Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Aion and Darkfall subscription numbers

One interesting result of the latest blog war is that one commenter posted a link to the subscription numbers of Darkfall, including a timeline. Darkfall had 18,656 subscribers on November 17th, and now has 20,378 five weeks later. That translates to a growth rate of about 15k subscribers per year. So even if this growth rate keeps up, it'll take over 5 more years before Darkfall even breaks the 100k subscriber barrier.

As we were comparing that to Aion, I tried to find Aion subscription numbers. I couldn't find any current ones. 450,000 people pre-ordered Aion, and Aion held the top sales spot on Steam for a while after release. But I know neither at how many subscribers in North America and Europe the game peaked, nor whether it really shrunk by all that much since. I'm pretty certain Aion still has several hundred thousand players, but I can't find solid data for that. And of course in addition to that Aion is said to have 3.5 million players in Asia.

So saying that based on subscription numbers Aion is a failure and Darkfall is a success is stretching the truth to its limits. Worst case estimate for Aion is to have "only" ten times as many subscribers than Darkfall, with twenty times more being a more likely guess. Aion is a mass-market product, where the box sales alone made tens of millions. Darkfall is a small extreme niche product, which isn't remotely likely to ever catch up with the big guys. It will never even come close to rivaling a successful PvP game like EVE, and not even a supposedly "failed" game like WAR. Kudos for a small independant game studio to have produced a game that found its niche, and might even be profitable at 20k subscribers. But in the greater scope of things that is still chicken feed, and a failure. There are Free2Play games that make more money than Darkfall. The only significant thing about Darkfall is how rabid its fans are, and that is more working *against* future growth than for it.
Assuming Darkfall is profitable and sustaining itself, how is it a failure? Certainly not a commercial failure. There might be other games that are more profitable, but that is a different thing.

Not every game has to aim for the mass market, nor should they.

I would not say that Darkfall is a success either, but that does not make it a failure.

And no, I have neither played nor have any interest in Aion or Darkfall.
Tobold: An MMO that set out to start with around 10k players and is still growing a year later is a success! Please acknowledge that.

Aventurine made it extra hard to sign up, because they only wanted one server it seems.

According to your numbers, the rate of growth was 9.23% this year!

That's all quite good, especially considering the almost non-existant marketing.

Darkfall, so far, is a success - even though the faults in the release version were .. well .. unbelievable.

I don't play DF, but I congratulate the designers to producing an MMO against the assumed norm. Based on Player generated content.

I didn't even buy Aion. From what I heard and read it looks like a WoW clone. Well done - that's new -- but still a clone.
Works in Asia, but is not enough to draw players away from the original for a serious amount of time.

We need more companies like Aventurine!

By the way: Seems like small MMOs can survive without being free-to-play after all. qed.
But in the greater scope of things that is still chicken feed, and a failure.

Unusually meanspirited? As a supporter of small and indie MMO's such as Puzzle Pirates, A Tale In The Desert, and other niche games with unique features I think you would support Darkfall even if you don't have alot in common with its fans or want that playstyle for yourself.
Depends on how you measure success. If it's purely based on revenue and profit, then yes, Aion is far more successful than Darkfall.

However, when you consider that Darkfall has 20k subscribers paying $10 p/m that's a revenue of $2.4million a year which is good (and successful) by anyone's standards for, presumably, such a small development company.

Plus, don't forget that even games with big subscriber numbers (WAR for instance) are deemed unsuccessful and have to start laying off staff because they don't hit the huge sub numbers that they need to keep going.
Just one more thing. "rabid fanbase"?
Like when all the Darkfall bloggers and players all jumped on Richard Bartle for having said that... oh wait. that wasn't Darkfall now was it.

Also, I wish the Darkfall foruns were as clean and sensible as WoW forums... wait... wrong again right?

But since when Blog PvP is sensible, right?

Darkfall doesn't have mass marketing. It's marketed by satisfied customers like Syncaine. So the marketing size is proportional to the number of subscribers. That means exponential growth like with bacteria. If Darkfall increased its subscriber number by 9% in 5 weeks, than it almost doubles its size in a year.

