Tobold's Blog
Thursday, May 11, 2006
WoW numbers

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.
Saturday May 06, you posted a link to the carnival of gamers #14 YOu submitted your article about the dark-matter players of wow to the carnival, but i read an interesting one about whether hard core players entitled "we still matter"

In short the hardcore players who consume the most resources as you put it, matter because their opinion shapes who will buy the game and who will play the game.
I agree with Doug. The hardcore raiders (of whom I am not one) are the ones that generate the most noise and the most "buzz". They make fansites and write articles for gaming review sites. They do more guild-leading. So even though they consume most of the server resources, they also serve as indirect advertising and viral marketing.

As a casual player, I would love to see more low-end content. But I think the BC expansion will be enough to hold my interest, as I re-learn to level my stalled 60's.

Another thing I like as a casual player: the world events like Darkmoon Fair, Winter festival, Valentine's Day, etc... Most of them have no significant impact to my leveling, but there is more "content" to distract and entertain me. Recently I was thinking about why WoW is more interesting than most working jobs. I think one big reason is that WoW provides many means of advancement (exp, loot, rep, honor, crafting, secondary skills, AH trading, etc...) so if you're bored of something you can do something else. The casuals for the most part seem to be pretty satisfied with all of that, so Blizzard doesn't feel a need to increase the rate they are adding stuff for them (casuals).

So pre-60 casuals have many ways to enjoy the game. But the hardcore 60's must raid or BG -- they've maxed out everything else already. The only people who are stuck in the middle are the casual 60's, who must roll alts or twinks (like you and I have) or wait for BC. :)
Hasn't World of Warcraft shown that theory to be wrong? Hardcore players create buzz, but only other hardcore players listen to that buzz, and the best you can hope for is Everquest's 400,000 subscribers.

Make a game casual, like WoW definitely is in the 1 to 59 phase, and you get a lot of positive press from people like average game journalists and a handful of casual bloggers. That plus the word of mouth from casual player to casual players ends you up with 6 million subscribers instead of just 0.4 million.

Does anyone here think that hardcore Vanguard will outsell casual World of Warcraft?
I feel kind of bad for the developers here. I knew they'd get beat up by people for openly saying they weren't planning another Deadmines. On one hand I truly love the Deadmines and would enjoy seeing another instance it's equal in the lower levels. On the other hand, is there a single player who levelled their first character to 60 and complained about how empty the trip felt?

The fact is, levelling to 60 in WoW is incredibly well thought out and there are tons of quests that you can't even complete on your way up to 60 unless you make an incredible effort to try and knock all the quests out. Once you get to 60, things are more finite.

Some people reroll, over and over. And that's cool. I'd also argue that there are significantly fewer people who are levelling 3+ characters to 60 than there are people in BWL every week. The thing is, the people who level those 3+ characters have seen the same content repeatedly and have grown bored with it. When they complain, however, they're able to pretend they're fighting for the majority ("everybody sees this content!") rather than admit to the fact that they're more of a minority than the supposed "hardcores".
My opinion is that there is more than enough content at the lower level, for multiple runs to 60 with little overlap of quests and instances. Adding more low level content would not make a lot of people happy.

The problem as I see it is the enormous number of peeps bunched at 60 who don't raid. Adding more single-player content at 60 would make the most people happy, and meet the goal of keeping the largest number of paying customers happy.

Of course, everyone here is speculating, since we (and apparently Blizzard) don't have real statistics on players. One survey estimated 3% of people raid, one person here claims the most people would benefit from low end content, and I argue that the most people are bunched at 60 and don't raid. Another person here thinks that raiders outnumber the people levelling to 60.

That's a lot of opinions, and the right content to add depends completely on which one is the correct distribution of players. Until Blizzard takes the time to do an actual continuous audit, they will have to rely of message board buzz (dominated by raiders as someone pointed out) and people quitting to determine what makes people happy.

Does anyone here think that hardcore Vanguard will outsell casual World of Warcraft?

No it will not outsell WoW, cause SOEs/Sigil and 80% of the whole gaming industry is just not able to create user friendly entries to their products, like Blizzard is able to. But think about it. WoWs casual phase is just level 1 to lvl 60, wich is too short even for the casuals. Suddenly the casual WoW is not this casual anymore. The mechanics do not change, but the time investments for achivements do. Well now lets look for the hardcore grinds in EQ, wich do not change at all. The grind starts with level 1 and keeps staying up to Deathknell or whatever the current endgame raidzone now is.

