to write about this one when it came out. However, MMO-C — I guess because it is a slow news season for WoW — wrote up a little summary about it today, so I will make a couple of comments. The quotes below are from the transcript of the conference call among ATVI executives published on August 3rd.

Esports. I do not follow esports, so I am rather constantly amazed at the worldwide interest in them, and more specifically in ATVI’s gigantic investment in them. They really believe — possibly with total justification — that the company is poised to become the NFL of esports. The thing that caught my eye over this in the Q2 report is this comment from Bobby Kotick, CEO of ATVI (emphasis mine):

We also announced the first team sales for the Overwatch League, the first major global city-based professional esports league. We have the very best teams with the very best resources dedicated to celebrating and rewarding the world’s best professional Overwatch players.

Overwatch, with more than 30 million players has captured imaginations and driven strong global engagement. We organized our league around major cities, taking a proven model from competition in traditional sports. Our announced team owners and their locations, New England, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, San Francisco, Shanghai and Seoul and the many more we expect to announce, represent the very best in esports and traditional sports.

Actually, possibly my comparison to the NFL was a tad too limiting. ATVI believes they are poised to become as big as, or bigger, than the biggest traditional sports franchises worldwide, whatever the local big money sport may be.

I point this out not to make any judgement on the viability of esports now or in the future, but rather as seed material for a little thought exercise. Imagine for a moment that ATVI’s vision comes true. Imagine a system of colleges and universities fielding Overwatch teams not only as money-makers for the institution but as a pipeline of promising players to the professional franchises in the major cities. Imagine an annual player draft with teams competing for college stars, offering big money and professional perks. Imagine an established Overwatch pro season, with TV stations vying for broadcast rights. Imagine the endorsements and the advertising and the spinoff merchandise. Imagine a playoff season and the hype around a final championship game.

Far-fetched? Yeah, probably, at least for the immediate future. But now think about World of Warcraft, and maybe you can see how very tiny is when fit into the strategic thinking of ATVI. I am not saying its demise is imminent, but it clearly is becoming more and more a niche market for ATVI and indeed even for Blizzard. It was the game that launched Blizzard into years-long dominance of the MMO genre, and it still makes significant money for them and for ATVI, but it is puny when compared to the esports dreams of the company.

ATVI also clearly sees the continuing move away from desktop computing, towards tablets and notebooks/game platforms and mobile mini-games, and they are poised to take advantage of it for all their franchises. Hearthstone proved to them the viability of WoW mobile spinoffs. The acquisition of King a few years ago has not yet had a noticeable impact on ATVI, but the Q2 report is enthusiastic about the “advertising potential” King brings to all ATVI business lines.

Bottom line here: WoW is not dead, but we should be prepared for a lot of wrenching changes in the not-too distant future.

What can the Q2 report tell us about the nature of WoW going forward?

  • Blizzard’s Monthly Active User (MAU) and D(aily)AU metrics were at an all-time high. The fact that ATVI continues to crow about MAUs can mean only one thing for WoW players going forward into the next expansion: the business model henceforth will be feature endless grinds on the same pattern as AP for artifacts in Legion. The vehicle for such grinds may change from expansion to expansion, but make no mistake there will be such a mechanism.
  • The Blizzard app is popular among players, and it dovetails nicely with ATVI’s focus on mobile apps as a significant part of their future plans. I think what this means for WoW going forward is that we can expect not only a continuation but possibly an increase in WoW’s mini-games (like garrisons and order halls), because these lend themselves to use of a mobile app.
  • In order to be a part of the burgeoning esports venture, WoW will continue to feature short competitive spectator-friendly pieces of the game, such as Legion’s Mythic+ dungeons. What effect this will have on the ordinary player’s game experience is anyone’s guess. We have already seen Blizz make general policy and adjust mechanics based on World First raiding guilds, though, so there is precedent for tailoring parts of the game for elite rather than ordinary players.
  • WoW’s tentative steps into integrating social media into the game (Twitter and Facebook) have not been roaring successes, but ATVI’s investment in King and their continuing development of it suggests they will keep trying. I do not expect Blizz to be so crass as to inject advertising into WoW directly, but I do expect them to try and integrate some social media aspect that will in turn generate advertising revenues. They just have not found the right vehicle yet.
  • Blizzard has had wild success with Hearthstone and Overwatch, so we can expect them to devote significant R&D resources to coming up with more such hits. I fully expect that to mean WoW will suffer in allocation of development resources. What that means for the game, I think, is that we will see more and more recycled content — perhaps more “classic” dungeons revisited, more reuse of artwork and graphics like Broken Shore/Argus, more recolored mounts and armor, more “piling on” of existing boss mechanics rather than coming up with new ones, etc. It may also mean Blizz will seek to save money by outsourcing seasonal-type piecework, such as music for a new expansion. (As we saw with the recent departure of Russell Brower.)

