WoW Factor: The WoW Token, selling gold, and institutional power

Nothing else has worked.

Last week, I wrote about the addition of the WoW Token to the classic version of World of Warcraft, and I noted at the start of that section that I originally didn’t even think I had anything else to say about it. As it happened, though, I did. And then this week again I found myself thinking about it again in even more detail, in response to a whole analysis of the illicit gold trade and taking Black Temple down for maintenance for a few days.

These thoughts are not about litigating why the WoW Token is, in fact, bad for WoW Classic but entirely in keeping with the fact that WoW Classic is what I have been describing it as for some time. But these thoughts are tied into something we’ve talked about before: that MMO design is not value-neutral. It’s about the temptation to treat all of these things as separate clauses when they are, in fact, all part of the same root identity. The house always wins.

Let’s just start with something that needs to be made clear prior to any further discussion: Gold selling and gold buying are a problem for MMOs whenever the currency being bought and sold has a meaningful impact on player power. When gold does not provide a meaningful or overwhelming vector for player power, its tends to be fairly irrelevant. And WoW Classic in particular is definitely a game where gold does, in fact, have a meaningful impact on player agency.

Some of this, naturally, is a result of the fact that every version of WoW Classic is functionally a fixed product. Even if some people might wish otherwise, the game is not going to surprise everyone with meaningful new content, and so people with the time and drive to create a gold-based bottleneck are going to do so. The game’s rampant pursuit of best-in-slot gear and the high (and artificial) floor expected from most players contributes to this. But another vector is simple the fact that, well… that’s the culture. There is a hierarchy, and gold is the currency that can actually be traded to fund that. GDKP’s rise in popularity alone ensures that this is a thing.

Far from meaningfully changing any of that, the addition of Titan Rune dungeons actually makes the drive even starker. I’ve said multiple times that this addition is importing Mythic+ into the game, and this is true, but it’s worth noting that this is importing that game mode into a specific wing of the game that is more directly based upon player hierarchy to start with. That’s not to say that everyone who enjoys WoW Classic is complicit in this, but that is the dominant culture regardless.


Into this mixture comes the WoW Token. And when I first wrote about this, I had honestly missed something that writing about the Black Temple thing made me realize. It all started with a reminder: The companies that are farming gold aren’t doing so as a desperate push to cover orders. They have gold. The WoW Token doesn’t represent an incursion into their business models so much as a shift.

Think about if for a bit. (And for the record, I am summarizing and expanding some of what MetaGoblin had to say in his original video; you should watch it, it’s in the post.) These companies sell gold, but they also sell boosting runs and similar services. If they get their gold undercut by Blizzard’s own token, well… they can just use their existing gold to buy the token, which ultimately saves them money, and then they can focus more on the boosts and other services. It does mark a shift in business model to an extent, but it doesn’t actually leave these companies in the lurch.

And the fact of the matter is that Blizzard doesn’t care. As a company, it has no reason to care.

Despite the claims to the contrary, Blizzard did not actually introduce the WoW Token to curb gold selling because the reason that gold is appealing to buy in the first place is because of what it lets you do. There are, in fact, actions that can be taken to make GDKP runs less appealing. Heck, implementing personal loot alone would nip them pretty resolutely in the bud. (Don’t start in with “that wasn’t in Classic”; we’ve already established that the studio will change whatever it wants at any time regardless of whether or not it was ever part of the original game. That argument just holds no water.)

What Blizzard wanted to do was sell gold. And it can do so any time it wants to because it controls the game, the incentive sets that make buying gold desirable, and the enforcement of penalties against companies selling gold. There is no outside agency it is answerable to. It’s like cops selling drugs: Institutional authority gives Blizzard all of the power.

Penicilin trap door laser currency bees!

There’s a well-known type of hostile design in a lot of free-to-play games, especially mobile ones, and if you’ve played these games, you’ve probably seen something similar, where a game system is introduced that makes progress slower or gameplay more difficult… followed by the introduction of a cash shop item that overcomes that problem. The designers have created a negative outcome and are selling you the option to bypass it.

In the case of WoW Classic, Blizzard did not entirely create the problem. The studio did not sit down and alter the original version of the classic release in order to incentivize a culture that would go on to see rampant boosting and the like. But the studio also did nothing to push back against it, and over time it not only collectively leaned in but made it even more explicit.┬áRemoving the ability to queue up for a random dungeon and earn currency to just get gear just just creates a hierarchy that’s even more rigidly enforced, and Titan Rune dungeons strengthen it. And if you want a seat at the table, you’re going to need to pony up the currency.

Blizzard has not created the problem, but far from solving it, the studio has promoted it and exacerbated it, and it is now taking over the role of the people selling that solution. They are perfectly happy to be what amounts to the middlemen between boosting companies that used to sell gold (but now just buy game time with that gold) and players who just really need a shot at bidding on a new chestpiece in that GDKP run.

Or, if you want to be cynical, Blizzard has made the changes in its game even more similar to a casino, and now it is happy to sell you another roll on the wheel. It’s hardly the worst thing that the studio has done within recent memory, much less more decent memory, but if you considered it particularly skeevy, I wouldn’t disagree.

And if your objection to all of that laid out end-to-end is “but Blizzard said that’s not what it’s doing,” consider, again, the institutional power. It’s buying and selling power, but the people who are being included in the sale are adamant that that’s not what’s being sold because the salesman offering the deal insisted otherwise.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with almost two decades of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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