I think SOEs grind vision does not betray the player in a way WoWs shift in its achievement curve does. Molten Core and Co. is just as unreachable for the masses like EQs endgame once was. So in theory the entry into the game hooks or scares the new players, it is not the way the high level content is done. When you have invested so much time into a character, to max its limit, players will not switch their game anytime soon. Blizzard excels in shrouding the grind starting with lvl 60, that is how they keep the masses playing. Its not cause everyone is chasing the carrot that is Ragnaros and Nefarius loot.

It is so funny, but for me the current situation is 2000 all over again, where you have one virtual untouchable competitor, wich is easily beatable in the end. There no longer is a hidden secret why MMO-X succeeds or MMO-Y failed. Just create something wich is a known brand and make it accessible for the masses. Their you go, enjoy your 1 million customers at least. This is WoWs primary achivement, "secret" if you will, its accessibility is far ahead its competitors products. Accessibility will be the key to success for any MMO product post WoW. That is why i think we will see a very long lifespan of WoWs huge success. The gaming industry is full of tech savvy and game obsessed creators, which have no clue how to create accessible products.
WoWs casual phase is just level 1 to lvl 60, wich is too short even for the casuals. Suddenly the casual WoW is not this casual anymore.

I agree. And in a way World of Warcraft is at a crossroads now, with the first expansion, and could go either way to a much longer lifetime of huge success, or towards massive churn of disappointed casual players.

The worst case scenario is that all the Burning Crusade content is fairly hardcore, with dungeons that the average player will find too hard for a casual group, lots of raid content, and things like flying mounts only accessible by the most dedicated grinders. If in the expansion level 60 to 70 is just a prolonged version of life at 60 now, people will still have the same "betrayed" feeling you mention, of having a game they liked from 1 to 59 switched out under them for something they don't like. Thus more and more people will feel they have consumed all the content they could reasonably access and leave, leading at least to stagnation, and in the worst case decline of WoW.

The best case scenario is that in the Burning Crusade leveling from 60 to 70 is pretty much like leveling from 50 to 60 was, with lots of solo contents, plus content for small groups in which even a pickup group stands a fair chance to succeed. Even better, if people get to level 70 and Blizzard doesn't nerf the level 60 raid places, casual players will now be able to access places like Molten Core or Blackwing Lair, because a "pickup raid" of 40 level 70 players will be strong enough to beat Ragnaros. Thus much of the content that was previously inaccessible to casual players, now opens up to them, even if finding such large groups is still a challenge. In the long term, if WoW's level cap goes up with each expansion, the "casual phase" as you call it becomes ever longer, and if expansions are added at a reasonable rate, WoW never ends for the casual player. And all the content that is at one point reserved for the hardcore, becomes accessible to everybody with the next level cap increase. Obviously a game that never ends keeps people playing a lot longer, keeps people coming back for every expansion set, and could be set for huge success for many years to come.

The ball is in Blizzard's court. Unfortunately that is a bit scary, because the lead designer Jeff Kaplan obviously doesn't have a clue why he sold 6 million copies of his game, and thinks all these people are just there for the raid content. I just hope that whoever in that company managed to make such a brilliant 1 to 59 game for WoW will be able to realize something similar for the expansions. Because if the expansions do what the content adding patches did in the last two years, Blizzard is shooting themselves in the foot.
It depends what the new zones will provide. Will it be two "island" zones that are only good for the first hour or two of your new toon's life, and then, like leaving Darnassus, you step through a Big Pink Portal and Sha-ZAM! You get teleported to...Ironforge or Orgrimmar, and it's on to Deadmines or Ragefire Chasm, and the same, boring grind to 60, wait, now it's 70! But from 60 to 70, you have a choice of grinding Silithus or LFG MC/ZG/AQ, because the only new Instances are all lvl 70-only 40-man (and/or woman) Raids...and everyone in the Raid needs to have all 8 pieces of their Tier 2 Gear to even step inside.

Maybe I shouldn't even joke about this.
No, you shouldn't, Capn John, because that is very close to reality. The new zones will cover only levels 1 to 20, there will be a new city for every new race, but from level 21 to 60 there will be no new content added in the expansion.

I don't consider leveling from 60 to 70 grind, at least not the first one or two times you do it, because the quests, zones, and dungeons where you do that will be new content.
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