It’s good news that ATVI is making more money. We all want them to be successful. However, the nature of their success as well as their strategic vision has some definite impact on World of Warcraft.

Housecleaning

Lately it has been challenging for me to come up with decent topics to write about in this blog. (Read the one from Wednesday and you will say something like “That’s for sure!”) We are pretty deep into summer game mode, I suppose — Patch 7.2.5 is old news, and 7.3 is months away. People are spending more of their leisure time in pursuits other than WoW, and I suspect a lot of Blizz devs are off on vacation or at least in a vacation mindset. This is a good thing, and I love summer, but it does make it tough to remain creative and thoughtful on a steady basis.

Thus, today I’ll do some housekeeping and clear out a few unrelated — and mostly undeveloped — topics that have been rattling around in my drafts folder.

Group finder for world quests/bosses. This is one of the best quality of life improvements Blizz has made in Legion, in my opinion. Except for the weekly world boss, I don’t often use it on my hunter because I can solo nearly everything, but I use it a lot on my alts, especially my squishier ones. I love that it is so easy, just hit a button on the quest tracker and you are good to go. The groups form quickly, do their thing, then disband immediately. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. The only improvement I might suggest is that there be a clearer labeling of PvP and PvE realms, but that is minor. Good job, Blizz.

Argus innovations. As a disclaimer, I have not yet logged on to the PTR, so honestly I am writing in complete ignorance, but when has that ever stopped me? I am hoping to log on sometime this weekend, but meanwhile, based entirely on 7.3 notes, I have a couple of questions.

  • Does the concept of portals put players into even more restrictive cattle-chute type play? Will it compartmentalize new areas in such a way as to preclude meaningful exploration and — Blizz’s favorite word — “immersion”? Are the Argus portals a precursor to the main mode of transportation in the next expansion?
  • Does the lack of flying on Argus portend anything more sinister for the future of flying, or is Argus just a Timeless Isle kind of zone?
  • Will the requirement to complete quest lines in order to unlock new portalled mini-zones become yet another endless grind, all in the name of “content”? Will those quest lines themselves become as onerous as the profession ones are now, especially for alts?

Will we ever be free of garrisons? In WoD, a significant number of players (at least the active ones) expressed hatred of garrisons, almost from the start. The backlash was strong, yet Blizz responded by doubling down on them as WoD progressed. They repeatedly lied to us about the role of garrisons, at first saying they would be completely optional, then saying everyone had to have one but only the basic level, then requiring an advanced level garrison in order to experience the new Tanaan Jungle content.

And then, given this very strongly expressed player dislike of garrisons, Blizz slightly repackaged them as class halls for Legion — pretty much removing the WoD perks and leaving the crap parts. Each patch has introduced extensions to them, and apparently there will be more such extensions in 7.3.

I would love to see an absolute end to this concept in the next expansion, but I am not hopeful. Someone at Blizz loves them, and I predict they will continue to be crammed down our throats. And, even though they appear to be the perfect technical mechanism for something like player housing or guild halls, Blizz will never bow to these popular requests. We will continue to have the worst of all worlds.

Monetization of WoW PvE. A few days ago Blizz announced a Mythic Dungeon Invitational. This is an open competition for teams to go through a series of gates to be able to compete publicly for prize money by achieving top speeds on a Mythic+ dungeon. Ultimately the winning team will receive $50,000, and other finalists will share lesser amounts of prize money. Oh, and of course the races will be covered on Twitch for esports fans to follow.

