Tobold's Blog
Monday, August 19, 2013
WoW extrapolation

I tend to have the least popular opinion on the internet, the middle-of-the-road, rational option. So I neither hate World of Warcraft with a passion, nor do I love it very much any more. It is funny how few people can see this 9 year old market leader in a rational light. Instead you get people highly excited about the news that Blizzard trademarked "The Dark Below", which could potentially be the next World of Warcraft expansion. So what? With all due respect for the apparent decision to not add yet another undiscovered continent to Azeroth, there really is no news here. No design decisions have been announced and this could very well be yet another standard expansion with a few more levels and zones which doesn't advance the genre at all.

On the other hand I tend to get annoyed at the constant stream of "WoW is dying" comments. Not because of my love of WoW, but because of my love of math and history, both of which are constantly getting raped here by some people in order to express their hate of World of Warcraft. Where they go wrong is nicely shown if you compare two curves: Bob Flinston of Altaclysmic extrapolating WoW subscription numbers to zero compared with the mathematically and historically correct description of subscription number curves as done by Raph Koster. Read Raph's post! The subscription number curve over time is NOT symmetrical, it declines slower than it ascended. World of Warcraft will not be at zero subscribers in two years.

Expansions of course are one part of the reason why that extrapolation is so wrong. But there is also good old-fashioned inertia. People still play the original Everquest and other games that were released in the previous millennium. There is a very good chance that World of Warcraft will not only be still alive in two years, but will still be the market leader. The natural decline simply isn't that fast, and the contenders are still weak, regardless of the hype for games like Wildstar or EQ Next or TESO. And that isn't taking into account the possible parachute: WoW could stay at many million players for another decade if it went Free2Play at some point. You don't have to like World of Warcraft, but you'd be a fool to dismiss it so easily.

I think it is also a matter of definition. People who say WoW is dieing often just mean to say that WoW recently lost a lot of subscribers and, in their opinion, will continue to do so. Turned into a headline this reads: WoW is dieing".

No design decisions have been announced and this could very well be yet another standard expansion with a few more levels and zones which doesn't advance the genre at all.

Honestly, if anyone is thinking that WoW will advance the genre he's hallucinating. While it may be a very big niche, WoW has a very clear target (multiple targets, as it is), and only does incremental improvements on the "classic" MMO design. They will certainly not get rid of what brought them at the top of the ladder (and is keeping them there).

As for you not hating WoW, sorry but the lame remarks that you add to your posts EVERY SINGLE TIME about WoW and/or WoW players point to the "hate" side....
@Helistar: That is exactly why a middle-of-the-road opinion is so unpopular on the internet. I say something reasonable and realistic about WoW, and the WoW-lovers complain about my "lame remarks pointing towards hate", while the WoW-haters accuse me of being a WoW fanboi. Moderate opinions have no place on the internet.
Most people think their own opinion is "rational". That doesn't make it so.
Okay, remove the "rational", and what I say still remains true: If I say that WoW is not dying, but not likely to revolutionize the genre with the next expansion, that is a moderate opinion which provokes aggression from both sides. The WoW-haters will tell me that I am wrong and WoW will be dead in 2 years. The WoW-lovers will tell me that I am wrong and the next expansion will be a miracle.
For good measure, I predict that the next WoW expansion will be a miracle: it will be so bad that WoW is dead within two years!
While Oscar probably meant that as a joke, there is actually a historic precedence: The NGE expansion that killed Star Wars Galaxies.
Well, it's on the downhill slope, that's for sure. As I've been arguing for years, I really don't think it's connected to a decline in quality. I think they're just hit the tipping point where the recruiting stream has finally gotten smaller than the exit stream.

Blizzard is like a company that found this wonderful virgin forest full of exotic old growth trees, and then proceeded to clearcut the the place as fast as they could. Now they're running out of trees. Even though they're as good at cutting things down as they've ever been, you can't cut trees that don't exist.

Which is a metaphor to say that players have a certain career length, and after that they are done regardless of the quality of the MMO's available.

