Blizzard Entertainment's new add-on policy has been discussed by everyone from Lum to Slashdot. The number of developers directly affected by the change is small, since only a few add-ons are popular enough to be considered commercial ventures. The policy is more significant because it changes a lot of established conventions, and goes to the heart of how Blizzard embraces (or increasingly, shuns) the talent within its player community. This article is an attempt to analyse the real motivations behind the policy, and highlight the apparent contradiction in policy between in-game add-ons and web-based services.

On this page:

What

World of Warcraft (WoW) supports a simple scripting language, primarily intended to allow developers or users to script operations originally provided in the default user interface. Most players use many different add-ons to help them play and manage the game. Each player can decide which add-ons to use (if any). If a player finds an add-on unhelpful or annoying, they can simply turn it off, or delete it completely.

The UI Add-On Development Policy is a set of 8 guidelines, published on 20th March 2009. The policy critically prevents:

Donations can be requested outside of the game, but due to the way addons are distributed and used, donation revenue generated from out-of-game sources is a fraction of what can be currently generated in-game.

Why

Why? We don't know why. The news article [link will rot] accompanying the changes, states:

"...to help ensure their integrity, safety, and quality for the community."

So let's try and break down that slice of motherhood and apple pie.

Integrity and Safety

The only apparent use of code obfuscation is to prevent copying and free redistribution. It should not be assumed that copy protection is essential to the viability of paid add-ons (the music industry has examples where allowing free online redistribution actually increases paid download sales - although individual programmers may have their own view).

It is apparent that if you obfuscate code, nobody can really be sure what your addon is doing.

The game should regulate what the addon can do, and so limit the scope for damage. But, assume Blizzard believe they are responsible for regulating everything within the game engine. Regulation becomes a lot easier if they can read the code, rather than trying to test an addon's functionality against an almost infinite number of possible scenarios.

The Power of Add-Ons: Relatively innocent addons, like SpamMeNot, demonstrate the influence that an addon developer can have if enough players run the addon. This addon attempts to detect unwanted "spam" in chat channels. It is very effective at blocking adverts for Real Money Trading, so commonly installed (it is one of the few addons I run on live realms). For whatever reason, there are a few words it immediately takes exception to. One word seems to be "anal". Everyone running SpamMeNot automatically informs Blizzard's chat game servers that the comment is spam. If enough individual game clients report the "spammer", that "spammer" is (certainly was) automatically muted on the main public channels, and ignored (all forms of communication blocked) by large numbers of players. In an inherently social game, that's a high price to pay.

The real source of paranoia may be unseen. For example, cyber-crime continues to plague World of Warcraft: Each set of stolen account details risks losing a customer and increases administrative burden (aside from the wider impact on Real Money Trading, money laundering, and similar). So it is possible that code transparency is a way keep any malicious activity out of addons.

Of course, banning such addons isn't the only solution. Addons could be formally approved (and even distributed) by Blizzard. Formal approval increases Blizzard's costs and risks, but (in concept) those can be recovered from revenue generated by the sale (or similar) of the addon.

Valid reasons. Questionable solution.

Quality

Adrine [link will rot], author of one of the most popular WoW addons (Omen) - who (by his own admission) has dedicated hundreds of hours to development of addons, and recieved a mere $300.01 in donations:

"Banning them [pay-for addons] gains nothing, and significantly diminishes the incentive to innovate and compete."

Below is my analysis, but I suspect we think in similar ways.

Most WoW-related "fan-based" services (addons, websites) start from classic entrepreneurial problem solving: The individual had a problem or inconvenience while playing. They couldn't find a solution, so solved the problem themselves. They place the solution on the internet, and other players benefit.

Perhaps one of those players finds the first solution useful, can see areas for improvement, and writes a "better" solution. Even the threat of competition can be enough to encourage further innovation and creativity. Product innovation follows, and progressively better solutions emerge.

In some cases these innovations are so profound that they are eventually implemented directly by Blizzard. The most recent example is a gear manger feature, which allows sets of equipment and clothing to be changed in one button click. A relatively simple feature, that for years had only existed in addons. Other innovations are more subtle. For example, the plethora of leveling guides and addons that help questing have almost certainly influenced the way new quests are designed: Northrend's quest lines are much easier to follow that those developed in previous years (yet still many players seek assistance).

Innovation not only benefits players directly. It also helps the game's designers build a better product. Everyone's a winner!