We’ve all known this kind of competition was coming, it was only a matter of time before Blizz tried to capitalize on more than the PvP aspects of WoW as a spectator sport. And honestly, the handwriting was on the wall when they introduced the whole Mythic+ idea in Legion.

I am not sure I have any strong feelings one way or another about this. I am not fundamentally opposed to the whole esports phenomenon — it’s not really so different from any other spectator sport when you come down to it. It holds zero interest for me, but I can see where others might enjoy it.

The part that gives me pause is how it might affect the game I love to play. I say this because of a conversation we had last night in raid. Someone picked up a really awesome piece of gear using a bonus roll, but they could not use it. Of course, since it had been a bonus roll, they could not offer it up to the others on the team who could absolutely have used it, and they expressed frustration about this seemingly arbitrary rule. The reason Blizz has given for this rule is that “some” teams might abuse it and require everyone to use up bonus rolls in order to gear up others.

The thing is, the only teams likely to engage in this kind of behavior are elite teams who gear up their rosters through the (somewhat gray area) method of split runs. No normal guild team engages in this kind of activity. So basically Blizz has implemented a rule that prevents abuse by less than 1% of the player base, and the other 99% are disadvantaged because of it.

This is the kind of thing I worry about happening more often as a result of expanding professional competition in the form of the game I play. People competing for real money will inevitably push the envelope as much as possible in that pursuit. Blizz’s response to such pushing has often been to apply a bandaid rule designed to prevent the specific perceived infraction, regardless of the consequences to the vast majority of players who would never even consider such action.

And with that, my drafts folder is clean, and it is time for the weekend to begin. See you on the other side of it.

Oh, and Happy Bastille Day.

 

Time and the bottom line

Activision Blizzard conducted its public Q1 2017 Earnings Call yesterday. For those of you unfamiliar with this quarterly ritual, it is a conference call conducted to inform ATVI stockholders of the company’s financial status. The company being traded publicly, the transcript of the call is published for anyone when cares to read it, and in fact if you really are into masochism, you can register with ATVI in advance and sign up to be on the call (in theory, that is — I have never tried this, can’t imagine why I would actually). This conference call accompanies the public release of the financial report for the quarter. I am not even going to give links to these things — you can easily find them if you search, and honestly they are very dry and dull. There is, however, a quick and dirty summary on MMO-C if you care to read it.

There was not much in the latest report/call that had to do with WoW. In fact, there hasn’t been much for a few quarters now, usually only a brief mention of a new expansion or some comment about Monthly Active Users or Daily Active Users. That in itself is sometimes eye-opening to WoW players, because it underscores the undeniable fact that WoW is no longer the flagship it once was, it really is a minor part of the growing ATVI empire. In the big corporate picture, you definitely get the impression that WoW is a bit of a dinosaur — it is still a revenue producer, but it is does not seem to be part of ATVI’s vision for the future of gaming.

There were one or two points that I picked up on in the report, though. The first was the opening statement by Bobby Kotick, CEO of ATVI. You can sum it up in one word: esports. A partial quote:

One of our big priorities is to unlock the full potential of professional esports by opening the sale of teams and media rights of our leagues. Over the years, we’ve become a leader in creating world class competitive experiences, sustainable franchises that engage hundreds of millions of people around the world, through gameplay competition and connecting players and communities. This success is driven by our ability to tap into the timeless power of communities, anchored through organized competition.

The esports audience includes some of the hardest to reach and most sought-after demographics for marketers and advertisers, with the share of millennials two to three times higher than any of the big four U.S. sports.

We’re also going to combine delivery of our spectator content with unique advertising opportunities that includes the ability for advertisers to have better targeting and analytics, much more so than what you would see in traditional forms of broadcast advertising today. And with over 400 million MAUs and extremely high levels of engagement, our potential to generate meaningful advertising revenue is substantial.

