It’s official: Activision-Blizzard’s flagship MMORPG—and undisputed king of the world of MMOs—World of Warcraft will be distributing with a limited-free-play model for new users who will be able to play the MMO for free until level 20. While this is really big news in the MMO industry, the barbs on the pointy end of the pitchfork are all in the little details of the “limited” part of limited-free-play. Not just because there’s a level cap at 20, and the game goes all the way up to 85, but because free-play toons suffer under huge restrictions to gameplay.
Some outlets are touting the Starter Edition package as free-to-play, but I’m not about to jump onto that boat. This is why I’m using the term “limited-free-play” to exemplar the fact that while it is free up until level 20, it is severely restricted:
- Level cap set to 20 and a maximum of 10 gold.
- Unable to trade via the Auction House, mailbox, or player-to-player.
- In-game access to public chat channels unavailable. Players are limited to communicating using only say, party, or whisper.
- Characters are not able to send whispers to other characters unless they have been added to the characters’ friends lists or have received a whisper from a character first.
- Characters will not be able to invite other players into a party and will not be able to join parties with other characters above level 20.
- Characters will be unable to create or join guilds.
- Voice chat disabled on Starter Edition accounts.
While capping gold, trade skills, and level (and content) makes sense for free-to-play game models that open up later content on a premium model, some parts of World of Warcraft’s culture need to be understood to explain the heavy restrictions on the social aspects for Start Edition accounts. For example, what kind of a player would want to get into a game when they cannot interact with other characters except in a very limited sense? (No global messages, whispers, inviting to groups, etc.)
To sum it up: spammers and gold farmers.
As first pay-to-play MMOs to essentially define the market, World of Warcraft’s currency is actually meaningful, although highly frowned upon by Blizzard, it is bought and sold by gold-transfer services for real world money. In some cases 100g goes for 1¢ leading to 10k gold running for $10 USD. This represents real money to people willing to sit down and grind all day and night, especially noting that a gold farmer need only make more than $15 a month to pay for the account.
As a result, WoW has had huge problems with even their trial accounts with spammers using credit cards to join, wandering into the nearest town, and then spamming constantly. As GMs strike down one spam account (and perhaps block its IP for a while) a new one would already be in the process of wandering up from the Valley of Trials into Orgrimmar to start spewing floods of gold selling information to unwilling ears.
This behavior happens on would-be paid accounts and it would only get worse given the opportunity on a free account.
While limited-free-play isn’t free-to-play in the slightest, it is necessary to hold onto as many of those restrictions as possible so that the economy and culture of WoW doesn’t degrade and water down. The current population of millions of players already shell out lots of money a year to play this game and going free-to-play would be disastrous to both the community and probably Blizzard’s bottom line.
Instead, they’ve opted to follow Warhammer Online’s example in player incentives by offering the first 20 levels free. There is a reason why people call this game Warcrack; the polish and shine, content, and sheer quality of the game have lead to it being one of the best MMOs in the industry and it’s probably why WoW is still top their today even after six years on the market.
For those interested in more details about the Starter Edition for World of Warcraft can brush up more with the FAQ.