Heroes of the Storm: Early Access by Any Other Name

blizzard-heroes-of-the-storm-logoHave you heard of H1Z1? It’s the latest MMO from the artists formerly known as Sony Online Entertianment (now called Daybreak Games). While SOE’s MMOs are all free-to-play, H1Z1 has launched as an Early Access title on Steam for $20. That price gets you immediate access to the game along with a few other perks. By all accounts, it’s quite obvious that it’s in the alpha stages of development.

The problem most people are having is that it’s a triple-A company that have gone the early access route. SOE has a few popular MMOs on offer already and with their financial backing from Sony and now Columbus Nova, it’s not like they should need the funding from Early Access sales to complete and polish the game.

But H1Z1 is the popular example of Early Access gone wrong. They aren’t the only example out there right now. Imagine my surprise a couple of weeks ago when I launched Battle.net and saw Heroes of the Storm waiting for me to click. The problem was that it wasn’t there to download. HOTS got a spot on my Battle.net launcher so I could spend $40 on the Founder’s Pack which includes immediate access to the game along with a few other perks.

So how is SOE and H1Z1 getting blasted for releasing an alpha of their game as early access while Blizzard is getting a pass for Heroes of the Storm?

diablo-3-error-37I can appreciate that Blizzard has done a lot to rehab its image with gamers over the last little stretch. After the boondoggle that was the launch of Diablo III with the inclusion of the always-online DRM and real-money auction house, Blizzard has come a long way with efforts to make up for those mistakes. World of Warcraft is still very popular and people absolutely love the latest expansion. They’re constantly working on the balance of StarCraft II to keep any of the three races from getting too far ahead. And even Diablo III was fixed with the removal of the auction house and the launch of the Reaper of Souls expansion.

Goodwill goes a long way in colouring how people think of a game company. Look at BioWare. They could do no wrong but Dragon Age 2 happened and gamers, including long-time BioWare fans, saw a chink in the armour. Then Star Wars: The Old Republic underwhelmed at release. And, finally, Mass Effect 3 was released and the ending had people out with torches and pitchforks. All it really took was one good ME3 DLC and the release of Dragon Age: Inquisition to turn public opinion.

It looks like something similar has happened to Blizzard. A couple of well-received expansions and a nearly unprecedented bit of hype for a MOBA and Blizzard looks set to print money with Heroes of the Storm. I’m not saying that Blizzard doesn’t deserve that. By adding objectives to maps and putting an emphasis on the team rather than the individual, they’ve changed the standard MOBA game. It’s not League or Dota or Smite but the people who want to play those games are already playing those games. Blizzard should be commended for a fresh take on MOBAs that seems friendly to players of all levels rather than pushing noobs to be good right out of the box.

My problem with Heroes of the Storm is the launch of its closed beta. Fans who hadn’t been a part of the chosen few who got in the technical alpha were hoping to be a part of a big wave of people who got into HOTS at the beta’s launch. That mass invite to the beta never happened. Instead, the slow trickle of people getting in continued (at least, that’s what Blizzard said). That was until two things happened. First, Blizzard teamed up with some YouTubers and streamers to give away hundreds of keys to subscribers and viewers. Then they teamed up with some publications to give away keys to readers.

heroes-of-the-storm-founders-packIf you weren’t one of the lucky thousands to get keys those ways, Blizzard left you one last chance to get in rather than waiting for the alleged trickle or the eventual open beta release. You could drop $40 for the Heroes of the Storm Founder’s Pack. That allows you to jump the queue and bypass all those contests and raffles and just get on the with the business of HOTSing it up. As a bonus, you get permanent access to three characters with three alternate skins and a bit of bonus gold.

And these are all fair business practices. I may not like it (and I’ll get to why in a moment) but Blizzard is being smart about how they’re letting people into the beta from an objective point of view. They can limit the supply of available spaces while in closed alpha and now beta while demand far outstrips that supply. Economics 101 says that there is some level of demand for a level of supply and price. People must be going for it at $40 otherwise Blizzard would have dropped the price or discontinued the Founder’s Pack altogether. In fact, the rather exclusive club that were quite visibly playing the alpha probably helped drum up interest in the just because of the appeal of the exclusivity.

So if the market will bear it and I am willing to accept it as a fair business practice, why, you may ask, am I still so completely opposed to what Blizzard is doing?

The principle behind Early Access is that it’s a way of funding a game by selling an unfinished version to gamers for a price with those funds going towards the game’s development. The principle of a free-to-play game is, supposedly, to eliminate the barriers to entry and play while those willing to pay for more in-game items or feel the need to support the developer financially will spend money on microtransactions or the game’s equivalent.

heroes-of-the-storm-store-alphaWhen it is given its full release in another decade or two, Heroes of the Storm will be a free-to-play game like most other MOBAs (Awesomenauts being the first exception to come to mind). What the Founder’s Pack is doing is essentially double-dipping. It’s got the free-to-play microtransactions for characters, skins and booster packs so there’s an option for people to give money to Blizzard during the beta. I don’t have a problem with people paying for microtransactions. I have a problem with pay-to-play and pay-to-win but fairly done microtransactions are something I don’t have a problem with.

But not only are Blizzard, a company that doesn’t need the money since they also are part of the financial/gaming titan that is Activision, getting money from microtransactions but they’re also getting what is effectively Early Access money. The Founder’s Pack is pay money up front for a game you haven’t played and is still in development so you can play it now. Sure, you’re probably saving a few dollars compared to buying that stuff a la carte but it’s not like there are any variable costs to Blizzard when you buy these characters, skins, etc. I also doubt the irony of a golden mount skin isn’t lost on Blizzard either.

I just can’t see a real ethical justification for Blizzard doing what is the equivalent to Early Access for Heroes of the Storm. It’s not like they need the money. It’s not like they aren’t making money from Heroes anyway. I don’t think I was three or four parts into last Friday’s Day Nine’s Day Off stream of HOTS and he bought a big bundle of heroes and skins. If he’s willing to do that, there are hundreds or thousands more who are doing the same.

As someone told me, there’s a difference between something illegal and bad business. There’s nothing morally reprehensible about Blizzard making you pay an admission fee for a beta. The difference is that the admission fees are usually either funding a developer needs to finish the game or a pre-order for the full release. Since Blizzard isn’t going to be charging for the full release, is this really the same as a pre-order? Does getting a couple of characters that you could have acquired through the in-game currency justify the $40 price tag? It doesn’t justify the cost to entry to me. But there are thousands of people who have dropped that $40 who disagree.

Cross-posted from et geekera. For more from et geekera, follow us on FacebookTwitterGoogle+Tumblr, Steam and RSS.

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