“You know, I must have asked a thousand times. . . ‘Are you sure? Is it sewn up?’ Heh. What I heard was, ‘Don’t worry, kid. I got it covered. Don’t sweat it. You worry too much. It’s sewn up. Let me make the decisions.’ Well, you dropped the ball.” – Hunter Hearst Helmsley, 3/30/98
World of Warcraft, turning ten this year, is old enough that even its first two expansions did not launch with a digital download available. Cataclysm was the first expansion that could be pre-ordered and pre-loaded so that it would be playable at 12:01 am upon release. Pre-orders for Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria were available (digitally and otherwise) roughly two months before release, and the start of the pre-orders coincided with the announcement of the launch date. Warlords of Draenor is the first WoW expansion to be available for pre-order not only before a launch date was announced, but even before any sort of closed beta was announced. Blizzard is treading into new territory with this expansion, and as with any map that is obscured courtesy of the fog of war, they are heading in dangerous directions. The biggest of these missteps is their handling of the Boost-to-90 announcement.
When Blizzard announced the Boost-to-90 feature at Blizzcon, they couched it as lapsed players being granted the ability to immediately jump into current content and play with their friends. Mists of Pandaria was highly touted as a narrative experience, but for anyone stuck in Outland or Northrend, and especially those who quit because they didn’t like that content, leveling was a wall between them and the exciting new gameplay. Boosting-to-90 demolishes that wall like a giant Kuchong.
Levelling doesn’t just affect lapsed players, though. For players with anywhere from one to an army of alts, the sheer number of activities in Mists of Pandaria has made leveling additional characters a challenge. So, Blizzard decided that all players would get a free Boost-to-90 with Warlords – use it on your main to finally get to current content; use it on your alt to experience a different playstyle; use it on a different faction or server to play with friends that you previously could not. The Boost-to-90 appeals to almost everyone, especially those with multiple characters.
When asked about making the Boost-to-90 available at the Media Q&A on the first night of Blizzcon, J. Allen Brack admitted, “If you think about it, if you bought another license, and then bought an expansion, and then pay character transferred yourself – your character that you got as boosted up to level 90 – back to your main account, then you kind of did that. That seems kind of janky, so we, we’ve talked about it. I don’t know if we’re – I don’t know what we’re gonna do.” It has been interesting to go back and watch some of the Blizzcon panels, as the recent posts about adjusting health and racials were all foreshadowed in comments by the developers. To anyone paying attention to what Blizzard was saying at the time, much of what they’ve discussed over the last month should come as no surprise. What I wasn’t paying attention to was how they were saying certain things. There was a lot of uncertainty in Brack’s comments on the Boost-to-90 process. At the time, this all felt theoretical, so as a viewer, his lack of concrete information was understandable. It is only now, four months later, that his lack of knowledge is revealed as disturbing.
If Brack is to be believed, then Blizzard had not decided on whether to make the Boost-to-90 widely available, let alone how much it should cost. It is also unclear when Blizzard decided that the price of expansion should increase $10. Mists and all prior expansions cost $40, and many expected Blizzard to maintain that price point, especially since expansion development is subsidized by subscription fees. When the Boost-to-90 feature accidentally(?) appeared on live servers after a recent patch, Blizzard was forced to reveal the price for the service was $60.
Many were disappointed at the relatively high cost, and the reaction to the leak required intervention from Ion Hazzikostas to publicly defend the high price point. Blizzard’s stance is that they don’t want the boost to be common procedure; they want players to earn their high-level characters, either by playing them extensively or paying a significant fee. This fits with Brack’s comments – they did not offer the service because they wanted to offer the service; they had to offer the service because including the feature in Warlords created a “janky” way to buy a level 90 character. The problem is that Blizzard has handled this process in a janky way of their own.
On January 16th, Blizzard posted an update regarding the Boost-to-90 feature. “[W]hen you pre-purchase either digital version, we’re going to grant you your level-90 boost at the time of pre-purchase. That’s a little different from the plan we laid out at BlizzCon, but based on the feedback, it’s obvious that many of you would like the chance to get acquainted with a new class before heading into the expansion.”
Before, players were being offered a chance to advance to the start of current content. Now, Blizzard was altering the terms so that players would get a max-level character. As unprecedented as the Boost-to-90 concept was when max level would be 100, this was revolutionary. Players could now purchase a character and within hours be attempting the most current of content. The populace was salivating for the feature, and then the disappointment of the price point came.
Blizzard clearly knew that the cost of the level 90 boost was high – Hazzikostas rationalizes it as such. Also, Blizzard had to know that raising the price of the expansion by $10 would irritate players. Perhaps this is why they chose to conflate events (I do not recall the community pining for level 90 characters prior to Warlords, but I also did not survey Blizzard subscribers). The Warlords of Draenor pre-order page has a nice image pointing out that the game includes a boost with a “$60 value!” While that’s all technically true (and a blatant marketing ploy,) it has left room for players to conclude “my $40 dollar expansion went up in price when the $60 feature was added, therefore, my “free” level-90 cost me $10!” This logic is even more upsetting for players who never had any intention or interest in boosting any characters.
