Where are the classic servers?

Approximately eight months ago Blizz announced that, in response to the constant whines of a small but vocal and persistent player group, they would be creating so-called “Classic” servers. The idea, of course, arose from the rogue “Vanilla” servers Blizz took down a couple of years ago. These were clear copyright infringements and thus illegal in most countries, but their demise called forth howls of anguish from the players devoted to them. Eventually, Blizz sat down with the criminal perpetrators of the most popular of these servers, and in theory got some ideas of just exactly what it was about them that attracted players, as well as some ideas of how to run and improve such servers. There was even — briefly — talk of Blizz licensing the servers to actually make them legal, but that idea died rather quickly for a lot of reasons.

Nevertheless, Blizz apparently listened to the players who thought they wanted to play only and always Vanilla, and last year announced they would be seriously working on establishing official Blizz “Classic” servers. Since then, the only evident activity has been the establishment of a forum where players can flame each other on what “Classic” actually means. And flame they do. While there are some wise and thoughtful posts scattered through the forum, much of it involves people screeching about their personal ideas of the meaning of “Classic”, and anyone who has a different idea is a ((fill in the blank with an epithet of your choice)).

I do think the forum was a good idea, and I hope Blizz has been able to find some points of player coalescence by sifting through the garbage. Certainly defining a “Classic” server  is the biggest job Blizz faces in this project. Most of the people who think they want the “Vanilla” experience really do not. They certainly do not want all the crashes, jagged graphics, and other technical challenges from the early days of the game. Many of them are not willing to return to a time without group finders, transmog, flying mounts, mount and pet tabs, account-bound items, heirlooms. Many are not willing to put up once again with rampant exploits and bugs, classes without the flexibility they have now,  small stack sizes, yada yada yada.

What people who cry for “Classic” servers really want is for Blizz to give them once again the wonder and joy they found in the game when they first started to play. Sadly, returning to some committee opinion of the original game will not give them that, because it’s not really the game mechanics that made them happy then, it was an entire milieu of who they were and who their friends were and what their life was like and a fascination with what was at the time a new and miraculous technology and game genre. None of those situations are things Blizz has any power to recreate, and I personally think Classic servers are doomed to failure.

Blizz has hinted the reason they have not announced any official progress for Classic servers is that they have had to do mundane but time-consuming things like hire an entire team. They have further hinted they may have an announcement about Classic servers at this year’s Blizzcon, but definitely they will have nothing to say on the subject until after the launch of BfA.

In some ways, Blizz adopting the idea of Classic servers is very similar to what they did with the Blizz token. Enough players to pay attention to were going to illicit gold sellers to pay real money for in game gold (or for the gear and mounts you can buy for gold). Blizz played whack-a-mole with these outfits for years before they decided to give players a legal way to do what they were clearly going to do anyway. Pretty much the same reasoning, I think, is going on with Classic servers. With the token idea, Blizz pretty much put the gold sellers out of business while at the same time a) giving players a way to buy gold with real money, b) giving cash-strapped players an alternate way to keep subscribing, and c) making a pretty penny for the company. Win-win-win solution! The question is, will Blizz be able to pull off a similar triple victory with Classic servers?

The one big elephant in the room with any discussion of Classic servers is, what do players do once they have reached the end game — whether that is level 50 or 60 or 70? What do they do once they have run all the top level dungeons and raids so many times they can do it blindfolded? Players on live now get bored and stop playing an expansion — even a “content heavy” one like Legion — 4-6 months before a new one. Will any player actually be content to hit a dead end in the game time after time, to know all they can do is keep leveling new characters and go through the same quests they have already done dozens of times, knowing there will never be anything else to do on that server? (Hint: not only no, but hell no.)

Clearly, Blizz will offer some kind of progression for Classic players, otherwise all their resource investment in catering to these people trying to recapture their youth will be a total waste. And Blizz is not in business to waste money.

What that progression may look like is anyone’s guess. Will Classic servers be an infinite loop of moving from 1.x to 3.x and back again? Doubtful. Will they be just an alternate way to level up a new character, then at level 60 or 70 or whatever the character can jump to a regular server? (Without paying the server change fee.) Will current max level characters at 110 or 120 be allowed to jump back in to Classic as a low level temporarily and then come back to reality when they get bored? Will Blizz keep adding new content to a “Classic” environment? I do not know, but I think it is a sure bet that there will be some kind of continual progression available to Classic servers.

