Tobold's Blog
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Is the MMO market rational?

Massively had the news this week that Warhammer Online is shutting down two more servers. I remember we all speculated how many copies WAR would sell, and the safest bet was between 1 and 2 million. The problem was that these sales didn't result in subscriptions beyond the first free month, and in early 2009 the subscription numbers were already down to 300,000. Which isn't all that low a number, but obviously failed to meet expectations, leading to EA laying off a lot of people at Mythic.

Now that the discussion around WAR has pretty much cooled down, I'm still wondering *why* WAR failed to hold onto the players who had already bought the game. Basically there are two mutually exclusive theories: In the first theory, players made rational decisions. They bought the game based on all the good things they heard about WAR on the internet, found out they weren't actually having all that much fun when they tried it, and made the rational decision to unsubscribe. In this theory, the drop in numbers is a result of game design: If the game had been designed to be more fun, with less flaws (whatever you think those flaws are), it would have held on to far more players.

The second theory is that the drop in WAR subscription numbers was preordained, and nobody could have prevented it, not even with a perfect game. The million or so people who bought WAR were just bored "WoW tourists", who promptly went back to WoW when Wrath of the Lich King was released. Some versions of this theory even claim that WAR is a far better game than WoW, and that the hundreds of thousands of players who quit WAR for WotLK were stupid lemmings who simply couldn't tell a good game from a bad game, and just went with the flow.

As I strongly believe in the impact of game design, I naturally tend towards believing the first theory. Which, of course, is just a personal belief, and doesn't prove anything. And I really don't know how we could possibly find out. I'd love to hear from people like Paul Barnett about what they think (although there is a risk that people who worked on WAR favor the second theory, which makes them look less bad), but while last year you couldn't open any video on the internet without Paul popping up and promoting WAR, he has been rather silent this year.

So instead I'm asking you for your opinion: Do you believe that subscription numbers are based on customers making rational decisions, influenced by what economics tells us should influence them, like personal preferences and price? Or are MMORPG players completely irrational and just go for whatever everybody else is playing? It is easy to see that the answer to that question might have important implications for the future of MMORPGs. So what killed WAR? Wrath of the disappointed players, or Wrath of the Lich King?
Unfortunately, the way you have asked the question is more likely to result in people agreeing with your point of view.

As your readers are most likely MMO players, your question reads very much like this:

Do you believe that subscription numbers are based on 'you' making rational decisions ... or are 'you' completely irrational ...?

I suggested rephasing the question to get less biased responses.
The game sucked.That's it. Don't make it more complicated then that.
The wife and I bought two WAR accounts. I sprung for the Collector's Edition even. It was fun, it was different. The scenario's were easy enough to get into and enjoy. The public quests... you'd eventually earn your points there, even if you repeated the first of the sequence because the last was impossible for a duo. I think we made it deep into Tier 2 on both Chaos and Empire, playing the gamut from witch hunter to greenskins. I liked the environment. (If you had to be a tourist, why not medieval eastern europe?) But...

I was still playing WoW. The wife was still playing WoW. And LotRO had come up again, and we did not want three games to worry about. And I was still raiding in Black Temple, that wasn't going to go away. Something had to give. Warhammer gave.

It wasn't a superior game. It was just a different game.

My rational decision was to simply concentrate most on what I wanted to play, a little on something else, and that was it.

I didn't go to Warhammer because someone told me to. I was curious about the game and setting and gave it a go. On my own.

I didn't leave Warhammer because someone told me to. It just wasn't doing it for me anymore. Time spent there wasn't as valuable as time spent elsewhere.

Wife's got a card for a Skaven cloak. She might resub for a month and check it out. (Hope she doesn't have to move servers. Again.)
I tried Warhammer Online in the last beta and ended up feeling like it was just like WoW, just much worse made. Ended up going back to WoW pretty fast.
Regarding Paul Barnett, i've heard from some sources that EA has sorta cherrypicked him, and he's doing lectures on game design and stuff to their other studios. Also, he popped up at the Brutal Legend pre-release stuff, helping EA hype that up at a trade show or two (i forget where).

as for the two theories you've pointed out...
While I'm a huge WAR fanboy, since it was the only MMO where I ENJOYED the PVP, I have to agree with the first theory. The game had some amazing ideas, but in implementation they fell in a hole, and spent so much time trying to dig themselves out. :( WAR, I miss you, but I can't justify being a subscriber.
Wrath of the disappointed players.

Now that their trial is "unlimited length" I've tried it. It's buggier than any other game I've ever installed on my pc -- MMO or single-player. And this is after it's been out for how long? Having to constantly re-patch 5 gigs of files due to the bugs got old in a hurry.

Add in that none of the classes really "grabbed me" as being anything other than plain vanilla representations of whatever archetype they were supposed to be and that (at least in the Tier 1 where the trial is) healers are insanely overpowered and. . .

I think that current game designers in MMOs have decided that people dislike grinds and therefore people don't want long term goals in their new games. (ie. that will take over a month.)

