Token musings

Anyone who has relied on purchasing WoW tokens in the auction house as their way of paying for game time is well aware of their current high cost. When it was first introduced three years ago, the price in North America was pegged at 30,000 gold. It rapidly sank to around 18-20k and hovered at that level for well over a year. Now, the cost is over 200k. (It has always been significantly higher in European and Far East realms.) The real money cost, meanwhile  — $20 in the U.S. — has not changed. This means that the real exchange rate between dollars and WoW gold has gone from $1 for 1000g to $1 for 10,000g. In other words, the Blizz-sanctioned “price” of gold has taken a nosedive, while the gold price of game time has undergone huge inflation.

The token system also allows us to gauge the real world cost of gear and mats. For example, when tokens sold for 20,000 gold and the most expensive mount in the auction house was approximately 200,000 gold, that meant the mount cost about 10 tokens, or $200. Pretty pricey, imo, but the token system enables you to make those kinds of equivalencies and cost computations. These days if you buy a mount or piece of gear for a million gold, you can consider that to be a real world cost of about 5 tokens, or $100. Of course, not everyone actually pays the $100 directly, but still it gives you a way to make cost comparisons not bound by game economy inflation.

Which leads me to mention a rather remarkable forum exchange in the Blizz forums. Basically, the original poster posited that the cost of the token would soon skyrocket because Blizz just announced that it could be used to pay for the very popular Call of Duty game. I have no idea if that is an accurate prediction or not. The Blizz Blue poster pooh-poohs the idea, and he may also be right.

But what I found interesting about the forum exchange was the number of Blue posts it brought forth, and the insight we now have into the token mechanisms as a result of the posts. It is actually quite fascinating. (If you do not want to scroll through all the forum pages to find the Blue posts, they are extracted here on MMO-C.)

So what did we learn from them? Well, mainly Blizz reiterated that the token system is not completely market driven, that Blizz intervenes as they deem necessary to keep the token prices from fluctuating wildly and to keep the overall game gold economy on an even keel. We have known this from the start, of course, but now we have a tiny bit more insight into exactly how Blizz does it, and more importantly how they see the overall WoW economy.

Blizz’s underlying theme on the tokens is that they are a net zero in terms of the overall game gold supply. That is, within the game, a seller gains gold but only because a buyer transfers that gold to them. This is true, but as one forum poster pointed out, there is a cumulative effect on gold distribution within the game. The poster did not elaborate much on this theme, but I think it has some pretty noticeable consequences, mainly that the people with a lot of gold soon become the population that most controls which items in the economy are important for trade and which ones are not. What they will buy dictates what the cash-starved players will gather and craft, which in turn drives up those prices and drives down the prices on wealthy players’ undesirable items. Even if the token system is a net zero for gold supply, it eventually has a big effect on the economy.

Within the population of players, there are those who have real world money but not a lot of spare time, and there are those who have a lot of time but not a lot of real world money. The token system basically means that the “wealthy” players buy a month’s worth of game time for the cash-starved players, at a hefty 33%  increase for Blizz ($20 for a month’s game time as opposed to the standard $15). In return, the cash-starved players convert their time into gold that they give to the wealthy players. It is an ingenious system, and in principle, everyone wins.

However, over time and much like in actual capitalist economies, we start to see greater and greater imbalances in wealth distribution. People with real world cash get to the point where they have enough gold in the game, and they are less willing to plunk down $20 for a piddly 30-40k gold. Think about it — if you are sitting on, say, close to a million gold, is it worth it to you to spend $20 on what amounts to petty cash for you? No, you will hold onto your $20 until you feel you are getting some value for it. Meanwhile, since fewer moneybags are offering tokens for sale in the auction house, the asking price for the ones that are there will go up, even if Blizz has its thumb on the scale to prevent rapid escalation.

In general — and I have nothing but anecdotal evidence for this — I think there are more game-time buyers than there are $20-for-tokens buyers in the game. No matter how much time you may have to devote to playing WoW, eventually the gold cost of game time becomes too much. I know, for example, that several of my guildies who used to pay almost exclusively for their game time via tokens form the auction house have in the past couple of months unsubbed because they cannot keep up with earning 200k a month to pay for their subscription. And it seems that people who used to rather regularly plop down their credit card to Blizz in order to buy enough gold to make them happy in the game no longer are willing to do so. (Also, — as in real life — some people must spend every bit of gold as soon as they get it, while others feel like they always need more gold even if they have millions. Go figure.)

