No one who pays any attention to community forums in WoW could have failed to notice the hue and cry over the fact that Blizzard saw fit to plonk a new mount on the game store yesterday, right after it was announced that subs had dipped by 3 million. Many have seen this move as a cold-hearted effort by the company to claw in some dosh in the face of lost subs. I personally don’t think this is the case, since the mount itself – the Mystic Runesaber – was datamined as long ago as the last patch. It was always destined to be a store mount – simply by the look of it (and that’s another matter) – so *when* it appeared is irrelevant in a way, although it could be said that Blizzard committed a faux pas by releasing it *this* week. Still, if it was a week before or after, or even months, a lot of people would still have shouted that this was a callous attempt to milk money from the remaining player base.

I’m lucky – or some might say stupid – in that I can afford to buy the store mounts when they appear, 2 or 3 times a year. There’s no doubt that these mounts are far flashier than most that appear in the game, and those who can’t afford to buy them for real money have a legitimate reason to be annoyed, or at least disappointed, about that. The new mounts put into WoD itself are pretty poor, aside from the Poundfist (gronnling) and Rukhmar (golden dread raven) drops, which are both very rare. As many have said, why couldn’t store only mounts like the Grinning Reaver and the Iron Skyreaver have been put into the game as rewards for getting exalted with one faction or another? The mounts you currently get for such endeavours are too boring to bother grinding for. There is a precedent for cool mounts in game in the Nether Drakes of Burning Crusade, and the Flameward Hippogryph of Cataclysm. Both required lengthy quest chains and dailies to acquire, but I don’t remember a massive amount of moaning about that.

I have no problem with store mounts in principle, but it’s not good when new mounts provided in the game are so woefully inferior. I’ve often winced at the big, bulky ground mounts, such as yaks, which just scuttle along like poodles. I never ride the ones I bought because of that. The Core Hound was great in that it had a long, slower, but ground-covering stride – exactly how an elekk or yak should move. But the new boars have the undignified scuttle that spoiled many other mounts, including the camels – who should also have had a long, loping gait. In the face of a dearth of content at present, would it really have hurt Blizzard to have put a mount of the Runesaber’s calibre into the game itself – attained through a lengthy quest chain, or a slew of dailies… or something? It would have given bored players something sparkly and desirable to work for. Admittedly, the Blizzard shareholders want their dosh, and store mounts are always a golden goose for the company. However, as a business person myself, in Blizzard’s position, I would have considered providing two distinctly different colours or variations of the Runesaber – one for purchase, one for earning in game. Those with the money and the desire would most likely have bought the store mount anyway, as well as gone for the different coloured one in game. It would have been a win win situation really – those who won’t or can’t buy the store mounts would have been given a pacifier and maybe – just maybe – there would have been less ranting and dissatisfaction.

Sometimes, I’m baffled by Blizzard’s decisions. To my mind, it’s best to keep as many of your customers as happy as you can, even though it’s impossible to please everyone. I wouldn’t continue to rile customers up so much, when obvious solutions are so visible. (Well, I wouldn’t upset customers to that extent in the first place, but then I’m a *small* business, so all my customers are valuable to me.) Certain things get WoW players up in arms, and glossy store mounts is one of those things. Other things, such as changes to classes or talents, are another matter – they have grey areas – but store items are pretty black and white. The fact that Blizzard charge an awful lot for these items is also galling. I can’t help thinking that if they were more generous about the whole issue, making the store mounts cheaper, as well as offering a different but equally attractive alternative in game, it would pour a whole tanker-full of spilled oil onto troubled waters. Those who can’t afford game store mounts, or won’t buy them on principle, would still feel valued as customers, because they could work for an alternative in game. Those who don’t feel that way would buy the new mount as they always do. Mount collectors and fanatics go for all variations of a mount. I know: I’m one of them. Those who would like to buy store mounts but regard them as too expensive would most likely feel the cost was justified – and affordable – if it was £10 or so less. (These mounts are just pixels, they don’t cost much per unit to generate, if anything, beyond the initial design cost.) At a cheaper, fairer price, more store mounts would be bought, more players would find less reason to complain. Why is this such a difficult concept for Blizzard to get their heads round?

