Written by Joshua Hufton
I’ve always been repulsed by subscription-based payment models. That said, I can also understand their necessity for ongoing services versus an individual product. But in terms of games and entertainment, make no mistake, imposing a subscription-based model on the consumer is a bold assertion indeed.
With one-off purchases like the upfront cost of a game, there is and can be some degree of acknowledgement and forgiveness in the mind of the consumer regarding minor bugs, design missteps, or aesthetic blunders. Many of these issues reveal themselves only after the product has been released; surfacing imperfections at this point are virtually guaranteed when a game is suddenly played millions of times over. Usually with a free patch these issues are justifiably, and easily, forgiven.
See Red Dead Redemption or Fallout: New Vegas as a pair of recent examples. These games were released with a slew of bugs, most of which were benign, and were otherwise fantastic games. A free patch or two later and these $60 investments are easily redeemed, their bugs largely forgotten.
But by way adopting a subscription payment model for a product, specifically a game, a developer overtly suggests that a game is much more valuable than any similar product with a one-time purchase. With a subscription model, it is expected a game is not only sufficiently content-rich but fundamentally reliable and bug-free as well, because, what else are you paying them for each month?
When Blizzard released World of Warcraft in late 2004, they chose the latter payment scheme. Whereas it may be easier to justify a monthly subscription fee for a console platform in Xbox LIVE—where the service itself is robust, supports online play for dozens of popular games, and runs largely without hiccup—attempting to justify a monthly payment for a single game is more difficult, certainly when the payment is not minuscule. It not only sets a dangerous precedent—how many games will we be subscribed to at once in the future?—but a lot of content and community support, in the case of an MMO, is not enough for a monthly subscription alone. When an entertainment product becomes an entertainment service, there is much more to expect.
When WoW launched, I scoffed at the notion of a subscription-based game, feeling much the way I did when Microsoft charged for multiplayer on LIVE. I largely ignored these services due to their subscription fees, jaded by the inexcusably high monthly fees for shoddy cable and mobile phone services from multiple service providers. I bemoaned largely at the precedence these payment schemes set, worried that in the future the entertainment center of my home would be the source of all the bills: not only electricity, cable, and internet bills, but the Xbox LIVE Gold membership, the PSN bill, the Wii bill, the OnLive bill, not to mention the individual subscriptions for all the most popular individual PC titles. Dangerous precedent indeed.
Though I scoffed, I quietly assumed that if this future were ever to take place, presenting games as services rather than products would at least benefit the playing experience. Developers could spend more time polishing their product, releasing bits and pieces when they are ready. And by ready I mean bug-free and reliable.
World of Warcraft, despite the army that supports the game’s living, breathing global infrastructure, is markedly not bug-free and reliable.
But first a couple design qualms. Though I am a relative newbie to hardcore PC gaming—the one exception being Starcraft—I am far from noob status when it comes to gaming in general. I lend the qualifier hardcore here because I entered Azeroth with my first character and felt positively confoozled. I picked up the mechanics, structure, and controls of the game quickly to be sure, but the first thing I learned was that Google was going to be a close friend.
Though a few tool-tips pop up on occasion, there is much that isn’t explained as the player begins to level an avatar: what are a Rogue’s “combo points?” How do I rearrange spells? How do I disable chat from strangers? How do I learn new profession skills? How do I make a side-by-side comparison with equipment in my bags with that which I’m wearing? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Perhaps this is why the game comes bundled with a massive user guide. What am I paying by the month for? Seems to me I should be paying Google when I’ve got to alt+tab over to find the answer to a question that ought to be shown, not told in-game.
Far too often the description of a quest doesn’t give enough guidance. The map doesn’t zoom in far enough to be of any help finding one’s way through mountainous terrain, map markers are often vague, and several times just not at all in the right spot (see here for one particular quest where I can remember this happening. Scroll down in the comments section to see this enlightening post: “yep, blizzard quest marker is wrong. don’t trust blizzard, trust the wowhead community. :-)”).
