Blizzard recently treated WoW fans to a preview of the Guardian Cub tradable pet, going on sale soon at the Blizzard pet store. Immediately upon hearing that the pet was tradable, readers began inundating me with email and Twitter messages to talk about said cub on The Lawbringer, as this is sort of the thing I fancy myself a connoisseur of. So here we go -- let's talk about the ramifications of these adorable little pets on our server economies.
The Guardian Cub represents a sea change in the nature of the gold selling war from Blizzard's perspective, one that has been coming for a long, long time. With a Blizzard-sanctioned way for players to dip their toes into the waters of pay-for gold, gold buying looks a little less attractive to players who would otherwise have to risk their computer's integrity and credit card security. Players have sharp opinions one way or the other on player-bought gold, so I'm going to do my best to hit the right points to discuss my opinion on the whole premise. I mean, it's right there in the FAQ. This pet has the added incentive of being a safe and secure way to potentially, maybe, make some gold off your purchase.
What does tradable mean?
When we first heard about the Guardian Cub's tradable qualities, some people didn't immediately understand what was at stake. Here's the rundown of what exactly tradable means and what you are allowed to do with the pet.
For $10, the same price as the other companion pets in the Blizzard pet store, you can purchase a Guardian Cub. Previously, companion pets were added to your account as a license, and each character would receive one in the mail. Now, much like the X-53 rocket or the retired Swift Zhevra, when you purchase the Guardian Cub, only one will be mailed to the character of your choice. When you get the cub, you can either learn it yourself and happily go about your business with a new companion pet, or you can trade it to another player or sell it on the Auction House.
The controversial part of this exchange is that you can spend $10 on an item in-game that has the ability to go up on the Auction House for in-game gold. Essentially, Blizzard has instituted a sanctioned avenue for players to potentially purchase gold with real dollars. Here's the explanation for the scope that Blizzard intends this aspect of the cub to cover:
If this whole system sounds familiar to you, it should. CCP's EVE Online runs an incredibly similar system with PLEX. Back in July, I wrote a Lawbringer article about the problems EVE's currencies were having related to a different incident;, but it's a good read. To summarize, EVE Online offers, for real dollars, game time cards that can be traded or sold. To purchase in-game currency (ISK), players purchased a PLEX game time card and then sell it on the open market for ISK. It is essentially the same system except with a companion pet instead of game time.
So, yes, this is a system with an aspect of it designed to allow players to potentially make some gold on their purchase from the Blizzard pet store.
I figured the best way to talk about the Guardian Cub would be to go with the pro and con approach. There are many positives to having a way to convert real dollars into gold, even if you don't see them immediately.
First, tradable companion pets (and potentially other items, as time goes on) fill two specific niches of player gold sinks that players constantly clamor for. There are usually two camps when players get riled over new pet store items and in-game gold sinks. When the Vial of the Sands was announced as an in-game gold sink, many players wanted the ability to get that mount through different means because they just couldn't make the exuberant amount of gold needed to craft the Vial. When the Winged Guardian mount hit the pet store for sale, players complained that everything on the store should be available through in-game work or achievements as well as on the store, based on fairness.
Having a companion pet on the store that is available to be sold in game fills both niches, which is why I hope the concept is expanded to other pets and eventually mounts. If player want to spend real dollars on a gold sink, they are allowed to. Players who want to spend in-game currency that they have collected and earned over time can spend that currency on the same mount or pet when it inevitably goes up on the Auction House from a player who wishes to sell it. Win-win.
Fighting gold sellers at their own game
I praised the Diablo 3 real money auction house for its focus on stopping the grey market item selling that has been going on since the beginning of Diablo's reign over the genre. The Diablo 3 auction house was an extension of the transactions already going on, which means the solution for Diablo mirrored the problem it was intending to solve. For World of Warcraft, the same system is not in effect because of the nature of soulbound items and how many items are actually soulbound to characters.
For World of Warcraft, a different strategy is needed to reflect the WoW community versus the Diablo community. What does the WoW item selling economy look like? Currently, gold sellers committing credit card fraud (we'll get to that later) already promise in-game items for in-game gold by having you sign up for the Recruit-A-Friend program, pay some gold, and you've got a rocket in your pocket. The credit cards these sellers use to purchase the game time and accounts in the Recruit-A-Friend scheme are usually stolen or hacked, providing Blizzard with a host of difficulties and reversed charges when someone eventually figures out that their card was tampered with.
Also, WoW players spend gold on gold sinks. If they don't have enough gold for these gold sinks, they purchase gold with real money. Look at that again -- real dollars become gold to spend on in-game gold sinks. Blizzard is reluctant to add too many gold sinks into the game now because of the stated reason of "the disparity in player wealth," which translates to "the more gold sinks we put in game, the more incentive people have to purchase gold." Blizzard doesn't want this.
By making gold sinks (like this new Guardian Cub) part of the store and tradable, Blizzard is beating the gold sellers at their own game. Players are now in charge of putting the gold sinks on the market, not the game itself as with the Vial of the Sands. "But Mathew," you'll say, "players put the Vial of the Sands on the Auction House!" No, in-game gold puts the Vial on the Auction House, because without the gold to craft it, there are no Vials. Purchasing gold sinks and then posting them on the Auction House means players themselves, with real dollars, add these items to the economy. Players with gold get to spend it on gold sinks and players with dollars get to put them up there or just learn the new pet or mount. Gold sellers thrive on gold sinks because players don't want to spend the time getting the gold to purchase a gold sink. Take away the instant gratification from gold sellers and they have nothing, while adding gold sinks to the game for people who can afford them with in-game gold.