Blizzard introduced a new feature that allows players to use the WoW Token market to exchange their World of Warcraft gold for Battle.net balance, which is store credit that can be used to buy Blizzard software or to purchase microtransactions in any of Blizzard’s games.
WoW game director Ion Hazzikostas said the players with enough extra gold to sell were dedicated WoW players, and they were using their Battle.net balance mostly within the WoW ecosystem; they were buying cosmetic items in the WoW cash store and paying for account services like name changes and server transfers.
But that’s thinking small! The new Token system means that you can earn everything from new cards in Hearthstone to more loot boxes in Overwatch by grinding for gold in WoW.
And doing so is, in fact, much more efficient than actually playing any other game. Blizzard has set up an economy where the quickest path to any item, if you’re not willing to pay real money, is grinding World of Warcraft. Weird, right?
Time is Money, Friend
In-game currencies are a reward that games dole out for playing and achieving certain goals. Since you use these currencies to purchase virtual items that are also sold for real money, the game effectively pays you for the time spend playing it. Most games do this at a rate of a few pennies an hour.
The time you spend in World of Warcraft is a bit different; that time produces commodities that can be exchanged in an economy with other players. Instead of just getting a trickle of currency from the game as an incentive to keep playing, WoW lets you sell your time to other players. And other players will pay you a lot more for your time than the reward mechanisms in games like Overwatch.
There are lots of ways to make money in WoW, and top gold-makers execute complex schemes to arbitrage raw materials through crafting professions, manipulate server markets to benefit themselves and speculate on rare items. But let’s keep things simple, and just assume you want to grind for gold by gathering commodities and selling those commodities on the auction house for the prevailing price.
The most lucrative gathering profession in WoW right now is herbalism. An herbalist can farm more than 500 of a plant called a fjarnskaggl in about an hour, and sell each of them on the auction house for about 40 gold, which conservatively translates to at least 20,000 gold per hour. Farming foxflower or starlight roses may yield a similar or better payout depending on your server and timing.
WoW Tokens are currently fluctuating in price between around 80,000 and 100,000 gold, so it should take you around 4-5 hours of farming to earn a token. For purposes of this article, we’ll assume you can farm 20,000 gold worth of herbs in an hour and that a token costs 100,000 gold.
You can probably do better than this, but keeping our estimate of your gold-per-hour conservative shields you from disappointment if your farming output underperforms a more optimistic estimate. If you can farm herbs faster than that, or if you can buy a token cheaper, you’ll do even better than this article predicts.
So how does time spent grinding herbs, to sell for gold, to then spend on tokens in WoW compare to grinding currencies in other games?
Glad you asked!
I wrote a guide to the Overwatch cash store back in May and, while that analysis preceded the addition of some new characters and their cosmetic items, as well as Overwatch’s holiday events and the ability to earn a few extra loot boxes each week through Arcade mode, its explanation of the way the game doles out rewards is still current. Read that article if you want to see the math underlying my assumptions on the rate at which you’ll earn loot boxes while playing Overwatch.
It takes about 135 hours of playing Overwatch to earn 100 loot boxes. A bundle of 50 loot boxes costs $40 plus tax, so Overwatch pays out loot-box rewards worth about sixty cents for every hour you play.
Hopefully you’re also having fun, because that’s a dismal monetary return.
You should be able to earn the six tokens you need to buy a hundred loot boxes in about 30 hours of grinding herbs in World of Warcraft, so you earn more than four times as many Overwatch loot boxes per hour farming herbs in WoW than you’ll earn from actually playing Overwatch.
There is a problem with each approach, however. Playing Overwatch has a benefit that isn’t reflected in this analysis: It will make you better at Overwatch, which enables you to climb the competitive ladder and earn golden weapons and other rewards for success in ranked matches.
Farming herbs in WoW doesn’t help you get better at playing Overwatch. It doesn’t really even help you get better at playing WoW. It’s just a straight, monotonous grind. So, if loot boxes are your goal, grinding gold to buy WoW Tokens is much more efficient than earning them from playing Overwatch, but playing Overwatch is probably more fun, and the time you spend will help you hone your skills.
So the takeaway? World of Warcraft is a very efficient way to get new gear in Overwatch, but that time won’t be as enjoyable for most people.
Heroes of the Storm
A recently released hero character in Heroes of the Storm costs 10,000 Heroes of the Storm gold, or $10, so 10 gold in Heroes is worth about one cent. That was pretty easy!
Winning a game of Heroes pays out 30 gold. Losing pays 20 gold. And a game takes about 20 minutes, so if you win half your games, you’ll earn about 75 gold — about seven and a half cents — per hour while playing.
You also get a quest each day that is worth about 350 gold. These quests require you to do something like playing a number of games as a hero from the Warcraft franchise, or as a support hero.
You can save up to three days’ worth of quests, so if you can satisfy the condition for multiple quests in a single game — by playing a support hero from the Warcraft franchise in our example — you can get credit towards multiple quests simultaneously, and you can reduce the amount of time a game that earns you quest credit takes by playing against easy AI-controlled opponents. Even so, a daily quest will probably take at least 20 minutes on average.
That means it takes 133 hours of play, without counting quests, to earn a $10 hero, or about a month’s worth of the quests.
