Blizzard has had several large paradigm shifts in its business revenue schemes over the last few years. While some players attribute this to their buyout by Activision, Inc., and the subsequent change to Activision-Blizzard, Inc., others see it more as a change in this particular genre of our Video Game Industry. It’s hard to find an MMORPG that, whether or not it is a free-to-play MMO, has incorporated some level of what we now refer to as Microtransactions; costs outside of the base-game or expansion sets that players pay to unlock further content. Sometimes it’s as simple as a cosmetic mount, or skin. Other times it is indeed quite a large chunk of content.
The origins of Microtransactions in the Games Industry are hard to pin point. Some historians claim the idea bled off of Expansion Sets, extra developed content that now several games such as Warframe include in free updates. Others believe that, like the Free-To-Play game formula, were generated by the Mobile and Indie market to offer alternative revenue streams. Since its popularization, major game development studios and publishing branches, such as Gearbox Publishing and Gearbox Entertainment, have focused on targeting these microtransactions on the low percentile of its audience. Namely, customers with a high amount of capital, willing to invest more money into their favorite games. The popular term among industry executives for these individuals is the term, ‘Whales.’
Activision-Blizzard and Blizzard Entertainment have both experimented in this field several times before. Beginning with character services, such as recustomization or server transfers, it was relatively benign. Most (in)famously these days, the in-game shop which originated in Cataclysm is seen as the most egregious sin. While originally it contained pets and some mounts based on tested skeletons, these days the store updates itself with skins and creatures that are not obtainable by any means in game. Even if they use a previously released skeleton or model-rigging. The two most popular references to this are the newly released Sylvarian Dreamer mount and the Swift Windsteed mount introduced in Mists of Pandaria.
Enter the Recruit-a-Friend program. World of Warcraft veterans will remember this program’s inception during Wrath of the Lich King as Blizzard’s response to dwindling subscription numbers. Designed to incentivize players to bring their friends into Azeroth, the RaF and Scroll of Resurrection programs gave players a referable link to send to their friends. Journeying together, players initially had the ability to summon their friends to their location, grant each other levels between 1 and 60, as well as have a 200% experience bonus. After their recruited friend had purchased three months of game time, the recruiting player could then choose one of several cosmetic rewards, either a mount or a pet. Over the years this collection grew further and further, and each time the RaF program dwindled in interest, Blizzard reworked it and relaunched.
This, all in all, was a good idea even after some well needed nerfs to the experience boost. I myself have coerced several of my friends to tour Azeroth with me when I was younger and reaped the rewards from it. The freedom to pick and choose what rewards you would like, such as the Emerald Hippogryph or the Cindermane Charger, gave the program something that felt optional and fun. These days I’ve also participated in the RaF program for convenience sake; having had to make my main account on the EU servers for personal reasons, I cannot purchase WoW tokens or engage in some character services with my Physical Canadian Address. As such, I can ‘recruit’ a new account, do as I wish, and reap the rewards afterwards. Other people I’ve recruited, such as younger friends, don’t feel indebted to stay for my rewards if they don’t get attached to the game after hitting max level and experiencing the content.
On June 11, 2019, Activision-Blizzard announced that the current incarnation of the Recruit-a-Friend program would come to an end. It’s hard to imagine why; after all, have you really even thought of this system before reading the headline of this article?
Reintroducing several old systems, such as the experience increase of 50% when in a group and the Friend-to-Friend Summoning, this new system allows you to link your account with up to 10 friends. It also reintroduced aspects of the Scroll of Resurrection system, allowing you to recruit veteran players who haven’t had game time on their account for two years. This, on the surface, is an excellent idea when you couple it with World of Warcraft’s upcoming Party Sync feature. Using party sync, everyone becomes aligned to the same quest state, phase and level. Maximum level players who are down-leveled can earn rewards that scale up to their current level while playing with their newer friends.