Of course I'm not claiming Darkfall will do that. The niche has a size. But my guess is that the growth will have an exponential element and Darkfall will have more than 100K in three years.
Thing is though, as Tabula Rasa proved, simple numbers aren't the main criterion for success.

Free Realms has become a sub game with the glib explanation that the word Free was actually a philosophical reflection on your character's versatility in the game, not anything to do with price at all, no sir.

Tabula Rasa almost certainly had more than DF does now when NC Soft shut it down.

Aion seems (predictably) to be following the Age of Conan, Warhammer, model of a big splash followed by steady decline. Possibly they can turn it around before next year's heavy-hitters come out and lure away players.

There's a lot to like in Aion, especially graphically, but it suffers the problem of being quite like WoW and not quite as good.

If they do struggle with numbers NCSoft have a reputation of being extraordinarily harsh with their games. They were quick to shut down TR and Auto Assault. They are also shutting down Dungeon Runners but that seems a less controversial decision.

The Darkfall team must be delighted with the game's progress. They had a very low-key launch, expanded to a second server, have addressed most of the rampant early cheating and have what seems to be a sustainable growth model. They must feel by their own modest terms that they have succeeded.

Whether they will maintain their growth when Mortal Online launches into their niche remains to be seen.

Gamers can throw virtual cream pies at each other all we like but the real issue is whether the games companies feel their games are a success. By those lights Aventurine: probably yes; NCSoft: compared with their other titles like Guild Wars, City of X and Lineage probably no.

All that doesn't mean that Syncaine's post wasn't childish and attention-seeking. But I have to say after reading Lum's article again you can't really be surprised it set a hardcore pvper off. He actually says it will. He could pretty much have named his article Why Syncaine is a Noob and put the rest up word for word and it would have made perfect sense.
I've played both games and they each have their own appeal.

Certainly, Darkfall is a niche game and Aion has been financed, developed, and marketed for the mass market. Darkfall has a much, much smaller team with a product apparently designed for a small set of players that want a 'hard' game (by today's standards). It'll never be a huge success by subscriber counts, but is it a failure because it's small? I suppose that depends entirely on whether or not they continue to see growth and the company profits enough to continue developing it. Small online games, like Vendetta Online, have found enough players to survive. Also, because they serve a niche rather than the mainstream player, they can try very creative and interesting gameplay mechanics that would fail in a more casual, mass market product.

Variety is good for the gaming industry and these small products are important for the future of MMOs. Many of the large scale games are stamping out the same formula much like we see with mass market movies and television. The smaller games, like indie films, get to be creative and try new, riskier ideas. Sometimes they produce something amazing or develop talent that goes on to do bigger and better things.

Also, from the linked article - those are only partial subscriber numbers. They aren't complete as they don't include non-clanned players. I'd expect that number of players to be small, but the discrepancy is worth noting.
Was my other post insulting and deemed not polite enough for publication Tobold?
I'm sorry, but what exactly was impolite in the previous post? Me calling on your impolitness?
The problem is not the exact degree of politeness, which is difficult to measure anyway. The problem is derailing threads by making comments about the person who posted, instead of the subject of the thread.

The question is not whether calling me a troll is too impolite, but whether it adds to the debate on why people think a PvP game with 20k subscribers is a bigger success than another PvP game with 300k subscribers.
As a veteran of Meridian 59, UO, and a huge WoW Player, I'd hardly call Aion a PvP game.
I don't like picking on the underdog - Darkfall - but Syncaine's manic and rabid defense of the game... wow! It's almost like he's getting paid to represent it.

Oh wait.

He is?

I don't understand what all these Darkfall posts are for. If you ask most people if they ever heard of it, they will say "dark what?"...

Tobold, they probably want you to keep posting about the game to gain exposure.

Unrestricted pvp and looting suck. Been there done that in Ultima Online. I don't even bother to check out their website. I will pass on this one, tyvm.
In regards to...

