Platform Azeroth: Why Information is Broken

This article explores why the best information in World of Warcraft (WoW) is not available from within the game. It considers how to better bring information into the game environment.

Analyse this:

Screenshot of WoW in-game browser hack.

Above is a World of Warcraft screenshot, showing an in-game browser. This is not a feature of the game. The “Knowledge Base” is technically a support database written exclusively by the game’s developer and operator, Blizzard. However, an enterprising hacked called Vladinator noticed that this in-game database took its information from a specific webserver. The Knowledge Base could therefore be re-directed to a different webserver: In this case a server that shows information from Wowhead, a third-party site that contains reference material on almost every item, quest, and thing in the game.

Blizzard was quick to block the hack.

This article attempts to explain the utterly illogical structure behind these events. It builds on some of my earlier comments about the use of micro-transactions for in-game education (“Learn2Play”). On this page:

In-Game Information

Allowing players to read information from the internet in-game is not a new concept. Eve is probably best known for its in-game browser. Basic HTML browsers are easily written, and save a lot of time alt-tabbing between the game and conventional web browser.

Great feature, modest effort, where’s the problem?

Allowing unregulated access may make game operators nervous. For example, Eve attracted its fair share of porn sites. But I suspect a game operator has the same liability for which sites their users visit as other browser developers. I don’t see Microsoft or Mozilla being held responsible for web browsing behaviour. Nor gun manufacturers being responsible for murders.

World of Warcraft Addons

World of Warcraft has an extensive user-interface/addon system, which allows third-party developers to script small applications within the game. These applications assist players’ play, without automating play entirely. Addons cannot communicate with the internet: They are self-contained within the game. Even updating must be done outside the game (a process increasingly automated using third-party software).

One of the most popular addons is LightHeaded. It uses a cached version of Wowhead’s quest data, which can be read in-game. Since the game changes slowly, the old cache is normally still accurate. Remember that live data cannot be used because the addon cannot communicate across the internet to the original source.

There is constant pressure from players to bring information into the game environment, so why doesn’t it happen?

Learn2Play is Commercial

At high level, World of Warcraft is probably unplayable by most people without access a plethora of guides, databases, and tools. Most of these are not provided by Blizzard.

WoW’s “Learn2Play” market is worth several million dollars each year. It’s becoming a serious business, attracting talented people who expect to earn a living from their work. The resulting competition, quality and innovation is astounding: WoW players have access to better-designed software tools and documentation than those found in most commercial industries.

Third-party information is funded by one or more of:

  • Advertising revenue.
  • Subscription or single electronic payment.
  • Love.

Love should not be underestimated, because it pays for the majority of small websites, and provides the passion that still drives most of the successful large ones. But many of the large sites require several full-time employees to build and maintain. Love doesn’t pay the rent.

Unfortunately, love is the only current funding mechanism that works in-game. If Wowhead (or anyone in a similar position) were able to recreate their entire website within the game, their revenue would drop close to zero: Unable to run network banner advertising, or even links to websites, they’d be reduced to running plain text adverts. And who buys those? It would be akin to Messrs Yantis and Pierce burning $10 million. In the street. Outside Blizzard’s shiny new headquarters.

Which starts to explain why none of the large third-party content providers are currently keen on in-game information. But doesn’t entirely explain why Blizzard blocked the hack.

The Fallacy of it all

This is the most delicious irony:

Much of the third-party information is already coded into the game by Blizzard, obfuscated as game-play, discover by players, fed into third-party services, and then used to play the game by everyone else.

Historically, this worked, I suspect because “exploration” was a game-play feature. Currently, by the time a new WoW patch leaves the test servers, almost ever change within it is widely known. Exploration has become largely irrelevant for most players. Management of the information discovered by others is now far more important.

Blizzard could expose all the raw game-play information within WoW – and they’d give (almost) nothing away that wasn’t already known. Increasingly a third-party website gains advantage over others by the quality of its analysis (including comments) and its tools, not simply by knowing that, erm, Bloated Giant Sunfish now contain Mostly Digested Fish. Indeed, we’re moving towards sharing game data (although Adys’ OpenWDB is only the first step).

The most curious aspect of WoW’s Armory – the official database of characters and items – is that it was built outside the game. Its information is more extensive than information within the game. Sure, it’s great when I’m not playing. Or would be if it worked reliably. But why make me leave the game environment when I want to find out information about the game?

Azeroth: The Platform

It need not be this way.

Many people in the internet tech-bubble are searching for the next platform. The internet version of what DOS was to the PC. Facebook applications, Google Gears, Metaplace. The future is uncertain.

WoW lacks the scope to occupy the mainstream market. But it has a lot of facets that make it an attractive platform in its own right:

  • An establish (albeit limited) programming structure,
  • many programmers already active,
  • a robust billing and payment system, and
  • a moderately large (but very passionate and socially inter-connected) group of users.

The key missing ingredient is a commercial marketplace. One needs to allow third-party content providers to “sell” electronic services and information in-game via micro-transactions, or allow them to make money via effective advertising.

The cost of such services could be modest, because existing (advertising) revenue per user is low (a high-volume video games website will struggle to earn $0.50 per 1000 page views). Even for Learn2Play e-books (gold and power-leveling guides), the moderately high cost to the user (around $30) is mostly due to the cost of advertising the product.

If Wowhead in-game cost 50 cents a month, would you buy it? If it cost 1 day each month of game-play time, would you buy it?

(Those questions are almost the same. Game-play time is paid with real currency (dollars), either via Credit card or Pre-pay card. But generally people are more irrational when valuing time, so adopting play-time as a unit of currency is both administratively easier, and might make it more likely that players will “buy”.)

Of course there is a lot of potential to implement features, from a centralised official addon repository (that automatically updates addons and prevents malicious code circulating), to funding a range of official addons, gifts and so on.

The most logical extension would be the “taxing” of third-party sales within the game: Similar to a licensed product, Blizzard would be able to claw back some of the money being made “on the back of” their game: Simply hold a percentage of micro-transaction revenue, or control advertising and split the earnings.

I doubt this will happen…

…Which is a shame, because a lot of potential will be lost.

Blizzard’s position can be broadly summarised as “it’s a game” and “only we can make money out of it”. Often heard when RMT is discussed, or seen in their “non-commercialmachinima policy. Oh, yeah: But making millions via commercial advertising is apparently fine. This hypocrisy is apparent whenever a large WoW-related website is sold. When the dollar price tag has 6 zeroes on the end, it is hard to argue an enterprise is anything but commercial. And when you look at how much effort goes into these sites, it is hard to deny their creators the right to earn that money.

So far, Blizzard’s only venture into micro-transactions has been through the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game: A separate franchised product, in which certain cards can be redeemed for in-game vanity items. The vanity items have no practical game-play benefit – they merely look or act cool. That doesn’t stop the rarest cards selling for hundreds of dollars on eBay.

House of Cards

The entire “ecosystem” of game information and player education presumably made sense when we built it. But its structure is increasingly under pressure from people that want to do things that are perfectly sensible, but are likely to bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. An “Azeroth platform” could rationalise the situation, but is an affront to the “non-commercial” nature of World of Warcraft.

“Que Sera, Sera…”


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