Forget WoW, I really hope that's the title of the Diablo III expansion...
Rumored feature for the Diablo III expansion: A no-trade, no-AH mode. Am I the only one detecting the irony when the innovation of today is a mode to turn off yesterday's innovation?
WoW will not die, it will go F2P. IMHO, late 2014 or 2015.

No other expansion until 2015 (sorry, that Dark thing, if it is a WoW expansion, will not come in 2014). Too many new MMO coming for make the competition stronger. WoW showing its age. The game will continue to lost 0.5 to 1 million subs per quarter. Blizzard will hit panic button will be hite when WoW subscriptions come to 5 million, but what they will do then will make more bad than good.

Take note WoW just had server mergers that were not named server mergers but smell like server mergers. However, if you give to a rose other name that not "a rose', it will smell diferent?
I think going F2P is basically death.

I mean, people are still playing UO. Who knows how long a server will be on. So death is kind of colloquial here, since none of these games were ever alive in the first place. In that sense, the greatest sub MMO going F2P is a bit like the Beatles ending up playing state fairs or something.
P.S. If you're imagining some kind of dark underground thing instead of a new continent, that seems really cheap to me. Slap a few caves in preexisting maps, then instance a bunch of Undercity maps. Doesn't sound very exciting to me.
There are a lot of fools in this world Tobold. I've been a very long time WoW player; have had plenty of criticisms of the game, but have generally really liked it. Its why I still play it, but like you, I'm a realist. I've never bought into the WoW is dead mantra, nor am I a fanbooi who believes everything is fine. I've said many times that WoW is stagnant, formulaic, and that Blizzard needs to shake some things up a bit.

Similarly I met news about the recent Blizzard trademark request with a big snore. You're exactly right... there's no news there and I was bewildered by the excitement that lack of news generated. That's the power of fanbois!
The Dark Below was confirmed to be a hoax. However, a lot of people are expecting an Diablo 3 expansion announcement at Gamescom. One of the Blizzard guys "announced the announcement" in a twitter update.

I definitely agree with Raph Koster more than Flinston, but I think certain trends can hold in the short term. For example, there is a deceleration of subscription loss from 1.3 million to 600,000. I think you can continue that trend (losses halved every 3 months) until just before the next WoW expansion is out, putting the subscribers around 7.1 million. Of course the expansion will bump that up by 1-2 million followed by further declines.
Thandar--- this kind of math is exactly why I've been bitching about the China customers being considered subs.

It dilutes the reality that there's about 2 million people paying monthly subs for WoW, down from 8 or 9 million. Losing 60000 people from the real sub base is a much steeper decline than it looks.
2 million subs seems like an unrealistically small number to me!

Now, I'm no expert at this, but let's look at the latest Activision Blizzard Quarterly Report:

It says that they made $508 million from online subscriptions, which is basically everything related to WoW and the Call of Duty Elite memberships, over a three month period. Now, I'm also no expert on the CoD Elite service, but a quick look says that it cost $50 for a year (so $12.50 for three months) and there were at least 2 million premium paid users, so that leaves us with about $483 million. Also in the quarterly report, it says that the North American region alone comprises 54% of net revenue (and Europe another 38%).

That gives us that net online subscription revenue in the North American region from WoW is about $260 million. If the cost of a sub is $15, then for three months that suggests that there were a little under 6 WoW million subscribers for that time period (5.796 million, to be exact).

Now, obviously, there are some problems with these numbers - for example, I've used the entirety of the online subscriptions to refer to WoW subs when they also explicitly include box sales and, presumably, online character services, and I gave the number of CoD Elite premium users as 2 million, which is a number well over a year old (though, even if that number were doubled to 4 million, following the same method outlied above would only get us to 5.5 million subscribers). It also doesn't include European numbers, which are also sub-based, as I recall.

Anyway, what I'm trying to get at is that, while I'm certain there are flaws and inaccuracies within my calculations up above and my number is definitely high and cannot be used as anything approaching gospel, I still feel it makes a reasonable enough basis to claim that a number of only 2 million subscribers is probably unrealistic, and that WoW will probably do perfectly fine for the foreseeable future.
@nyohahahah: Welcome to the club of people trying to talk sense on the internet and looking for actual facts.