"Kudos for a small independant game studio to have produced a game that found its niche, and might even be profitable at 20k subscribers. But in the greater scope of things that is still chicken feed, and a failure."

Success is very relative. In a strict business sense, if you've executed your business plan and can turn a profit, it's a success. If the goal of the developers was to create a simple but sustainable impact PVP game that requires only 15k subscribers to survive and progress, albeit slower than the rest, the it is successful.

Thus, I think you're calling a game a failure because it doesn't emulate another game in the sam genre is a bit off, and I would think you would agree, in hindsight. What do you think?
I'd suggest that Darkfall does not have fans any more rapid than other games, just a single blogger who's getting a fair bit of free press in a couple highly successful WoW blogs. The vast bulk of Tobold's readers would never have heard of that game if he didn't regularly bring up the other blogger.
What Aventurine is doing with Darkfall is about the only way to make a different kind of MMO these days unless you get someone to give you $30M or more.

You simply cannot compete with WoW unless you spend a lot of money. It's too polished and has so much content and so many different things to do. So it makes more sense to have a limited budget so you can make a profit on a small subscriber base.

Then you hope you gradually grow your subscriber base, as EVE has done.

My guess is that if Aion can't maintain 200,000 subscribers in North America, NCSoft will be disappointed.
It does lead to the question though - how does one measure success in an MMORPG? I know players tend to look at subscription numbers and popularity. To a certain extent that's a good judge. However - I can guarantee you that the developer's and their bosses are looking at the profit numbers instead.
I played Aion and Darkfall.

Honestly both are good games at what they sought out to be.

I made fun of Aion being a WoW clone before I played it, then I played it. Aion IS NOT a WoW clone. Aion is 100 times more like EverQuest and EverQuest 2 than it is WoW. To be honest it plays like a very main stream MMO. I think the entire gaming community is really ignorant of the fact that because a game plays like your typical MMO it is a WoW clone. (pet peeve sorry)

Darkfall was a really cool game and I give Aventurine props for making more or less an experiment. I hope they continue to grow. I'm looking forward to Mortal Online because it looks like a more refined Darkfall.
How much money was spent making these products? How many interested parties are sharing the profits (or losses)? What were the projected subscriber rates initially?

Ultimately it comes down to your definition of 'failure.' We simply don't have enough information to state that either game is a 'failure' by the criteria laid out by their respective companies (contrast this with WAR, where Jacobs laid out actual numbers that the game clearly failed to meet).

Sure, we observers can define 'failure' by some arbitrary population level, but I don't think that's useful at all in determining the actual health of a game.
But in the greater scope of things that is still chicken feed, and a failure.
So are quite a few things. We can easily extrapolate this to all forms of entertainment, and declare everything except porn to be failures. ;-)

The only significant thing about Darkfall is how rabid its fans are, and that is more working *against* future growth than for it.
If you were aiming for mainstream approval, yes. But if you have a relatively small group of developers and thus small development costs, you don't need mainstream approval to achieve a decent return on investment rate. Granted, Darkfall's development time was fairly long, and recouping those costs will take quite a while. But as long as Darkfall is the only modern fantasy PvP-focused MMORPG out there, they have the entire niche all to themselves, and thus they're in no hurry. So the question is: Can Aventurine recoup their development costs before a competitor arrives?
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I'd be curious as to how the revenue numbers match up with the company size and structure, for a game like Darkfall. As 'blog' commented, 20k subscribers at $10/month = $2.4M per year. Assume that costs eat 50% of that, which leaves $1.2M per year. With the total cost of a developer being around $200k/year (salary, benefits, office space), that pays for 6 developers and no management or other investment.
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I deleted my earlier 2 posts and combined them into one more unified thought. I see 3 elements within the definition of success when it comes to MMO’s. The first is the business side. The key here is return on investment. Subscription numbers alone mean nothing. If the company can see a good return on their investment then it is a success.

While the company might be focused on the return of their investment, for the developers themselves I would say that success is about having employment while working on something you love. The majority appear to care passionately about bringing their vision to life. It is easy to bang out a product short term that you do not care about in any industry, however I personally have found it very hard to continue that same level of production on a project over many years when I am not passionate about it. So long as they can maintain what they consider to be a comfortable standard of living, working on a project that they love and believe in they would probably define it as a success.

