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Friday, July 10, 2009

Blizzard's Games and Business Model

It's no secret that I'm a big Blizzard fan. I'm not the biggest, since I don't go to their fairs and generally don't buy any merchandise, but I love their games and gaming philosophy very much. I've played most of Blizzard's games: Lost Vikings, Warcraft I, Warcraft II, Diablo I, Diablo II, Warcraft III, StarCraft and now World of Warcraft. Since I started playing WoW a few years ago, other games have seemed lackluster and I've lost interest in them quickly.

I gotta give it to Blizzard. They've hit the jackpot with WoW and its business model. Blizzard didn't invent the subscription-based MMORPG but they are unique in having created such an incredibly riveting and addictive game that people are willing to shell out 15 bucks a month to play it.

The cunning part about WoW's business model is the futility of pirating this game. Sure, there are private servers out there but those are very far removed from the real experience provided by Blizzard's own servers. Blizzard doesn't even care about those servers, although they act like they do, because they don't offer the smallest threat to the legal version of the game. Let's face it, private servers are buggy as hell, laggy, outdated, unstable and under-populated.

This is one game that no one (at least not anyone who matters) wants to pirate. Hell, WoW doesn't even offer an offline mode. It's a highly social game that is meant to be played online. End of story.

While all of Blizzard's games have been top-notch in quality, gameplay and fun, looking back at their previous games, it can be noticed that the way the company made their money was slightly different than today. Warcraft, StarCraft and Diablo all made Blizzard money due to the sheer volume of copies sold. At the same time, a huge number of people worldwide used pirated copies of these very same games. In the short run, this probably harmed the company's bottom line but in the long run, it helped build a fanatic base of fans and supporters.

Today, most of these fans are either playing WoW, or waiting with bated breath for SC2 and D3.

In the meantime, things have changed. Blizzard has grown a lot as a company but the company is no longer independent. Though all the aspects of game design are Blizzard's to decide, it seems to me that a lot more pressure is put on them from the corporate side. This is something that lately has given me some bad vibes. It's just a feeling but other people are feeling it too.

The announcements from the past couple of weeks got me thinking. Is Blizzard changing, slowly morphing into something different than what we grew to love? Am I just being paranoid? Will Blizzard be the same lovable company in 10 years? How about 5? Will their fan base continue to grow or will it stagnate and eventually diminish to a shadow of its former glory? Will Activision, the big faceless corporation, end up assimilating Blizzard, leaving a dried-up husk in its wake?

Reading through various online discussions, I've come to realize that I'm not the only one who worries about this. I am trying to be realistic: I realize that a company is continually evolving, sometimes changing beyond recognition but sometimes this change can be of the worst kind. I would hate that to happen to the company I love so much.

So what's changing? Well, it's been going on for some time, innocently at first. First there were the paid server transfers. Then followed paid name changes. Then, character customizations and PvE to PvP transfers, and even sex changes. Hey, I'm not against any of these. Personally I wouldn't pay for any of these services but a lot of people find them useful. That's great; I love it when there are choices.

A week or so ago however, Blizzard announced paid faction changes. It kinda boggles the mind. That's something that no one was expecting, at least not at this point in time. True, there is always someone who wants some very obscure or never-gonna-happen feature. I'm trying to wrap my brain around this new feature. Paid faction changes. It doesn't make much sense from a lore perspective. From a practical point of view, I can understand some people regretting having rolled Alliance and wishing to change to Horde. What it looks to me is another way in which Blizzard is trying to squeeze another penny from their customers. To be fair, no one is making anyone go through with this. If you absolutely, positively gotta change your faction, now's your chance. Blizzard is simply offering us another micro-transaction based convenience.

Is there anything wrong in offering your customers extra paid services? Not at all. It's all about business and it's optional. If you don't need that feature, you don't pay for it. But where do you draw the line?

