Thursday, May 11, 2006
It is impossible to quote any number about WoW without causing a huge discussion. Questions like "how many people are raiders", "what is the ratio of Alliance to Horde players", "what percentage of players play a priest", "how many players have reached level 60", or even just the number of subscribers are heavily debated. Even the lead designer, Jeff Kaplan, revealed in an interview that he didn't have good statistical number on the number of raiders, and came up with a highly doubtful gut estimate instead. The reason for all that uncertainty is actually quite simple: There is a confusion between players and avatars.
In North America and Europe, at least the number of players, or rather of accounts, is known to Blizzard. In Asia, where you play using pre-paid cards, paying by the hour, even the number of players is uncertain. But lets stick to a place like Europe or North America. Blizzard knows that there are lets say 2 million accounts currently active in North America and Europe together. There are 336 servers, each with a capacity of around 3,000 concurrent users. That suggests that even if all servers were full, only half of the subscribers are playing. Generally the average ratio of subscribers to actual players is considered to be about 5 (industry rule of thumb).
If you log on and make an in-game census, 80 of the players are invisible, because they are currently not logged on. So you decide to make a cumulative census, taking a snapshot of the players online every hours for a month, hoping that every player will at least log on once per month. But then you suddenly find that your census sees 4 million or more characters instead of 2 million subscribers. That is because many people have several characters, and in-game your census is unable to tell who is a "main", and who is an "alt".
Furthermore different people play different amounts of hours, and spend different amounts of time in different places. That makes the question (mentioned in the recent NY Times interview) of the relative popularity of the Deadmines versus Blackwing Lair very hard to answer. If you just take cumulative snapshot censuses, you will find that the total number of "man-hours" spent in Blackwing Lair is probably larger than the total number of man-hours spent in the Deadmines. But if you made a poll among players of "have you ever killed Van Cleef / Nefarion", you will find a lot more people have "done" Deadmines than BWL. The Deadmines are much shorter than BWL, and a player tends to visit the place once or twice, while raiding BWL is something that requires a lot more repeat performances.
That inevitably leads to conflict, especially if Jeff Kaplan stupidly announces that he doesn't do more Deadmines type of dungeons, because all his time is taken up by making high-end raid dungeons. Should developers concentrate on the content in which most time is spent, or should they concentrate on content which is available to the most people? In general MMORPG developers have a tendency to favor time-content over people-content. Which is insofar questionable as their salary is paid from income coming from monthly fees, so it is the number of players that determines a games financial status, not the amount of time these players spend in the game. From a business point of view a monthly fee MMORPG should rather have more players, each one spending less time in the game, than having fewer players who play 40+ hours a week. Blizzard is concentrating on the wrong kind of customers, the ones that use up the most resources.