"The expansion will be available on DVD-ROM for Windows® XP/Windows Vista®/Windows® 7 and Macintosh® at a suggested retail price of $39.99 and will also be offered as a digital download from the Blizzard Store."For most players, this means very little. Personally, the DVD drive on my gaming machine is broken, so I'm probably going to take Blizzard up on this offer even if it means not having a box to set on the shelf with my other WoW packaging. For retailers, though, this may mean war.
Both previous WoW expansions were not available as a digital download on launch day. This means that Blizzard had to share the launch revenue of these expansions with a variety of middle men, from the guys who manufacture the boxes to the shippers and distributors to the actual retail store that ultimately sold the game. For Cataclysm, all the revenue will go straight to Blizzard - they won't even pay for the majority of the bandwidth, since they managed to set a precedent six years ago of using the customers own bandwidth to serve patches.
The Retailer's Dilemma
This will put retailers in an interesting position. On the one hand, the older expansions are apparently still selling in large enough numbers that every store that carries any PC games carries them. Blizzard has not announced plans to obsolete the old expansion boxes by offering an all-in-one box like other games (such as EQ1/2 and LOTRO) have done.
That said, stores generally don't get a cut of the recurring revenue from subscriptions, excepting the portion of players who use time cards. Instead, they lose revenue from players who stay subscribed to WoW instead of buying other new games from the retailer.
Don't get me wrong, it's certainly going to be possible to walk into a store on December 7th and pick up a copy of Cataclysm. Whether or not they like what Acti-Blizzard has done here, Cataclysm may be the biggest selling game of the year, and they'd be hurting themselves by sitting out the expansion launch. The question is whether they will continue to allocate as much shelf space as they do to the game's four boxes even as Blizzard takes greater efforts to promote digital downloads, or whether stores will let their current stock run out and cut shelf space accordingly.
Do MMO's Need Shelf Space?
In the end, there's an open question of how much retail space actually matters.
SOE clearly thinks that it does matter, as they made a point of delaying the digital version of the latest EQ2 expansion by a week to encourage stores to stock it. In my view, the gesture was half-hearted. The all-in-one box obsoleted all previous SKU's of the game currently on store shelves, one of which had been released less than six months prior. SOE also included a coupon for $10 off the digital download of the expansion in the retail box, to encourage players with friends or multiple accounts to take their business straight to the source after buying a token box from a retailer - perhaps they make more off of a $30 digital download than a $40 retail sale. Retailers apparently were fooled, though, as I've seen many more unsold copies of TSF on shelves than previous expansions, all of which will be obsolete in five months.
Then again, the EQ2 story raises the question of whether MMO's, which are inherently online only, actually do get a lot of walk up impulse purchase traffic. How many of these boxes are actually sold to new players, and how many were bought up on sale months later by knowledgeable players when the full priced digital download cost more? Perhaps a lapsed subscriber might see a new box someday and decide to try the game out, but otherwise the commitment required for MMO's tends to draw a more informed consumer.
Especially in Blizzard's case, it's possible that the stores need the sales more than WoW needs the store.