The Starcraft Warchest, my issues with it and how it could be done better.
Alright, I've had a little sleep so I'll put together a more detailed version of why I don't like the Warchest in its current form and address the criticisms of my argument that popped up on Twitter and SCReddit.
My issues with the Warchest:
I do not believe that when asked to pay $24.99, that a player should then have to perform in-game actions to unlock the items they just paid for. The amount of work actually required for this is immaterial, it could be 1 game or 100. I believe in the transaction, pay money, get thing you want. Paying for a set of items which you then have to invest time, as well as money to gain access to, is a wee bit cheeky to say the least. While interviews have indicated that the requirements to unlock each item will be "casual friendly", it is worth noting that everything in the war chest is on a fixed timer. When that timer runs out, any items you did not manage to acquire, will disappear and you will have to pay even more money to get access to them later. This is described as an "early access" program, hence the "discount", however what this establishes is a system by which every purchaser must be on the ball over the course of a number of months to get the promised value out of the war chest and if for any reason they are not able to do so (real life happens...), they will be left out in the cold.
I do not think this is a reasonable way to structure the Warchest.
The imaginary value proposition:
Some have pointed out that $24.99 is a "bargain" for the number of skins. I'd like to point out that it is only a bargain by virtue of comparison to other existing skins. These skins have no actual monetary value. They cannot be traded or exchanged for something else, their price is set entirely by Blizzard and Blizzard are the sole vendors of said skins. The appeal to value proposition is in my eyes a fallacy.
These are not lootboxes and cannot be earned in-game for free. When Warchest items can be unlocked in-game for free rather than through a $24.99 pass, we can talk about lootboxes but as it stands it is irrelevant to the discussion.
"But CS:GO crates"
Are a form of gambling yes as they have intrinsic, real-world tradeable value and a system of artificial scarcity in what would otherwise be infinitely duplicated digital items. I do fail to see how that's relevant to this discussion though.
"The Compendium does it":
One of the more common arguments I've seen leveled at my criticism of the Warchest amounts to "whataboutism". Someone else does it, so it must be ok here. Well no, that's not how anything works.The DOTA Compendium is used in a similar way to sell virtual items and ramp up prizepool for the International tournament. Does Valve need this money to run the International? No. They could fund it themselves, but they've found a way to tap into their fairly massive playerbase to do so. There are several key differences between the Compendium and the Warchest however. Should be noted that I'm also not a fan of the recent implementations of the Compendium either, since it has raised complaints from item developers that it's vastly decreased their effective revenue share and it has changed from a simple 9.99 purchase to a "pay forever" scheme since it's inception. A few fairly relevant points.
1) DOTA2 is free. Yes, that is relevant. Yes, it very much determines which post-launch monetary practices may be deemed palatable. Free2play games have a different level of expectation attached to them when it comes to what they sell, simply by virtue of their being no barrier to entry.
2) DOTA2 items have real value. Items acquired through the Compendium can be sold at a later date. They can be traded for other items. What you are buying in DOTA is a thing that can gain value later, a thing that can leave the ecosystem of DOTA entirely and be turned into items for other games or indeed, actual games themselves. This is absolutely not true in Starcraft and as a result I find any argument of "value proposition" to be fairly spurious on that front, when these items have no intrinsic value to begin with.
3) The Compendium is just straight up better and more interesting. I'm sorry, but the Compendium was an interesting idea that continues to get more interesting as features are added to it year on year. I do not necessarily agree with the direction it's going at the moment, but it is hard to argue that it's boring and sloppily implemented.
"What about CS:GO? They do a thing like this"
They do and I'm not really a fan of that one either, since it's not a free2play game. However, that's also generating items with real value, so there is a real value proposition there vs an imagined one.
This old chestnut is something I genuinely don't like because it's emotionally manipulative and preys on the more unreasonable fringes of fandom. In principle there is nothing wrong with selling some in-game merchandise to help fund a prizepool. This should have started 5+ years ago if anything, the fact that it's taken this long is one of many reasons as to why Starcraft 2 is not in the position it should be at this point. If eSports cannot survive without appeals to its fans for what amount to donations, then eSports doesn't deserve to live. This is not a small indie company struggling by, its one of the biggest development and publishing houses in the world. To see them pull out terms like that is frankly insulting. If you believe the Warchest is good value for what you get, you should buy it and for that reason. Do not allow a company to become such a big influence on your life and personality that they can ask you for money and you'll happily hand it over under the guise of "supporting eSports". That is not a healthy business relationship.
The Warchest serves one, limited purpose, when it could serve so many more.