The landscape in WoW is massive—the scale of the game is very much a strength—but when finding one’s way up a small mountain pass to get to an objective requires repeatedly struggling up a dozen 45 degree angle slopes, working around a mountain range meticulously for a half hour for an opening to ascend, only to realize that you must be entirely on the wrong side, well, something is very much askew, and it ain’t me.
Finding one’s way to an objective point on the map and navigating difficult topography was a part of Red Dead Redemption as well, and worked very well for this game as it highlighted the elements of exploration and adherence to theme. But doing so in WoW is irritating at best, and for chiefly two reasons. First, the map itself in RDR, while still maintaining the rustic ink-on-parchment appeal to work with the fiction, is zoomable far enough to examine and derive the proper route through rough terrain. Second, the ambient world in RDR itself was worthy of getting lost in; there were other things to do , the landscape was breathtaking, and feeling of isolation fit well with the Wild West theme.
The ambient environment in WoW is nowhere as compelling as it is in RDR. There are few sights to be seen orbreathtaking visuals for WoW in 2011. Spending 45 minutes struggling to find the “right” way through mountainous geography low-res geometry is not fun: it is a trial of patience. Is it fair to be comparing a game in 2004 with one in 2010? When we are paying up the ass by the month, you betcha. Any number of patches could have expanded upon the ambience of Azeroth, but 50 hours in and with five toons at at least level 15, I’ve become increasingly aware one thing. WoW is very much tailored to the veteran hardcore, an important consideration to be sure, but at the expense of newbies—potential future veteran, loyal fans, and hardcore? No, we are left to read the accompanying paperback.
I could go on here with other minor complaints, but I’ll move onto what is more important. Remember when I said World of Warcraft is markedly not bug-free and reliable? Allow me to quickly cite the technical issues I have had thus far with the game (and allow me to point out the machine I am running it on, designated solely to WoW, facebook, and of course, figuring out how to play WoW through Google).
I’ve been disconnected by the server half a dozen times, and have crashed with error message “#132” closer to a dozen. Several times I couldn’t load the launcher due to an error receiving patching information. Once, when in the game, I slid down a mountain and upon landing was disconnected; after repeatedly attempting to reconnect, only an unsuccessful phonecall to tech support and short chat with a GM with another toon and I finally had my problem solved. Among the sundry quest-related hiccups, another involved this quest-giving NPC being entirely invisible (see the comments section identifying the issue as a bug) only after mapping a keystroke to detect nearby NPCs was I able to speak to the quest-giver and activate the quest.
Where are my monthly payments going?
When Microsoft blew the doors open to online multiplayer with Xbox LIVE, my stomach dropped and my hackles raised at the utterance of “subscription.” However, several years later and I am a happy paying customer; regular updates and patches have streamlined the LIVE experience into the quintessence of online gaming, something of which Microsoft should be very proud. When a Heavy Rain update crashed the Playstation Network, it felt far more acceptable to fall back to my laurels and say, “well, I’m getting what I paid for,” because I hadn’t been paying for anything. In this sense, PSN and WiiWare is a priveledge, and XBLA is a right—a subtle, yet important distinction. I am actively paying for my online experience with Xbox whereas I am getting it all (mostly) for free with PSN and WiiWare; therefore I fundamentally retain a higher degree of confidence and expection in the former service, and frankly, a small part of me expects worse in the latter two because they are free.
The point is, World of Warcraft carries with it a number of both design- and bug-related frustrations, as any game does to some degree. But WoW has also been on the market for six years, has six million subscribers, and requires of its players to pay monthly. It is inexcusable that many of these issues—particularly the bugs—still exist.
Were there no subscription involved, these things would be far less an issue, if an issue at all, but because each and every player is pumping money into Blizzard coffers—paying for the right to play unhindered—we as players have the right to ask more of the developer, and the developer has the responsibility to listen. Unfortunately what seems to be happening is only the veteran players are receiving the benefit of patches and updates whereas new players are forced to figure it out.
To be sure, it is the subscription model which is the most at fault here: it conveys a higher sense of expected quality, it raises expectations to somewhere close to perfection, and although World of Warcraft is a marvel and a triumph, it retains little right to be charging me by the month.
Joshua is a graduate of Full Sail University’s Masters Program in Game Design.
Check out his website – http://www.huftopia.com
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