• Day 180 – Money Woes, Part 1

    Six months into the free trial and I’m slowly discovering that its most daunting obstacle is also an achingly familiar one: Capitalism.

    Surprisingly, though, there are two sides to this coin.

    [No pun intended, but I have few regrets in life.]

    The first is obvious: The real-world subscription required to unlock access to the “complete” game. It’s only fifteen bucks, but it’s always been fifteen bucks — and spread across even a few million active subscribers (down from an all-time record of twelve million), it still adds up to a significant sum of money for the publisher.

    And this makes sense. Activision Blizzard has a vested interest in maintaining World of Warcraft’s status as a subscription-based game: Anything less (i.e., a free-to-play model) would effectively be a “loss,” irrespective of the fact that the total number of active subscribers has largely declined over time.

    So, the decision to lock content, including everything from levels to access to the Auction House, behind a paywall is a logical one. It provides players with a carrot to continue to chase after they’ve had a taste of the early gameplay.

    But locking content behind a paywall can quickly — or, perhaps, inevitably — lead to a micro-managing of that same content as publishers are forced to weigh the economic viability of every seemingly inconsequential element of gameplay. Features that would have otherwise gone unnoticed by players with subscriptions thus find themselves turned into hurdles for their free-to-play counterparts.

    And there’s the flip side of our coin: Weird stuff starts to happen.

    Dalaran Merchant's Bank.
    The Dalaran Merchant’s Bank.

    The Virtual Economy

    Before going any further, let’s take a look at the basics:

    To start, the economy in Warcraft is fairly simple.

    Currency consists of gold, silver, and copper coins, and it’s all typically created or destroyed through one of a set list of scenarios. If you finish a quest that rewards gold, for example, the gold you earn is created “from scratch” — i.e., the NPC isn’t pulling from a central reserve. If you delete a character with gold on them, the gold is destroyed.

    Now, gold can be traded to other players, but it’s most frequently spent at NPC vendors. The overwhelming majority of these vendors sell junk with little real value, such as common (“white”) gear with mediocre stats. Others offer consumable items or materials for leveling a profession, which are relatively more valuable, or collectible toys or mounts, which appeal to the completionists among us.

    The most important, though, are the Auctioneers.

    Located in each capital city, as well as a few other neutral and semi-neutral locations, Auctioneers provide players with access to the Auction House, a network of listings not too dissimilar from any other online marketplace. By posting a non-soulbound item and paying a slight fee, players can sell any loot they’ve acquired in their travels; in much the same way, they can bid on or buy outright the loot others have posted. Although the profit from these transactions largely goes to the seller, the Auction House does takes a five percent cut — as above, the cut is destroyed and effectively functions as a “gold sink” to regulate the economy.

    Equally important is the fact that Auction Houses are linked by faction. This means that a member of the Alliance in Stormwind will see — and have the ability to buy — the same items as another member in Ironforge. The audience for each auction is consequently larger, thereby making it more likely to sell and in the process remove a small amount of gold from play.

    [Note: A couple of Auction Houses function across factions, but they’re located outside of the major hubs and take a fifteen percent cut from each sale. Otherwise, they’re functionally the same.]

    A picture of the old Auction House window, which was updated and removed in Patch 8.3 (I think).
    Honestly, I miss the old Auction House. Credit to TheLazyGoldmaker.

    There’s more we could talk about here, of course, but most of it’s tangential to the point at hand.

    For now, then, a recap: Warcraft rests upon something like an open economic system in which gold can be created (i.e., introduced) or destroyed (i.e., removed) through a set number of processes. Currency is spent at NPC vendors, but the most valuable of these vendors simply serve as access points for a faction’s Auction House. The Auction House, in turn, offers players the greatest selection of items for advancement, as well as a significant means of making money themselves.

    Economic and Social Capital

    And there’s more to it than just money, too.

    By its very nature, the Auction House is a social institution. When you list or purchase an item, you’re necessarily interacting with other players. It’s not as direct as joining a party, raid, or guild, but there’s an implicit assumption that you’re selling to someone or buying from someone else. It doesn’t happen in complete isolation, even if it might feel that way on occasion.

    These connections consequently bring with them a different kind of power.

    This power, which Pierre Bourdieu called “social capital,” differs from the economic capital comprising material wealth and instead stems from the social network(s) we weave throughout our lives. You can think of it a bit like friend or follower lists on social media — a “follow” from Keanu Reeves would appear to have more social weight than one from your greasy neighbor in Apartment 2B. In effect, it makes you look cool.

    [At least until you learn that Keanu Reeves doesn’t have social media, in which case you can assume that it’s a fake account, possibly belonging to your greasy neighbor, after all.]

    The Auction House doesn’t offer followers or a visible means of tracking social capital, but that’s not really a problem. Even in the real world, social capital’s a matter of social perception (i.e., image) and the views that people hold of those around them. Wealth is a marker of economic success, but it’s one that has the potential to manifest in very visible ways and can quite easily translate into — or be acquired from — its social counterpart.

    Warcraft isn’t any different in this regard. In the Auction House, players are represented by their postings and purchases. Listing an item for thousands of gold may or may not say much about someone, but listing thousands of items suggests that they have the time and space to dedicate to gathering salable loot. Conversely, buying an item for thousands of gold may only represent a single “splurge” purchase, but buying dozens of items for the same price (or one of the official subscription tokens) suggests at least slightly deeper pockets.

    To engage with the Auction House is thus to engage with one of the most accessible and most effective means of earning social capital in the game.

    Auctioneer Chilton's disapproving gaze.
    Auctioneer Chilton disapproves of your poverty.

    The Poverty Line

    But here’s the kicker: If you’re playing a free trial, none of this matters.

    Like I said above (and previously), Warcraft locks the Auction House behind a paywall: Players running a free trial can’t use it. They also can’t send in-game mail, trade items with other players, or even join a guild, and they’re even restricted from using most of the public chat channels. It’s an isolating experience only exacerbated by the fact that players can do nothing with the loot they’ve acquired short of hoarding it like some kind of low-rent Smaug.

    So, aside from questing, there’s not really any way to earn or spend a significant amount of money. And without the ability to interact with other players in any meaningful way — and thereby buy, sell, or trade with them — there’s not really any way to cultivate the social capital that comes with that significant amount of money.

    This would perhaps be less of an issue if the game emphasized solo play as a viable alternative to party-based gameplay, but at the end of the day we’re still talking about an MMORPG. Grouping for dungeons, raids, and battlegrounds still takes priority over the single-player end-game experience. (Although I will admit that Shadowlands provided an interesting option with Torghast, Tower of the Damned.)

    With all of this in mind, then, I’ve found myself asking: What does it actually mean to play an MMORPG when the game itself tries to keep you away from other players?

    [To Be Continued]