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3.16.2014

On Four Blizzards - The Pre-Purchase/Level 90 Boost Decision



There's been a lot of chatter about the recent announcement of the Warlords of Dreanor Pre-Purchase which includes a level 90 boost. We talked about it in our post Warlords Of Draenor Release Date: On/Before 12/20/2014, Price: -$10 and discussed it at length with Faid on Episode 089: Another Pooting Incident.

We're not going to rehash what we've already covered but yesterday an email from Blizzard announcing the Pre-Purchase went out and that got people chatting again.

As I was pondering the email I came to a stark realization based on something I'd read earlier that night: There are four (or more) Blizzards! Read on for my thoughts on what went into the Pre-Purchase and Level 90 Boost decision.

Lookin' To Buy?


I read through it the email that Blizzard sent out yesterday (which I've included for posterity at the end of this post) had a very funny feel to it.

It seemed like…honestly it seemed like it was the type of email you would send out the week that Warlords of Draenor was released not something you send 6-9 months before.

Its wording was very much "buy this and get this" with the words "now" almost implied at the end. It mentions new character models (which won't be available for at least 6-9 months) almost as if you could have them today.

As someone who has worked in marketing it occurred to me that this email could only have been written this way if Blizzard's marketing department pre-writes all their promotional emails at least a half a year in advance. (I don't really think that but to read this email it certainly feels that way.)

To put it another way, they could send this same email out in 6-9 months and almost not have to change a word.

That seem odd to anyone else?

I won't stay on the email wording too long. Suffice it to say that thinking about the odd way the email seemed written for a launch much closer than 6-9 months away helped me make the connection with something I had read earlier in the night.

WildStar Y'all!


I've been reading up on WildStar lately after watching Profitz stream it this weekend. I've known about the game since 2006 (I had this piece of concept art as my desktop wallpaper for at least 5 years).

In looking for videos and information about the WildStar economy I somehow stumbled on the post Why is beta changing? Scooter tells us honestly by WildStarReport.

(While I tend not to pay attention to MMOs until they are released (burnout from working in the MMORPG industry and focusing so intensely on every single MMO released for 6 years will do that to you) and tend not to get too invested in games too early, since WildStar finally gave their pre-order date (March 19, 2014) as well as release date (June 3, 2014) I figured it was time to give it a look.)

This blog post relates some changes that Carbine (or its publisher NCSoft) made to the closed beta. While I wasn't familiar with the details of the change before this, the reasoning WildStar Community Lead "Scooter" gives in the forum post (now removed?) speaks volumes about what happens inside large game development projects.

It really is a unique "fly on the wall" perspective and is something I doubt we'd ever get from Blizzard.

Having worked in MMO development I can say that everything in the following forum post can (and very likely does) happen every day.

While Blizzard and Carbine are two different companies I'm sure they both face many of the same challenges related to developing and releasing quality games.

The Four Carbines


Below is the forum post by Scooter as quoted by WildStarReport (again, it appears the original forum post is no longer available). (Emphasis is ours.)

