Tobold's Blog
Friday, June 29, 2007
Putting things into perspective

I have set up Blogger so I receive a mail for every comment I get. Most comments are on the front page posts, but sometimes I get some comment spam on older posts. This is how I stumbled upon something I wrote half a year ago, World of Warcraft is not the end of history. Before TBC even came out I thought that WoW subscriptions would decline after the inevitable expansion peak. I was right, but talking about decreasing WoW subscription number gets you labelled a "WoW hater" nowadays. Some people are clearly in a state of panic, some are still in the denial phase. But nobody took the time to really put those numbers into perspective. Let's take the time to do that.

First things first: WoW isn't dying. As Raph Koster explains, MMORPGs shrink much slower than they grow. After 27 months of continuous growth it will take World of Warcraft many, many years to "die". I wouldn't be surprised if it would still be around in 10 years. Hey, Everquest is still there, and Ultima Online is preparing for it's 10th anniversary. World of Warcraft will not only be around for a long time, it will still be the biggest MMORPG for the foreseeable future. There are no "WoW killers" on the horizon. It might still be years before we see the next 8-million subscribers MMORPG. World of Warcraft will be safe on its throne, and profitable to Blizzard.

So the decline doesn't matter? Far from that. We will never know the exact numbers, but the WarcraftRealms graph suggests a 10% decline from the peak in February. That still leaves more players than WoW had in December last year. But if you happen to work in a company, imagine you having to tell your bosses that you just lost 10% of your customers, starting the first decline after 27 months of growth. Big as WoW is, losing 10% means losing more people than Everquest ever had, and it also means losing over 100 million dollars. Do you think that the business managers will just shrug that off as inevitable loss? Or will they ask the developers some hard questions on why the population peaked only one month after TBC came out, and then declined so drastically? If The Burning Crusade had been "better", regardless of what you think "better" would entail, it should have held the attention of the customers for a longer time. The business manager doesn't need to understand anything about game design, he'll just need to look at the subscription numbers to know that there is something wrong with TBC, that it wasn't the success that Blizzard had hoped it would be. That *will* have consequences for the design of the next expansion. It isn't sure that the next time they'll get it right, but at least Blizzard will do their own analysis of what went wrong and try to correct it. Telling your boss that you think the current version is better game design, and to hell with the 100 million dollars is an impossible sell.

It is possible that World of Warcraft will be able to stop the decline of subscription numbers and stay above 8 million subscribers for longer. But the one place where you won't notice it is the MMORPG blogosphere. World of Warcraft will play an important role as point of comparison in most MMORPG blogs. Most discussions will assume that everybody reading it will have played WoW. It is really hard, and actually a bit silly, to try to review a new game without comparing it to the industry leader. But unless you visit dedicated WoW blogs, World of Warcraft will slowly fade into the news background. The buzz will be around the new games. The 137th patch of WoW changing some power of some class by 1.75% will not cause all that much excitement any more. World of Warcraft will be for Blizzard what Mickey Mouse is for Disney: A cash cow, producing hundreds of millions of dollars every year, without being in the headlines much any more. All forms of journalism, including the amateur blog kind, tend to overhype anything that is new, and underestimate the influence of the old. You *can* overlook the 800-pound gorilla, if he has been sitting in your living room long enough.

That has nothing to do with "WoW hating" or "WoW bashing". Bloggers are often the first ones to try new games, the avant-garde. Many people, including me and other bloggers, played World of Warcraft for over 2 years, which shows what a great game it is. But expecting everybody to play that game forever just isn't realistic. People move on, and so do their blogs. Sometimes people prefer a new game over an old one, even if the new game isn't strictly better than the old one. What blogger plays what game is not necessarily a good measure of the quality of the games. The longer you play a game, the more the game's small faults start to annoy you. A new game is fresh and exciting, and many of its defects are overlooked. Bloggers just being normal people like everybody else, that leads to more reports on the faults of old games and how wonderful the new games are than would be justified in a fair one-on-one comparison.

In summary, World of Warcraft is alive and well. It has some visible problems with the last expansion not having the same user retention as the original game, but nothing life-threatening. Nevertheless the news are moving on, to the next generation of games, and WoW reporting will become less, even if the new games aren't better than World of Warcraft.
Great post to the point!

I really do look forward to WAR and think it will reach 1 million easily!

On the other hand I wish WoW was only released yesterday so we can start over agaibn ;)

Great blog Tobold!
Blizzard's next expansion will show whether "they truly get it" or not.

WoW desperately needs more classes and more mid level content.

TBC II will not go over well.