Blizzard has always stated that they will never offer a paid service or sell any in-game item that would give a player an unfair advantage over others, for real money. However, they were already selling in-game pets for cash by including them in TCG cards and offering them along with various promotions that you had to pay in order to have access to. These pets are purely cosmetic though so they don't count. Now, I'm starting to wonder if some time in the future we will start seeing an item store where people can buy powerful items, mounts, potions, etc, etc for real money. That sounds far-fetched, I know. But other games are doing it and Blizzard *coughactivisioncough* may decide at some point that it's a segment worth monetizing.

Now let's forget about this business and shift focus to another Blizzard game: StarCraft 2. The initial StarCraft was probably the most popular RTS game ever. A lot of its popularity came from its amazing, addictive and balanced gameplay but also its LAN support. For StarCraft 2, however, Blizzard has a few surprises for us. Not only will SC2 be split into 3 different games (1 for each race) but apparently it won't include LAN play.

Um, wtf, come again? When SC2 was announced a couple of years back, I was excited and obviously planned to buy it immediately. I'm not even big on RTS games but I do enjoy the single-player campaigns and the story. When they announced they would split it into 3 games, I decided I was gonna pass on it. C'mon now, is the game really that big? It's been in progress for years now and they still haven't finished all the races? Why not wait another year until it's all done? What happened to Blizzard's "it's ready when it's ready" philosophy?

The split brings up another question: what about the price? Will each "episode" cost $50-60? That would mean I would have to spend $150-180 for the whole package. When compared to WoW that doesn't sound much (in fact we all pay a lot more for WoW in the long run) but for people who play through each campaign once and then shelf the game, it might not be worth it. I certainly won't be paying that amount for SC2. A much more sensible price would be $20 per "episode" but I somehow doubt that will be the case.

Another controversial move on Blizzard's part is the exclusion of LAN play. There are 2 main groups of fans here: those who consider Battle.net is more than enough and those who are adamant that no LAN = no buy. I'm gravitating towards the second group.

Now why would LAN be so important in this day and age when broadband internet is cheap and plentiful? For several reasons.

First, we have no 100% guarantee that Battle.net will be free to play. Currently that's what seems to be the case. However, some ambiguous remarks from blues hint towards Blizzard charging for the service, essentially transforming it into a pay-to-play deal. LAN play would circumvent this, hence a lower bottom line for the company.

Second, SC1 allowed up to 8 players to form a LAN game by cloning a single legal (or illegal) copy of the game. That was awesome because people who didn't have the game could still enjoy a multiplayer session. In the end, this was also a lower bottom line for the company. Blizzard could still allow LAN play without permitting cloning though.

Third, not all internet connections are born equal. Even broadband suffers from occasional lag. Sometimes there's a brownout or a blackout. For highly competitive multiplayer, a flawless connection is essential and a well set-up LAN is, essentially, a flawless connection.

Fourth, not everyone has an internet connection. Even in the US, some people are still on dial-up. Hell, when I started playing WoW I was on dial-up and I went through several months of that before I switched to DSL. Disconnecting during an instance wasn't fun at all, believe you me. The best argument for LAN in this case is LAN parties. A lot of people enjoy meeting at someone's place with their computers, hooking them up and playing until they drop. Several years ago me and a bunch of friends would drive to a mountain cabin with our computers and play Diablo 2, StarCraft, Counterstrike and others for a whole week. We didn't even have a dial-up connection there. We did this every summer. It was beautiful.

Obviously, no matter how you look at it, the lack of LAN in SC2 is not because of technical difficulties. It's simply a matter of ensuring that everyone who wants to play the game in a multiplayer setting will actually purchase a legal copy. Plain and simple. As a side-effect, this will also help boost the company's (Blizzard? Activision?) revenue. Battle.net won't be hack-able and there's nothing to stop Blizzard from charging for online play, if not immediately, maybe sometime in the future.