Of course, it is not news that ATVI is betting heavily on esports. And no one should be surprised that the WoW franchise plays only a tiny part in that expansion — it is really focused on ATVI’s other, newer, games. What did strike me, though, is the very strong implication that ATVI is more than willing to use its entire stable of games — along with the very considerable and detailed data it collects on player activities and preferences — to “generate meaningful advertising revenue.” I confess I do not really know what that means, but it does tend to give me an itchy feeling between my shoulder blades now if I decide to click on the in-game Blizzard shop, or if I routinely check the Mac technical forum on the Blizz web site. Nothing illegal or even necessarily immoral about this, and it certainly is a widespread practice any time you use the Internet, it’s just that I had previously not considered it as part of WoW. Yeah, I know that is naive, but still Kotick’s comment got my attention. Are we on the path to becoming less valuable as customers and more valuable as ATVI mass data products?

The other major point I took from the report were a couple of related comments.

This, from ATVI COO Thomas Tippi:

Blizzard continues to see strong engagement from its players with time spent increasing by a double digit percentage year-over-year to a new Q1 record.

Blizzard’s strategy to release content and feature updates more regularly in World of Warcraft has been paying off with time spent up year-over-year, and with overall performance ahead of the prior expansion.

And this, from Blizzard CEO Michael Morhaime:

So, yeah, this year for Blizzard represents a new type of pipeline, one that’s not necessarily based on full game launches, but instead on delivering new content updates for our games. This quarter, we have meaningful new content for every franchise in our portfolio. In fact, a few weeks ago we set a new DAU record on the back of these new content updates. This reflects the evolution of our business from focusing primarily on full game releases to also providing a consistent stream of content for our players. Even without any full game launches this year, we’re continuing to add to the depths of our games to serve a very highly engaged community with more content across our portfolio than we ever have before.

Anyone who thinks the grindy aspects of Legion is just an expansion peculiarity needs to think again. It is, in fact the plan for the foreseeable future. We can expect the next expansion to stretch out professions, leveling, gearing up, achievements — every activity in the game — even more than Legion does. Why? Because time spent in the game is the metric for game success in ATVI.

Is this tactic really “content”? Who knows? The fact is that whatever it is, it has succeeded — at least so far — in evening out WoW player engagement. Whether you like or hate Legion or are somewhere in between, it seems to have kept more players  logging in further into the expansion than previously. Legion’s strategy seems to be a financial success, as measured by MAU/DAU. It is hard to argue with that. And while it can seem grindy — hell, it is grindy —  it is also fun, certainly to those of us actively playing.

Still, there is this stubborn, contrary part of me that feels manipulated and used. It’s the same feeling you get when you suddenly realize someone is taking advantage of you. I feel like Blizz is pushing my loyalty to the game so as to get better quarterly numbers. Yeah, I know that is why they are in business, but this feels different somehow.

It’s like this: What if movie theaters suddenly changed their business plan to measure success by how long movie patron cars remained in the parking lot? So once you got to the theater, there were deliberate setups that ensured long lines for tickets, for popcorn, for the bathrooms, to get to your seat. They added a gift shop you had to pass through in order to get to the seating area. They tripled or quadrupled all the pre-movie ads and trailers and trivia games. They added several intermissions to every movie. They gave you a coupon of some sort if you stayed after the movie was over to complete a customer feedback survey. And so forth. How would you feel about your movie experience? Chances are, if you really wanted to see the movie in a theater, you would still go, but you would not consider most of the experience to be happy. Some would undoubtedly love all the new “content”, but many others would remember when they used to be able to do the movie experience in 3 hours, but now it took 5 or 6, and they would not be pleased about it.

I don’t have any grand conclusions about all this. It was, after all, just a financial report. Still, it did give us a couple of insights into what the future may hold.

Speaking of which, my future includes a weekend. Weather weenies tell us it will be cool and rainy in my part of Virginia — perfect for staying warm and dry inside and playing WoW or watching a movie.

Cheats and chiselers and lines not to be crossed

Blizzard just announced that they had “taken action” against some players who were accepting real world currency for in-game assistance, such as carrying players for raid clears. You can read the Blue Post here, courtesy of MMO-C.

