WoW Factor: Fine, let’s talk about Blizzard being dumb with early access

It just keeps happening.

All right, let’s get it over with.

I didn’t really want to write this column, not because I didn’t think there was anything to talk about here but just because it seemed so self-evident that it was kind of a waste of time. You should not need me to tell you that Blizzard’s three-day headstart for the most expensive version of World of Warcraft: The War Within is a really scummy practice. If you don’t already know that, you’re either new to online gaming or you’re some combination of troll and shill.

Should that offend you, well, stop shilling for the company. It ain’t hard.

Unfortunately, this week has seen Ion Hazzikostas do something that I generally think is beneath him and basically come as close as he has ever come to telling a lie by claiming that it won’t produce a long-term advantage, which means that Blizzard keeps opening its collective maw and not letting people move on from this. So now I need to write this column, and after having a few weeks of pointing out the things that the company has done well so far… jeez, this is less than enjoyable.

Let’s start with something very simple, which is just pointing out how weirdly and uncharacteristically disingenuous Hazzikostas is being with his claim that it won’t produce any advantage. Like, just the pricing belies that. It’s not producing any real advantage… but it’s still worth paying an extra $20 for? Both of those statements have a really tough time coexisting. It’s not a lie, but it’s closer than he usually comes, and I’ve spoken in the past about my conviction that when he says something, historically he’s honest and speaking intentionally.

On the one hand, it’s just inaccurate because at the modern high-end state of WoW, you aren’t really playing one character. You are kind of expected to maintain a few different alts just as a matter of course because balance patches and different fights might require different composition. One character might be really good in Mythic+ but kinda trash in progression raiding, so you’re expected to have both. Having three days of extra leveling time does throw a curve in that! It is going to lead to some decided advantage!

That having been said, for the majority of the playerbase, it is technically true that in terms of raw power, this is not going to matter. If you aren’t actually involved in the high-end progression scene, odds are low that you’re going to care about any of this. So while I can technically point to facets wherein the game will, in fact, give players some notable advantages by having those three extra days, in the spirit of the thing it is accurate. You will not be rocking BiS gear because of three extra days of access.

But that isn’t the point.

Leafy bits.

I feel silly pointing this out, as it should be so obvious that I shouldn’t need to, but the emotional impact of knowing that the expansion is out three days earlier pushes people to want the more expensive pack. Whether or not this provides a tangible long-term advantage is basically the same as the whole “pay-to-win” debate that I’ve previously talked about hating. Being told “you didn’t pay enough so you have to wait to get your toy” is not a cool thing to experience! It’s not fun!

You can point out that it will not have any tangible difference in terms of long-term power, and that can be true, but imagine if a certain tier of subscriber got WoW‘s patch content three days earlier. Even if it didn’t alter the time of when a seasonal item level upgrade arrived; that would suck. People would be angry. And they would be right to do so because it is weak sauce.

The rejoinder, of course, is that online game companies have done this for ages. Selling headstart access with more expensive packs has been a staple in the genre for years. And you know what? That argument is entirely true, but it bypasses the fact that this is also generally quite controversial when it happens, and it further overlooks that it’s usually done for entirely new games rather than whole expansions. This is not a template that WoW, which is trying to recover player trust, should be emulating.

And you know this is a conscious decision because there’s a pretty easy and obvious solution for the company if it cared about bad sentiment more than money. Just make the three days a pre-order bonus. If you order before the head start, you get to play the head start. The highest edition still has two toys, 30 days of subscription time, beta access, a pet, and more Trader’s Tender to market itself. From a strict point of cost analysis, that’s more than enough.

I’m not really expecting that to happen, though. Because if it was going to happen it would have been done immediately upon player reception, or it would have just been done before the sales were even put up. There is, in fact, another reason here.

Oh... that's disappointing.

We do not at this point have any kind of release date for The War Within. This is not in and of itself all that surprising; it only just got announced earlier this month, release dates are usually a bit further in the future. But based on pretty normal average math, I’d expect the expansion to release in about a year. If it releases in June, it would be the fastest expansion on record, and I think that seems like quite a lift. My bet is sometime between September and and November 2024.

Now… I know that the development team has been very clear about having plans for content between now and then, but we are still going to have an expansion gap. My point here is not to drag the devs for it but to simply point out that it’s going to be there. So it seems transparently obvious to me that there’s a clear incentive for Blizzard to bolster sales numbers now before another financial cycle wears out, especially with everything else that the company has delayed or not coming until later, or the many places where the studio is clearly losing money or at least not meeting expectations.

That is, of course, a deeply cynical read. But it’s a deeply cynical read about an expansion that is being sold now which is, realistically, at least nine months away from being ready. You don’t put that up for preorder this early unless you have a few cynical motives at play.

Does any of this mean that the expansion will be awful? Of course not. The expansion is going to sink or swim on its own merits, and I want to stress that none of these issues is meaningfully contributing to any of that. What is happening here does not doom the expansion; what is instead happening is that Blizzard, upon being handed a win wherein things actually look pretty good for it on the balance, decided to go for a cash grab at the absolute worst time. Which in turn contributes to cynicism, which in turn makes people forget about whatever parts of the expansion actually look good, and so on and so forth.

So actually not surprising, in that context, but still disappointing.

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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