Passion

I contend that almost everyone working in this environment is primarily driven by passion. Even if there is money involved, that's not the prime motivation for the vast majority. Many add-on/fansite developers/authors actually transpire to be professional developers or business people. People who are very capable of making far more money from "the day job". They don't fit the sterteotypical college dropout, living in their parents' basement.

Continual innovation (and even maintenance) of an ever-more-popular "product" gradually occupies more and more time. There comes a point at which the author is suddenly aware that their passion is taking over their lives: Maybe they spent so long coding or writing they ran out of time to play the game themselves. Or found themselves answering users' emails when they should have been sleeping. Suddenly they become aware that their "hobby" is occupying more time than their "job".

Guilty as charged. Although my experience is from "fansites".

(And before you retort, "that's only about fishing!" - it has a quarter of a million individual users each month, currently requiring almost daily content updates, with all the unexpected "exploding server" drama that busy websites generate. My words are not entirely theoretical...)

What to do?

  1. Stop. Abandon it. Burnout. Problem solved, but don't expect your users to be happy.
  2. Give it to someone else. Preferably many people, otherwise the new author will immediately be faced with the same problem as the original author.
  3. Stop innovating and simply maintain it. Unfortunately, the "creative types" that enjoy the initial innovation, tend to dislike routine maintenance.
  4. Make it pay. At least enough to survive after reducing your conventional workload ("the day job").

1 and 3 destroy innovation. And 2 probably limits innovation significantly: For example, the people who replace you are likely to be signing up to maintain the thing they use (addon, website), not to radically change it. So, we conclude:

Passion alone limits the scale of innovation. To innovate beyond that point requires a somewhat viable business model. A method of generating money from the activity. Like selling, advertising, donations.

So the addon policy supports innovation until those innovations become really popular. Success is simply unsustainable. How does that contribute to quality?

Threatening

The WoW communities map marks the location of famous battles: Places where Blizzard have threatened (often legally) certain parts of the wider community. Most battles were in, or near, "The Evil East" (with appologies for all the geo-political biases within the name). In contrast, addons are far more mainstream - most players use add-ons. And addons are legit - officially supported, hosted by large "reputable" fansites.

That shift is important:

Beyond Advertising: The add-on policy closes the door to another potential method of generating revenue, at a time when many "fansites" are struggling to remain online. For example, European banner display advertising has roughly halved in value over the last 6 months - depending on what currency you operate in. That's non-trivial - the margins were not excessive to start with. Initial reactions have been to implement more intrusive adverts: Full-page ads, pop-ups, in-content advertising links, and even sponsored paragraphs in the middle of user-generated content. But the underlying problem remains - there simply aren't enough advertising dollars being spent. As more sites adopt aggressive advertising, the value of that advertising space drops. If conditions continue to decline, expect to see a lot more subscription-only content (the only way many gaming sities survived the advertising slump following the "dot com" bubble in 2001). Likely followed by a formal challenge for re-sale of Blizzard's intellectual property. Ick.

While many addon authors are indifferent to the policy, and some are even supportive (often arguing that addons should be a hobby), plenty of the most prolific addon programmers have reacted badly: Even if they were not benefiting financially themselves, Blizzard's policy is seen as heavy-handed, a betrayal of past contributions that reduces future motivation.

It is important to differentiate the prolific contributors from the everyone else. The majority of the popular addons are created by a handful of people. Losing the support of those few people has a vastly greater impact on the player community than losing anyone else.

(What's most revealing from recent discussions is that nobody in the addon developer community seems to have been consulted or warned about the change. For a business whose most valuable asset is probably community goodwill, Blizzard seem remarkably indifferent to it sometimes.)

So why does Blizzard feel threatened in this way? Threatened enough to risk antagonising some of their most passionate enthusiasts. Here are 2 themes that may explain why the addon policy is written as it is. These are both speculation:

Preventing in-game advertising and "soliciting" of donations is most easily explained as a conflict with the Massive Inc in-game advertising deal. If you sell advertising rights, those rights have to mean something. Carbonite's (free-version) in-game adverts were most obviously advertising, and evidently not part of any formal agreement. But since modern advertising is remarkably difficult to define, perhaps they need to resort to the draconian step of banning any activity that looks like it might be generating cash or promotion?

That might be characterised as a massive over-reaction to one particular addon. Or evidence of a fundamental disconnect between a business's operations and the needs of its customers. But not entirely irrational.

This is less likely to be a logical follow-on from the Glider case (automation of software): Addons are still being actively supported within the game engine. If specific code or actions were deemed undesirable, it would be relatively easy for Blizzard to break them by altering the programming language.