I don’t think I really need to capitulate on how good of an idea this is on the surface. Say, as a veteran player, I recruit a friend who has never been through Azeroth. I, however, don’t feel like making a level one character to grind to maximum level, but with the new Heritage Armor system introduced with Allied Races, I could make a Highmountain Tauren Druid, Party Sync to my friend’s level and location, and play with them until we both reach maximum level. They get to experience Azeroth, I get to earn my own extra rewards and there is incentivized participation for everybody.
Then we come to the crux of the problem with this new Recruit-a-Friend system. As before, there are rewards to be had for bringing players into Azeroth. As a bonus, these rewards are cumulative, meaning that the more players I bring in, the more their overall game-time counts towards them. If Friend One only purchases one month before giving up, Friend Two may buy two more and get me that reward I want. The problem however, much like the current endgame, falls ultimately to a lack of player choice.
All of the rewards you see through the program’s new media presentation are attainable. However, they are only obtainable in a linear fashion, much like the current Player vs. Player Honor System.
Say Friend One buys a month of game time every month. Here’s what the breakdown looks like.
You are not misreading that. Every month or so you get a new reward, but it might most certainly not be the reward you want. Whereas in the previous system players got a free month of game time after Friend One purchased his first month, we don’t even get that much now. If we wanted a particular mount or pet, we also don’t get that now. While there are two mounts to get, you’ll be waiting three and six months for your two-person ground mount and two person flying mount respectively. If you wanted the cosmetic rewards for your character’s transmog you’ll be visiting the Ethereal Transmogrifiers at six, seven, ten and twelve months respectively. Even the system’s new title, and perhaps least appealing thing in the whole partition, is a four-month waiting period.
Now, to be fair, this is a cumulative system. You could either retain one friend for twelve months to unlock everything (including four free months of game time), or you could invite twelve friends who only have to pay for one month each. Each three months after the initial twelve your friends pay for you also get an additional month of free game time. The rewards just keep on giving!
If you are a veteran of Warcraft, or even just an adult player, you may have noticed a fundamental problem here. Most of us have either already recruited all of our real-life friends, or our friends simply do not have the time for Warcraft. I myself have fallen into a hole in that regard; even writing this weekly column takes up more of my time than I’d like! Working a job, pursuing other needs, or even just enjoying other hobbies stops us from getting more people into Azeroth. That’s simply a fundamental fact of life.
Now, what if, perhaps we wanted to look at doing what we did with the old RAF system? As I said above, on top of purchasing microtranscations from Activision-Blizzard in the past, I’ve also self-purchased the RaF program for other uses. Plenty of people multi-box their retail copies, others like to have two windows for multiple characters. If we calculate the total cost at the cheapest subscription rates that’s approximately $156 USD. Now, of course, in saying that, that isn’t all up front either; you can no longer purchase year-long subscriptions and instead can only buy 6-month recurring subscriptions. That means that even if you had the money up front, you’d still need to wait six months to claim ALL of your rewards if you only wanted to use ONE alt account.
What about using WoW Tokens? Now with the WoW Tokens, players can simply purchase their game-time by spending gold on the Auction House. Weighing out the prices on this aren’t too much better either; players who want to skip the time will be paying anywhere from 50,000 to 300,000 per month for game time. The average cost for a whole year through this system is 1.7 million gold, and that’s a conservative estimate. EU Players on average would need to spend 2.2 million to make the difference for their higher server economies.
For obvious reasons, this isn’t an overall positive system if you were recruiting friends or self-purchasing. Even if we wanted to skirt the obvious terrible additions (I’m looking at you, monkey), and touch the first tangible and ‘new’ reward, a reward not based on any other rigging in-game, the Stinging Sands will take you six months. And THAT is not even assured to be an entirely new effect as several of Battle for Azeroth’s effects have used assets from as early as Cataclysm. Even if we don’t account for that, it means you’ll be waiting ten months for a BACKPACK.
‘Why’ is perhaps the easiest question to ask when it comes to this new system. With its heavy lean to the Archaeology and Exploring themes among the various rewards, why weren’t some of these ideas incumbent to Warcraft’s most under-utilized profession, Archaeology? Ever since initial high-level rewards were attached to powerful end-game items in Cataclysm, interest in the profession has been dreadfully low. Why not introduce these rewards into a massive time-sink system, and come up with new rewards?