This is absolutely reasonable action from Blizz. The activities were clear violations of the Terms of Service agreement, and some forum posters claimed it was getting out of hand — blatant advertisements abounded. I wouldn’t know about that, I tend to be quite naive about these matters. Still, there is a line between the in-game economy and the real world one, at least as far as players are concerned. Blizz went to some pains to point out that raid carries for gold, for example, are perfectly legitimate. It is just when actual rent-spendable money enters in that it becomes illegitimate.

In-game gold versus real-world money is a line most of us can understand, but I wonder if Blizz itself has not blurred that distinction a bit with their introduction of the token. By becoming their own gold seller, they have legitimized a direct connection between real world money and in-game gold. If you have the money, you can pretty much amass as much gold as you want in the game. Yes, you have limits placed on you in terms of how many tokens you can buy over a period of time, but if someone is patient and well-off, they can easily max out gold on every character on every account.

Not that having millions and millions of gold gets you much in the game nowadays, beyond a certain Scrooge McDuck feeling of wallowing in wealth. The reason Blizz’s gold selling has not become pay-for-play is that they have severely curtailed the number of game-enhancing buyable items available. In WoD, for example, you could buy competitive high-level crafted gear, but you were limited to equipping just three such items, thereby ensuring players with a lot of gold could not immediately outfit themselves with raid-level gear. In Legion, Blizz allows unlimited pieces of crafted gear to be equipped, but they prohibit selling (thus, buying) such gear above level 815. It can only be upgraded if it is soulbound — again, prohibiting wealthy players from easily (if expensively) outfitting themselves with high level gear.

Another thing the token has done is give everyone a quantitative way to value in-game items and activities. In the U.S., one token currently buys you approximately 90k gold, and it costs $20. Thus, if for example a guild is selling Nighthold clears for 200k gold (I have no clue if this is the going rate or not), a player contemplating buying the service can know that this means the true cost to them is $30-$40. (If the player is an in-game buyer of tokens as a way to pay for their subscription, then the cost is approximately $30, or two months’ play time. If the player is an in-game seller of tokens for gold, then the cost is $40, or about two game store token purchases.)

Similarly, if a piece of BoE gear is priced at 100k gold, a player can evaluate whether or not it is worth one month’s play time ($15), or $20 of their hard-earned cash from the other perspective.

Still, even if the real world versus game world line has become a bit blurrier, it is still there, and it certainly does not justify crossing it.

Which leads me to the other aspect of Blizz’s announcement that gave me pause. Of note, they indicated some of the presumably-banned players were members of world-first guilds. This is troubling, for basically the same reason I discussed in a previous post: that is, it indicates a lack of high standards of integrity in these guilds. Let’s be honest — there is no way guild management could have been unaware of the money-grubbing actions of the members engaging in this illicit business. But for whatever reason, the guilds these players belong to chose to do nothing about it — the best you can say is they gave tacit approval, and the worst is that they may have shared in the profits.

I know I will get hate mail for this, but given the apparent high profile of some of the guilty ones, I think in this case a bit of naming and shaming might have been in order. If not the actual players involved, then maybe the guilds they belonged to. “Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time.” Maybe a little guild embarrassment would be good incentive to police their own members in future.

How much better it would have been if, when the guilds suspected some of their members were doing it, they issued explicit instructions to knock that shit off or face expulsion. At the very least, they might have taken a page from professional sports and benched the offending players for some amount of time or levied a fine of some sort. Any guild sanction would have demonstrated these professional guilds are serious about policing their own, serious about upholding high standards of behavior. Sadly, insofar as any of us knows, they did not.

I am certain I could play this game forever and not give a flying fig about world first achievements or the inner workings of the professional guilds. I do not care about the pseudo-celebrity players in them. But I do care that some of the players and guilds I encounter in the game seek to emulate those semi-pro players and their guilds. If their role models are cheats and chiselers, then that attitude may well spread down through the game, and it will take away from my enjoyment of it.

