Blizzcon Analysis: The Annual Pass

The Annual Pass:

  • You commit to paying for WoW for the next 12 months
  • You may well not have to change the way you pay (you might, it depends how you pay)
  • You get a free mount in 4.3 just to say ‘thanks’
  • You get Diablo 3 for free

Should I get it?
So for me this is a pure win. I had every intention of continuing to play WoW and of paying for the next 12 months. And I was planning to buy Diablo 3. Now I get a mount and Diablo 3 for free. A lot of people will be in the same situation and will be happy.

On the other hand some WoW players might not have been planning to buy Diablo 3. If you were planning to pay for the next 12 months anyway, you might as well sign up to the Annual Pass and get the game free. If you’ve never played Diablo before, its a fun game and you don’t have to get involved with all the Real Money AH stuff. You can just play the well-designed RPG that I have no doubt Diablo 3 will be on your own and probably enjoy it. Unless you have an unquenchable hatred for the Diablo series, its worth it.

If you weren’t planning to pay for WoW for the next 12 months then its time to look at total cost of ownership. I pay £7.69 a month for WoW. Diablo 3 would probably have cost me £30 if I brought it online. So Diablo 3 costs the same as 4 months of WoW. If you were planning on taking more than 4 months off, then it works out cheaper to pay for Diablo 3 separately in most cases (if you can’t get Diablo 3 for £30 online and will end up paying £40 on the High Street, that goes up to 6 months, and you might be paying up to £8.99 a month for WoW). Its like a mobile phone contract – you should add up what you will pay for the phone and per month over the life of the contract to figure out the best deal.

What does this mean?
Well I think it says something about the future of Blizzard games. There was an article I read the other day in which EA pointed out that every game has a 10-15% marketing cost and they were looking at ways of changing how we buy games in order to reduce that. Steam does probably the best job here. It looks like Blizzard are also thinking about how they market their games and different ways of producing revenue.

I am not the target of the Annual Pass
Gamers like myself are not who the pass is aimed at. They are losing money on me. But it seems that gamers like myself are also not the majority of their player-base. For this to have gotten through, the play-break-return players must be a bigger number than I had thought. Even if these players were planning on taking a break of more than four months, they might be tempted by the deal to keep playing. Say they were planning a six-month break. Paying for the pass essentially gives them 6 months for the price of 2. Thats a good deal still. It might tempt them to pay for the pass, rather than buy Diablo 3.

Marketing
The Annual Pass gets Blizzard Diablo 3 sales numbers with very little spent on marketing. On release day, they will have millions of sales which cost them an announcement at Blizzcon and a few pages on a website. On release day, they will have some nice big sales numbers to announce, which will further advertise the game in a positive way. Thats a huge cost saving for Blizzard. It might even tempt some WoW fans who weren’t planning to play Diablo 3 to give it a try as its free anyway. And some who might never touch it might still want the free mount. Those players will add to that huge sales number on launch.

Subscription services
Now does this indicate a possible future in which all Blizzard games are available via a monthly subscription? Possibly. There are a couple of things going on that makes me think this might happen.

Firstly, there is a massive resentment over paying for expansion packs in both WoW and Starcraft. In the case of WoW, the huge number of expansion packs becomes a barrier to entry. In the case of Starcraft, people felt they only got 1/3 of the game (even though they got the entire multi-player platform). These issues would go away with a subscription based model.

Secondly, Blizzard’s new releases cut into the profitability of WoW. People stop playing, and paying for, WoW while they play Starcraft and Diablo. And thats just their own games – people also stop to play other games from other companies, which is even worse. With a new MMO on the horizon, they will have to know that their own product is the one most likely to kill WoW. My guess is that this is a test. Will the Annual Pass see people who they might otherwise have lost keep subscribing in order to get Diablo 3 for free? Will it tempt people to pay for the extra 2 months? If so this is what I would like to see:

  • Legendary subscription that gives you the lot – WoW, Titan, all packs and games when they are released, premium and mobile services, collector edition items, all in store pets and mounts
  • Epic subscription that gives you the games, but not the extras like premium and mobile services and collectors edition items
  • Rare subscription that gives you WoW and Titan plus packs
  • Uncommon subscription that gives you just WoW and Titan and you buy your own packs (I am certain we will see this option)
  • Common subscription where you just pay for what you want
  • Flexible bolt ons to all these so you can get the parts you want

Blizzard aren’t going to go down the free to play route – they don’t need to. Free to play would undoubtedly lose them money at this point. The introduction of the first 20 levels as ‘free to play’ was not the first step on a slippery slope, it was a marketing ploy aimed at improving the retention of new starters and getting the game marketed in such a way that people might try it out since its ‘free to play’ (as opposed to using the free trial for a paid for game – see how its a different way of saying the same thing?).

The final point here is player retention within the Battle.Net framework. If you subscribe you can play all their games and keep in touch with all your friends no matter what they are playing. You would never have to go to the bother of ordering a new game. You pay and content wings its way to you electronically when available. New games are consumed en masse with no additional marketing required. New franchises are less risky because you already have the money in the bank. The only issue with this model would be keeping enough new content coming that people felt it justified the monthly fee. But Blizzard have been experimenting with this for years now, so they have a good idea of what works. And they have this great Battle.Net framework that lets you stay connected with your friends whatever you are playing. Could this be a recipe for a subscription success?

So what do you think of my crystal ball gazing? It might not be right. Or it might be right, but Blizzard get thrown a curve ball by Star Wars*. But somehow, I don’t think that will happen. I read a argument from Tobald a while back about how micro-transactions are the best payment model for most games. And hes not wrong. Its only Blizzard’s huge market share that makes this viable for them. And the confidence people have (at least those who don’t whine on the WoW forums like a bunch of 3 year olds about stupid things) in Blizzard producing only good games (who remember Starcraft: Ghost?) and not the kind of tat that many games companies churn out as standard fare.

*For what its worth, I think Star Wars will be a success. It might even be a big success, but it will take time because there are some things you just can’t beta test enough. WoW is the only MMO that will ever get the free pass for problems on release, because it got to the mass-market first. People expect their new MMOs to come fully formed out of the gate with minimal bugs or balance issues and that doesn’t happen. Very few MMOs have been good enough for people to stick through the growing pains in large numbers. Star Wars might manage that. Or it might not. I will be playing it, because I think the levelling experience will be very good. I don’t know if I will play the end game much though because it would have to be truly awesome to make me give up what I have in WoW and while it might be good, it won’t be truly awesome right off the bat.

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