Tobold's Blog
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Aion: Up or Down?

Two years ago Raph Koster posted a classic article on How Open Big Virtual Worlds Grow, with a curve which slopes upward quickly, plateaus, and then slowly declines. He said: "This curve is so regular that you can predict the peak from just a handful of datapoints. Assuming that the title is equally available everywhere, you can predict the peak from literally three data points, which you can get literally in the first few hours of launch." It is undoubtedly with such a curve in mind that the makers of Aion said that they already sold 300,000 pre-orders of Aion. So will we quickly see a million or more Aion subscribers?

Not so fast! It turns out that this curve is not quite as universal as Raph thought. Both Age of Conan and Warhammer Online announced huge box sale numbers, but then lost up to three quarters of their subscribers in the first month! Warhammer Online for example sold over a million copies, but quickly ended up with under 300,000 subscribers. And as spinks so correctly remarks, it is very easy to pre-order Aion just to get into the beta, and then cancel the pre-order before actually having to pay anything. Ardwulf's World's Shortest Aion Review just says "Uninstalled", and that is well before the game is even out.

Whether you blame World of Warcraft for every game that isn't doing well, or whether you think there are simply too many MMORPGs out now, it appears that an alternative MMO subscriber number curve now exists: Lots of people who already played some MMO, but are currently bored, buy a new game, find it isn't to their liking, and unsubscribe after the free month that comes with the box, or shortly after.

So what is it going to be for Aion? Is 300,000 pre-orders the starting point to millions of long-term subscribers? Or is it the start of a straw fire, with over a million boxes sold this month, and less than 300,000 players by christmas? And is it just the quality of Aion which determines the success, or is it a reflection of the whole MMORPG market?
The same phenom as the release of Warhammer. 750,000 buy boxes and sign on opening day and how many subs do they have now? 300k, if that, EVE has the same amount.

So if they can hold onto their 40% of the initial audience that wouldn't be that bad. But then again, you have to look at the reality of the subsciber base. Just how many WoW accounts are dupes, gold farmers, alts, people that close their account and come back. That is all relative and the wow number might be huge, but how accurate is it. Bill Roper from Champions Online also said that the feasible subscription target is around the 200 - 300k mark.
Typical subscriber lifetime stretches the curve. Assuming a lifetime of 1 day will make it very regular but short; a lifetime of 3 months will stretch it out.

But lifetime is distinct from sales velocity, and the curve of returning users versus that of acquisition (box sales) are correlated but not identical.

We ended up having a lot of discussion on this in the comment thread on the post you linked...
If Blizzards next MMO is the first in years that doesn't instantly remember you about WoW I will reallystart to laugh at the competition.
Tobold: So what is it going to be for Aion? Is 300,000 pre-orders the starting point to millions of long-term subscribers? Or is it the start of a straw fire, with over a million boxes sold this month, and less than 300,000 players by christmas?

I'm predicting Aion will top out at just under a million subscribers around March 2010. It's a very high quality game with enough innovation and fresh content to sell a million boxes combined in North America and Europe.

I say March 2010 because this should be about the time that most casuals who will pick up the game over the holidays will have exhausted the most accessible PvE content and are getting forced into the PvP endgame. Some will make alts but many others will leave... however Aion is still "different enough" to hold a base of 500K subscribers into 2011, by which time WoW 4.0, Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars KotOR will be taking their toll.

But again, I do think quality and stability will be a major key for Aion having more staying power than a game like WAR or Age of Conan. This manifests in some fairly subtle ways... such as how well its engine (the CryEngine) runs on mediocre PC hardware. Example: my "backup" Aion computer is a 3 year-old laptop with a GeForce 7300 that can't run WAR but can handle Aion just fine. (Outside of any flaws in the game itself, WAR's awful engine alone probably cost the game tens of thousands of renewals.)

-Adam in New Jersey
If Aion will be successful can be seen a few months after release.

I would say 2-3 months. Because by then people will have realized that this is a Korean game with some western fluff:
PvP endgame, few dungeons, grindy PvE combined with the PvP endgame.

But I think it could still be successful - for some reason "grind" no longer seems to turn off people so much anymore than just mentioning the word did years ago. Remember Guild Wars? It is grind-free, but the optional endgame activities are just an optional mega-grind.

I am quite interested to experience this myself, I play an Elyos and an Asmodian char to level 28 in the closed and open beta and, well:

It was twice exactly the same, regardless of faction. There is not too much content, and if you do not get the kicks for looking for other players and killing them, I really wondered what to do in Aion!

