New Game Smell

I have many thoughts about Warlords of Draenor. I think there should be more women in the marketing. I think there is a noticeable lack of characters we can find heroic. I think their healing blog on the changes has me not wanting to heal.

When pre-orders went up for WoD though, I didn’t blink, I paid my $70 for the Digital Deluxe Version, and immediately started thinking about who I wanted to boost to 90. Today a Breakfast Topic on WI discussed the pricing of WoD. It’s the fifth WoW expansion, all previous expansions were $40, but WoD is $50.

The more cynical people think it’s “charging” $10 for the “free” level 90 boost. The more economics knowledgeable people point to inflation. But I am a game developer, so my first thought was – Yep, that price sounds about right, for a WoW expansion. But I was astonished at several responses, but none as much as this one “$50? That’s almost the price of a new game!” (Some used the CE pricing and said it was as much as a new game.) This was followed by claims of less content, subscriptions funding the expansion development, and comparisons to new games.

I am baffled by how many people commenting seemed to have no knowledge of game development, or even WoW’s development.

So here’s some food for thought, on why a mere expansion should cost the same as a “new” game.

First, I want to bring issue with the term expansion and the belief that our subs fund the development of expansions. Expansion is a word that is used to describe additions to a game that require the base game to play. Expansion does NOT necessarily indicate the number of hours of play added or the amount of content. There also seems to be some misconception about subs being used to support development, and while it’s possible they do, they are also used to pay for servers (and any upgrades over the years), server power, GMs, CMs, Customer Service, and all those other pesky things that come from running a massive live game like WoW. Then, any left over money likely gets split between investors and Blizzard, with a larger cut going to investors. (I heard rumors back in 2008 from a good source that indicated that the original deal of how sub fees got split actually meant Blizzard got very very little from it, but that is probably outdated now as those kinds of thing are occasionally renegotiated.) Regardless, that money doesn’t necessarily get spent on the development of expansions. Nor is Blizzard under any obligation to do so. Read the ToS. It says nothing about Subscription Fees or where they will be spent. You are paying for access, and nothing else. (Although the more I think about it, the more I expect that our sub does pay for the content we receive in patches, while the expansion price is paying for the huge drop of leveling content at the start.)

Second, the cost of everything rises and games are no exception. I remember when the price on console games went from 50 to 60, and everyone threw a fit. But it stuck, and eventually everyone accepted it. Even at the time, the developer response to the cost increase was art. I am a game developer and I have shipped 4 titles, in addition to knowing dozens of game developers from games of all sizes. One universal truth is – art is expensive. Exponentially so. The higher the fidelity, the higher the cost. Artists make up more than half of the company at every company I have worked at. Creating a single environmental object for a game, like a tombstone or barrel, can take 8 hours, based on the complexity of the model, the detail in the texture, how long it takes to unwrap, etc. Then every piece of art has to be reviewed and approved. Things like characters can take several WEEKS to model and texture, then a few more to rig and animate. Once a piece of art is finished, it has to go to programmers or designers to be implemented and placed in the game.

So from Skylanders, here’s how it goes with a SINGLE destructible item. I needed a barrel for the Darklight Crypt level. That was 4 hours of an artist’s time. Then he sent the barrel model and the models for the 5 pieces of it that show up when it breaks. It takes me about an hour to get them loaded into a destructible level, with proper collision and that’s AFTER a great deal of development time spent setting up the “pipeline” so I just have to plug stuff in, as opposed to scripting it up by hand. But then depending on the item I might have to do more special case scripting on top. Let’s say I don’t, so now it’s up to 5 hours. Then I send an email to vfx, so they can add particles when it explodes that match the item exploding. They spend about 2-4 hours doing that. (A barrel is likely 2.) Then sound has to go in and add explosion sounds and adjust those for the specific item. (About an hour.) And here we are, a barrel, in the game exploding, right at about 8 hours. Oh, but this was Darklight Crypt… and there is a world swapping mechanic, so I need that same barrel, only for the other world, so it’s going to need to look different… Two days, minimum of four employees, for TWO art assets that are as simple as it gets in games. Imagine doing hundreds of these. How many different barrels and crates have you seen in WoW?

As the items get bigger and more complex, they take more time. Oh and on a game like WoW, where they are updating the graphics engine with each expansion they have to go back and re-do art to make it look better and fit with the new graphics. Otherwise you have the problem all over the game that you can see by simply standing a human next to a panda. Not to mention that graphics engine that got updated probably had a few programmers working on it. (I would bet Blizzard has between 5-10 at least.) I know how many people work on Skylanders (although, that’s JUST TfB, technically people at Beenox and Vicarious Visions are working on it too…) so I can just imagine WoW’s team must be at least 150-200 people – JUST for development. Do you realize how much MONEY it takes to PAY that many people? And these aren’t minimum wage employees either. These are highly specialized, talented people. If Blizzard isn’t paying them well, someone else will, and they will lose their talent. Game Career Guide does a salary survey every year. Programmers with 6+ years of experience get ~106k. Artists – 76K. Designers – 82K. Producers 66K. Audio – 93K. So if we average that, we get (round down) 84k. 84k x 200 people… That’s over 17 MILLION a year – JUST on salaries. And I am positive that number is low. Really low. Because that’s not taking into account leads, people with 10+ years of experience, or things like QA. Obviously, if we had more data, we would have a more accurate picture, but making games is expensive! (Here’s another post on this exact same thing.)

Now, to my biggest bone of contention, and the one comment that made my teeth grind. “But it’s almost as much as a WHOLE NEW GAME!”

How do you know?

