Let’s start the year off with a bang, shall we?
In the WoW community, a common source of contention is the WoW Token. If you’re reading this, you likely know how it works, but let’s do the synopsis – someone gives Blizzard $20 to get a token worth $15, which they can sell on the WoW Auction House for in-game gold, at a price fixed by Blizzard moment-to-moment based on supply of tokens and demand for tokens per region. A player buys that token with gold at the set pricing of the moment, and can use it for $15 of value – either a WoW subscription that lasts a month, or a $15 Blizzard account credit that can be used for in-game/digital goods, like other Blizzard (and now Activision) games on PC or any of the various microtransaction travesties Blizzard sells for WoW.
To hear it told in the larger WoW community, the WoW Token is the root of all evil. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but it is so often held up as a symbol of the decay of the game. It’s been in the retail version of the game since 2015, and while Classic has not yet been hit with it, the mere datamined hint of it coming to Classic caused at least a few content creators to pack up and quit the game. But what’s the deal with all that negativity?
Players point to a few valid things about the WoW token when criticizing it. The token is a pure cashgrab by Blizzard, who literally takes an extra $5 for no discernible reason other than “we can.” The token is a vector by which people can use real money to buy in-game progression, by using the gold earned from sale of a token they purchase with real money to buy boosts through difficult content. Lastly, a lot of it is that the token, distilled, is a developer-endorsed version of the MMO scourge of Real Money Trading, or RMT, and all the feelings developed over several decades about that concept are projected to the WoW Token. This all is amplified by the fact that Blizzard’s TOS for WoW explicitly allows in-game advertising of carries, provided they are for in-game currency only, and thus a conspiracy forms around the edges – that Blizzard has the WoW Token in place to allow players to buy boosts and to allow the company to profit from that activity, and that by enabling a state-sanctioned way to turn real dollars into in-game gold, Blizzard has created a situation that undermines the social legitimacy of someone’s in-game achievements. Ahead of the Curve, Keystone Master, all of these titles and crowns mean nothing if you can buy them from someone for real money, even indirectly.
And all of these points are correct in some way. Blizzard is making extra money for no reason, as whatever development time they put into making the pricing determinant for the token has long since been paid for by sales of said token, Blizzard is effectively selling gold for WoW in a form that isn’t quite but still is RMT, and WoW does have a lot of boosting behavior that is helped by easily available purchasable resources and a community policy that does not restrict sales of these boosts.
Yet, I find the hyperbole around the token somewhat overblown for a simple reason – all of those things would likely still exist in the game in other forms were the token not a thing.
MMOs have a long, storied history of players buying boosts or carries from other players. WoW has the most visible form of it, given how many groups have a social norm of expecting achievements or rating as a display of base competency, but it isn’t even the only current MMO with such things happening. In FFXIV, there is a joke about “purchased legends” – people who buy carries through Ultimate raid content. Most MMOs have similar community stories and standards, and while WoW is the most direct in terms of how the community engages with those achievements as a show of skill, it’s far from the only MMO where people buy accolades for the sake of having them. WoW wasn’t the first in this regard, it isn’t the only one where that happens even today, and it will not be the last.
On the RMT issues, I find a lot of common ground with people sharing revulsion in the WoW Token, but at the same time, there’s something a friend brought up I hadn’t really though of before – with the WoW Token, current retail WoW has almost entirely eliminated most signs of conventional RMT. Account hacks for gold are fewer than before, whispers and mails in-game from RMT scams are mostly non-existent, and most bots are just gathering in the open world – which is annoying, but without the other constant annoyances of RMT traders in the game, it is a tolerable nuisance. In fact, when searching for some info on FFXIV, a gold site’s blog came up (they have them!) and that site didn’t even sell WoW gold at all! There’s a very valid case that Blizzard should not themselves be the RMT seller, but at the same time, if it is going to exist all the same, it does feel better that it isn’t linked to the tactics and annoyances of normal RMT sellers.
And thus, I find myself sort of having trouble linking all of the evils of the game’s current state to the WoW Token. Is it a good thing in the game? Eh, I wouldn’t go that far either. It has some good benefits (it’s relatively easy to farm the needed gold to buy one which opens playing the game to people for whom a $15 sub might be a burden and those same players then have access to buy games they might not be able to afford otherwise) and it has some downsides, as we all know. Arguably, a lot of the things that people link to the token as a root cause are actually problems that come from elsewhere – boosting and carries aren’t a problem inherently, but the social environment and stigma created from them makes the game environment worse, the TOS carve-out for in-game currency sales of such runs feels like it does sort of promote the WoW Token indirectly especially when Blizzard’s remaining standing leader is getting in on carries, and there’s a sort of shameless profiteering in selling a token for $20 of real money that converts to…$15 of real money value. I can’t deny that the token makes some of those problems more visible and present for players, and that is a real issue that must be grappled with.
At the same time, however, I find the constant refrain of how the WoW Token “ruined the game” tiring. It wasn’t even Blizzard’s first attempt at RMT – remember the Guardian Cub pet you could buy for real money and then sell on the AH? Most of the complaints I’ve seen about the token focus on the carries, but the issues people discuss as arising from gold-purchased carries are things that would have always existed and have always been a part of the seedy underbelly of progression PvE MMOs. There’s a valid argument to be had about the scale of the problem and how the WoW Token exacerbates it or opens gold-purchased carries to a category of players that wouldn’t otherwise have access to them – but they would have been a problem in-game regardless. Some of the problem is player-related, as well – using achievements and rating systems as the gauge of whether someone deserves a group invite or not means that resourceful players will work to find their own ways around them – and again, making the resources more available is a part of the problem, but it is not the entire problem.
So there’s a conundrum, then – removing the WoW Token theoretically, by most of the discourse around it, creates a paradise where none of the problems mentioned exist, but in reality, they just take different forms as they did before the token and still do in games without such a system, and you would see the return of gold selling spam and various other measures in-game to market and push players to RMT, and we all know that Blizzard already doesn’t do much about tickets and player reports in game in the first place even without a mass influx of gold bots returning to retail! It also removes what is, for a fair number of players, a viable savings on their monthly expenses – and the game is struggling to keep players invested and engaged as-is.
I think in the end, what I’m trying to say is that I get why people dislike the WoW Token – I really do. I do think there is a tendency, however, to blame it for problems the game would have had without it, to point at it as the sole malefactor in the game and to remove the player agency (if people are buying carries, someone is selling carries, and if that market is succeeding, then there is an underlying reason why people are behaving in that way). Would removing it make the game better? I don’t know about that, and I dispute that premise. I think there would be some positive effects, but there would also be negative consequences, and a lot of people argue from their own position, which is understandable. If you’re in a group with a carry who got to 2k Mythic rating and doesn’t know their rotation, that sucks and feels bad and wastes your time as well. But I’ve seen a fair few people discuss paying their sub with gold and how that increases their connection to the game in a positive way or feels like a fun goal to chase every month, and obviously not everyone buying a WoW Token for cash is trying to use gold to buy a carry or do pay-to-win bullshit, even indirectly.
Is the WoW Token a greedy cashgrab by an out-of-touch corporation that doesn’t know what players want and only exists to milk their positive sentiment and sunk-cost in WoW for extra profits to keep the business looking good? Yes. Does it exacerbate group behaviors that are somewhat negative and help foster a worsening social environment in challenging group content? Perhaps. Would removing it immediately or even long-term fix the ailments the current state of the game is possessed with? No.
And so, we circle back to the title, and my hot take: the WoW Token is, all told, probably okay.