In a segue to that notion, why not attack the Recruit-a-Friend system to the In-Game Store? Each month you can simply choose a reward from the in-game store. This incentivizes both those who want to recruit friends as well as those who use RaF for personal use; a subscription is certainly far less than a store mount. While the store is negatively perceived overall throughout the community, it would have encouraged some of the rewards through the storefront while allowing those who selectively wanted to purchase them another method of getting them. It wouldn’t even be the first time in recent memory they’ve done such a thing, including their 15th anniversary Collector’s-Only mounts, the Alabaster Thunderwing and Stormtalon.
Consequently, why not a cross-over promotion with one of Blizzard’s other titles? It’s occurred several times before with the launch of Hearthstone, the release of Diablo III, and a still-ongoing promotion with Heroes of the Storm rewarding a battle-pet for reaching level 25 in the company’s slowly suiciding MOBA. With the largely ignored launch of its card-game’s newest expansion Saviors of Uldum, an adventure featuring several tomb-delving members of the Explorer’s League, this was a prime opportunity to include some of these items in an event to generate interest.
The real question we should be asking, is who does this hurt? Clearly, on a surface level, reintroducing such an unfriendly version of the Recruit-a-Friend system doesn’t really injure anyone currently playing. At least anyone who hasn’t been playing for a serious amount of time. Directly, this impacts anyone who joined from June 11th, until whenever the new system is introduced. While there are small outliers who will feel the effects, such as spouses and siblings, this will disproportionally affect players returning for Classic.
With the intent of a subscription carrying both the ability to play the Live and Classic versions of World of Warcraft, every single player who resubbed to play the Vanilla callback can no longer participate in the program. As veteran accounts can only be recruited if they are dormant for two years, every current Classic player who rejoined to experiment with their friends is, quite frankly, dang out of luck. Even if five percent of total viewers on Twitch’s record-breaking release were already subscribed or resubscribed to play, that’s 305,000 players disqualified from the program.
This also negatively effects Blizzard’s own internal design teams and concepts. While this has been a point long argued about the storefront’s premium models, this now transcends to older design concepts that were scrapped. In the press-release for Warlords of Draenor, it was teased that players would receive class-specific appearance items. These would be equippable like the Relics from Vanilla of yore, minus the additional stats. This system was quietly shuffled away and thought to be cancelled, which as the new Renowned Explorer’s Rucksack shows, is confirmed. After all, if it’s just a transmog for your cloak, why would we need a new cosmetic system?
Ironically, or not so ironically, we now have to also talk about another group that most main-game players do not often think about. This system’s rewards also negatively effect Roleplayers, who have popularly asked for several of these items for a number of years. Despite how often this community is overlooked and how often several systems, including sharding and War Mode, have divided and split them apart again and again, they did get one small win with the last expansion. The Wardrobe and Ensemble features carried over from popular addons such as MogIt, centralized transmogrification appearances and introduced new equipment sets for players to achieve with another gameplay outside the main endgame. While this was universally lauded, the roleplay community, who often rely on props and cosmetic tools for their enjoyment, took to it like a swarm. Gating cosmetic content, even if it’s purely cosmetic, restricts their ability to enjoy their specific edge of the gameplay.
It’s clear that the timing on the new Recruit-a-Friend is targeted. Avoiding the game’s major uptick with the release of Classic by such a wide margin of time, nearly a month, is a clear deliberate tactic. In their attempt to maximize sales figures and revenue, Activision-Blizzard has continued to inconvenience a wider portion of their player base. At this point, its hard to be surprised with the company. From Overwatch’s lootboxes, to Heroes of the Storm’s cancelled e-sport circuit, to even the horrible treadmill of Warcraft’s current end game and entire expansion, the writing’s been on the wall for months.
If there’s a cheap and easy way to make extra money, even if it challenges the loyalty of their player base, Activision-Blizzard will take it. Perhaps we need to start Recruiting-a-Friend to look at other, greener pastures in the industry.