"Okay, here’s the deal. We’re always talking about how we fully support transparency at Carbine, so I’m going to dive into the details behind the reasoning so everyone understands a little better how we came to the program we’re at today. 
We know how much you guys want to play and help test, and we’re sorry we can’t give you any additional time to do so before launch. The reasons why are due to the four primary parties this decision had ramifications for: 
  • The executives – These guys hold the money and have the most experience knowing what’s healthiest for a game’s success.
  • The Sales/Marketing teams – These guys’ core purpose is to make sure the sales of our game are as high as possible. This is crucial because without sales… we as a company can no longer exist and you guys don’t get to play WildStar.
  • The Live and Operations teams – These guys need to make sure the servers are launch-ready.
  • The Dev team – These guys want to get as much feedback as possible before launch.
All four sat down and met and debated the possible programs we could go with for weeks… I was in some of those meetings, people like Cougar were in other meetings. In the end, we knew we’d have to come to a compromise between all parties, because any single path we took would likely screw up another team’s plans and needs. The needs everyone had were pretty straightforward, though conflicting: 
  • Dev’s priority was ensuring we still got high-level testing, since that’s the content that’s had the least amount of exposure in beta so far.
  • Sales and Marketing didn’t want too many people playing the game before launch so that we could make sure people weren’t getting a “free ride” through the game’s content and then canceling their pre-orders.
  • Execs didn’t want players burning out through beta and thus being uninterested in playing post-launch. Burnout generally happens because people don’t want to commit to characters that are going to get wiped and don’t generally “play” the exact way they’d play their actual characters. Burnout’s extremely common and quantifiable… it’s usually about 4 weeks in MMO betas and that’s been holding true for WildStar as well, so the higher-ups want to make sure we don’t lose players before they even get a chance to play the “final” game.
  • Live and Operations were focused on continuing to work on their processes and procedures, and need all types of testing and deployments to occur. The more we go up and down, the more problems we resolve, the more stability we achieve, the more prepared the Live and Operations Teams becomes for launch.
So the compromise you see today is what we ended up with: 
  • Beta goes from 24/6 to weekend testing to support Sales’ needs.
  • Pre-order players are limited to level 17 to support the Exec’s needs.
  • Current beta testers will be allowed to play beyond level 17 if they pre-order, or level 32+ players can continue playing without a pre-order, in order to facilitate high-level testing, to support Dev’s needs.
  • Live gets tons of people playing in a condensed amount of time to drive server concurrency up and push the servers to their limits. 
As the saying goes, you only have a good compromise if no one leaves the table satisfied. I’ll admit we’re not completely happy with how this program ended up, but it’s the best we could make out of the restrictions we were given. 
This post is now way too long, so I’m just going to wrap up by saying: The most important thing you can do to help WildStar at the moment is help us get the word out. Tell your friends, tell your family, tell anyone who will listen about us. We’re a studio that’s just barely on the radar of the non-enthusiast gamers, and we’re up against the titans of industry this year. If you really believe in the product and the direction we’re taking it, help us get this game out the door and be a massive success so we can do everything we’ve ever dreamed of with it. 
-David"

Re-Read It


I hope you really too the time to read what the Scooter was saying it the post above. If not go back and re-read it because it lays bare a truth about game development: it's not just the "developers" (as in the people actually developing the game) who make important decisions.

It's not just the people we generally think of as "Blizzard" (the actual game developers) choice as to what happens with important decisions. Things like, in WildStar's case, how, when, how long, and even what level beta testers can play up to.

I can just see the meetings that went on inside Carbine trying to hammer out a compromise about how the beta was to be run.

I'm sure haggling, begging, and horse-trading were all employed.

I can also see similar types of situations happening inside Blizzard as they set about nailing down what they were going to do about things like the pre-purchase and level 90 boosts.

The Four Blizzards


In the case of Carbine's situation as related by Scooter above there were four distinct sets of people who had a vested interest in how the WildStar beta was structured:


  • The Executives
  • Sales and Marketing
  • Live and Operations
  • The Game Developers


The game developers are the ones that seem to get all the spotlight in the games industry. They're the ones who get interviewed on podcasts and in gaming media and websites.

With the rare exception of a few executives here and there, we rarely see behind the curtain for sales, marketing, and operations.

While these areas may be a bit less "sexy" they are, as Scooter mentions in the post above, without them they "as a company can no longer exist".

Taking what we read about about Carbines struggles we can start to piece together what might have been happening at Blizzard.

In essence there are (at least) four Blizzards.

There are the Blizzard executives, the Blizzard marketing and sales team, the Blizzard live and operations and, last but certainly not least, the Blizzard development team.

Four distinct groups. All with four separate jobs to do. Four separate sets of pririties and (most likely) somewhat conflicting goals as compared to the others.

Coming to a good compromise was something that had to have happened with the pre-purchase and level 90 boosts.

Stop And Think


Putting these two thing together (the marketing email from Blizzard and this forum post from Scooter) really helped me to understand a bit more about why things might not always make sense to the players.

Why things may seem a bit "off".

Go back and read the beta stipulations that were implemented by Carbine (go ahead, I'll wait here). That rats nest of provisos, compromises, and restrictions was the best possible compromise between those four stake holders.

Stop and think that about the fact that there are also at least four groups inside Blizzard that all have their own jobs to do. (Hopefully) they are all working to give their customers the best experience they can. They're all working to making sure that the company of not thrives, at least survives.

