Blizzard has decided that they don’t want anyone making money from writing in-game addons. This isn’t too surprising. In broad strokes, you can go two ways when it comes to your game: you can try and hold onto all the potential profits yourself, or you can open up the ecosystem to others. Either direction has pros and cons.

In this case, if we’re looking for specific addons which may have prompted the action, we gotta start with Carbonite. Carbonite is basically a quest guide with a million other features baked in; it makes it easier to level. Carbonite has two features which distinguish it from older attempts at commercial addons.

One, it’s aimed at a profitable market. Quest guides and gold-making guides are real business these days — and the companies behind them get bought for real money. Nobody’s successfully selling how to raid guides for money —

Quick digression. Raiding is a group experience; WoW leveling is not. WoW raiders are fairly likely to have at least semi-clued friends. It’s very easy for a solo WoW player to lack such friends; thus, leveling guides have a bigger market. Interesting unanswered question: will Blizzard’s efforts to make raiding more casual result in a bigger market for commercial raiding guides? Digression ends.

— so yeah, RDX didn’t make enough money to keep the developer working on it.

Second, Carbonite went for a free/premium model, with the free version showing ads in-game. I suspect that’s a bigger reason for the change than one might suspect. One addon showing advertisements is no huge deal, albeit annoying. When a majority of your addons are doing it, the user experience is negatively affected.

Carbonites in-game advertising.
Carbonite's in-game advertising. Not subtle.

However, if ads were all Blizzard was worried about, the policy would be different. Blizzard clearly wants to control the monetary space around their game, and why shouldn’t they? They created the platform; they should get to profit from it in the manner they choose.

The best example of the opposite approach is Linden Labs and Second Life. The Lindens go all in with an explicit definition of their product as a platform, which is accurate. They want to sell a basic service that third parties can build on, and their basic service is pretty well tuned for that purpose.

That approach does work. For a traditional Diku-style MMO, however, you’d open yourself up to worries about RMT; once you open the door to micropayments, people start getting agitated.

I don’t actually think that’s an attitude likely to last. I’m old enough to remember when people thought advertisements on the Web were an abomination. Heck, I’m old enough to remember when people thought the Internet should never be used for commercial purposes. We pay for tickets to sporting events, and we don’t freak out when the ticket has an advertisement on it. We pay a monthly fee for cable service, but premium channels still have advertisements.

I think by making this change Blizzard’s actually opened a few doors. Intelligent eloquent people are making voluble arguments against the new restriction. Mostly the one about donations. A couple of popular addons are going to go away, and everyone’s going to know it’s because Blizzard said you can’t charge money/ask for donations. If you liked QuestHelper or Outfitter, there’s a decent chance you’ll be biased towards those arguments.

So while it’s probably not a reasonable transition for WoW, what if the next game Blizzard publishes comes with an iPhone style App Store? Blizzard would get a few nice effects there. First, they’d take — say, 20% of the revenue stream. I pulled that out of my hat; if I were doing ops for Blizzard I’d run the numbers and be smarter. I don’t know if Blizzard logs the addons a player uses, but if I were in charge over there they would, so let’s assume they do. You could make a pretty good stab at the size of the stream.

Second, they’d have a lot more control over the addons available, but no more control than they wanted to have. Again, c.f. Apple. There are a million low-class fart apps for the iPhone; it doesn’t reflect on Apple’s quality. On the other hand, if Blizzard wanted to screen out crap, they could.

Third, the classic problem of distributing addons could be solved. A lot of WoW players rely on addons and feel like they can’t play well without them. On a big patch day, old addons break. Addon sites tend to die under the load of millions of players trying to get addons at once. This is, like it or not, part of the WoW experience. Making it better is a relatively small win, but it’s a win.

The traditional arguments against Blizzard control of addons are workload and responsibility. Curse shows 3,727 addons. WoW Interface shows 2,122 standalone addons plus 459 in the Featured Projects section; they do sort out obsolete addons. This is not a crushing workload. It’s probably one person.

Responsibility is a bigger problem. It’s not so much responsibility to the players — they’ll understand that addon quality isn’t certified. The problem is the need to present a sane relationship to your developers. The key word I kept sneaking in up above: “platform.” WoW’s UI API has been fairly stable, but it’s also always been very clearly and aggressively prone to change. Running it as a platform doesn’t mean you can’t change it. It does mean you have to manage the community better.

In particular, it would be nice if addons didn’t potentially break every time there’s an update to the game. This is a bigger workload than screening submissions.

Still. QuestHelper is about to be cancelled. It has been downloaded, from Curse alone, over 20 million times. There have been around 100 updates, so let’s divide that 20 million by 100, assuming that every user has downloaded every update. 200,000 people have downloaded QuestHelper from one site. Maybe it costs two bucks in the hypothetical store. 20% to Blizzard is $80,000 over the course of the last two years. That’s not pure profit, of course.

I’m cheating, because at a brief glance QuestHelper is the most downloaded addon on Curse. I’m also cheating because on the one hand, I’m being conservative and assuming that each user downloaded the addon 100 times; on the other hand, I’m assuming each download would have been a sale. Who knows? If I were Blizzard I’d have better numbers and be able to do better math. Perhaps the revenue share should be 30%. Maybe it doesn’t make sense at all.

I sort of doubt that you can entirely turn addons into a profit center. But they aren’t supposed to be a profit center — they’re a tool to make the game easier to play and more attractive. If you can make them stickier, you enhance the game, and letting people have a monetary stake in the success of your game is a marketing win.

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3 thoughts on “New Blizzard Add-On Policy

  1. I think it complicates matters that addons can improve the UI of the game in ways that Blizzard might incorporate directly into the game. The ground has been pretty thoroughly tilled at this point, so I don’t imagine we’re due for a change as fundamental as auto-loot, but Blizzard winds up in a tough position when it costs $x extra to play the game with a better UI design, and now Blizzard, the addon authors, and the addon purchasers all have a reason to keep that functionality out of the main client.

    That said, I’d pay $10 for an annotated, expanded ignore list, easily.

    1. It definitely complicates matters, but I don’t think it makes them impossible. Apple’s navigated those waters successfully for a while in the OS space. They haven’t yet been faced with that problem on the iPhone, but at some point they’re going to want to incorporate iPhone app functionality into the base OS, and I think they’ll just do it.

      It’s sort of a long-term revenue question vs. a short-term revenue question. Do you go for the immediate dollar, or do you try and improve your base functionality such that acquisition and retention is easier? Good companies go for the latter.

      Oh, and I should note that making those addons easier to access for casual players is right on target for Blizzard’s current design goals. Which are smart goals for most developers. (Not always; there is a niche market for the more hardcore games.)

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