Imagine that you’re playing World of Warcraft and you decide you could use a little help finishing your quest. So you go to a site that aggregates and distributes “add-ons”—independently-written programs that hook into WoW and create new functionality for game players. You choose a popular one called QuestHelper and go on your way. As you’re questing, a little window pops up asking if you’d like to donate to the program’s developer. Are you annoyed by the in-game intrusion, or happy to be reminded to send a few dollars to the useful app’s creator?
From now on, the choice won’t be yours to make. Blizzard Entertainment, creator of WoW, has issued new legal guidelines allowing these add-on programs but specifying that they must be free, can’t solicit in-game donations, and must not “negatively affect the game for other players.” (Developers can still solicit donations on their websites, but almost all apps are download through third-party distributor websites. Donations may also be solicited on the distributor websites, but developers will have to convince owners of those websites to do it on their behalf.) Blizzard has always been able to disable add-ons simply by updating the game technology. That’s the price of developing an ancillary program for a proprietary platform—the same is true for Facebook, iPhones, and so on. But the new guidelines are (quasi-?)contractual, not technological, and sweep much more broadly. Over on Slashdot, the developer of QuestHelper (”ZorbaTHut”), the popular program in the example above, says that this will likely make the cost of development unsustainable for him. He found that occasional in-game donation requests massively increased his income, and thinks that requests on his own website won’t be enough.
I can understand why Blizzard is doing this—they want to control the look and feel of the game, handle specific programs that have been problematic, and keep out annoying nagware (and maybe start their own app store someday). But is it worth it if they lose an app downloaded by tens of millions of people? Does it matter that the game for developers was changed in … mid-game?
This kind of question will come up more and more often in the new app/platform ecosystem, where developers are writing for tethered platforms and not generative PCs. What I find most interesting about the Slashdot and WoW forum debates is how strongly some people defend Blizzard—basically, “it’s their platform and they have the right to do whatever they want!” People say the same thing about Apple and the iPhone. Of course these companies are within their legal rights—that’s not the debate. But on the other hand, these independent programs are making Blizzard’s product better, right? And under terms that could change at any time.
I think the question is, what do we, as users and developers, really want to see? Will developers actually walk away from platforms that reject apps inexplicably, or copy their better features, or tell developers they can’t charge? And do independent developers bring enough to these platforms that we users are willing to protest and ask for more open policies?