The way the Warchest is currently structured is for one thing, milk whales. Selling in-game items is totally fine. Some of the less bright folks who decided to criticize my argument have created the strawman that I am not ok with the sale of in-game items (which conveniently lead to a hypocrisy charge since I sell an in-game announcer pack in Starcraft 2). This particular bullshit sandwich is easily debunked through the power of reading things. It is possible to learn that power, though not from a fanboy.
What you have with the Warchest is an opportunity, an opportunity that is being squandered. In it's current form, you buy the pass (or part of the pass if you only play one race, the total pass if you want all the skins is $24.99), there are 3 phases, each accompanied by a comic (neat), each which have an objective to unlock each skin. Exp is shared so if you do feel like upgrading later on down the line, you don't have to go and do all those things again to get the other races skins and rewards.
So why make people play the game to get things they already paid for? Whats the purpose of that? Well presumably its to get people actually playing the game again in some form. Unfortunately, I feel as if that's completely ineffective. The way this Warchest is structured is not an effective way to reactivate latent players or appeal to casual fans. It's appealing to the hardcore players, the most dedicated, the guys that watch and care about eSports, the guys who care enough about the lore to want to pursue some comics about it. Newsflash, they're already playing. Having this "complete objectives to get the stuff you bought" only serves to annoy more casual players who may be too busy to get everything (real life is a thing) and definitely doesn't serve as any form of incentive to reactivate after time away from the game. Indeed seeing the latest cool piece of content, cosmetic it may be, locked behind a big paywall with added time requirements to get at it, is something that would dissuade me from picking up the game again, not incentivize.
The system is ill-conceived. Simply selling the skins would have made more sense, with X% of the proceeds going to the prizepool. Instead they've managed to overcomplicate it and in doing so make it less attractive and interesting, while squandering several potential opportunities.
"Well if you're so smart, you come up with a better system"
Here are several ways that Warchest could be done better. Some of these are obviously mutually exclusive.
1) Sell the skins normally. If necessary, release them in phase as per the current plan. Spreading the content out to maintain interest is fine.
2) If you're going to make people "earn" the items then that's something they should be able to do for ideally free, or at least a highly reduced pass price. Players could complete objectives to earn discounts or indeed items themselves. A $5 "battle pass" of some sort would be much more palatable than a $24.99 pass and serve the purposes of providing different tiers of entry to the same product dependent on whether a customer has the extra time to commit, or simply wants to purchase outright.
3) For the love of God do not put a timelimit on the chest "closing" after somebody has already bought it. That's just nonsense. If they bought it they should have as much time as they need to get the items out of it.
4) If this is supposed to "support eSports" then actually tie the skin releases into eSports in some way. The Compendium served the purpose well, making purchasers aware of team rosters and players, information about upcoming and previous events. It was far more than just some skins, it was a guidebook to the upcoming eSports event of the year. Compared to that, Warchest is rubbish. You have an opportunity to use the client to do something it's so desperately been needing to do for years and that is tie together storylines, elevate players and bring more interest in Starcraft as an eSport to a wider audience and a well implemented Warchest is a way to do that. Comics are all well and good but where are the stories of the thing this is supposed to be "supporting"? If you're going to insist on tying it to missions why not tie them to something interesting that's directly related to past eSports events? Create interesting scenarios based on the most spectacular matches this year, hell you even have a feature in the game for that called Take Command that could be exploited for just this purpose. Allow players to cheer on their favorite by using their portrait in-game "plant their flag" and playing matches. Have a live worldwide leaderboard where the "armies" of said players vie for dominance through wins and losses, representing in-game races and countries. Have them battle over a sector in the game universe and watch the battle-lines shift on a day by day basis. Implement fantasy Starcraft betting (without real money) with a few fun in-game items on the line for the people who get the most predictions right.
There are so many things you could do with this and I really feel like Blizzard has taken one of the least creative options. The skins are great, I'd have no problem dropping $25 on those, but I'm a self-confessed whale. Surely the goal, as we build up to Blizzcon, should not be to squeeze the hardcore supporters of SC2 for as much as we can get out of them and instead, work to bring lapsed players back into the fold, get casual players up to speed on what's happened in the eSports scene this year and prepare everyone for the Blizzcon World Championships. The War Chest can be a vehicle to do that but as it stands, I simply can't support a product that is as poorly conceived as this one. Don't make people pay for things they then have to spend additional time unlocking. Don't lock people out of things just because they failed to meet an arbitrary timelimit, when they paid for the privilege of acquiring those things. Don't try to pass it off as "great value" when those items have no intrinsic real world value to begin with and for the love of god don't wave "support eSports" in the faces of your players.
The Compendium was a success because it was interesting and despite me not being a fan of the road it's gone down lately, it remains interesting. This, isn't. It could be, but in it's current implementation, not so much.