Scooter said "we knew we’d have to come to a compromise between all parties, because any single path we took would likely screw up another team’s plans and needs."

Did you catch that? If any one party involved was given too much emphasis or sway it would upset and "screw up" the plans of the others.

I don't think Blizzard is inept.

Whether you think Blizzard did the right thing in how it structured its pre-purchase and level 90 boost my guess is that it was set up in such a way that at least those four groups had their say and got what they needed out of both Pre-Purchase and level 90 boosts.

As the saying Scooter related goes, "you only have a good compromise if no one leaves the table satisfied".

I Can't Get No…


Satisfaction. That's not a word that some are using when describing their feelings about the Warlords of Draenor pre-purchase and level 90 boosts.

They don't seem to be satisfied with the way it was handled or the structure of the promotion in general and (if we believe there is wisdom in the saying Scooter used) means they may have struck just the right balance.

In other words, the fact you're not 100% satisfied is a sign they are making good compromises to ensure the product (and company as a whole) is healthy.

My guess is that people who aren't satisfied are a vocal minority.

I think the the majority of World of Warrcraft players are happy with their pre-purchases and level 90 boosts.

But that's ultimately beside the point of this post. This post was meant to help you better understand that Blizzard is not some monolithic thing. It's not some aircraft carrier with the game developers all alone at the steering wheel.

Blizzard is a business. Blizzard is a huge corporation. A very profitable corporation. They make some of the most popular games the industry has ever known. They've maintained a track record of some of the most consistently well received and financially successful game franchises in gaming history.

Do you really think they got this far by accident? No one gets to where Blizzard is by accident.

Do you really think you know how to run a game development business better then Blizzard does? I doubt there are very many people in the world who could pull off what Blizzard does.

(Lord knows the numerous carcasses of past MMOs that have fallen by the side of the road trying to replicate even a fraction of World of Warcraft's success.)

Conclusion


I hope that the story related by Scooter sticks with you. It's a story about what really happens in large game development companies when a large and very important decision has to be made.

I hope you understand a bit better (as I hopefully do) that there are many more "cooks in the kitchen" at Blizzard then we might think. There are marketing people and sales people and operations people and executive people (wait, are executives actually people?) and game developer people.

The needs and concerns of all those groups (and likely more) are all wrapped together. When a decisions has to be made, I'd hope it is hashed out in a way that works not only for the company but those it serves.

I doubt Blizzard (all four of them) made the pre-purchase and level 90 boost decision lightly. (I would have loved to be a fly on the wall in those meetings.) I myself going to cut them some slack. and trust they know what they are doing.

I now have a little bit more perspective and I believe the decisions made by Blizzard don't all boil down to "let's suck more money out of these poor suckers" that many may envision Blizzard making while twirling their level 90 mustaches.

It's complicated.

The Email


For posterity here is the Warlords of Draenor pre-purchase promotional email (reformatted a bit to fit the blog) that Blizzard sent out yesterday (3.15.2014). (Emphasis in original.)

Subject: Jim -- Boost Your Character to Level 90 When You Pre-Purchase Warlords of Draenor





Jim

Pre-purchase World of Warcraft®: Warlords of Draenor™ and access exclusive in-game items, including a boost to level 90 for one character and the exclusive Dread Raven mount*. Lead the last defense against the Iron Horde as they ravage the planet of Draenor and edge their war machines ever closer to Azeroth. Order your copy of Warlords of Draenor now!




Level 90 Character Boost 

ARISE A CHAMPION 

Immediately boost one of your characters to level 90! Prepare for the battle to come as you master new skills and abilities in the current end-game content leading up to Garrosh’s exodus to Draenor.




New Character Models

HEROES REBORN 

The classic Warcraft races have had their character models completely revamped with greater detail than ever before. You’ll be able to jump into the action looking better than ever, with significantly increased polygon counts, textures, updated animation and facial expressions!




New Feature: Garrisons 

TAKE COMMAND 

Construct a mighty garrison with farms, stables, armories, workshops and more. Recruit stalwart followers to man your base, send them to loot dungeons, fulfil missions, and craft items, even if you’re offline!




