15 Apr 2012

Annual Pass: A Post Mortem

I promise this article is going to be the last thing I write about the World of Warcraft Annual Pass. Once this is finished, I’m done with the whole sorry saga. To me, the whole process has been a great concept gone disastrously wrong, exposing how far a company will push their terms and conditions at the expense of customer satisfaction.

It’s also – and I’m being honest here – the symptom of a bet gone bad. Of calculating the probability of when key events would happen, and getting it wrong. While these events are still somewhat inside Blizzard’s control, it’s something I’m aware I’ve got to take on the chin.

But it’s not an emotionless decision. One doesn’t just turn their back on a games studio in the blink of an eye. It takes time for opinions to change, for the fan to metamorph into the cynic. It took this latest saga to realise just how far my opinions had changed about the studio and their commercial decisions.

Winding the clock back, I was completely in favour of the Annual Pass when it was announced back in October 2011. Blizzard were offering guaranteed access to the Mists of Pandaria beta, a free copy of Diablo 3 and a free mount just for signing up to a 12 month commitment. At the time it seemed like a no-brainer to me. I’d still be playing Blizzard games, so I’d essentially be getting a whole handful of free stuff. You can imagine my glee.

The first clanger was the announcement that Dragon Soul would be the final content patch before the expansion. This meant that at best I’d be working through a six month content drought while the guild progressed through the Dragon Soul raid. Little did I realise how brutally effective the LFR tool would be. Within two weeks I’d been through the raid, killed Deathwing and finished the story. As the guild leader dished out loot, the future of seeing this same scenario play out week after week appeared in my mind. I rejected it. I’d seen what I wanted. I was done.

The second clanger – Diablo 3. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the game. This was the icing on the top rather than the cake itself. But after playing through the beta I gave up even considering it. While it’s not a bad game per se, it’s an incredibly direct continuation of the mechanics, art style and even game engine used in the previous games. For me the beta didn’t add anything substantial to the experience beyond the use of true 3D graphics. I went from considering a Collectors Edition preorder to outright dismissing the game in one playthrough.

The third clanger – The handling of the MoP beta invites themselves. Not only did we see the climbdown from “everyone in at once” to “invites in waves”, but we also saw some barefaced untruths. After being told in forum posts and news articles that priority would be given to the longest subscribers who signed up quickest, it’s clear from various news sources that it simply isn’t the case. But it’s the mismanagement of how this has been handled that really strikes me. Instead of firing up new beta servers, Blizzard sticks to their guns.

The fourth clanger – experiencing the beta. After playing through the new starting zones and some of the high-end content, I’ve come to realise that the game is offering me more of the same. Like a TV series that has outstayed its welcome or a line of books that have run out of ideas, I’m reminded that I’m still playing the same game that I was seven years ago. The core of the game hasn’t moved, even while the MMO landscape has been changing around it.

As a result of all of this, I made the unusual step of contacting my card provider and blocking any further payments to Blizzard. Tired of continuing to pay for something I was no longer using, tired of the repeated changes by Blizzard and tired of evasive responses by customer support teams, I took matters into my own hands. It’s at this point that I realised just how far things had changed, from a plucky developer eager to please to a businesslike service provider mired in policies and procedures. I was a fan of the Blizzard they used to be, not the ActiBlizz they’ve become.

In truth I haven’t been playing World of Warcraft for four months. Instead, I’ve been returning to games like Rift and trying out new ones like Star Wars: The Old Republic. I’ve also been involved in a handful of betas, some of which I hope to talk about someday. All of this has reminded me that it’s variety that makes the games fun, and although World of Warcraft was a fun experience for the many years it lasted, it’s a game whose time has come and gone.

That’s not to say that I begrudge those who are still enjoying their time in WoW. If you are, good luck to you. If you still have faith in Blizzard then I’m happy for you. If you’re happy with raiding the same instance for months on end while paying a subscription for it, then that’s entirely your decision.

The whole situation has reminded me of a greater truth: it should be easy to judge the value of entertainment. Choosing to spend money on a particular game, book or film should be about how much enjoyment we’ll get out of it. Trying to balance cost against options and terms and conditions – these things are better left to mobile phone contracts or car insurance. Gaming should be a simple choice, not a complex negotiation.

That’s my final word on it. World of Warcraft and I? Done.

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