World of Warcraft is set to launch real-money transactions and the ability to play without paying for a subscription, as developers Blizzard move to position the game against free-to-play competitors.
The company is introducing “WoW tokens”, which can be bought from other players for in-game gold, or from Blizzard for real money, and exchanged for 30 days of game time. That currently costs £9.99 on Blizzard’s Battle.net store, although it drops to £8.69 if bought in bulk. The changes mean players can for the first time buy in-game gold from Blizzard indirectly .
At the same time, a player with more time than money can now use gold collected while playing the game to buy themselves a longer subscription, without having to spend real money on anything other than the initial purchase of the game.
While the change doesn’t quite make World of Warcraft free-to-play, like so many of its competitors, it does open the prospect of a renewed increase in subscriber numbers, halting the long-term decline seen by the game in recent years. The model is largely identical to that seen in popular space simulation EVE Online.
Both games limit one particular transaction, however: users cannot make real-world cash by farming in-game currencies.
Blizzard says: “The WoW Token was created to give players with lots of extra gold the option to use it to help cover their subscription cost, and give those who want to purchase gold a way to do so from fellow players through a secure, easy-to-use system. The Token will be making its debut in an upcoming patch.”
As it stands, there is a thriving, if banned, market for in-game currencies on World of Warcraft. Gold farmers, largely players in developing nations, amass large quantities of the currency and sell it online (typically at valuations of around $10 for 10,000 gold pieces). But Blizzard is continually trying to put a cap on the traders, and there are growing concerns amongst players about the ethics of buying from such farms.
A 2011 Guardian investigation revealed that Chinese labour camp prisoners were being forced to harvest Warcraft gold in nights, after a day of breaking rocks and digging trenches in real coalmines.
“Prison bosses made more money forcing inmates to play games than they do forcing people to do manual labour,” one former prisoner told the Guardian. “There were 300 prisoners forced to play games. We worked 12-hour shifts in the camp. I heard them say they could earn 5,000–6,000rmb [£470–570] a day. We didn’t see any of the money. The computers were never turned off.”
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