It is true there has been some significant overall inflation in the game. We saw a big jump in prices in WoD, when Blizz was pretty much handing out bags of gold through garrison missions, just to keep as many people playing as they could. The idea in Legion was for that kind of easy gold to go away, so as to tighten the gold supply and keep inflation in check. It absolutely did not happen. If anything, the inflation rate has increased in Legion. It is nothing, for example, for people to offer BoE gear in the auction house on my server for close to or even over 1 million gold. Even worthless crafted blue gear still goes for a couple thousand gold.

I suspect we are on the verge of, if not actual deflation, at least a temporary halt to more inflation. It is the end of the expansion. Pretty much no one will be buying gear at this point, whether expensive or cheap. Also, within a couple of weeks we will likely see a massive sell-off of all that leather, fish, ores, herbs stashes, etc. many people have been hoarding in their banks. It is all pretty worthless now anyway in terms of value for crafting. Even things like flasks and runes will be used less and less, driving down the cost of mats even more. Finally, some number of players who consider the game time tokens to be too costly will just unsubscribe for a couple of months rather than waste their gold on game time in a worn-out expansion.

So get those stacks of mats out of your bank now and throw them up for whatever gold you can get in the AH. You will be helping to stem the tide of inflation, and you might even make some gold. Whether it will be enough to finance your WoW habit for long depends on how gold-greedy the game’s wealthy players are. If we accept my premise that there are more players wanting the tokens from the AH than there are players — especially at the end of the expansion — willing to fork over real money for gold, then it seems likely the price of the tokens will remain very high. When BfA launches, there will be more players wanting the game tokens and also more players needing gold to buy expansive flasks and gear initially, so we will see what happens to the prices. But if there remains an imbalance in the number of players selling them and the number buying them, the bad news for many is that the gold price will continue to rise unless Blizz steps in and does some selective flooding of the token market to bring prices down.

As you can all tell, I am not an economist. But I know prices have gone up rather spectacularly in Legion, and I do not expect that trend to change in BfA. What that tells me is that it will become even more important for me to get my critical-profession alts up to speed as rapidly as possible, not necessarily to sell stuff, but as a gold-preserving measure allowing me to make my own stuff rather than deplete my gold stash paying for run-of the mill flasks and such.

And now my brain hurts. I need a beer. And a weekend. See you on the other side.

Argus – second week

I am going to reserve my final opinion on Patch 7.3 and the whole Argus zone until after next week, which will give us nearly all we are going to see with it, but I have to say so far I am pretty underwhelmed. Absent some hugely fun new thing next week, I cannot see myself spending much time there once my main has gotten the rep to be allowed to buy some of the quality of life gizmos which in my opinion we should have had from the start of the patch. I am mainly talking about:

  • Whistle. Blizz, in its most patronizing and stingy fashion, is allowing us to spend 500 gold to “upgrade” our Legion whistle so that it will work on Argus, but only after we have ground out revered with the Argussian Reach. And just to make sure we get a sufficient amount of misery, they have apparently gone to some pains to ensure it will take several weeks to gather that rep.

I am not at all trying to start another huge emotional player fight about flying versus no flying, but here’s the thing: It is hard to not get the impression that Blizz is doing everything they possibly can to stubbornly dig in their heels and force players into slogging about on the ground for as long as they can in as many places they can, through as many obstacles and mobs as they can manage.

It is as if, having let the flying toothpaste out of the tube years ago, they spend every resource possible trying to cram it back in. They clearly hate that players can fly in the game, and since their attempt to remove it from all future expansions died a horrible death back in WoD, they are in sullen teenager mode over it, kicking dirt and muttering and pouting every step of the way.

The fact of the matter is — no matter how Blizz may protest it is not the case — that designing zones for flying takes significantly more resources than designing them for ground travel. The WoW franchise is becoming less and less of a moneymaker for Blizz as well as for the larger corporate structure of Activision-Blizzard, and they are cutting more and more resources from it with every patch and expansion. I would honestly have more respect for them if they would just come out and admit this, rather than patronize us with the whole “immersion” excuse or the “we never have flying on an island” one.

I could possibly buy into the “We never allow flying in a patch zone expansion, look at Timeless Isle for example” argument, but the fact is that ever since Mists, Blizz has made us jump through more and longer hoops to get flying for every expansion. (In Mists, as soon as you hit max level you got flying capability.) Part of that strategy is coming home to roost with them on Argus, since completion of the Legion flying quest line for many players came very close to coinciding with the release of 7.3, giving these players the impression that they just got flying only to have Blizz yank it away from them immediately, and causing them — with some justification — to howl in the forums.

Blizz was not required to implement flying in the game in the first place, but they did so in order to increase their player base and ultimately their bottom line. It was a business decision that they thought was appropriate at the time. Fine. But I recall that some devs, like Greg Street, warned there would be no going back once it was done, and that is absolutely the case. They are stuck with it, try though they might to throw a continuous tantrum over it and push its implementation further and further away with every expansion.

