Loyalty Reward?

To touch on a subject I briefly whizzed past last week, but has bubbled to the surface in the World of Warcraft community, I thought I’d take a moment – once again – to talk about the idea of rewarding loyal customers, early adopters and people who have subscribed to something for longer than most.

Now, see, in business there is this kind of idea that whilst getting new custom is good, it’s still better to get regular trade. People who will come in regularly and spend their money on a reasonably predictable basis. This builds rapport with the business and the consumer; the better the consumer is treated, the more they will want to come back another time, and the more they are likely to spend overall in the business. This is not rocket science – everyone from supermarkets to fashion boutiques know this is how things work. The consumer, or rather the average consumer, doesn’t take the time or the effort to consider the overall impact – they’re just happy to spend their money in a friendly environment, and are always more likely to return to such places.

Of course, no-one told the games industry this.

The reason I bring this up is that Blizzard are facing another sheepish moment of user ire. You see, the new “Scroll of Resurrection”, designed for current subscribers to recruit lapsed friends, rewards some seriously powerful perks. A free character transfer (Which is £20), a free boost of one toon to level 80 (basically rendering the Azerothian redesign moot) and both get a Spectral Flying Mount. And they also get a week of completely free playtime.

This is a good deal if you have been away for more than six months, but there are many who point out that this also rewards those who have perhaps not been that loyal – whereas those who have stuck with the game, subscribed and paid their way are basically getting nothing.

Which is a fair point, as in the MMO world, rewarding subscribers for their loyalty is not uncommon. Everything from Everquest 2 to Rift, Champions Online to DDO and plenty in between give away free items to subscribers, free currency where applicable to buy costumes and other minor perks to even rewarding free mounts, abilities and costume parts to brag to others about how long you have been a subscriber. This is how these companies have fostered and developed THEIR relationship with THEIR consumers – whilst there is often some free playtime offered for new players, or lapsed players, it is those who have proven their loyalty who often end up getting the better deals.

Blizzard, by contrast, are way behind the curve on this. No, that is too light – Blizzard are practically prehistoric by current standards. Blizzard is so keen, so committed to chasing old subscribers and new subscribers that they’re neglecting to actually keep the current ones happy. Dragon Soul is, for most, well over. Deathwing is dead, and being made dead in one night week after week. Many of these people have burned through all the content – Firelands, Tol Barad, all the 80-85 areas and factions. These people are sitting around, twiddling their thumbs, waiting for new content or something to keep them occupied.

And then they see Blizzard giving away some pretty amazing free stuff to people who haven’t been as loyal or committed. It is, for many, a slap in the face.

Blizzard are of course not alone, even if they are relatively unique in the MMO space. Video games have been doing this for years – it is the customer who buys into a game at the start who often ends up shelling out the most money.

I’ll break it down like this;

Guy A buys Super Kill Fighter Alpha for £39.99
Then he sees there are extra costumes to buy for a combined additional sum of £12.99
Then a few weeks later two new characters are released, at £6.99 each
And then, a little while later, two more characters are added, at £6.99 each.

Total cost for Guy A who bought from the start – £80.94.

Guy B buys the game eight months later, but this time it’s the Game of the Year edition. And he gets ALL the aforementioned content bundled into one box, and of course, it’s cheaper than the original standard edition.

Total cost for Guy B – £29.99

This is the games industry today, I’m afraid. It takes very little effort to see these stunts pulled by everyone from EA and BioWare to Sega and Capcom. The early adopters, those who arguably buy the game from love, experience or generally to get the latest big release are the ones who very often end up paying over the odds.

And what do these people get otherwise? Relatively little. Often they end up fighting the DRM devices which are often laxed in later releases, or they have to put up with the myriad of errors, bugs and technical glitches that new releases all invariably seem to have.

I think you see where I am going with this. The games industry treats the gaming consumer in a way that pretty much contradicts basic business sense. Those who buy in early, and are loyal, are usually the ones treated the worst.

Unfortunately, from my own experiences, these customers are often the ones who simply couldn’t give a hoot either. They’re pretty much happy to hand over their money, as much as the developers and publishers can take from them in exchange for DLC and extra content, just because they love it. This is the kind of customer who, if we’re going to be fair, isn’t interested in being treated well. And if we were going to be unfair, probably isn’t all that bright either.

This continues to drive a wedge into many gaming communities, some who feel they deserve to be treated better against those who feel they should be thankful they’re getting a game at all. This deeply divisive issue is not one that is readily going to go away, but it is one we should if nothing else be aware of. If we’re happy to buy in early, then fine. Nintendo proved with the 3DS that companies can do U-Turns and reward loyal customers when things get rough. But then, equally, you have the likes of Mass Effect 3, where the PR team is perhaps still a little hungover from the initial sales success party and hasn’t quite realised public mood is against them right now.

Personally, I think we should all demand better. That was of course something we all enjoyed once upon a time, right? Those of us who bought a game early got special boxart, or limited edition stuff, and some of us who have kept these things are now sitting on some fairly valuable goods. And we liked being treated well, because when the budget release of the game ended up on the store shelves, the goodies were gone. We had something of worth, of value.

These days, loyal WoW subscribers watch as goods and services are rendered free to lapsed subscribers, whilst they’re bored and waiting for new content. Games customers are paying for the privilege of playing a game early – warts and all, only six to twelve months later see a complete version released with all the bits and pieces bundled in it.

Arguably, the way to combat this is to stop buying games at release and teach them a lesson, but if we all did – we’d essentially cripple the studios as well. Cut off any profit, not only does the game series get shelved but the studio itself runs the risk of being shuttered, which blurs the muddy waters even more.

It’s a truly horrid situation. I do, of course, believe loyal WoW subscribers and initial game purchasers deserve a better deal than they often get in this market – that goes without saying. It’s morally right to do so.

But it’s seemingly not financially viable to do so, because if the content was broken up for later purchasers, you may not actually get a sales spike again.

As ever, it’s not a nice industry. But I’ve pointed this out enough times already you knew this. In an industry driven by making a lot of money in a very small window of opportunity, milking and abusing the initial customers is the key to getting the maximum amount of profit.

I’m not happy about that… but many, many people are. And we need a universal condemnation before such issues can be tackled. Which, I suspect, they won’t be for many, many years to come.

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