The new SC2 + Battle.net business model begins to look a lot like WoW's now, doesn't it? And I'll bet you anything that Diablo 3's multiplayer will be identical. Yeah, you can still pirate the single player campaigns but a lot more people are used to playing online with friends, these days, so they will prefer to purchase the retail version.

That's Blizzard's new foolproof anti-piracy method for you. It will be very effective, I have no doubt about that. What I am worried about is the potential for Battle.net (or any form of multiplayer) not being free for play anymore. Let's not forget that traditionally, Battle.net has been free, but this is Battle.net 2.0 and things are changing. Who's to say that it will be forever free? Blizzard has the right to charge for their services and customers have the right to vote with their wallets.

As for me, StarCraft 2 is a no-go. I would have still bought it if it came in a single installment for $50-60. 3 installments spread apart over the course of a year do not appeal to me, especially considering the increased costs. I will still buy Diablo 3 even if it won't support LAN play, because I happen to think that D2 was the greatest game ever (with WoW a close second) and in the eventuality that Battle.net won't be free, I can still play it offline just fine, thank you.

What about you dear friends and readers? What are your thoughts on these matters? Is Blizzard losing it? I would hope not. One thing is certain though: in the next 5 to 10 years it will be interesting to watch how the company evolves, what new games it produces and how the quality of their games and services changes.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I suspect that eventually Battlenet will become the hub for the multiplayer aspects of all Blizzards games, even the new mmo. Tbh to me it makes sense that it would be better to have one nexus to connect to all their games rather than have each type of game connect seperately.

I also think that it will become the primary way Blizzard will sell its games as well via digitaldownload rather than with real physical disc's. It wouldn't surprise me either if they're moving towards this with an eye on future technology which would allow 'streaming' of games via the internet rather than actually having to install them on your own systems. Something I keep hear whispers about on the internet from time to time.

veliaf said...

Interesting post actually, I hadn't thought of the recent WoW developments in that way, although I reckon Blizzard is more independent from ActiVision than we think - as you said, they control pretty much everything about the game and such, included paid services. I'm firmly against faction changes though - I think that's going too far.

What's a brownout?

Scout said...

I'm feeling the same way. I would love LAN access for the games, since my husband and daughter play in the same room with me. Before WoW we played tons of LAN Diablo and SC. I don't like the idea of them taking that option away.

Same as you though, we will buy D3, probably 3 copies, and will play through BNet as long as it is free. If it isn't, it will probably mean we buy 1 copy, install on 3 computers, and play single player offline at different times.

Same with SC, however I hadn't heard about that 3 different games deal-that stinks. It might be the same, where we buy 1 copy of each and just won't be able to play together(and I would never play the Zerg one, I hate them, ick!).

And man I would *love* an offline version of WoW. Being able to run around in this game with just me(or just me and my family) we be INCREDIBLE! I avoid people like the plague as it is so an offline version would be nice. But D3 is probably going to draw me away anyway. Give me my old Druid back, with his wolves and ravens, orbs and snake and let me turn into a Worgen-man I think I need to go back and play some D2!!

JoeGamer said...

I kid you not, the exclusion of lan play will dent the income they make from SC2.

It makes no sense to exclude ths feature, even if you had to login to battle net, the option to play locally afterwards should be there.

They are clearly looking at "Valves" Half Life Two model of episodic releases. Its a great model, but based on devoute players, but only works on ones you dont annoy, with such things as excluded contetn in the next release.

That all said, they have a cult following of players, we i suppose are part of that, i'll probably play on whatever, I might not be all that happy about parts, but i'll still play to enjoy the experience of whatever new content comes about.

My business model is:

Buy 6months later when it in thr bargain bin = no need to worry about expensive episodic costs :D

marto said...

I don't see how Faction Change is against lore. It will be done outside the game like the way the character custimization is done just now.

I reckon the service will be.