I have been a bit snarky about players wanting — well, actually, demanding — Classic servers. That is probably because I can see the practical obstacles to implementing them, and because I think these players really have not thought through what they are asking. But even though I have less than zero desire to relive any part of my past — either IRL or in a game, either the good or the bad — I do understand the longing to return to a time when you were happy and had a wide-eyed wonder about a game and could, at almost any moment, gather with your friends and have a rollicking good time.

I hope Blizz can live up to such lofty expectations for these players. Maybe they have a great, innovative plan that will satisfy every group. But I think in the end the WoW Luddites will be disappointed. The game has moved on, and players either need to move with it or find a different leisure pastime.

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.

I am a game snob

With our guild raiding season over, my main hunter as geared as I care for her to be, alts mainly in end game status, and basically Legion on its way to the trash bin, I have been looking at some other MMOs to play as a diversion. (And to have a Plan B in the unlikely event WoW goes to that great bitbucket in the sky any time soon.) But I have not had much luck finding anything to hold my interest.

Here are the ones I have tried so far:

  • Final Fantasy (XIV)
  • Elder Scrolls Online
  • Wildstar
  • Lord of the Rings Online

Up front, I should say that I have not played any of them long enough to get much past the very early stages of character leveling, so that certainly colors my opinion. But also each of them has had some major (in my view) shortcoming that caused me to be unmotivated to stick with them to get to a later stage. The process has been interesting, insofar as it has allowed me to identify many of the factors that are important to me in a game.

First person shooter (which none of the above are). I simply cannot play FPS games, they feel claustrophobic to me. I am not sure why that is, but I think it has something to do with the technical interpretation of that point of view. Of course, we all go through real life with a first person view of the world, and nobody (well almost nobody) complains about that. But RL first person seems vastly different from MMO first person. I think it has something to do with the idea that in RL you have full body awareness — you can glance down and easily see your feet, you see your shoulders in your peripheral vision, you can at any time quickly glance at your hands, knees, arms, etc., and they are almost always more or less in your field of view even if you are not looking directly at them. But in FPS games, it is like you are trapped behind your eyes, kind of a disembodied floating presence above a weapon, unable to get any sense of anything but your immediate surroundings. To me, this is an impossible proposition.

This phenomenon is a known problem with FPS games, I should point out. Some companies are working on improving the experience. Until rather recently, technology dictated the way FPS had to be presented to the player, since any kind of dynamic full body awareness would be a killer to decent frame rates. As technology improves, though, we may start to see some progress in the FPS experience.

Artwork. Where to start with this one? Maybe scenery. I have concluded that I do not like scenery that is either too realistic or too cartoonish. I like it to be detailed, but if it actually looks like something I could see out of my window or on vacation to the mountains, it puts me off. On the other hand, if it looks like it came straight out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, I can’t deal with it either.

The stuff that is too realistic gives me a disconnected feeling. In my mind, I know I am indulging in a fantasy world, and to be continually surrounded by what looks like a real world environment is just too jarring to me. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I want to have an immersive experience, so the scenery has to be believable in the context of the game.

I have said before that I think Blizz’s artwork is the best around, and I stand by that statement. To me, it strikes exactly the correct Goldilocks point in terms of believability and fantasy. Most of that is due to the extreme detail in it — insects and small animals, water motion in rivers and oceans, rain/snow and clouds (including thunderstorms) from time to time, shifting blowing sands in desert areas along with wind sounds, and so forth. Yes, the flora in an area may tend towards pinks and purples instead of chlorophyll-based green, but Blizz has always made it believable with the detail you would expect if it were actually real.

None of the other games I have tried so far comes even close to this standard.

The other aspect of artwork is in character representation. Here again I am persnickety about striking a pleasing balance between too-real and too-cartoonish.  As with scenery, I do not want a character that looks like someone I could see walking down any street. I do not want to see realistic 5 o’clock shadow, grease stains on clothing and face, sweat, etc. Games are fantasies, and in my fantasies, these things are not welcome.