We haven’t seen all of Draenor yet. We don’t know how big the space is. We don’t know how many “skins” the garrison has. (Blizzard calls them kits.) We don’t know how many quests there are. We don’t know the number of new pets, mounts, armor, etc. We only know the number of dungeons and raid bosses. We don’t know the time it will take to get to 100. You are speculating on content size without having seen it! Okay, fine, let’s make the assumption it is as big as Pandaria. (With equal numbers of quests, dungeons, etc etc.)

Alright – but how big are new games? People like comparing it to ESO or WildStar, but those games aren’t out yet either. (I would like to cut the speculation down as much as possible.) I didn’t play SWTOR, so I can’t speak to it either. So let’s look at some new games I did play. Dishonored! Great game, I highly recommend it. It took me 15 hours to beat. Content wise though, it has about the equivalent of Jade Forest. What about Skyrim, another excellent game I highly recommend? (Thank you Reddit dudes for actually timing this.) It takes about 30 minutes to run from one end to the other. So if we run from one end of Pandaria to the other… and it takes about 30 minutes (on the ground, not flying or flight paths). Hum.

Okay okay, what about GAMEPLAY. That’s what’s important right? So Skyrim, I played for ~300 hours. My /played in Pandaria (since you can see how long it has been at this level) is… 22 DAYS? Honestly I expected more. I have 5 other characters at 90 too. Quests! Skyrim has ~300 quests. Here they are – all listed on one page. Pandaria has 1551. (I am skipping dungeons as they don’t really compare easily – Skyrim has over 100, but they are significantly shorter, use modular art, and do not generally have boss fights for all of them.) How many animals? Mounts? Pets? Buildings? All of these take time to make and then implement. You can’t just reuse assets either, or players complain, or it just looks silly. You can’t use regular mailboxes in Pandaria, they have to match the aesthetic of the world.

In the game industry, you will often hear the saying “Good, Fast, or Cheap. Pick two.” This is why Skyrim took ~5 years to make. It’s a great game. It’s a big game. It took a long time. (I’d bet money it wasn’t cheap either.) Pandaria, as a stand alone game, has just as much as Skyrim in terms of content, gameplay, and awesomeness. But took 3 less years to make and cost $20 less. That kind of turn around is not cheap. That means overtime. That means more people. That means talented people who cost more but do the work right the first time. Consider that Vanilla took at least 4 years to make. And yet they are churning out MORE content in the expansions than they did in Vanilla.

I also see people saying because there isn’t a new race or class, it’s not as “much” as before. UH. You’re getting effectively 5 races this expansion. When they “rework” models, they aren’t faster and easier because they have been done before. You have to start fresh and the new ones are so much more complex. And goodness, who actually wants a new class? I don’t have time to play the ones we HAVE! Monks are still a fraction of the player base as compared to the older classes. So logically, why would Blizzard spend 100s of hours making and balancing a new class when it’s not going to be played? Many decisions made in game development change based on how much something costs to do versus how many players actually do it. (Why 100s of hours? Well first you have to think it up, then implement it – which could take a month or so, then art it just enough to figure out if it works/is fun/feels like WoW, then iteration to make it GOOD, then more art to make it LOOK good, then more iteration to make it balanced… so much TIME! Wouldn’t that time be better spent on things people who don’t want alts can also play with? Like… Garrisons? :))

So is WoD worth the extra $10? Is it comparable to a new game? Of course it is. It has far more content and gameplay than most games. The comparable games, like Skyrim, are known for being “massive” among gamers. Honestly, Blizzard could be charging $60 for it. We call it an expansion because it builds on WoW, but in terms of scope, it’s bigger than most new games.

If you take into account the time spent in the game, the “return on investment” says they could be charging even more, and it would still be worth it. I paid $60 for Dishonored and got 15 hours out of it (that’s about $4 an hour, not bad). I paid $120 (two copies, xbox and pc) for Skyrim and got 300 hours out of it (40 cents per hour, really great return). My time in WoW though… $60 for Vanilla, $40 for BC/Wrath/Cata/MoP each (really $70 because I get the CEs), plus $13/month since August 2005… ($340 for the games, $13×103 months = $1339, grand total – $1679) with a /played across my account (we’re going to ignore the SECOND account I also have that has been subbed continuously since 2007) of 432+ days. That’s over 10k hours. It ends up being… about 15 cents PER HOUR of enjoyment in WoW. Is WoD worth it?

If making games were easy, everyone would do it. If making money making games was easy, you wouldn’t see things like studio closures. If making GOOD games like Blizzard does was easy, you wouldn’t see games with sub 80 scores on Metacritic. $50 for a game the size/quality of Pandaria is a bargain. It’s possible the sales of the expansion alone won’t even cover the full development costs (especially if the game is purchased as a physical copy over the digital versions – Blizzard likely gets 100% on the digital sales, but about 50% on sales through retailers). The people developing this game (all of them from Metzen down to QA dude #300) don’t work for free. They deserve to get paid. Game sales, mounts, pets, services, and subs make sure they get paid and the game keeps getting worked on. In the end, game companies are trying to make money which means charging enough to make more than they spent on their specialized product.

Just like every other creative art product, if you want the artist to keep producing new stuff, you have to buy the old stuff. It’s why I buy albums, movies, books, and games from people who’s work I love. It’s why I buy books on my iPad AND physical copies. It’s why I buy tv shows on DVD. I want the people who make these things to make more, and that means supporting them now. I want to be playing WoW when I am 80, and if that means paying $50 over $40 for an expansion now, shut up and take my money Blizzard.

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