Game Director Ion Hazzikostas Explains Blizzard’s Newest Experiment, the 'WoW' Token

Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Players can now trade tokens for everything from in-game gold to Blizzard games

Players can now trade tokens for everything from in-game gold to Blizzard games

Blizzard Entertainment’s bold new experiment in paid-to-play launched last week with the expansion of World of Warcraft’s token system, which now allows players to buy tokens with real cash and sell them for in-game gold, and buyers in turn to use the tokens for all Blizzard games and services. It's the first time since Diablo 3’s disastrous Real Money Auction House that Blizzard has experimented with allowing players to turn in-game items into something like real currency. Players immediately swooped down on the new market, driving WoW token prices sky-high and nearly obliterating the supply.

Blizzard removed Diablo 3's Real Money Auction House in 2014 after two years of nonstop controversy. Players felt they had to "pay to win" in order to get access to the best gear, due to the forced artificial scarcity of high-end items. Meanwhile, the fact that players could "cash out" moved Blizzard towards acting like a bank of sorts – which is a stretch, even for company so well-funded and beloved.

The $20 WoW token – the first version of the concept – launched a year after Diablo's auction house was shuttered. Players could sell it for in-game gold, and buyers could only pay their subscription fees with the token. Last week, Blizzard finally expanded the token so buyers could use their in-game gold to cover all of Battle.net's digital offerings, including Warcraft items and character services, other in-game items like Hearthstone card packs, and even the purchase of new Blizzard games.

"It’s kind of my baby," Ion Hazzikostas says about the WoW token. Though he's now WoW's game director, Hazzikostas has worked on the initiative since its inception. Here, he talks with Glixel about how the death of the Diablo RMAH made the WoW token possible, what people have been spending it on, and its impact on gold farming.

How has the new token been received?
Obviously, there has been tons of enthusiasm. We had a stealth soft-launch of the feature early last Monday morning in North America. We held off for an hour or so before posting any official confirmation to make sure everything was working completely smoothly before we directed the fire hose of people’s attention at it. [The token price in gold] is about 40-50% higher in North America. It went from [60,000 gold] to the high 80s. It peaked at 115, but that was the initial rush of frenzied purchases.

Why was the WoW token originally introduced?
It really was to offer a service that players wanted. An important point is that this is not a transaction between the player and Blizzard. This is a transaction between a player and another player. One of the original purposes for the token, and something that it’s served very well, is undercutting the illegal gold selling market that exists within the game. The way that gold is acquired is by compromising the accounts and using various methods that are harmful to players. Anything we can do to make those things harder is a net gain for us.

So has it cut down on gold farming activities in the game?
Yes. You’d have to ask the gold farmers themselves [laughs], but inherently, by offering a safe and secure way to have that transaction, it significantly cuts into their bottom line.

Do many people use the token?
Most people didn’t actually interact with the token at all. It’s a minority of people who either buy or sell them. We were very satisfied with the fact that it was harmless, that it was not having any negative external effects on the economy or the game, and was just making people happier.

We’re not looking to create real wealth here. We’re not looking to create real dollars, we’re not looking to become a bank.

Why expand the token to things beyond game time?
This is something that players have asked for pretty much since the moment the token was introduced. It was around last fall that we made the internal decision to pull the trigger. We mentioned it at BlizzCon, in response to a question at the Q&A panel. From that moment onwards, players would periodically Tweet at us, “So when’s that coming?” There was this groundswell of support for it.

What are people using the token most often to buy?
It’s a bit early to say for sure. Anecdotally, I’ve heard – and I know – people who have used this to consolidate characters that were spread across multiple realms. We’ve seen an array of things. I think most of it is within the WoW ecosystem. I have guildmates who the first thing they did was turn around and buy Overwatch for the first time. Or people who have caught up on Hearthstone. It’s something we’ll be looking at in the long run.

Do you hope to see brand-new Warcraft players who want to buy items in other games?
I think that would be very surprising. The reality is that the token is for people for whom WoW is their primary game. It’s for the auction house barons of the world, the collectors, the people who have multiple dedicated WoW characters they do tradeskills on and amass a WoW fortune. If you’re looking to get Overwatch loot boxes, by far the most time-effective way to do that is to play Overwatch.

How is this different than Diablo 3’s Real Money Auction House?
The removal of the real money auction house in D3 actually made this possible. We never would have considered token-to-balance conversion if that existed, because it allowed you to cash out of the game. We’re not looking to create real wealth here. We’re not looking to create real dollars, we’re not looking to become a bank. We’re just trying to offer a way for players with tons of gold and players without much gold to transact within the game world using things that are valuable to both of them as a medium. That’s the key difference.

This interview has been edited and condensed.