On the other hand, I do not want to see characters that look like Elmer Fudd. Also, I am not a fan of the anime cartoon style, and I think many MMOs use it far too frequently. Maybe it is my Western bias, but I just cannot identify with an anime avatar. When I play games that use this style, I feel disconnected from my character, as if it is a chess piece I am pushing around rather than some sort of fantasy personification. Again, to me this is where WoW strikes a good balance. I know there is a school of thought that WoW veers too far into cartoon land, but I don’t see that — to me it works.

Payment method. I’ve discovered this is more important to me than I thought it would be. I have always done the monthly or annual subscription in WoW, and it works well for me. I have never done game cards or bought the tokens, because when I want to play the game I want to play, not worry about how many days or minutes I might have before I have to find a way to add more time. I realize this is a privilege I enjoy because the $15 a month is no big deal for me, and for a lot of people it is an obstacle, so of course personal economic situation plays a role in what kind of game fee structure you prefer.

But I find I really dislike the games that offer you actual game advancement (gear, mounts or mount training, profession boosts, whatever) for real money outside the game. This is the usual “free-to-play” plan. I dislike it not so much for the money involved (it probably works out to the same as or less than the $15 a month I spend on WoW), as for the disruption in my fantasy. If I have to stop playing, go to some online store and hand over a credit card to continue playing with appropriate gear or talents or whatever, it just kind of destroys my whole mental illusion.

Also, I think there is a principle involved, one that Blizz has espoused for some time now, namely that success in the game should not depend on how deep your pockets are but on how well you compete. For the most part, they have held firm on this, and I hope they continue to do so. The one aberration, in my opinion, was the introduction of the WoW token, because in a sense people who buy the token to sell it for in-game gold in the auction house are paying real money for the advantage of being rich enough in game to afford anything they want. Still, I understand why Blizz did it — in addition to generating revenue it also greatly curtailed the influx of illicit gold sellers in the game. Luckily, thus far it has not been a slippery slope, and with the sole exception of the token everything you can buy in the Blizz store for WoW is cosmetic rather than imparting a game advantage.

Technology. Blizz has had its share of tech failures and challenges — server crashes, system overloads, DDoS attacks, extreme sharding, sporadic lag times, annoying disconnects, login queues, what have you — but for the most part if you have an adequate computer the game runs smoothly. That seems not to be true for some of the other games I have tried (LOTRO being the prime example) — they seem not to have allocated sufficient infrastructure to keep pace with the game’s technological demands. I like LOTRO the best of all the above games I tried, but I finally gave up when, night after night for two weeks, the game would slow to a jerky start-and-stop state such that movement became a slide show rather than an animation. It was fine during off-peak hours, but as soon as a player load came on it was miserable.

Anyway, none of the MMOs I have tried so far comes close to meeting my admittedly picky preferences. I am not done, there are a lot more to try (even with my Mac handicap). But my experiments so far have made me appreciate the continuing genius of WoW.

It’s refreshing to remind myself of that once in a while.

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.

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 grammar and tinfoil hats

Before I start this post, I have to share this one with you. Sometimes Blizz makes me break out in gales of laughter. I was reading through the latest blue post on the newest Patch 6.2 build, and came across this:

Item – Warlock T18 Destruction 4P Bonus Your Chaos Bolt has a 9% chance to not consume an Ember. a Ember.

This was the only change noted for destro lock new tier gear. Yeah, Blizz, way to go, nice job replacing correct grammar with incorrect grammar. Because, well, clearly tooltip grammar is the only problem with destro locks in this expansion.

Actually, if you think about it, this stupid incorrect change is emblematic of Blizz’s whole dev approach these days. First, they are focused on tiny details but completely oblivious to the big pictures. There are TONS of HUGE problems with destro locks, but here is some staffer going over tooltip grammar with a fine tooth comb.

Second, this staffer apparently has absolutely no idea how to correctly use English indefinite articles, but firmly believes that whatever way (s)he uses them is the correct way. No research, no cross checking, just “that’s not how I say it, so I’ll change it.” Sound familiar? Kind of like “That’s not how I like to play the game, so I’ll change it to make sure it is played my way.”