For us gamers, I would define success as a game we enjoy playing. Arguing success under this criteria, however, is rather pointless because the elements are completely subjective. It is only natural that we defend what we like and attack that which we do not. Gevlon would call this an ape-subroutine, and it does seem like these arguments bring out the baser qualities of our nature.

At the end of the day you need all three elements for long term success as they all become interdependent. If the gamer does not enjoy the game he will not resubscribe, without passion and vision the game will eventually become bland and heartless, without a decent return on investment the game won’t stay around for the gamers to play and enjoy. Each element might be able to exist in the short term without the other, as a developer could create a game they love that absolutely flops, so he only had success for a short period, but the goal for mmo’s needs to be set on the long term for everyone to reap the full benefits of the genre.
This endless comparing of apples and oranges is amusing but does it have a purpose?

First no-one could agree what "Content" was. Now no-one can agree what "Success" is.

Apparently Darkfall is a success because Aventurine hasn't gone out of business while Aion is a failure because it hasn't outsold every MMO bar WoW. At the same time, MMOs like Runescape and Maple Story trundle on year after year with millions and millions of players and no-one even mentions them.

Fallen Earth is a success with *guesstimate* 20-30k players. WAR is a failure with 200-300k. It's nonsense. There's no accepted standard, everyone makes up figures and uses terms to mean what they want them to mean. Alice in Wonderland economics.

I propose that any MMO that can keep at least one server operating and has players on that server who prfess to enjoy playing there is a SUCCESS. Any MMO that closes down is either a FAILURE or a SUCCESS whose time has passed. Beyond that, just play them and stop going on about it!
Not that I'm a fan of Aion, but it seems like they've banned more bot accounts than Darkfall's total population.
Tobold, I think you are really wrong on equating "chicken feed" with failure. Size does not dictate success. If Darkfall has enough appeal to return a positive ROR, good for them even if 99.9% of the gamers will never like it enough to play. Very similar to train simulators, it's a niche game with limited appeal - that does not make it a failure.

Is it more or less successful than Aion? You can't tell for sure since we lack hard numbers. All we can do is guesstimate and presenting guesses as 'facts' to draw conclusions on is the wrong thing to do.

I am not surprised a fanatic like Syncaine would go there, since that's where his limited view of the world takes him, but why do you have to stoop down to his level? I have to admit I am somewhat disappointed in this blog war you've started with him. If you have to resort to the same arguments that he is making, then both of you have lost.
Well, from the point of view of a businessman, I'd rather have a small, growing subscriber base than a large, shrinking subscriber base. Especially if you take into account the relative initial investments.

It's important to differentiate here between a "critical" success (i.e., a product that is very popular) and a "financial" success (i.e., a product that's turning a profit).

Personally, I have no interest in Darkfall, nor am I a fan of Syncaine. But I'd say that Darkfall has been a rather unanticipated success, at least based on the fact that its subscriber base is actually growing (a rare accomplishment in the MMO world).

Just my two cents as a person with ten years experience as an MMO consumer and the holder of a Master's of Business Administration degree....

PS: I almost always have issues with OpenID verification on, so I'll apologize in advance for any double posts or other posting weirdness....
I think that success depends on how you define it.

One way is the return of investment, and there the small and successful indies shine (Tale / Darkfall), but then for investors the total might be a bit too little.

Or it is how many people like and play it, and there WoW, Lineage and Aion shine with multi-million more or less happy players.

And I do not think that "time live" is a good measurement, as Neocron can proof (7 years), or Shadowbane, which was around for 6 years before completely folding. Or take EQ-Mac, which is around since 6 years, and definitively not successful.

Also the DF community is something which not everybody can stomach (forum and in game). Reminds me a bit of the old PlayToCrush mentality (as in: I win when you leave) ;-)
I think everyone is looking into "what is success" to much.