New World: Draenor 

BRAVE A SAVAGE WORLD

Discover Draenor, an untamed world of magma and metal, stone and steam. Seven new zones are waiting to be explored, with new threats to be overcome, quests to be completed and rewards to be reaped.





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8 comments:

  1. So let's see, what does each group gain or lose by doing the pre-orders now:
    1. Execs:
    Gains: Money this quarter. A big influx of money. You and I (Wellwow) briefly discussed this on twitter and my gut says this was more about getting $50 a pop this fiscal quarter from current players (several million * $50) rather than bringing old players back (half a mil resubs would be an amazing success; even half that number would exceed my expectation). Regarding old players, there are two factors in my mind. You have the ones from pre-MoP, and they might be tempted to catch up. You also have the ones who've quit during MoP and I doubt they are tempted, as they've already seen the content and decided to quit. Working against both groups is the amount of time until new content. "Sure, I could resub now, but there's nothing new for 6-9 months. I'll wait 4 or 5 months then do it." Sub numbers surely get a boost, I just think it will be a really small effect. I also think this will help lower unsubs during this time, as it gives players a second way of staying engaged with the game (leveling vs boosting+endgame, take your pick). Still, the major effect is the quick influx of money.
    Losses: They don't get the pre-order income pop in a later quarter. (Other properties coming online later? Smoothing out Q by Q numbers?) If sub numbers don't rise much, they are open to criticism about the decision of the timing.

    2. Sales/Marketing
    Gains: They are locking in customers now by getting lots and lots of low hanging fruit. This gives them time to focus on those who don't immediately buy, like me.
    Losses: I'm not sure. Their numbers won't look as good next quarter, but if everyone is expecting that, how bad is it? I guess the game gets publicity too during what is normally a quiet time (massive content lull).

    3. Live and operations
    Gains: It is implemented at a time where (production) workflow is slow, so not as big of a crunch? It is something largely off the plate, so reduces crunch as beta and launch approach.
    Losses: A little bit of people power from other tasks.

    4. Devs.
    Gains: Also something off their plate.
    Losses: Not much. Getting the boost ready may have taken some time away from WoD work, but if it was ready now, that's just a sunk cost.

    I'm wondering what I've missed, for surely I've missed things. (Like effects of competitive products being released.) But considering the above, the timing really seems driven by the execs to me. I'm really curious why they went for the income pop right now. Is it as simple as getting paid as soon as possible, or is it part of a larger plan for investors and stakeholders?

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    Replies
    1. You bring up some very good points. I've often wondered what I've missed in all this as well. Maybe we'll never know for sure.

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    2. So do you think this was (in a very literal sense) an "executive decision"?

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    3. Haha! Well yeah, that's my guess at this point. But in the framework provided, they are the internal group that benefits the most.

      In a tangential note, I'm recalling that David Bowie arranged for bonds on an album so that he could get money immediately instead of waiting for sales to trickle in. The idea of getting money for an expansion a half a year or before it is released smacks of that to me.

      It is interesting. I hope some fly on their wall talks eventually! :)

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    4. Maybe the executives made the case that it would benefit them (AKA the "money men") with little to no impact on the other groups. I have the feeling that any "side effects include…" gotchas are what some people were up in arms about. Unfortunately people in the present very rarely consider the people in the future when making decisions. That's the rub. You can guess as future consequences but because they are in the future you can't tell for certain if they will or won't happen and even if you're fairly certain they will you can't predict exactly how they will manifest itself.

      I'm totally butchering and paraphrasing this quote but is goes something like "All military plans only certain up until the first contact with the enemy".

      In other words, you can plan all you want but as soon as the battle starts you can be sure it won't go according to plan no matter how much you wish it would.

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    5. Internet search to the rescue: It was Helmuth von Moltke the Elder: "No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's main strength"

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    6. Hmmm. In the US there is a SOX accounting requirement that specifies you can't acknowledge money as received until the product is delivered. I'm guessing they get around this by placing the level 90 boost at a $60 price and so the expansion upgrade becomes free?? Anybody else have any thoughts about this?

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    7. That would be some mighty big accounting gymnastics. If they marking it as a boost purchase with a free expansion they sure aren't being clear about it. Thanks for the info.

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