Unfortunately I don't think 4c22cb52 is interested in facts. His "2 million" number is just an expression of hatred for the game. He doesn't WANT to hear real numbers, because reality interferes with his world view.
Are they including all the revenue from transfers, name changes, sparkling ponies? There's no way there's 6 million subscribers in NA.

My whole point is not that I hate WoW, it's just that tossing 5 million or so guys who generate far less revenue than the actual monthly subscribers makes figuring out exactly what is happening very difficult. This is intentionally confusing. There's no way there are 6 million subscribers in the US.

Let's assume that the 2010 subscription ratios have held up. At the time there were 10 million 'subs', and the breakdown was

55% China subs
25% US subs
20% EU Subs.

So if that ratio has held, and I don't see any particular reason not to believe it would, then now at 7.7 million subs, the subs break down this way:

China: 4.24 million
US: 1.93 Million
EU: 1.53 million


So my numbers are based in a fairly reasonable projection (for an internet argument of no consequence). I wish they'd just, you know, tell the truth, but that would negatively impact the game.

So point being that there's no way the NA subs ever were 6 million, even at the peak. I'd guess there have been at least 6 million people in NA who played WoW at one point, but never at the same time. Even if you propose 6 million US subs while keeping the rest at their known maximum, that would put WoW over it's highest point ever by a million subs.

If WoW had 6 million NA subs, there would be no talk at all of the game failing. It would have been nonstop good news since 2010, since the game would have almost tripled in size in a very lucrative market.

I guess they've gotten really good at monetizing subs, or maybe they also include the box sales of games with online subscriptions? But in any case your math is way off. Can't be surprised by that, since you're trying to back your way into a subscription number based on gross revenue.

Also, as far as I can tell you got that 508 million number from the six month period, meaning your numbers are twice what they should be, and that # includes "subs, boxed products, expansions, licensing royalties, and value added services."

So basically all their box sales, toy royalties, transfer fees, everything, and divide that by 2.

So yeah, my numbers are waaaay better than yours.

@Tobold "...the innovation of today is a mode to turn off yesterday's innovation,"
It was never innovation. It was exploitation marketed as innovation. Cheap tricks attempting to latch on to the social connections in a desperate bid to improve longevity and improve word-of-mouth sales.
It was cheap and nasty and everyone saw through it and resented it.

I understand the hate and desperate desire to see WoW fail as much as I understand the irrational hatred and history-revision that people go through when they break up with their boyfriend/girlfriend.

The history-revision in particular is baffling. Otherwise normal, sane people will insist til they're blue in the face that the whole time with their ex was miserable, and they were always annoyed and pissed off, when you know for a fact that they were happily sighing, giddy with joy and exaltation, and would not shut the fuck up about their bloody beloved, no matter what anyone said.

People take this exact same approach to WoW - they'll do anything to ignore or diminish the game's legitimate achievements/innovations/improvements and focus exclusively on the (perceived) negatives, giving them a dramatically disproportionate weight.

At some point you have to take your friend aside and say, "Hey. Fuckwit. You were head over heels for this chick, and would not shut up about her good qualities and every now and then you were right. Stop pretending those qualities don't exist anymore, because all your happy memories were 'tainted'. It makes you less of a man, and more of a whiny bitch. There was good, there was bad. The fact that there was bad does not mean there was no good. So if our friends want to continue to see that good, that's their call. Deal with it."

No-one can like chocolate ice-cream anymore, because I had a bad batch.
While Oscar probably meant that as a joke, there is actually a historic precedence: The NGE expansion that killed Star Wars Galaxies.

Isn't that an argument against nonstandard expansions that attempt to "advance the genre?"

In any case, I wouldn't classify your "who cares?" stance as middle-of-the-road. For people still playing WoW, new expansion information is exciting even if it is more of the same. If you like something, getting more of that thing is good, right? Asking "who cares" is suggesting that because you aren't playing, that no one should feel that an expansion to the largest subscription MMO in the world is worth talking about. I don't play GW2 anymore and thus all the bi-weekly/monthly content updates are irrelevant to me, but I would never ask "who cares." Someone does, and people in the actual middle of the road would respect that.