= # # =
BC has been in the top ten selling PC games since it was released, so it is not a failure in that respect.
Player retention may be a problem, but they probably predicted a decline of subscribers anyway, and as long as that decline matches their model, then the business managers will not be slitting their wrists.
Much as a mining company knows that one day their best mine is going to run out of ore, Vivendi must also realise that one day WoW will no longer be worth the cost of running it, and it will be taken off-line.
Wonder if Blizzard uses services like
Or if they do everything by their own.

For sure there's people there that analyze trends, stats and in-game stats...

Anyway I think is physiological. Users will grow and grow and at some point will srink a bit and settle. At least that is if developers don't screw everything to much.. but usually that happens only in rare examples.
Bloggers do move on...if you stopped playing MMORPGs for a time Tobold would you still blog here or take a break?

Blogging here would then mean a little shift away from your tagline...
Great points all of them. I have also have been, passively been looking for a new game to play. I say passive because I don't think I really will leave WoW for a little while but I do feel an issue.

It seems that the mass adoption of WoW was because of the casual game. I don't mean to bring up the old Casual Vs. Hardcore debate again, but when you look at the combination of the change in season, the ease of progression to max level, and the time required to play the expansion endgame you might find that the loss in numbers are from those who can't reach the end game.

Unfortunately Blizzard is also a victim of their own success. They have has created an even bigger divide between the two sides. While creating some real compelling new endgame they have left many casual players with toon full of Blues or Greens that are far superior to any Purples that can be attained in the level 60 instances. While the 1-58 game is no more compelling to play then before, it seems that people seem to be skipping to the 61-70 game.

To me, it seems that if in November they beef up their Middle game and classic end game, while simultaneously keeping the end game raider happy they may see their numbers begin to climb again.
However that's all speculation on my part, and only Blizzard knows for sure.

But one thing is known for sure… it is all about $$ no matter how it might be spun to the contrary.
Bloggers do move on...if you stopped playing MMORPGs for a time Tobold would you still blog here or take a break?

Blogging here would then mean a little shift away from your tagline...

Depends on the kind of break. 9 more days before I go on a 3-week holiday without computer. So certainly no MMORPGs during that time, and unless I find some internet café, no blog entries either.

Me stopping playing MMORPGs all together? Not likely. I might broaden the definition from classic MMORPG to other games played over the internet, like the Shot Online I recently talked of. And I might play single-player games for short periods, and talk about those, but that is something I usually get away with. But the current trend in video games is towards going online and multiplayer, not away from it. If I change my tagline to "online games", that might soon cover most games available anyway. :)
Outstanding write up. I am getting really tired of people labeling anyone that states the reality that wow's population is dwindling as "wow hating". It's simple fact, the game is on a decline.

I think you've kind of summarized just why some people are leaving. It's just not exciting anymore, I have to say blizzard did a fine job with the game it held many people's attention for *years* which is an accomplishment to be sure. But nobody can expect it to last forever.

If anything it's success and eventual decline holds a valuable lesson for both blizzard and other future mmo producers. I can't help but feel a little sad that wow for me personally degenerated to essentially an everquest-lite near the end of my subscription (grind fest, raid mentality, rep, ruling class peen flexing, etc.) but as I said, hopefully it will give blizzard and other developers a heads up on what works and what doesn't.
It`s not very hard to foresee the future for the next WoW expansion. Anyone who played warcraft3 will tell you the game is missing Northrend right now and that`s what we will get. In fact some people have dug out terrain of the Howling Fjord(region of Northrend) in the BC game files.

Knowing that, next expansion will be a new zone(northrend), new raid instances(we all want to kill arthas), a new level cap(dev said players ain`t high enough yet to take on Arthas. All in all the same thing we got already with TBC. Where the difference might lie is how it will be designed but at the core it will be more of the same thing. And I do believe it will work because of the appeal of the warcraft universe.

I believe what blizzard is doing right now is dragging wow for another 2 or 3 years before launching their next MMORPG, wich will very possibly be starcraft. Why? Because when they where designing warcraft 3 they where already planning WoW and so included a lot of elements in the game for the mmo. And they fleshed out a lot of the world and background too.

Now we know that in about a year we get Starcraft 2. Add a year or 2 and we get Starcraft MMO, just like warcraft 3 and WoW. They`re going to use starcraft 2 to pave the way for their next mmo and it would fit with the current WoW life expectancy too...
Your point about small faults becoming more and more annoying is really apt. Similar flaws with single player games exist, but because the life expectancy of those is limited, it's much easier to let go and move one. How did the gaming public get the perception that every MMOG should be a lifetime commitment? Maybe the subscription business model of $15/month or so causes people to think that the experience ought to be exponentially better than a single player game that costs $50.