And third, where is the adult supervision? Someone who obviously has very little grasp of English is given the task of correcting tooltip grammar? What supervisor made that assignment? Makes you wonder about all the other “tweaks” we see in the patch notes, doesn’t it? Do the people making “class balance adjustments” have any idea what they are doing, and who if anyone is supervising their decisions?

Anyway, on to today’s real topic, which is, several of the bloggers I follow, not to mention Yours Truly, have posted tinfoil hat theories in the last few days. Check out The Grumpy Elf, Marathal at Rambling thoughts about WoW, alt:ernative chat. (Plus some large number of forum contributors, which come to think of it given the nature of forum “discussions” these days maybe we should just not acknowledge, as most of them are probably wearing theirs as they write about them.)

It could just be coincidence that far-out but maybe not so far-fetched theories are appearing seemingly at the same time. But I think there is a better, more obvious explanation: Blizz has given us so little to write about in this expansion and is so uncommunicative that about all anyone can do is speculate. And the more time you have to speculate, the wilder your theories get.

Except I am not sure these theories are so wild.

Put together the links I listed, add a dash of alt:ernative chat’s latest timeline speculation and some wacky guesses, and you could come up with this picture:

Blizz is in the process of slowly winding down the 10-year-old World of Warcraft, possibly as soon as 2017, but certainly by 2018. The widely-perceived failure of WoD highlighted some of the compelling reasons to do this — the complexity of maintaining aging code that grows vastly larger every year, the stress load on what is likely an outdated server and network structure, a story line that makes less and less sense with every expansion, and player base expectations that this technologically old game conform to modern game models. It just is becoming impossible to even maintain this structure, much less add to it.

Having decided on a timeline to shut the game down, Blizz is taking steps to maintain its cash flow while it creates the WoW replacement. And it needs to do so with a bare minimum of resources, because they are transitioning as many as possible to the new game.

One of the ways to maintain player base and thus cash flow is to roll out patches and a couple of expansions on the cheap. WoD is the first of these xpacs. There will likely be one more, but don’t expect it to be any better quality than WoD. Similarly, the patches are more cosmetic than engaging, featuring a few major bug fixes and some fluff toys, maybe some raid and instance reruns.

Another way to maintain cash flow is to increase the subscription price, but Blizz knows that to do so for the regular subscription would probably be a net revenue loss, due to people unsubbing. Enter the brilliant idea of the token — and for once I am not being sarcastic when I say that. It really was a stroke of genius. Blizz now gets a significant number of players to pay 33% more for a month’s worth of service, and by doing so using the auction house shuffle, they may actually not only increase the number of active players but also extend the timeline for keeping players.

The key to this cash cow, however, is making it attractive enough for the players who provide the hard cash, those who spend the real world currency to buy the tokens to put up for sale in the auction house. So Blizz does not let pure supply and demand dictate the gold value of tokens, because sooner or later the market would reach a state of equilibrium — most people who want to purchase “free” game time would have done so to the extent they want, and the gold value of the token would have gone so low that very few would think it worth the cash outlay. (Or the usual cash-payers would have sufficient gold to start buying game time tokens, compounding the problem!)

To stop this from happening, Blizz sets the prices for tokens in the auction house by using their own formula for maximizing their cash accrual. They tell everyone it is “based on” supply and demand to some extent, but that factor is in reality very minor.

Another way they prevent the equilibrium state from occurring is by enticing their cash buyers to immediately spend their newly-bought gold, not save it. (This is where Grumpy’s post fits in.)  If people only buy a couple of tokens and figure they are set for gold until the next expansion, Blizz’s new cash source dwindles to a mere trickle. Heck, there are probably also players out there who feel like they have no need to buy gold at all, since any BoEs or other shinies they might want are outrageously expensive. Enter Blizz’s enticement program, and suddenly if they only had about another 20k they could get That One Thing They Have Been Hankering For But Has Been Out of Reach Until Now, and for only $20 they could now have it.

You heard it here first, folks. By 2017 we will be talking seriously about the follow on to WoW. Meanwhile, get used to bargain-basement patches and expansions and to more Blizz schemes designed to part you from more and more of your cash.