There's no way there's 6 million subscribers in NA.

That's correct, although there has been 8.9 million WoW boxes sold in the US alone circa 2010. I just talked about this today, in fact. Regardless:

1) Even if it is "just" 2 million subs in the US, that's four times larger than the next largest subscription MMO (worldwide numbers, mind you) by itself. Not counting EU WoW subs.

2) Nearly every Blizzard quarterly report (example) has indicated that more Chinese subs were lost than West subs, so there is no real reason to believe the ratios have stayed the same.

3) Indeed, the very reason you cite for being skeptical of WoW's "real" sub numbers - that the Chinese pay model is vastly different than a normal subscription - works against your argument that the ratios haven't changed. Easy come, easy go.

In any case, WoW is "dying," but if the history of MMOs is any indication, it will survive on as a zombie MMO for decades to come. Possibly a zombie MMO larger than most any newer MMOs ever achieve.
I didn't catch that 6 month mistake - I was careless while scrolling through the quarterly report - but of course my numbers aren't great! I even told you that fact that gross revenue included things that weren't just pure subs. Here's another problem I realized only after I had hit publish: if you used my method and also included European, you'd have ended up with more subscribers than they actually had. Whoops! (though fixing that six month mistake also fixed that problem).

If we do my method again, with all the caveats of inaccuracies remaining, we get 2.5 million North American subscribers and 1.5 million European subscribers, which together come out to be about 4 million, which if I recall is Tobold's to-go estimate for number of actual WoW subs.

If we use your new numbers, backed out from the old ratio, we get something around 3.4 million subscribers, which is about in the same ballpark. Incidentally, I seem to recall Blizzard having issues in China over the past couple of years, including claiming that the loss of 1.3 million subs was mainly in the east earlier this year and another time in 2011 when Blizzard lost a million subs and claimed it was mostly from the east ( which would change the ratio you've given from 2010.

Although, I was looking at your source, and are you getting your numbers for the ratio from this article which was published in 2008?

Finally, though, my point is that your original numbers were given as "about 2 million people paying monthly subs for WoW, down from 8 or 9 million." In fact, I didn't even notice the 8 or 9 million number the first time around, but I think we can conclude, from both our number-digging, that both those numbers were just plain wrong.

In fact, ultimately it suggests that WoW's sub numbers are more stable than we think - if we use your numbers, then they had about 4.5 million monthly subscribers in 2010 (or 2008), and now have about 3.5 million monthly subscribers, which is a loss of million subscribers after a period of three (or five) years. If we use mine, that decline is twice as slow. If we assume that the sub loss will slow down as numbers continue to decrease as Koster, well, it suggests WoW will be around for quite some while.
Well I guess you got me too, as I meant US subs, not overall, when I said 2 million. My mistake.

As far as Blizz claiming most of the losses in the east, that doesn't mean a whole lot. Since the eastern subs are are about 60% of the total, of course virtually any loss would primarily come from eastern subs. In addition, public statements like like that are probably only true in so far as they are the best spin you could put on the truth without actually lying, so for all we know the 1.3 million loss was 700000 Eastern, 600000 EU/NA.

As far as your method goes, I'd think 3.5 million is pretty optimistic.

Since we're running off of 6 months, at $15 we're expecting $90 revenue per subscriber. Each sever transfer ($25) would create the illusion a phantom .27 sub. Each name change would create .11 phantom subs, and each sale of MoP via Battlenet would create a phantom .44 subscribers. So I think I can safely suggest that 3.4 million is a very optimistic cap on NA/EU numbers. 3 million for NA/EU is probably a pretty optimistic estimate.

P.S. Azuriel Since the ratio of Eastern and EU/NA was about 60/40, the fact that the majority of losses came from the East does not mean the ratio has changed one bit. If the losses were evenly distributed, one would naturally expect the majority of losses to come from the East. These statements are vetted by Activisions lawyers in order to avoid a shareholder lawsuit. As such, they will be the best spin smart lawyers and marketing people can come out with while still being technically true. As far as easy come, easy go, since WoW is so much cheaper, you could also argue that losses would be slower in China, since even if you decided not to buy a new card, you could still register as a subscriber by logging in one hour a month for a year until your time ran out.

