Annual Pass and MMO Guilt
When the WoW Annual Pass was announced during Blizzcon in October of last year, I was one of the people who signed up within the first few days it became available. Honestly, it seemed like such a sure thing I would have to be crazy not to do it. I’ve been a continuous WoW subscriber for over 4 years now, and while I’ve experienced the doldrums at the end of an expansion before, I never doubted I would find something to fill my spare time at the end of Cataclysm even if the Mists of Pandaria expansion wasn’t released until autumn. At worst, I figured, I might have a month or two when I wasn’t interested in playing – and a month or two of a $15 WoW subscription was still cheaper than buying Diablo 3 outright.
In all this logical buying, I didn’t account for some other factors that might contribute to my choice to subscribe to Annual Pass. The funny thing is, all my careful planning only worried about whether I would still want to play WoW … not whether there might be something else I wanted to play.
I’ve written before about the reasons why I don’t identify as a gamer, not the least of which is that I don’t really play that many games aside from WoW. One of the really neat things about playing WoW, however, is that it got me interested in trying out some other games. Whether I’ve been rolling my eyes at the interview system of LA Noire or getting throughly lost and loving it in Skyrim, I’ve found myself playing a lot more games since I subscribed to WoW than I ever did in the past.
I dabbled in other MMOs, too. A few months ago, the boyfriend and I got hooked on Star Trek Online. I really didn’t expect much from that game (it was my first experience with a “Free to Play” MMO), and while I enjoy the Star Trek TV series, I can’t say I’ve ever been enticed to look into any of the other media surrounding them. I was also really, really positive I was going to completely hate space combat. But after a few days Tzufit (my Bajoran science officer) was having a blast going on ground missions and commanding a pretty awesome-looking spaceship. The stories in the quests struck me as totally bizarre and outlandish – even by Star Trek standards – but I was having enough fun with the gameplay that I really didn’t care.
City of Heroes was another of our FTP temporary interests. I don’t think we ever got our characters past level 20, but we had so much fun using completely overpowered abilities against packs of mobs that were really tuned for single players. I spent hours (and I mean literal, multiple, hours) designing superheroes with CoH’s insane number of customization options. CoH, Rift, and – to a lesser extent – STO had the type of character customization that I would kill for in WoW, and that was a part of the attraction for me. In CoH in particular, it was really amazing to be able to design a superhero to look a particular way based upon the abilities they would eventually have, and then to get to choose whether they could fly, teleport, do acrobatics, etc.
Most recently, I spent a great deal of time playing Star Wars: The Old Republic … at least up until the release of Diablo 3 which coincided nicely with the end of a month of paid SWTOR playtime. I have to say it – I adore SWTOR. Obviously it’s not perfect and hopefully Bioware will have the chance to develop the game for a long time to come, ideally implementing some of the quality of life stuff that most WoW players take for granted now. I loved the extensive class storylines in SWTOR, even though they occasionally felt a bit too much like I was being god-modded by the game’s writers. (For example, I created my Sith inquisitor with the idea that she was the daughter of a well-respected general in the Imperial army. Imagine my surprise when everybody for the entire starting area kept telling me she was a slave.)
Despite its obvious lack of mouseover macro functionality, and the difficulties that presented for healing, I loved my Imperial Agent’s abilities and the feel of the class. I shot darts at people to heal them! I summoned little green probe droids to follow them around and provide a heal-over-time! The Imperial Agent class is cool, there’s no denying it, and my Agent looked cool, with her creepy bionic sunglasses that hid a deep scar over her left eye. Sure, it isn’t a perfect game and there’s plenty of stuff I’d like to change about it, but I had a ton of fun with SWTOR this spring.
And then came Diablo. I’m not entirely sure I would have purchased D3 were it not for the Annual Pass offer. I never played the other Diablo games and it isn’t really a genre I expected to enjoy. Though I’ve been having a lot of fun playing D3 in co-op with a handful of friends, I’m still not positive I would have purchased this game. It’s a good temporary distraction from the lack of new content in WoW, but I’ve played through the game twice now and don’t know that I have the desire to keep going into Hell difficulty.
Right about now is when I start to understand the grand design of the Annual Pass, and the part that makes me feel sort of awful about it.
I find myself now in a situation in which I will be subscribed to WoW through October of this year, by which time Mists of Pandaria should (should!) be out. I also find myself with D3, a game I enjoy but not enough to have purchased it without additional incentive. I also, theoretically, have the Mists beta, which I’ve logged into about a dozen times. The downside of Annual Pass isn’t that it keeps me playing WoW or that I got a cool game for free that I probably wouldn’t have tried otherwise. The downside is that the Annual Pass makes me think twice about spending money on another MMO.
In our household, when one of us subscribes to an MMO we usually both subscribe. So that’s a guaranteed $30 a month for WoW, making our MMO spending $60 a month when we were subbed to both WoW and SWTOR. Now, $60 a month doesn’t break the bank, but it does make me stop and think about whether I really want to be subscribed to two MMOs at once. Even more important than the question of money, however, is the question of time. Do I really want to dedicate that much time to gaming in a month? I mean, if I’m going to pay $15 a month for something, I’d like to get my money’s worth out of it, but that means I’m spending a significant chunk of leisure time sitting in front of my computer. While I love both WoW and SWTOR and consider both pretty excellent ways to relax, I think there’s probably something in the idea of playing games in moderation – particularly if you’re someone who has spent too much time playing them in the past.
So, in moments when I’m feeling cynical, I think of what a perfect plan this was on Blizzard’s part not necessarily to keep me playing WoW, but to keep me from playing anything else for an extended period of time. Hugh of MMO Melting Pot felt similarly cynical when the Annual Pass was first announced:
If WoW was about to have a 10 month content drought before a new expansion, it would be a very cynical but intelligent move to attempt to lock as many people into a subscription before that happened. You’d want to push hard – even to the point of giving away valuable content – to get as many certain subscribers under WoW’s belt before the content drought seriously starts to kick in.
So when I then read announcements like this one from a company whose product I truly enjoyed, I can’t help but feel a little guilty about my decision. Now, I’m not a total idiot – I realize that the meager $30 a month my household might have contributed to SWTOR’s subscription fees wouldn’t have prevented those employees from losing their jobs, I can’t help but wonder how many MMO players out there are in the same spot as me. How many of us are there who might be trying other things (even if we eventually return to WoW once new content is released) were it not for our commitment to the Annual Pass?
I don’t think Blizzard is some big bad thing because of this design – it’s a really intelligent business strategy. But that doesn’t really make me feel any better about participating in something that sort of feels like it’s going against the idea of fair competition. I don’t really like that I have signed on for a deal that makes it harder for cool new games to get off the ground, and to stick around once they do. I actually wonder whether I (and perhaps other Annual Pass subscribers) might be more excited for the release of Pandaria had we spent some time away from WoW in recent months – the “absence makes the heart grow fonder” idea. There were few things in other MMOs that would drive me back to WoW faster than realizing how much simpler Blizzard makes it to do the basic things you need to do to enjoy a game without the game itself getting in your way.
If you are an Annual Pass subscriber, how are you feeling about your decision to commit to WoW for a year? What, if any, other games have you tried during the absence of new content since Dragon Soul released? Does your Annual Pass subscription make you think twice about buying or subscribing to other games?