What I am interested to see is how the focus of WoW changes as its popularity declines and (I guess) stabilizes. There's a huge silent casual population with a very vocal "leet" segment that demands and receives a lot of developer attention. But, as is obvious, their gaming habits and priorities are very different. Would the developers really have the interest in shifting their focus? Is there already too much inertia in the WoW culture for them to change it without a lot of effort?
As Tobold correctly point out, TBC numbers are following the industry trend (only much bigger, of course). IMO, the only thing that makes that even discussion-worthy is that WoW completely blew away the growth of previous games, which raised a question as to whether they could buck the trend with an expansion as well. The early answer is in, and the answer so far is, "No". The question remains, however, whether that trend will continue, flatten, or reverse. I'm not sure that I'd go so far as to say that the game is in a decline, because it may be that actual new customers who will stick for 12+ months rose, and the spike-and-decline was mostly old customers who came back (some probably choosing 3- or 6-month subscriptions) and left again. The problem in accurately assessing the health of the game is that there is simply not enough data granularity to tell. Thus an assessment of why people are leaving may well be skewed by the "Quit WoW 1.0, came back for 2.0, but didn't stay" crowd -- in which case the user actually quit WoW 1.0, and TBC did not *keep* them, but did pull in a big temporary revenue spike. I'll at least give TBC the rest of its first year before I'll buy into claims that TBC is the cause of an exodus from WoW!
I think it will take at least a year to be sure if TBC has generated new subscriptions and how well those new subscriptions survive in the long term. The people who rocketed through 10 levels and then quit for a second time are not necessarily a good indicator of success.

I know that the expansion and publicity buzz around it is what got me to buy wow classic a month before TBC was released. I still don't have a single character at lvl 58 so I haven't even bought the expansion yet.
@ Jay, And how do you find the 1-58 game. Do you Raid, do Dungeons, or play solo?

Also something else that I noted about the article, the linked graph shows player activity, not total accounts. Really it's hard to equate how many people are playing the game during prime time to the number of accounts that are bing canceled.
BC doesnt do as good of a job telling and elaborating on the WoW-storyline as wow1.0 did. I felt much more immersed in the WoW1.0 universe as the questlines and regular gameplay walked you through the WoW story just like reading a book that you interact with.

I think the disappointment with current wow is that the game does a poor job putting the players into the storybook of WoW. Infact, the expansion also takes you apart from your friends and guildies with the natural progression within the game and promotes some very questionable endgame material (less fun grinding, item value changes (BC gear trumps wow1.0 quite terribly), attunements, higher dependance on your internet connection being stable/player having less room for error). The players may or may not appreciate the new value BC has brought, from my experience and my friends feedback BC has been a disappointment overall.
Ummm question. How is having MORE players MONTHS AFTER the expansion launch equal to the expansion having a smaller retention?

As I've said elsewhere, every MMORPG sees a spike in activity at an expansion launch or major patch. Blizzard has already come forth and stated they have witness spikes with major patches, only to watch the spike flatten out prior to starting a new gain.

WoW has a higher player activity than pre-TBC. That means TBC has brought and kept more players in the game than the original WoW.

The only question is why the 8.5 million player mark hasn't been broken? That remains un-answered from Blizzard.

All we know, to a certain degree, is that player activity is at a higher level than pre-TBC.
I hate for my fist comment here to sound negative but this is an issue that I have to comment on.

Most of WOW’s 8.5 million customers are not paying 15 dollars a month. They are in Asia and on a different payment plan.

This data (IIRC) is on NA and European players only. It does not take Asia into account so we can not draw any conclusions on what their activity trend looks like. Remember while WOW has millions of users in Asia it is not that big of a game there where some games have tens of millions of users and faces much more competition.

I think the spirit of the post is on the money. I just have issue when people seem to act as if those 8.5 million are all in the west.

WOW is the biggest thing out there here in NA and Europe but often times its size seems to be inflated when compared to other MMO’s in the west through inclusion of the eastern players. This seems most common when people start throwing around numbers on Blizzards revenue stream from the game.
You're right, over 5 million Chinese are playing WoW for 5 cents per hour. And I'm not sure they have TBC yet, because I know there was some delay due to Blizzard fighting over money with their Chinese distributor The9.

For Warhammer Online or any other potential "WoW Killer" to beat World of Warcraft, they would need to have global distribution as well. And that's hard.
Last I heard Blizzard and The9 made nice for now. I also seem to recall that EA just bought a big chunk of The9 – that sure will make things interesting.


While you are 100% correct that there are still more people playing WOW now than pre-BC the interesting data will be from March, April and May. If the drop continues at a similar rate we might see activity in those months fall below the pre-BC numbers. If this is the case then WOW might have hit its peak (at least in NA and Europe) and be on a true decline. If this drop is just the typical and expected back side of an expansion spike they those months should level off to around pre-BC numbers.
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