Granted, WoW is without a doubt still the monster on the block. Not disputing that at all. As far as dying, I don't think the last server being turned off is the standard here. UO and EQ are still alive, so if we go with the last server being shut down WoW may not die for several decades. WoW's death, at least IMO, will be when it is no longer THE MMO. That's just me. I don't really care how WoW does. I admit I view the game as basically nerd crack, and not a net benefit to society, but that holds true of the whole genre.

My agenda is pushing the argument that 1) MMOs as a whole are a life sucking waste of time that works by putting players on a treadmill and providing the illusion of success 2) that WoW is a freak outlier that will cannot be replicated.

So that's what I'm pushing, not just WoW hate. I'd like to tell myself it's a bit more sophisticated than that, or at least it's a dislike of the entire genre.
I think it's actually possible that WoW could remain relatively strong for years and years to come but not be the king of the mountain anymore. I mean if anyone had said that WoW would millions of users before it was released they would have been laughed right off the internet. After all we knew there just weren't that many gamers out there willing to pay monthly for a game. Shoot if you had added up all of the sub paying online game accounts before the release of WoW if probably wouldn't have been more than a couple million. But WoW came along and expanded the customer base in a huge way. I don't see any reason that the same kind of thing couldn't happen again with another game. Hell who could have predicted that a game like Minecraft would have exploded the way it did.
4 million give or take players with a monthly subscription sounds a lot more realistic than 2 million. Plus those Asians you so easily dismiss are paying SOMETHING for the game too, and as they pay by the hour, in SOME cases a Chinese player pays more than an US/EU one.

And if you say that a Chinese player isn't worth as much as a US/EU player, then maybe we shouldn't be counting players at all, but just revenue. $508 million in 6 month makes a cool billion a year, without even counting box sales. Which other MMORPG makes even 10% of that?
If ever there was a time to get excited about an expansion, now is that time!
We have a saying where I come from: there is no greater joy than the joy of expectation.
Right now the next expansion has made no design flaws, made no lore-jumping over dolphins or any other thing.

Right now the name can spark whatever hope wish and desire you could possibly want in any game, ever created in the history of gaming.

So can you really be suprised that people are going amok with exitement over the next expansion?
same with people looking to see the game fail, everything they want the game to fail with, right now, is seeminly true.
I just saw something that make me think htere are really somethin worng with WoW.

The Timeless Isle will have public quests...
4 million is very optimistic. That's only 500,000 less than where WoW was when it had 10 million subscribers. How they only lost 500,000 people in 3 years when the game has lost several million subs in the same period is beyond me.

And the Chinese subs do pay, obviously, but NetEase collects the profits and pays Blizzard a licensing fee. Who knows what that licensing fee is, but Netease clears about a billion dollars of revenue a year from 5 million subs, so that would indicate that each sub is worth about $20/year on average, or $1.66 a month versus $13-15 a month for a real sub.

So that's my objection at the end of the day. The Chinese subs are worth 8xs less than a EU/NA sub, and Blizz doesn't even get all of the meager 1.66/mo. It gets a licensing fee that may or may not be connected to the # of Chinese subs at all. But it's certainly much less than the $1.66.

So the China subs are simply not in the same category as a EU/NA sub. They are mashed together specifically to create the impression that the game is doing much better than it really is.

WoW is still hugely profitable, it's the biggest, blah blah blah. But it's not nearly as healthy as a lot of you guys think.
As a WoW fanboi I'll happily accept that WoW is past it's growth phase and headding towards the end of it's lifecycle.

As a Maths fanboi I am utterly offended by people trying to use a curve when every product lifecycle ever shown (except for those cut off by a killer product), has a long tail. Even people with no experience of maths or management should think something is odd when the curve applied to WoW subs looks nothing like the historical trend of any other MMO.

I would love to see a Raph Koster-based graph of the current WoW situation.
Well, it's a year past the 2 year mark and WoW is not at zero.
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