Argus is not Timeless Isle, nor is it Quel’Danas. (And for the record, the late patch zone in WoD, Tanaan, allowed flying, just sayin’.) In my opinion, Blizz should have designed it with some relatively short path to flying, if for no other reason than they were such dicks about the quest line for Legion flying. But they didn’t, and it will not happen now. But for crying out loud, do they have to also be mega-dicks about the lousy whistle?

  • Permanent augment rune. As was done in Tanaan, there is a permanent augment rune available for purchase once you become exalted with Army of the Light. The good news is, it is a lot easier to get rep with this faction than with the Argussian Reach. The bad news is, even after you become exalted, the damned rune costs 45,000 gold.

Yeah, I know there has been huge inflation in the game. (I won’t indelicately point out Blizz caused this themselves when they had to resort to massive gold giveaways in WoD just to bribe people into playing. Okay, I will. Yet another bad decision they cannot now undo and so are making players suffer as a result.)

But 45,000 gold for a rune? The current Defiled Augment Rune goes for about 150 gold on my server, and I suspect as more people shell out for the permanent rune the temp one will take a real nosedive in value. You can buy literally hundreds of temp runes for 45,000 gold. (300 at 150g, 450 at 100g, 900 if it goes down to 50g which is I think likely.) And as far as I know, LFR will keep awarding them, so I do not anticipate a shortage.

I have plenty of gold, but something in me balks at spending 45k for a damn rune that I will use only for raids. It just smacks of price gouging, and I do not like it, nor do I see why Blizz has priced it that way PLUS gated it behind rep. It is a mean-spirited “gotcha” that feels like someone is going “BWAAHAHA! Let’s make the little boogers work their asses off for it! My bonus goes up the higher we can force our MAU!”

Let’s see, what else am I underwhelmed about on Argus so far? Oh yeah, invasions. I honestly do not see myself doing very many of these. So far, the loot has been non-existent for me, and to be honest they are not really that fun. I really enjoyed the ones at the end of WoD, loved flying off to a place in old Azeroth to join in with dozens of other players, liked that even low level alts could do them and get really decent gear, liked that they had a set pattern of beginning, middle and end phases. I think a lot of people really enjoyed them.

So why, given a winning design, did Blizz feel compelled to “improve” on them, pretty much destroying much of the fun in the process?

The Argus invasions feel like just another daily or weekly quest, with worse loot potential. And getting an alt attuned to even get to Argus is no quick or easy thing. I put a new alt into the zone over the weekend — it had already been on Broken Shore, so I was not starting from zero. Even so, it took me well over 2 hours (closer to 3) to jump through all the Argus hoops to get to invasions, not to mention opening up Mac’Aree. And this process, I assume, will get even longer once the Week 3 requirements kick in. With WoD invasions, I could just hop on a (flying!) mount and jump into the fray with an alt. And once in the invasion scenario, I could fly madly from point to point, taking part in areas of the scenario I thought I could be most useful in. It was great fun. Argus is just not.

And I am not even talking about the Greater Invasions. I have done several of the Greater ones, either for myself or to help out guildies, and they are insipid and boring (the Greater invasions, not the guildies…). They have less complex phase structure than the WoD ones, they are not fun to gallivant around in, the bosses are only tedious not interesting, and the loot really stinks. On top of that, you have to participate in smaller ones every week just to be able to do them, and more often than not fight your way through mobs just to get to the portal.

Nope. I’ll do a few initially, I am sure, but there is absolutely nothing in these that makes me want to spend more time on Argus. I thought the demon invasions in Legion were a poor shadow of the fun of the WoD invasions, and I think the Argus ones are even worse.

So I am waiting until the reset Tuesday, hoping there will finally be something that makes Argus a desirable location for me. But I have not seen anything so far, and honestly I am not especially optimistic.

Of greed and morality

A few days ago the Washington Post published an investigative piece about World of Warcraft. Well, it wasn’t exactly about that — it was about Internet Gaming Entertainment (IGE) and that company’s involvement in what we can most charitably call the gray market of internet gaming — gold farming, maxed-avatar selling, gear selling, etc. And of some interest, but I fear not surprise, the current chief advisor to the President of the United States, Steve Bannon — odious enabler of American Nazism and white supremacy — was one of the company’s executives.

Bannon saw so much opportunity in the prospect of game cheating that he persuaded Goldman Sachs and a consortium of Wall Street investment firms to invest $30 million in the company. Thirty. Million. Dollars. Eventually, IGE went out of business (I think — it is hard to track corporate restructuring and acquisitions and such), but in their heyday they did up to 8-10 million dollars of business per month.