But as I was initially totally enticed by the super slick client and overall good feeling of the game, I even pre-ordered the digital CE from NCsofts shop.

Aion is VERY appealing, initially. Some people also think it is WoW, while it is rather Lineage 2!

I do not think Raph's observation applies here at all. Not on today's market. Today we have WoW to which MANY players fall back to if the current new MMO does not satisfy them enough.

I definitely side with you on that issue and not with Raph Koster, as reality has already proven this made-up theory wrong. You have already given the best examples for this, WAR and AoC, yourself.

That there is a bump in subscriber numbers after major patches and expansions is not really a surprise... oh boy. So much about silly statistics and making fuss about them.
I don't know if anyone else feels the same, but personally I get a bit bored with all the speculation and finger pointing that goes with subscription numbers. A lot of the time I feel that some people (and I don't mean you Tobold), will use falling subscription numbers with enevitable comparrisons to Blizzards, to poke a dirty stick at the MMO's they didn't enjoy.

For me, subscription numbers don't matter so long as:

A) the game is still profitable


B) there are people to play with

300,000 subscriptions isn't a bad place to be in, that's an awful lot of money per month you'll be raking in (4.5 million for 15 a month sub).

Now I don't mean subscription numbers aren't interesting, just that I feel that there are alway negatives associated with the numbers that us as punters attribute, but for the publisher meets their targets. It would be a foolish publisher nowadays that banks on millions of subscribers, they will have looked at the figures of all the other mmo's and worked out a reasonable business plan.

I'd be more interested in information that tells us how quickly the game paid for itself, and how much it left per month after operation costs. At what point does a MMO become unprofitable and untenable (if you assume the initial sales pay for the original development to date)? 100,000? 50,000 subscribers? Even less?
In my opinion, what is preventing some games to be successful is the excess of expectations months before those games got shipped. Then some people enter the beta (or the first month after the release), the beta didn't fulfill their expectations, because they were too high and they stop playing.

Another factor to get into account is Wow, not the game itself, I think about the fact 'all my friends play wow, I want to play with my friends, then, I should continue playing Wow'. Feeling you are in a strong and big community is what keep playing people in MMOs. Risk yourself to play a game barely played is something like a 'jump of faith'.

At the end, when you mix both statements, you'll get people not playing because they are waiting the game to be a success and people not playing because the want to play the game they expected, not the game they got.

Myself I plan to play Aion in a casual way a couple of months, I played the beta and I had lots of fun there. I don't want to play it 'hardcore' because I played that way Wow since 2006 and I'm a bit tired to be tied to a game everyday, everyweek. It looks a great game, I miss an addon feature, but so far it looks great.
I'm also one of those players. Stopped playing WoW for a while. Bought Warhammer Online & Conan. But didn't find it to be my thing and cancelled after one month.

I still hope that one day I'll find that new gem of a game.

As for Aion, I'll await the reviews before I decide to try it.
Let's not forget that Aion is already hugely successful in Asia and has multiple millions of subscribers there.

As a NA player, I find the game refreshingly different yet close enough the the familiar MMO titles. With very smooth gameplay, remarkably bug free game, and stable servers, Aion should do very well in NA/EU.
The 300k pre-orders is far below WAR's pre-order number, isn't it? Below what AoC had as well if I'm not mistaken.

But like any post-WoW MMO, Aion will be flooded with tourists, and even though like WAR Aion tries to be WoW-like, it's not WoW, and so the tourists will travel back home after a month or three. After that, how it's combination of 'more of the same' and it's quasi-hardcore PvP endgame works out will determine if it has 100k, 300k, or 500k subs. 300k-ish is my guess.
Longasc,I have not seen stats for Aion, AoC, or WAR. But I have seen stats for other games and the curve still lives. :)
Not so fast! It turns out that this curve is not quite as universal as Raph thought. Both Age of Conan and Warhammer Online announced huge box sale numbers, but then lost up to three quarters of their subscribers in the first month!

As Raph points out, the slope of the curve can be different, the shape stays the same. Nothing from the WAR and AoC numbers says anything that would indicate a different shape.
I have a question instead of an opinion. Does Aion do anything new? I've been watching the MMO community get excited about it for a long time but I still don't understand the appeal. Isn't is basically a WoW clone except you can fly for a short duration?

