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A Brief History
At BlizzCon in 2009, Blizzard Entertainment revealed plans for "Battle.net 2.0," the next stage for their internal social network. Battle.net was originally used as a server to connect players of the "Diablo" and "StarCraft" series for multi-player sessions. The revision, Joystiq reported, would, among other features, implement a Real ID system which would identify players by their first and last name, and add a marketplace for players to purchase "StarCraft 2" maps.
The Real ID system was quietly forgotten until the summer of 2010, when Patch 3.3.5 for "World of Warcraft" introduced Real ID for the MMO's players, ahead of "StarCraft 2"'s release. The system layered on top of the existing friends system in game, allowing players to add each other by the email associated with their account, and identify each other across games and servers while utilizing players' real names.
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Cross-Realm Dungeon Finder & Other Services
Although Blizzard Entertainment hinted in an interview with 1UP that additional microtransactions may be added to Battle.net's features during BlizzCon 2009 - the same year they revealed Real ID - almost two years went by without further discussion of premium services. In fact, the marketplace scheduled to launch with "StarCraft 2" has been under delay, and has still not been added to the game's features.
In May 2011, community representative "Slorkuz" broke this silence by revealing the plans to launch a Cross-Realm Dungeon Finder for "World of Warcraft." This service will offer players the chance to invite their Real ID friends to join them in the Dungeon Finder, regardless of what server they play on. Currently, players can only invite players on their current realm into a group to join the Dungeon Finder, which only groups together players on the same battlegroup (a group of individual servers). Slorkuz added, "It’s important to note that as with some of the other convenience- and connectivity-oriented features we offer, certain elements of the cross-realm Real ID party system will be premium-based, though only the player sending the invitations will need to have access to the premium service."
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Keeping Microtransactions out of Pay To Play
The decision to offer a premium service to a subscription-based game like "World of Warcraft" has come under intense scrutiny by the gaming community. Many argue that a premium service for the game is "double-dipping": collecting money twice from players for the same service.
The hatred of microtransactions for subscription-based games like "World of Warcraft" stems from their reputation in the MMO industry. Microtransactions are commonly used in free-to-play games (which do not require a subscription) to generate revenue and pay for the game's development and upkeep. Many thus believe that microtransactions added to a game that has been fully purchased, or that is paid for regularly through subscriptions, unfairly offer additional content at a fee that the player should be entitled to with their existing purchase history.
However, most subscription-based MMOs already offer premium services. These services commonly include character name, race, and gender changes; server transfers; and account merges. These services are not required of players to enjoy the game, and are offered as a convenience to the player at an additional fee. Likewise, many subscription MMOs - including "World of Warcraft" - offer special cosmetic items such as mounts and pets which offer no in-game advantage to the player.
S o why the fuss over the Cross-Realm Dungeon Finder? Unlike these other premium services offered to gamers, which remain generally cosmetic, the Cross-Realm Dungeon Finder improves quality of life by allowing friends to connect and play together through the current game interface. The service also extends beyond a one-time transaction; players with the premium Real ID service will be able to continually invite friends to play with them. The service can also benefit players who have not paid for it, offering them a boost that players without the service (or a friend that has it) cannot enjoy.
It isn't that Blizzard Entertainment is "double-dipping," per se - the premium service is something additional that would not otherwise be available to regular players. The problem is that the service should be a regular game feature, despite any difficulties it may have in implementation. Friends should be able to play together without paying additional fees to transfer characters, guilds, or join up together in the Dungeon Finder.
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Who Makes the Final Call?
No official poll has been taken about subscriber opinions on the Cross-Realm Dungeon Finder, or Real ID premium services, but Blizzard Entertainment is definitely listening to feedback in their forums, and via the media.
Currently, it doesn't seem like Blizzard will budge on their stance with the premium Dungeon Finder service, or other services in the future. Blizzard employee "Zarhym" commented, "We've made countless quality-of-life improvements to the game in terms of content, UI, data storage, character profiles, etc. We've expanded upon what you get for your monthly subscription by leaps and bounds since the game was first released, but the subscription price has not changed."
But with Activision Blizzard in over $1 billion US in revenue, questions remain as to whether the price of premium - on top of the cost of the purchase of the game and a monthly subscription - will be fair to its playerbase, regardless of what service it offers. With the addition of premium services to Battle.net, is gaming coming to a premium price?
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- Kelly, Kevin. "BlizzCon 2009: The new Battle.Net", http://www.joystiq.com/2009/08/25/blizzcon-2009-the-new-battle-net/
- Nguyen, Thierry. "Blizzard Might Add More Pay Services To Battle.net", http://www.1up.com/news/blizzard-add-pay-services-battlenet
- World of Warcraft Official Forums, http://eu.battle.net/wow/en/forum/topic/2123552598, http://us.battle.net/wow/en/forum/topic/2456451254?page=3
- Activision Blizzard, http://investor.activision.com/releasedetail.cfm?ReleaseID=575495
Images via Activision Blizzard (Press Kit) and author.