The Post article was actually old news — similar shorter pieces have been appearing in online gaming news sources and blogs for a few months now — but it had some new details and gave a good picture of the seamier side of internet gaming. If you have some time, I recommend you give it a read.

At any rate, my point today is not that the President of the United States places faith and trust in a sleazy cheater, nor even that American economic policy is now being controlled by former employees of firms eager to invest in exploitation of game cheating. Rather, I would like to examine the notion of morality in the current world of internet gaming, using the IGE saga as a vehicle and Blizzard as one of the principal protagonists.

First, who were the winners and losers in the IGE morality play? Clearly, IGE was ultimately the loser — they went down in rather ignominious fashion, not with a bang but an impoverished, debt-ridden whimper. At their profit zenith, they had tried to buy off Blizzard and other game companies by offering them a share in the profits if the companies would legitimize IGE’s activities. As WoW represented a huge share of IGE’s business, Blizzard’s decision here was key and likely the deciding factor in IGE’s final demise. Blizzard said no, and in my eyes that makes them — and WoW players — the winner.

I don’t actually know why they refused, but I am giving them the benefit of the doubt and attributing it to a sort of foundational morality, a gut instinct that selling advantages in a game is just wrong. The real answer, of course, is more complicated, I suspect. A lot of factors persuaded Blizz to go after IGE with a vengeance rather than be co-opted.

One factor may have been that Blizz touted the game as one of merit not money, and they set up the subscription model to support this. Gaming companies need to make a profit, and selling subscriptions rather than virtual gear or gold was a good way to make money, especially in the early days of the game before spinoffs and endorsements and T-shirts and the like bring in much. To allow players to buy their way into max levels or high gear — without experiencing the game as intended — was contrary to everything Blizz had advertised about WoW.

A second factor was that the WoW player base was overwhelmingly against “pay to play”. Almost certainly, had Blizzard opted to throw in with IGE, they would have lost millions of players. Such a decision might have actually resulted in the destruction of the game. There is no doubt that this kind of strategic assessment played a part in Blizz’s final decision. They might have increased profits in the short term, but in the long run there was a good chance they would have caused the death of the game.

Other factors were subsidiary to the two I have just mentioned. For example, a sudden and significant influx of easy gold would likely have caused rampant inflation in the virtual economy of the game. Similarly, gear that players had to be proficient and persistent to obtain would lose its value if anyone could plunk down $20 and get the same stuff. Back when IGE was active, it was more rare to have a max level character than it is today, and the notion that anyone could purchase a max level with real money would have cheapened the accomplishment.

So I give Blizz props for turning IGE down, and for working to eradicate gold sellers and the like from the game. I don’t care what their reasons were, they did the right thing. And they continue to do the right thing today when they go after bots or when they punish players for selling services for real money. Yes, you can still cheat in WoW — the cheat sites are out there — but Blizz is continually refining its detection methods and imposing punishments, such that players really have to think twice about whether or not it is worth it in the end.

Now, of course one of the ways Blizz used to defeat gold sellers was to institute the WoW token — basically legitimizing the practice. I am still not sure if this was a good move, but it was undeniably smart business. Making it two-sided (turn real money into WoW gold and turn WoW gold into playing time) was genius and addressed two player markets — those who had time but not money and those who had money but not time. Additionally, Blizz controls the availability and price, so they can put brakes on undesirable results such as rampant inflation. As an added bonus, every player using gold to get play time has garnered a $20 per month subscription for Blizz rather than the standard $15 one. Genius. But I still think it was a minor backing off from one of the game’s founding principles.

The last thought I have on the whole IGE story is this. Internet gaming, even though it has been around for years, is still in its profit infancy. How the industry — players and spectators as well as developers and investors — deal with cheating will set the standard for the rest of its existence. Thus far Blizz has acted responsibly, I think, although they have been a bit easy on high-profile cheaters. Still, I believe they are on the right path. But the industry could go either way — it could go the route of professional wrestling or it could go the route of the NFL. There is big money in both, but one at least strives to be honest and competitive, and the other — not so much.

I am not so naive as to think greed is not a business motivator, but I am still naive enough to hope there is room for morality, too. For knowing and doing the right thing.

My crystal ball

Last night as we were tidying up some loose ends for guild achievements, our GM remarked that we only have two more Thursday night fun runs before Legion. I knew this, of course, I mean I know how calendars work and I can count, but that statement really got my attention. Suddenly all my plans for gearing up my DH, for finishing up some profession stuff, for final bank reorganizations, for setting up my Legion leveling transmog outfits (hey, I’m a little vain, ok, don’t judge) — all those things got brutally reduced to a couple of must-do priorities. It was like someone took a chainsaw to my to-do list. It was at once both shocking and liberating.