It is unlikely to be a move against advertising support of WoW-related services outside of the game: The Machinima policy still allows commercial advertising to be placed next to movie content that is "free" to the end user. Blizzard officially endorse many advertising-funded websites.

Control

This theory will be to dark for most readers, because differentiating a business from its product is difficult. (Blizzard's Tech Support isn't actually staffed by cute gnomes, but we're still inclined think that way.)

Blizzard are almost unique to the mainstream video games industry in having thrived without being controlled by publishers. Valve is probably the only similar games developer (achieved in part by becoming a publisher themselves via Steam).

Having gained almost complete control over their product and its development, it is conceivable that anyone that threatens that control will be dealt with aggressively. It is possible that the idea of a third party selling a useful product to WoW's customers, legitimately operated within Blizzard's game, was to frightening.

Not a fear of current applications, which are very limited in scope. But frightening because this has a much larger, unrealised potential.

Enforcement

The sky is falling! It is easy to over-react to the unexpected.

A policy is only as good as its enforcement, and Blizzard have not yet attempted to enforce this. While the policy is not a legally worded agreement - it describes itself as "guidelines" - it does clearly state:

"...failure to abide by them [the guidelines] may result in measures up to and including taking formal legal action."

The final 3 words must be taken seriously: Blizzard are not afraid to resort to the law. The addon policy is legally interesting to enforce. The API (where the addon code runs) is owned by Blizzard, but does that imply a legally enforcable contract with someone writing some code? Or would the users of addons need to be pursued?

But this is unlikely to become a legal issue. Most addon developers are individuals, who are unlikely to be able or willing to defend themselves. Especially not for $300 worth of donations.

Blizzard can make it difficult for developers to test code. Ban developers' accounts, and force them into the shadowy realm of resold accounts. And over time a culture will develop among players that addons that breach the policy are somehow "bad" or "likely to get your account banned". Gradually changing reactions to Glider and RMT provide ample evidence of how players' views morph to reflect those of Blizzard.

But again, that probably won't happen: Most addon developers want to be loved, not hated. Remember the passion?

Some of the more professional "guide writers", who are currently selling add-ons, have proved themselves to be remarkably resilient. The most obvious loop-hole would be to provide a free add-on to display quest information, and then sell the commercial guide data to be displayed in the addon. This is also called creativity.

Direction

There will be some immediate fall-out from the introduction of the addon policy. A few developers will quit in disgust. Some players will whine about the demise of their favorite add-on. But after a few weeks everyone will adjust to the new order, and we can all get back to the important task of complaining about how under-powered my class is.

Which understates the importance of this policy as a key inflection point in the development history of MMOGs (specifically WoW, which dominates). I've previously written about the potential to open up WoW as a platform for 3rd party developers. The addon policy is a very clear move in precisely the opposite direction. It may as well say, "if you want to make a serious contribution, please f*$% off and write applications for Facebook/Metaplace/etc."

But at least they now have a sense of direction.

Or do they?

No.

As things appear to be, you can make all the money you like from a website about WoW, but if you do the same in-game, you'll struggle to earn a cent.

(That analysis may be optimistic: There simply is no written policy regarding most websites. Yet.)

The worst part of this contradiction is that all this information should be available in-game. The game world is designed as an immersive experience. So why are users routinely alt-tabbing out to a browser to read information about that world?

In spite of understanding why this makes no sense, I'm still perpetuating the madness: WoW's user interface add-ons impose a lot of limitations (missing functions like internet access, lack of good feedback loops), but the main reason for writing websites and not addons, is that website authors have a lot more freedom to fund their habit. Websites simply scale better than addons: If your work becomes popular, there are some almost-viable business models to support it. And the (modest) revenue stream provides some incentive to maintain content. Addons are more-or-less setting their authors up to fail, since a successful addon will struggle to be adequately supported and further developed.

(I should clarify that I'm not about to retire on proceeds of a guide to fishing. Economically it's an extremely irrational use of my time. I'm along for the ride, and currently this ride is just to fascinating to get off.)

A Challenge

Does anyone care?

If you play the game, but don't care, perhaps you are a little too addicted to the free stuff created by the wider community? Try playing the game regularly, at high level, without using addons or referring to any commecial website/service (with advertising or subscription), except those provided by Blizzard. I contend that many players will find the game much harder to play.

Perhaps the pro-active members of WoW's community are needed much more than Blizzard are prepared to admit?

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Similiar writings: Advertising, Analysis, Blizzard, Community, Innovation, Learn2Play, Video Games, Virtual Policy, WoW, Games.

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