In a perfect world — or even an above-average one — guilds would be incensed if their members cheated, and they would take drastic and public action to ensure everyone knew such behavior was unacceptable, to uphold the rules of the game they play, indeed the game they are leaders in. But sadly this is not the case, and we are left with some guilds that get while the getting is good, knowing they need take no responsibility because Blizz will step in and police their players for them. Well, good for you, Blizz. And shame on you, all you who know who you are.

Of sledge hammers and responsibilities

Yesterday there was a long blue post in one of the forums, about Blizz’s decision to axe the use of all nameplate addons for friendly characters in raids. Basically, insofar as I can surmise, Blizz did this because they were annoyed that one of the world-first Mythic guilds used such an addon to gain an advantage defeating one of the Nighthold bosses, and Blizz thought this was No fair, no fair! (Stomp feet, pout, get angry red face.)

Up front, let me say that I really don’t give a flying fig about the specifics of this action — I don’t use friendly nameplates at all, much less in the chaotic visual salad that is raid bosses. So I doubt that this will have much if any direct effect on my game play, and I suspect it will have very little effect on 90% or more of regular players.

Still, I found Blizz’s action interesting. It struck me as a real overreaction, like using a sledge hammer to swat a fly. One top-level guild uses one specialized addon to help them defeat one boss in a Mythic instance of one raid tier, and Blizz considers the best solution is to ban the use of all similar addons for all raid teams for all bosses in all raids?

Why not tell the guild, “Sorry, we have determined that you used an exploit, and we warned everyone that use of exploits would nullify any achievements they were used for, so go back and try again.” Would this have angered the guild? Sure, and they might have rightfully claimed Blizz was being arbitrary and capricious, but hey welcome to the world the rest of us Great Unwashed live in. Blizz, of course, is loathe to annoy the top guilds because they are money-makers, so they tend to tiptoe around them asking if maybe they could get them another cup of tea or a crumpet or something. A world-first guild has to do something pretty heinous for Blizz to sanction them in any way. In this case, like the medieval use of whipping boys as stand-ins for misbehaving royalty, Blizz is punishing others for one incident of one guild’s naughtiness.

In any human endeavor, some will inevitably rise to the top, some will become leaders. As leaders they are treated differently than those they lead, they have certain privileges and are able to exercise certain powers either directly or indirectly. There are good reasons for this, and at any rate it is just the way of the world. Most people accept it.

But here’s the thing: With leadership comes responsibility. The more power you have, the more loathe you must be to exercise it. The more privileges you have, the less you must be willing to use them. The more adulation you receive, the more you must shun it. In all things, you must keep in mind the greater good of those you lead, not your own personal advancement. This is true whether you are the leader of a nation or an army general or the treasurer of your middle school student council. Or a top level guild in a computer game.

Which brings me — finally — to my point. Many players look to the achievements of top guilds, as well as to the game play of members of those guilds, as models worthy of emulation. And Blizz encourages this through their promotion of world first competitions and esports events. This makes these guilds and their members leaders in the gaming community. No, they don’t have the nuclear codes, and the world order will not collapse as a result of their decisions, but they are leaders nonetheless, whether or not they realize it.

Gaming “leaders” are a relatively new group on the world stage. The closest similar group are sports stars, both individuals and teams. As we all know, not all sports stars exercise their leadership in positive ways (well, to be honest, many world leaders do not, either), but maybe now is the time for gaming leaders to establish a pattern of high standards and excellent leadership in their games. Not just in achievements, but in the methods they use to get there.

I don’t honestly know if the nameplate addon usage was a shady exploit or not, for all I know it was perfectly legitimate to assume it was okay to use. But what I do wonder is if the guild that used it even thought about the precedent they were setting, or the possible ramifications to other players if their technique was determined to be unfair. Are these guilds setting a good example when they skirt the boundaries of normal play by using split runs and gear funneling in their pursuit of a world first achievement? Do they even consider the possibility that their actions may have an adverse effect on normal players? Again, I am not saying any of these procedures are wrong, I just think it is time for the top guilds to acknowledge their leadership position and to make decisions responsibly and in accordance with a consideration for the greater good of the game. If that means they reject certain actions as not setting a good example — even if it means they might lose an edge for the title of world first — then that is a positive sign for the future of world class gaming.

And now, let the weekend begin.