1)Faction Change - A > H or H > A
2)Name Change - b'cos if you have a Gnome name its not really gonna work if you then become an Orc.
3)Character recustimization - b'cos well duh!
4)Realm change - cos it makes no sense to change faction to play with your friends as Blizz said if they arent on that realm

Total price = £20-25 GBP (~$30 - USD)

I play on Darkmoon Faire - EU which is an RP realm and have been know to indulge a little in light RP from time to time.

For example I will be moving my Gnome Warlock (old main) to the Horde, possibly Orc or Forsaken.

Rémy (gnome) will just disappear into the night and RP wise he will either be dead or lost in the wilds. *Rides off into the sunset*

< InsertNameHere > (orc/forsaken) will make an apearance fromt the wilds, as a completely different person. *Rides in from the sunset*

No problems lore wise. RP means I make the story so I can say whatever I want. For example on the Rawrcast show they discussed Stompalina (Gnome) being eaten by an Orc.

Stompalina (Gnome) > eaten > Stompalina (Orc)

You can make it as believeable as you want. So really Faction Change is not an issue of lore one little bit.

Trigger said...

Gunbound is a good example of a great game turned terrible because of the ability to buy items with real cash.

Darth Solo said...

@Anon that's for sure. Battle.net will connect all future Blizzard games. The question is: will it be free or will it enable them to charge for online play in the future? Actually the question is stupid because they are already charging for WoW. I've switched my account to Battle.net and I like it but I won't like the idea of paid online play for "traditional" games such as StarCraft and Diablo.

@veliaf a brownout is when your power drops for a second or two, enough to reboot your computer. Sometimes you get power surges but those aren't enough to shut it down. Blackouts are more permanent :) I hate brownouts much more than blackouts due to the fact that they can screw your hardware badly in that second. Luckily, I use an UPS and it's a lifesaver.

@Scout way to go! Glad to find another Diablo fan! There are too many situations in which LAN is useful, even in this day and age.

@Joe I really hope so but unfortunately LAN isn't so essential anymore. I'm afraid people will still buy these games. I would be nice if fans would team up against buying SC until Blizzard hastily released a "LAN patch".

@marto a lot of these paid services are debatable, depending who you ask. I won't deny they are convenient, in fact if I had lots of money I would probably use some of them myself but I'm worrying that these are just precedents for more controversial paid services.

@Trigger I'm pretty confident in stating that if Blizzard ever introduced the ability to buy in-game items (like weapons and such) for real money, I would quit for good. It's messed up already that people buy gold.

Anonymous said...

I've never played Diablo or Starcraft, or even Warcraft, but I do play wow and love the lore of all warcraft titles (I watched someone play ; D).

That said, this eventually happens to all independent companies. Eventually, blizzard will be just another part of Activision, and quality will drop like an atomic bomb due to the main company's pressure. I've seen this happening to Maxis, the company who created The Sims.

Soon, we'll see Blizzard having to fullfill deadlines, shell out 1 game a year, with rushed content and having to do more content so people can pay for it through an online store.

This is just the beginning of the end for Blizzard.

Darth Solo said...

Let's hope you're overly pessimistic (as I am too) because I was kinda hoping that when I retire in 30 or so years, Blizzard will still be around to create awesome games. Meh I guess that's just wishful thinking.

Blizz is saying that they still have autonomy about how to produce their games and I believe that but unfortunately I think that Activision is always blowing up their ass with tight schedules and making them release stuff before it's completely done.

On the other hand, I can't deny the fact that the quality of WoW's gameplay continues to increase. I'm sure SC2 and D3 will be awesome but it's this new business model that worries me.

Maybe it's wrong to start crying wolf at this point in time though so we'll just have to wait and see. The next 3 years or so will probably be crucial for Blizzard's evolution, what with so many new games in the pipeline: SC2, D3, new WoW expansion, brand new secret MMO that they're working on...

Man, you need to try Diablo 2 at least! One of the best games I've ever played, although the graphics look waaaaay outdated.