World of Warcraft celebrated its 10-year anniversary last year and is still going strong, recently winning back many former subscribers thanks to the positively reviewed Warlords of Draenor expansion. The end of 2014 represented quite a turn around for Blizzard's flagship game, as many industry watchers who had been predicting the game's downfall in light of lost subscriptions were forced to eat their words. Still, there is one question about WoW that has persisted even through the recent uptick in subscriptions: Will the world's biggest MMO ever go free-to-play?
Some WoW watchers thought they had uncovered an answer to that question a few days ago when a fan site found mention of a "Veteran Edition" in data mined files from the game's upcoming 6.1 patch. This version of the game allows players to log in without a subscription, and the discovery pushed the free-to-play rumor mill into overdrive. Blizzard responded to all the racket last night, confirming that it will soon be possible for former subscribers to log in to the game, but alas, there's a catch. There's always a catch.
Community manager Bashiok posted on the game's official forums that former subscribers will be able to log into the game with the release of patch 6.1 without giving Blizzard any more money. But this "Veteran Edition" is in fact nothing more than the game's previously available "Starter Edition" or free trial that is available to Warcraft newcomers.
We’ve always had this kind of weird limitation where if you’ve never played WoW we let you play as much as you want, albeit in a very restricted Starter Edition account. However, if you have ever had a subscription--but don’t currently have one--we don’t even let you log in. In 6.1 we’ll effectively revert lapsed accounts into a Starter Edition “mode”, with all of the same restrictions. The one difference being that your sub-level 20 characters will be able to join a guild if any of your other characters are still in that guild.
The label for this mode internally is “Veteran”, and those are the strings that were datamined, but it’s unlikely to be a term we use to any great degree externally. It will simply be the default state for accounts that don’t currently have an active subscription.
Bashiok further clarified on Twitter that former subscribers will be locked out of their characters that are above level 20 until they resubscribe. It therefore seems in some respects that this Veteran Edition excitement is really much ado about nothing.
But this upcoming change could also be viewed as one more step down the road towards an eventual free-to-play model. Blizzard has already added in-game purchases like the Pet Shop and Level 90 character boost, and now every single person who has ever played the game will technically be able to log in for free. It's easy to see how a few more adjustments could make a true free-to-play game a reality if WoW's numbers start to dip significantly in the future.
In the meantime though, this is actually a really shrewd way for Blizzard to capitalize on its current business model. Players who haven't logged in for years will at least be able to run around in the game on a low level character and talk to people in their former guild or on their Real ID friend list. It's reasonable to assume that some gamers will catch the WoW bug again and resubscribe. Yes, it's all going according to Blizzard's plan.
World of Warcraft is available on PC and Mac.