I am star pony-less. I haven’t bought one and I don’t intend to. In a week where an estimated 400K plus players have opened their pocketbooks to add a celestial steed to their stable, my wallet is staying firmly shut. My level 80 characters will have to suck it up and manage with their less-than-celestial steeds. They will just have to suffer through the pain and embarrassment of riding non-translucent mounts. Why handicap my characters’ coolness by leaving them with their less aesthetically pleasing “standard mounts”? Because I’m a little afraid of where this micro(macro)transaction trend could take us. What’s to fear from a translucent horse? I doubt it could bite – in fact I am not even sure it has teeth. Teeth or no, the horse can set a precedent, one that I am not happy about.
This tom-foolery started innocently enough back in November when Blizzard announced two digital (in-game) items would be offered from the Blizzard store. The two items were in game pets, a Lil Kel Thuzad and a miniature Pandaren Brewmaster. For $10 real dollars these little guys could be added to your arsenal of cute, but ultimately functionless, in-game companions. Normally the addition of a microtransaction system for a subscription game would have raised eyebrows, but the overwhelmingly cute appearance of the pets, and the announcement that half of the profits generated would be donated to charity seemed to soothe any outcry. Cute as gremlins, the little guys sold well and Blizzard handed a big fat check for 1.1 million dollars to the Make-a-wish foundation. The sale of the first two pets accomplished two things, they raised money for charity – giving a rosy glow to the could-have-been controversial sale of in-game items, and they tested the market to see if there as demand for such items.
As it turns out there was. And last week saw the addition of two new in-game items to the store. Added were the Lil’XT, another pet just as frighteningly cute as its predecessors, and the Celestial Steed. This is where the cute little gremlins turn rotten. The Celestial steed is not a pet but a mount, a mount that gets distributed to all characters on an account and levels with that character’s riding skill. In other words Blizzard has started to sell in-game items with real use…for real money. Many people will counter – it’s just a mount, it doesn’t actually change gameplay – and they are right. But I am worried that the mount is the beginning of a slippery slope.
Is the Celestial steed a horseman for change? I think it could be. Look at the community response: as of the writing of this article 400,000 people have purchased the Celestial steed. At a $25 a horse, that’s a cool 10 million in sales. That is a number that can’t be ignored. And it won’t be either, remember Blizzard makes great well-developed games, but they are a business like any other. The goal is to make money. And in-game items are making a lot of it, and I am betting that the Celestial steed cost a lot less than 10 million dollars to design and implement. The Celestial steed turned out not to be a horse but a cash cow. The only problem is with 400K buyers the cash cow will run dry. Another mount will never sell like the first. People already have one “cool” scalable mount, they won’t need another. Blizzard will have to be creative and release a new type of item – one that will draw more interest and wallets.
But what could these items be? The steed’s draw is twofold – it looks cool and spacey, and it scales with levels. That means that your character and all subsequent alts never have to buy mounts again. Convenient right? I am afraid that convenience might be the start of a slippery slope. Scalable mounts are convenient – so is heirloom gear – neither really change gameplay so where is the problem selling heirloom gear? We already give it away for triumph badges, so there is even a non-monetary way to acquire it. But where does it go from there? Why not sell a second hearthstone? It also doesn’t really change gameplay – you could still level with just one. How about adding experience boosting potions to the in-game shop? They don’t change gameplay either, they just accelerate it. Heirloom gear also provides experience bonuses, so we know it Blizzard isn’t opposed to the idea in principle. And now we are hurtling down a slope as slippery as a pig coated in vegetable oil (what?). While I would never predict that top level gear would ever be available in such a store – I can predict an accumulation of items that change the game experience enough that people would become dependent upon them for tasks like leveling and tradeskills. Where do you draw the line between “convenience” items, and those that fundamentally alter the way the game is played?
So my character will never be caught around Orgrimmar riding a space-pony. Nor will I purchase any other in-game items from the store; even if half the proceeds benefit blind midgets with cleft-palates. My character is staying subscription only. My wallet won’t feed the Activision-Blizzard accounting gremlins before or after midnight – because I am afraid that if too many of us give in, that these cute little items will turn into something much much uglier.