I think I have mentioned once or twenty times before in this blog that I am by nature and by training an extreme planner. Lists, spreadsheets, and flow charts are my life. (It drives my poor spouse crazy — we are kind of an ant-and-grasshopper couple — but luckily for me he is an easy-going and tolerant type, nods and mutters “Yes, dear” a lot.)

Anyway, my point is that even though I love planning and organizing, what I love more than that is the freedom of knowing there is no longer any time for planning, you got what you got, you are where you are. Your work is done, you know you’ve done all you can, and it’s time to enjoy things. Last night was that point for me, and now I am going to just sit back and enjoy the ride to Legion.

And what a ride it will be. How do I think the first couple of weeks of Legion will unfold? In a word, chaos.

  • The rollout will be terrible — by now it is a tradition with Blizz — technical issues and probable denial of service attacks are almost certain to bring the entire game to a halt, likely several times over the course of a week. Expect to play the game only sporadically during this time, expect to be frustrated, expect things not to work even when you manage to log in. Should it be different, should Blizz anticipate the huge load on servers, should they have already implemented solutions based on their months of stress testing, should they have foreseen the magnification of small problems into massive ones with scaling? Yes, but honestly I think they have made the decision that to do so is too hard and expensive and what the hell everything will normalize in a couple of weeks anyway. I half-suspect that somewhere along the line Ion Hazzikostas has opined in a staff meeting that such chaos is part of the fun™ of a new expansion.
  • Some players will suspiciously be able to produce crafted items and provide vast quantities of gathered mats within 24 hours of launch, and these will be outrageously priced in the auction house. Based on what we have seen in the beta just for some NPC-sold items, do not be shocked if you see AH items priced close to or over a million gold. Expect to see gear routinely priced in the hundreds of thousands. Within the first couple of days, there will also be BoE gear for sale from raid and world drops, and these could easily be some of the items priced in the million-gold range.
    • Unfortunately for the WoW economy, we are likely to see  repercussions from the WoD gold giveaway for quite some time in the game. Blizz opted to try and bribe players to stay active by handing out massive amounts of gold for garrison missions, and that decision will haunt all of us for quite a while. One result will be huge inflation in prices for goods.
    • The other result of the WoD gold giveaway is that there will be a distinct divide between the haves and the have-nots in the game. New players who did not have a chance to amass gold fortunes from WoD — or those not-new players who failed to save much — will be hard put to compete with wealthier players. New players, of course, can take advantage of higher prices to sell gathered mats and make more cash than previous new players could, and Blizz will make a few feeble attempts to remove some gold from the game, but there will be a noticeable division between rich and poor players in the game for a while — with a greater perceived gulf between them than we have seen in previous expansions. Whether this results in an ever-widening gulf as the rich get richer and the poor get comparatively poorer, or whether it eventually all evens out, remains to be seen.
  • Inevitably, a few overachievers will play nonstop until they reach 110, causing normal (and by “normal”, I mean “sane”) players to scratch their heads and wonder either “How?” or “Why?” Trust me when I say this — Legion will last for a minimum of three years, and I would not be surprised to see it go even beyond that by a few months. (In fact, I predict Legion will be the longest expansion in the history of the game.) Doing everything you want to do in the first month or even the first year will not be a winning strategy. This expansion will be a marathon, not a sprint.
  • In spite of comments to the contrary, Blizz will do some significant class and spec “balancing” in the first few months. All of it will be perceived as nerfs to one class or another. There are still just too many outliers for this not to happen.
    • What this means is that no one should make a decision on class or spec based on how it is performing now or even in the first couple of weeks of Legion. My best advice — to myself as much as to everyone else — is just find what you love to play, what you will have fun playing, and stick with it at least until the first major patch.
    • And yes, you might feel you have lost out if ultimately you decide to change and therefore basically have to start from scratch with a new artifact weapon, but in the long run you will be happier for playing what is fun. Look at me, I am sticking with a BM hunter, what could be sillier than that?

So, expect confusion, frustration, and chaos starting August 30. If you are someone who usually likes to take a couple days off work to enjoy a new expansion, think about waiting until Sep 7 or so to do it. Trust me, you will enjoy it more. And remember, Legion will be with us for a long time. Pace yourself. (I am mainly giving this advice to myself — and I hope I listen for a change — but it may give you some perspective as well.)

And on that lecturing note, let the weekend commence.