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Print Media, Pay Walls and the World of Warcraft

November 17, 2009

This blog, like many others, is free. I write content and you, the reader, can read it without paying me a dime. That’s not a great deal for me, and I just do this for fun. But newspapers aren’t just doing it for their own amusement; they’re trying to make a profit from their websites.

Preview of Wall Street Journal Article

You only get a preview

Under the strain of falling subscription numbers and sagging newsstand sales, some papers have found success in charging for access to select sections of their website, such as The Wall Street Journal. Others, like the Los Angeles Times, quickly dispatched their pay wall “after experiencing a sharp decline in web traffic,” according to The New York Times. These organizations might be able to learn something by looking at how Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind PC games such as World of Warcraft, Warcraft, and Starcraft, successfully started charging for its content. (In addition to the initial investment of purchasing the game, Blizzard charges $15 US/month to play World of Warcraft.)

Blizzard offers a ten day free trial of World of Warcraft, or if you’ve purchased the game a free month of playtime. Compared to what newspapers offer for free this isn’t much. For example, The Wall Street Journal allows free access to politics, arts, opinion and breaking news where Blizzard charges for everything after the first ten days of play.

You probably know what services The Wall Street Journal is charging for: news, expert analysis, up-to-date content, everything a newspaper provides to its readers. Blizzard’s model is similar, but with a few key differences. Like The Wall Street Journal, Blizzard offers new content, but in the form of patches which players download and apply to the game, adding new areas to explore and quests to complete.

What is Blizzard doing differently, then? Most importantly, how did they manage to get over eleven million subscribers worldwide? Blizzard doesn’t just add new content to their game; they go further than that by changing the way the game is played, often in ways that reflect the opinions and comments of players. One example of this is the way that user modifications of the game’s interface have, over time, been incorporated into the game as a default setting. This means that the World of Warcraft that launched in 2005 is very different from the World of Warcraft of today. The same cannot be said of newspaper websites, which offers essentially the same services as they did a few years ago.

In addition, most newspaper’s websites are not very different from each other. Compare The New York Times site to the LA Times site. Both sites provide essentially the same services, with no bells and whistles to tempt visitors into becoming paid online subsceribs. Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, however, has made itself unique in the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) genre, where all games share a few key traits. There are a number of reasons, but one of the most important is that it’s appeal is so broad.

Just look at Aion, one of the new MMORPGs on the scene. One of its downfalls is a failure to offer content for everyone: ” If you lean towards PvE [player versus enemy, as opposed to player versus player], there is enough content for you to enjoy for a few months but longevity may be an issue,” says IGN. World of Warcraft caters to people who play upwards of 30 hours a week as well as those who play only one or two. It has different levels of content for different types of players. Perhaps newspapers cannot hope to reach such a broad audience, especially not in hopes of enticing all of them to pay for access to select parts of a website. But if a newspaper attempted to model its pay wall after Blizzard’s model, what might it look like?

One change that may occur is that new forms of media will be set behind a pay wall as soon as they become available. One of the reasons that World of Warcraft can afford to charge players monthly, rather than solely a one-time purchase, is that other similar games always used the pay-to-play model. Examples include Everquest, Ultima Online, and a host of others. If consumers are used to paying for a product then there isn’t the same kind of protest that comes from restricting a previously free service, especially one as vital as information.

Consider the recent foray of McSweeney’s, a literary magazine, into new media: their iPhone application. It’s on sale for $5.99, and even features content that appears on the iPhone before the web. “And iPhone-only content is on the drawing board as well,” says Mac Slocum from the Nieman Journalism Lab. This taps into the advantage that Blizzard has with World of Warcraft: iPhone users are accustomed to paying for applications, just as MMORPG subscribers are used to paying a monthly fee. More print media organizations are likely to follow McSweeney’s example and come up with creative ways to market their products and services, which is the main purpose of McSweeney’s iPhone application. “At its core, the McSweeney’s app is really an extensive sampler with a clever marketing hook,” says Slocum.

But even if newspapers manage to acquire a strong base of paid online subscriptions, there is still the problem of advertising. “At stake are millions of dollars from online advertisers who want the largest possible number of readers. Putting up any kind of pay wall has the potential to drive away readers and some of those dollars,” says Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times. The newspaper industry has some catching up to do and would do well to study existing companies who profit from selling online content, even if they aren’t news organizations.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. frogi permalink
    November 18, 2009 10:48 am

    I’ve never understood why newspapers, well here in the UK, have never offered a paid subscription that sent you the newspaper through your email. Offering you the whole paper and being able to click and check what parts you want to read. This would be useful for the consumer at work, on the go and the company to reduce printing costs. They could print the email in a pdf style format or simply make their own presentation type software.

    Although, we both know that Blizzard will make money an which way possible. It has a ever growing market and so many avenues to explore. It even has sponsored soft drinks! Where as the journal and the time just report what happening. Maybe they should offer more prospective style columns addressing issues that sometimes aren’t heard for a while.

    As for previewing a news story? Google.
    As for buying a Blizzard mug? Buy one from IKEA and paint it.

    “I just do this for fun.” You love it, admit it.

    • November 18, 2009 3:43 pm

      Heh, I do love it. Thanks for following me here, loyal reader. 🙂 Hope you stick around/tell your friends!

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