Had Blizzard known the ultimate price points they would settle on (which is to say that Blizzard should have determined the prices before announcing the feature at all), it is easy to see how the expansion and level boost should have been presented. Announce the Boost-to-90 feature at $60. Then, announce a deal where players can buy a Boost-to-90 for $50, and get a free copy of Warlords of Draenor. This removes any dissonance about the price of the expansion going up, and presents the situation as a savings. Plus, with players told the $60 price at the outlay, it prevents them from having time to decide what they feel the price should be. Also, it never sets the expectation that Warlords and the Boost would be $40 together, which the combination of the free boost and the old expansion prices did. Savvy players would see that this was a ploy to raise the price, but savvy players are not those complaining that the $10 price increase is due to the added character boost. The only problem with this solution is that Blizzard needed to elect this course of action before Blizzcon, which Brack’s comments clearly indicate they could not. It is a missed opportunity, and is costing Blizzard goodwill at a time that goodwill is in short supply – during the drought of content between expansions.
These lean times are also affected by Blizzard’s miscalculation in releasing pre-orders so soon. With Warlords available for pre-order, the site needed to indicate an estimated date of release. While the Fall 2014 window is later than most were hoping, it is still reasonable, and more importantly, vague. Fall encompasses three months, and most people think of September, October, or November as those three months. However, Fall ends on December 20th, and so the Warlords of Draenor site says that the expansion “is expected to release on or before 12/20/14.” While that is the last day of Fall, for many, that sounds like the heart of Winter. Furthermore, the fact that “on” comes prior to “before” makes it sound like 12/20/14 is the intended release date.
Putting aside concerns about Blizzard’s ability to ship products in a timely fashion, the statement suggests that Warlords will release near Christmas. For a company that has been relentlessly claiming they need to push out content faster, and seemingly successfully doing so with Mists’ accelerated patch schedule, this is antithetical to Blizzard’s previous intimations. Just after Blizzcon, Greg Street tweeted it, “[f]eels like we are farther along for WoD than we were for MoP.” Speculation, however irrationally, had players hoping for a beta in early 2014, and with such a beta currently missing, players are getting antsy. A calm, rational reading of the text would indicate this was not a release date announcement, but antsy players do not lend themselves to calm, rational readings. Blizzard was throwing a date in player’s faces that was well after when everyone expected the expansion to launch, and the overreaction should have been predictable. By presenting that date to an expectant playerbase, Blizzard taunted a boss and then stood in the fire.
Furthermore, problems continued even when players did boost their characters to 90. Putting aside bugs that are commensurate with any new feature, Blizzard decided to start fresh level 90’s on the Timeless Isle. This was logical in that the zone provides the best gear for level 90 characters with minimal effort. However, it is a shared zone – the Horde and Alliance both have their run of the place, and on PvP servers, players took advantage of the fresh meat haplessly zoning in by killing these new 90’s before they could even get their bearings. Normal Alliance and Horde relations would create this problem, but it was exacerbated by the Censer of Eternal Agony, which turns players hostile to everyone (even their faction mates) and requires them to kill players to earn Burning Coins. The Censer weakens players by 90%, which means that defenseless kills are all the more enticing. While hardly a game-breaking decision, Blizzard was quick to point out that they would probably move the spawn point to the faction-protected Shrines. While that is the right call, it is amazing that Blizzard failed to see that starting players on the Timeless Isle would yield such a result.
Hindsight is 20/20. It is easy to look back at Blizzard’s mistakes and determine what they should have done differently. One of the key aspects of project management and marketing is to know where you are going, though. Blizzard should have known the prices for the expansion and the boost at Blizzcon so they could plan the announcement properly and mitigate any hostility from the community. They should have known that putting such a far-off date in the hands of a hungry populace would only foster discontent, and they should have known that players would kill other players when given the chance. The mistakes themselves are minor overall – they do not affect gameplay and they do not affect Warlords development., The problem is that when the developers are struggling to articulate the coming changes, and are having to debate players about loss of skills and the dumbing down of the game, these mistakes give antagonized players ammunition when claiming Blizzard is destroying the game through mismanagement.
That is not the case, but when everyone is anxious for the next big thing, and they know that big thing is so far off, the playerbase is kindling, and these mistakes are lit matches. While sites loosely recognized by Blizzard like WoW Insider have defended the developer on these issues, they have also joined the chorus in calling for Warlords‘ beta. Blizzard has been dropping the ball, but with a strong beta in the near future, they just might pick it back up.
In Warlords, all mounts will work as ground mounts. I feel like a kid out past curfew, because I’m thinking we’re going to be grounded for alot longer than just until patch 6.1… https://twitter.com/mumper/statuses/444623521310711808
Blizzard is going to be at PAX East. When are they going to do Blizzcon East??? http://us.battle.net/wow/en/blog/13354132/blizzard-at-pax-east-3-17-2014
New excerpt from War Crimes? Looks like Garrosh wanted to be the Boss of ICC, not SoO. http://us.battle.net/wow/en/blog/13353208/war-crimes-novel-sneak-peek-3-17-2014
Blizzcon’s Virtual Ticket page is showing 2014 now, although no further information is available. I look forward to the next unofficial update showing ticket prices as $60. http://www.mmo-champion.com/content/3838-Blizzcon-2014-Setup-of-the-Month-Dark-Legacy-Comics-431
Hearthstone has been released! Go win 3 matches to earn your Hearthsteed! JUST NOT AGAINST ME! ONLY 489 MORE WINS UNTIL GOLDEN REXXAR!!! http://us.battle.net/hearthstone/en/blog/13154922/ride-into-action-on-your-hearthsteed-3-11-2014
The Latest from Mash
Hammerdance returns this week along side Tableslam and NoHitJerome!
Rei and Eric had fun watching the MDI while Kura was enjoying the questing and Nick is looking forward to some books.
A grab bag of topics ranging from early pulling to getting stranded for a day in Frankfurt.
Its a wild ride this week, strap in!