If a company makes enough money to stay open, cover its costs, and keep it's subscribers it's a success. The end.

Fun factor has no bearing because it is subjective.
I think a lot of you are missing the nuance of the "failure" statement, i.e. "in the greater scope of things". Darkfall is (most likely) not a monetary failure, and the developers might very well be happy to be where they are.

However, on the scale of market penetration and the likelihood that Darkfall will shift the direction of future MMO development, the game is a failure. It's impact on the MMO marketplace has been insignificant.

Taken in isolation, Darkfall is not a failure. Compared to the greater scope of MMO gaming, it is.
This debate makes my head spin. So by most people's standards if a game doesn't compete with WoW it's a failure? Regardless of production cost, growth rate, or if the company is making a monthly profit.

By most peoples criteria a company could be upside down in debt as long as they post a few million subs.

You would think by now people would realize that WoW is the exception not the rule when it comes to MMO success.
Darkfall is a bit like the Fiat Multipla. It's a car that looks completely retarded to almost everyone, but there were enough idiots (I'm gonna be sooo special in this fugly car) and fanboys (the Italian buyers ;)) that bought it, for Fiat to make a profit off of it.
Every time you see one, just point and laugh, but DON'T discuss its ugliness. Just accidentally having to look at one every now and then is more than enough attention already.

So... can we ignore Darkfall again now? :)
It's funny how I see so many comments in this thread saying that size does matter and that it doesn't dictate success.

Warhammer has/had more suscribers then Darkfall and it is deemed a failure in the mmo community.

Age of Connan has/had more suscribers then Darkfall and it is deemed a failure in the mmo community.

Lord of the Rings has/had more suscribers then Darkfall and it is deemed a failure in the mmo community.

And while I don't have numbers to back me up I would be willing to bet all three of these games STILL have more players then Darkfall, and didn't Syncaine himself call these three games failures?

Darkfall has less then 20k players. F2P games have larger populations then that. Sure it may be making money, but trying to say it's more successful then any other triple A mmo is insane.

Thats like me saying I'm more successful then Star Bucks because I have a single lemonade stand with 20 customers and I'm getting 1 one customer a week and making money, while Star Bucks has millions of customers, but lost a few hundred thousand and closed some stores. StarBucks is still the more successful company even with the losses. Anyone who thinks otherwise is using some crazy warped sense of "logic".

This seems like a bunch of Darkfall fans looking to justify the game to me.
Tobold, I'm guessing its a slow news month and that's why you're in this Syncaine blog wars thing.

Darkfall is a non-issue. Darkfall may continue to increase in numbers but unless there's a HUGE overhaul and by that I mean a 90% facelift in graphics and gameplay it will never amount to anything other than a very very small niche market game, that may live on for 20 years with its same stock of rabid fans growing old together.

Heck, even Eve which is considered a niche market success and grudgingly given respect by the MMO community. Generates almost no news outside of Eve themed blogs (unless theres an expansion).

I had intended to try out Darkfall but after more research and looking at youtube videos and screenshots and the game not have a free to trial plus having the absolute gall to charge $15 a month?!? Any game that is not AAA in budget and charges $15 is crazy and worthy of simply being glossed over IMO.

I don't know much about Syncaine and his blog but I read the past 2 months of posts and ... I would classify him as utter DF fanboy (at best) or shill (at worst). Most if not all his posts in the past 2 months lack any objectivity or justification. Just ravings of a ... fanboy/shill. The only thing you're doing is increasing his blog traffic.

Ah well, that's just my opinion. Merry Christmas Tobold!
From an investor's point of view, a game is a success if it gives them a good return on investment (ROI).

So if game A costs $500K to make and makes $250K profit a year & game B costs $50M & makes $25M profit a year, they're both equally good investments. The number of subscribers is irrelevant. What matters is the percentage annual reurn on the money you put in.

Now I don't know what the relevant numbers are for DF & Aion, but I can easily imagine that DF's ROI is better than Aion's, due to the low development & running costs. If that's the case, from an investor's point of view, the niche game may actually be a greater success.
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