One WoW Token, which you can earn in four to five hours of grinding herbs, will earn you the same hero, with a few dollars of Battle.net balance left over. The rewards you earn from actually playing Heroes don’t even come close to this.
WoW tokens can also be used to buy cosmetic skins and mounts from the Heroes of the Storm in-game cash store, as you cannot buy these items at all using the in-game currency you earn from playing Heroes of the Storm. WoW Tokens operate like cash in every Blizzard game, making them a very versatile item indeed.
However, as is the case with Overwatch, it goes without saying that farming herbs is less fun than playing Heroes, and farming WoW herbs won’t make you a better Heroes player. But it does give you currency that be used to buy anything in Heroes of the Storm, versus the limited types of items you can buy with in-game currency.
Players in Hearthstone get a quest each day, which they can complete for a reward worth about 50 Hearthstone gold on average. A pack of Hearthstone cards costs $1.20 — or 100 gold — so a quest is worth about 60 cents and takes maybe half an hour a day to complete.
You also get 10 gold — worth 12 cents — for every three Hearthstone games you win. You get nothing if you lose, and a game of Hearthstone takes about five minutes, so you should get 10 gold every half hour, or 25 cents an hour.
Hearthstone also releases new content every four months alternating between $20 small “Adventure-Mode” releases and larger expansions. If you do every daily quest during that period, pay cash or Battle.net balance for your Adventures and don’t spend your gold on anything else, you can buy 120 packs from each new expansion with your gold each time a major expansion drops.
Those packs would cost about 11 WoW Tokens, or about 55 hours of grinding herbs. Hearthstone is generous compared to most free-to-play games in terms of the value of its in-game currency payouts, but playing Hearthstone still rewards you only half as much for your time as selling herbs to WoW players does.
So what have we learned? WoW, in pure cash value, slaughters every other Blizzard game in terms of return on grinding investment.
This really isn’t a huge deal
If you accumulate Overwatch loot boxes or Hearthstone gold because you are obsessively playing a ton of those games, and I wouldn’t blame you, the currency rewards are just a bonus for doing something you enjoy. Your ice cream has jimmies. Congratulations.
But if you’re playing the game just to get the currency, and if you wouldn’t be playing otherwise, you should consider the value you are getting for your time. Blizzard is putting together this weird economy that works across its games, at least with the Tokens you earn in World of Warcraft, and the math on how they interact is wildly uneven.
It’s also not a dealbreaker, nor a scandal. Grinding WoW gold provides a payout that blows the currency rewards for Blizzard’s other games out of the water, but it still only pays about $3 per hour and Blizzard is claiming most of that is being used within WoW itself, which makes sense.
If you live in North America or Western Europe, there are almost certainly more lucrative ways to sell an hour of your time than you’ll get from grinding WoW gold. If your ultimate goal is to make money per hour to get items in game and don’t care about having fun, flip burgers. You’ll have a better payout, and there’s a moderate chance you’ll also get free burgers.
You also have to consider that WoW requires a subscription. You can pay for game time by using a WoW token, but that’s one more token you need to earn each month before you can start earning tokens to buy items in other games.
And if you aren’t already playing WoW, you’ll have to buy the base game for $20 and the Legion expansion for an additional $50, and then play a character all the way up to the maximum level to be able to efficiently farm the end-game zones where you can collect valuable commodities. You’ll have to play WoW for at least 200 hours before you could even hope to break even.
So Blizzard has no reason to be concerned here, yet, nor should players be angry. We’re describing a set of circumstances that are interesting economically, but will impact almost no actual players.
In his interview about the Token, game director Ion Hazzikostas said that the most time-efficient way to earn Overwatch loot boxes is by playing Overwatch. We’ve seen, however, that this isn’t exactly correct. If you’re already a max-level WoW player with herbalism or some other reasonably-efficient method of earning gold, grinding in WoW for half an hour will earn you more rewards than spending that time playing Overwatch or working on a Heroes of the Storm daily quest. But, for most players who haven’t built a character specifically with this goal in mind, what he said was correct.
If you’re an Overwatch or Hearthstone player who isn’t already playing WoW, and you’re primarily interested in WoW as a way to fund your play in those games, the associated costs and barriers to entry are prohibitive. There are other, much easier ways to earn the $3 an hour we’re discussing.
You can always sell your blood, for instance.
How do you value your time?
People buy WoW gold because they prefer to spend real money instead of spending their time doing the stuff in WoW that generates gold. So, for most players, $3 per hour worth of store credit won’t be worth spending dozens of extra hours of leisure time playing the parts of WoW that other players pay to avoid.
WoW gold is now a much more lucrative reward for time spent playing than Overwatch experience points, Heroes gold or Hearthstone gold. It’s unlikely this will change anyone’s gaming habits — most people play to have fun and not maximize value per hour — but it’s an interesting detail in Blizzard’s grand economic experiment.
World of Warcraft gives you the highest monetary reward for your time when compared to all other Blizzard games in economic terms, and it’s not even close.
Daniel Friedman is the Edgar award-nominated author of Don’t Ever Get Old, Don’t Ever Look Back and Riot Most Uncouth. He lives in New York City.