My latest tinfoil hat theory

Since I usually write about my experiences in game, and since these days most of those experiences consist of garrison chores, out of boredom (or maybe the haze induced by my allergy meds) I decided to indulge my inner conspiracy theorist today. And anyway, since Blizz refuses to communicate with us in any meaningful way, wacko theories are about all we have to go on as explanations for most of their actions lately.

So here’s my latest tinfoil hat theory. It is about the WoW token and the secret Blizz machinations that they so blithely attribute to “supply and demand.” Mmmmmhmmm.

Take a look at the token’s value on each of the three regions it sells on. If you convert all the real money values into dollars, what you see is that North Americans buy tokens for $20, Europeans for $22, and Chinese for $5 (exchange rates at time of this writing, rounded off to nearest dollar). The Chinese model is not a subscription, rather a time card arrangement that allows — I think — 2700 minutes of game play, and the minutes last until they are used up, whether that is in one week or 6 months. At any rate, the amount and/or method of game play is irrelevant to my theory.

What we will look at is Blizz’s role as a gold seller. That is, how much gold will your dollars buy you? One glance at the regional graphs shows you there are vast differences. For example, just now the real world dollars spent on a token will buy North Americans 26,000 gold, Europeans 42,00 gold, and Chinese 66,000 gold. This works out to the rate of one dollar buying North Americans 1300 gold, Europeans 1900 gold, and Chinese 13,200 gold.

(On the flip side, of course, if you are buying game time with gold, it costs NA and Euro players much less than it does Chinese players. Coincidence? I think not!)

Well, you might say, that is because the Chinese demand for game time paid with in-game gold is far higher than in NA. And after all, Blizz has explained that they will set the rate based on supply and demand. I will counter with the observation that — absent any hard data from Blizz, what a surprise — one good way to gauge relative levels of supply and demand is by the wait time to sell a token. If Chinese demand for them is so vastly higher — on the order of a magnitude of 10 — than in NA or Europe, then they should sell roughly 10 times faster. Certainly the sell times for Chinese tokens should always be 30 minutes or less if the demand is so great relative to supply.

But no, what we see most often in the graphs is that the Chinese sell times are usually in line with the NA and European sell times.

If you have read any of the admittedly sparse studies on WoW gold (here’s one example), you know that since many gold farmers are Chinese, there is likely a huge amount of player gold sitting in that region. I suspect most of it is legitimate, too, as basically gold farmers are the sweatshop workers for gold sellers, making gold in game us what they do for a living. Even those who do not use illegal hacks or bots have learned how to grind out gold in the most efficient way.

The point is, there is almost certainly much, much more player gold sitting in China than in NA or Europe.

Similarly, although I do not have any scholarly sources to back this up, there is anecdotal support for the claim that European players average more gold than do NA players.

Now to the theory: Blizz pegs the cost of in-game tokens to an estimate of total player gold within the region. Supply and demand may be a factor, but if so it is a very minor one, affecting the token price (and thus the price of gold for the initial buyer) only within already-established upper and lower limits. That is, Blizz first establishes maximum and minimum allowable auction house prices for tokens for each region, then allows some fluctuations within those established limits, that it attributes to supply and demand forces. I suspect, for example, no matter how much demand there ever is for tokens in NA auction houses, they will never go above 35,000 gold. My wild-ass guess is that Blizz has established the NA token prices to be within 15k-35k. And they have established similar bounds for Europe and China, based on their estimate of how much player gold exists in those regions.

Any articles I have seen about player gold reserves — and there have been very few especially lately —  do not break anything down by region. Also, most of them rely on self-reporting by players who voluntarily respond to surveys. I have serious doubts about the validity of any survey thus conducted, especially if players are asked something like “What is the size of your gold stash?” No chance of exaggeration there, right? But what that means is that only Blizz has any idea what the amount of player gold is by region. We will likely never know.

And for that reason — complete ignorance of the facts — I stand by my conspiracy theory, indeed will defend it to the death, because that’s the tradition in these kinds of theories and who am I to change tradition?

OK, that’s it for today. If I have introduced a little more paranoia and wackiness into the world, then my work here is done.