I wish more MMOs would innovate instead of copy.

If I am completely off base here please tell me. I honestly haven't played the game at all because the impression that I get is that there is nothing new to be found.
Unfortunately, Aion has decided to launch with a PvP "endgame" which in the world of mass market MMO's is exactly equivalent to zero-endgame. It's sad, because the game looks beautiful and it'd be nice to see some company make an honest try at retaining launch level subscriber numbers. But, while PvP is important in a modern MMO, it must be compartmentalized for the bulk of gamers to put up with it. And, it does not constitute an endgame.
WAR's pre orders were around 1.2 million. AoC was just over 600k. If Aion has only sold 300K so far that leaves them ZERO room to lose subs.

I honestly expected Aion to presale about 600k based on all the positive feedback from most communities.

It's really a 50/50 chance now for Aion. They could start small and grow, which is ideally the best for any MMO... or they could start small and just fizzle out.
If WoW got to count it's Asian players as part of it's "11 million subscribers" schtick, why do I see so many people tossing around "300k" or "500k" figures as their guesses for Aion's subscribers? The game is already very successful in Asia with millions of players. The US/EU release means they only have one direction to go: Up. Sorry if Aion's success makes WAR fans like syncaine even more bitter, but hey, thems the breaks.
Yidish, it's really hard to say that people won't accept a pvp endgame. It's hard to separate out the many elements of fail that such game have had that had nothing to do with pvp at all, really terrible implementation of pvp (I don't care who you are, standing around watching someone operate a ram is BORING after a while), and what a pvp based game COULD be.

I'm not saying AION is the answer to the conundrum, but the widespread assumption that most MMOS players are a bunch of candyasses isn't too well founded. Certainly most gamers enjoy the occasional headshot outside of MMOS. WoW players exposure to "pvp" before level cap is either virtually nonexistent or the quaking rage of getting ganked with no recourse. Then they get thrown in the tank with geared out, hi-skill monsters who mercilessly murder them in an absolute rout hundreds or thousands of times before the player gets the skill & gear to live long enough to figure out how they are getting raped, much less win a fight.

Basically, WoW makes sure that people have the hardest possible time getting into pvp by making it as miserable and uncommon an experience as they can. And then not making it as grindy and un-fun as possible for those who do enjoy it.

So I don't take it as a given that MMO players are inherently anti-pvp. They've just been trained that way and nobody has given them a solid secondary option.
Mmo data is not good at asian numbers.
Thier source is from ign late april. April Aion had 3,5 million players(active) in South Korea! and in Kina four days after release 1million players and increasing.Look Sanda.
Thats 4,5 million players. And in both countrys increasing very fast. so maybee 6-7 million players. Then we have Japan /Taiwan/austraila and so on.Estimated numbers in asia 9 million players.Asian games/real numbers.. Lineage 2 had at thier peak 17 million subscribers. /players. Maple leaf 84 registerd users active players around 25 million/Rappelz at their peak 5 million.Thats huge numbers, Wow had last month 5 million players(because servers where down in Kina) and we dont know the real numbers.More and more people have broadband now, and in Skorea/Kina there are more people than in EU/NA.
Its gonna be fun to see how well Aion will do in the west.And how the "bigger" games never mentions.
Best regards Fred(sry about my spelling:-))
It's one of the worst MMOs I've ever played.

The content is extremely week, you can tell the developers cut a lot of corners on anything that wasn't art. That tends to be the case with "grind" games. Replace actual content with mindless grinding in a generic themed zone populated with increasingly angry named monsters.

The end game PvP is a massive zergfest and it's certainty not balanced.
I think Aion is one of the best mmo┬┤s around ..grind..ehe nope dont think so. Pvp zerg? Yes and alot and more end game instanses then ex wow.
balanced? Yes more then wow ever gonna bee. Try the game to lvl 50 mate before write anything about the game....
I have tried most MMOs over the years, many just to get away from WoW. There's enough familiarity with the interface that I didn't have to spend a week to learn how to play, but enough of a difference to give it that new feeling. I didn't have to upgrade my system to play it and everything looks beautiful.

As far as the number of subscriptions goes, all I know is that I log in and have no trouble grouping or finding items I need on the Broker or in trade chat. That's all I need to play. Great game so far!
Aion: estimated numbers in asia 9 million players.Most ppl are from wow and L2 then i suppose. Well i think its a great game so far, not so many kids..:-)
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