I know WoW players can exhibit a ridiculous amount of entitlement, and complain about anything, but sometimes their frustration is justified. I play other MMOs that have game stores, and their prices are far cheaper than Blizzard’s. The sad fact is that it all comes across as Blizzard having contempt for their customers. There is never any generosity. I remember one festival time in Rift – I think it was Yule – when, after an inworld ‘warning’ to alert the players, GMs spontaneously appeared in major cities on all the different servers and literally threw loot pinatas into the air for 10 minutes. Items would just appear in your inventory. People got all sorts of loot, and no one went away empty-handed. Free gifts from Trion, the developers. People were happy and excited. GMs were there among them, their characters visible to everyone, and everyone felt part of something, and valued. It was a small gesture but extremely effective. I could never see Blizzard doing anything like that. OK, their game is far bigger than Rift, and has hundreds more servers across the world, but even so… there are a host of other things they could do if they got their creative heads together and thought about it. Happy customers, who feel valued, are the most important thing to any business, and customers who feel valued will inevitably be less inclined to complain, or indeed abandon the product. Changes Blizzard have to make to the game sometimes will always cause upset, ranting and peevishness. But store items shouldn’t come into that, because ultimately they are not an important part of the game. They might be important in a monetary sense to the company, but they could have their cake and eat it, if they were more accommodating.

I’ve written this piece from the viewpoint of someone who can afford the store mounts and doesn’t object to buying them – but who also sees the downside and unfairness of them. WoW players pay a sub, not like in the free to play games that rely on game stores to exist, so why in WoW should the most shiny things be game store only? I actually felt somewhat nervous getting my new Runesaber out in game last night. I knew that some players I might pass by in Draenor would in some way see my purchase as traitorous, encouraging Blizzard’s meanness and greed, perhaps even to the extent of spitting on my character. It happened with the first store mount, the sparkle pony, which was – and still is – a great mount, but the shine of owning and riding it was diminished by the anger of players that it was a store only item. Some people were kicked from raid groups for wearing the risibly over-priced store helms that came out some time ago. It’s not just because of envy – although that must inevitably play a part – but I think it’s more down to the fact that players feel cheated, or taken for fools. Why pay £10 for a cosmetic helm, when in other games, they cost pence? I worked out that a full transmog set in Rift, including all gear slots, came out at 38 pence per item. £10 for one item? Oh, that’s simply greedy! And players see that, and conclude Blizzard must just think they’re stupid. Game stores obviously can work, but items within them should be balanced with items in game, at least in a sub game.

WoW is the biggest and most successful of MMOs – at least in the West, I can’t speak for the Far East – but the way Blizzard often behave simply comes across as them feeling unassailable, all-powerful, and having a streak of arrogance because of that. My opinion might be completely wrong, but what Blizzard spokespeople say in the face of fierce criticism rarely gives any other perspective.

So, last night, I took my new mount – which flies – out on my Horde DK, who’s only level 78, and flew around Northrend. It’s a beautiful mount, a purple glowing cat, armoured, and with spectral wings, although you’ll only see the best of it in expansions of the game earlier than WoD. I wrote my previous blog post about flying, or lack of in WoD, so I won’t go into that again, but even as I was flying around, admiring my Runesaber, I couldn’t help feeling that it should have been a game reward, not just something you slap on a credit card. How much more sense of accomplishment would I have felt if I’d known I’d just completed a long and difficult quest chain to acquire it?

My last two blog posts have been centred around aspects with which I’m dissatisfied, but I do still love the game and enjoy my time in its virtual world. I don’t want to be a constant moaner, but sometimes you have to let off steam. My next post will have a more positive tone!