So people try the game for a month (and assuming they like it enough to play it in that month), they get to the level cap, try everything, decide that they've finished it, don't have any longterm goals to keep them involved and then make their decision based purely on what content is planned in the next few months.

I think it's the lack of longterm goals which is killing the subs.
I think they're rational - people play the game they enjoy the most. The reasons vary a lot from person to person, though, and gamers who highly value social contacts have a huge amount of inertia (their friends) holding them to a specific game.

The piece tying these together is the economic theory of "network effects." A popular thing can actually increases in value _because_ it is more popular. Social networks are a good example: there are sixty-leventy different social networks, but people migrate to the ones that have all their friends, because the network becomes more valuable to them as it has more of their friends. Or think about IM clients: you use the one your friends use. Operating systems and game consoles have a strong network effect, because the more people who use one the better their ecosystem is. Soft drinks, another highly competitive industry, do not.

But, obviously, network effects are only part of the value. If a new entrant is good enough to be valuable without a strong network effect, it can build up enough popularity to acquire a network effect. And, going back to your theories, is where WAR failed. The issues described in your first theory meant that the game couldn't hold on to its players, and some parts of the design meant that the game's social network developed slowly. Thus, once the honeymoon started to wear off, most players hadn't built up a big social attraction to the game, so they could quit without really abandoning many of their friends. Think about EverQuest - how many people did you know who still played the game, but when asked about it said they hated it? Why did they play? Because they didn't want to abandon their friends!

In order to be successful, a game needs a strong draw. It needs to be fun at low levels, or tourists won't stick around very long. WAR did this well. You were powerful and cool, and getting more so quickly. You could drop right in and PVP and level up and gear up in the process. PVP was fast-paced and well balanced (in the early game).

However, a game needs to rapidly enmesh tourists in a social network so that their in-game friends provide a strong reason to want to keep playing. WAR did this very poorly: minimal grouping, essentially zero dungeon crawls, very little chatter or reason TO chat. So when you hit tier 3 and the game ground to a halt - when character advancement halted, the storylines stopped, the quests became boring and tedious, and when your next level was hours of boring away - you quit.
So the given choice is between:

a. "People are rational in what they like or don't like, so their choice reflects what is good or not good objectively." (Idealism)

b. "People are irrational in their preferences and do the darnest things - we cannot be blamed for what we cannot control." (Disappointed Idealism)

isn't it OBVIOUS that both things are wrong and at the same time right to a certain amount?
Well, why did you stop playing WAR?

If you had rational reasons, surely it's not unfathomable that everyone else had rational reasons too. I think the general decline in WAR subscriptions was mirrored in the MMO blogosphere. Pretty much everyone I read that stopped playing had rational reasons. I'd say that they spoke for all the others.

Unless of course, we're all lemmings, and our blogging is just a facade to cover us jumping off the cliff.
I played WAR: I had fun leveling to max lvl then did a little bit PvE and PvP. Before my first month was over I quit.

Because there was no reasonable endgame. And the endgame is what keeps me playing an MMO.

Other people need longer to reach maxlvl. But eventually they also see that they 'completed' the game and quit.

WAR doesn't have an EvE-like player-created endgame, nor does it have the WoW developer-created endgame. They just have castles and you can conquer them. That's great - for about 5-50 times.

After that it's a little bit repetitive.
To be honest I'm puzzled by your mutual exclusivity claim.
It seems to preclude WoW players, or atleast that segment which goes to play 'tourist' with newly launched MMO's, from being capable of making rational decisions. While that's certainly true for some portion, it's a bit to blankety a statement for me.
Isn't it possible that both theories aren't theories but contributing factors to WAR's rapid dieback of subscrber numbers after the first month(s)?
That last paragraph has a HUGE excluded middle.

One thing you should note is that network effects are real and rational to consider. If you are the only person you know with a fax machine, it is worthless. If your friends left WoW, you PUG or find new friends... or follow.

Even in the early days, there were not enough people to make Warhammer playable in the off-hours, particularly with the population imbalance, particularly with whatever code led to certain scenarios popping more than others. Playing during the off-hours was solo PvE, and the solo PvE was pretty bad. The day that I spent more than an hour waiting for Gates of Ekrund to pop (it never did) gave me a strong push away.

First month balance and population issues, all the difficulties in working out the RvR system... Given a large number of existing polished games, who wants to play paid beta? My personal hell became the blog drama of the day when I found that the /ignore command did absolutely nothing, it took multiple hours for CSRs to respond on gold-selling spam, and there were so few people on during off-hours that those of us playing kept getting the same spam continuously.

Hey, maybe it is a great game a year later, but why would I pay to go back when the first time was sub-par? I know, the people who want my money promise me that it is much better. They will even let us have a free trial of the levels that worked well at launch, so trust them on the ones that never worked well.
WAR was clearly a deeply flawed game at launch. I know a lot of people - myself included - were genuinely excited about it, had been following the development, and couldn't wait for release. Yet when that release came, it was extremely unsatisfying and full of problems. So we didn't stick around.

In fact, I didn't even stick around long enough to pay for it - the final stages of closed beta, the open beta, and then the headstart were enough to persuade me to cancel my pre-order.

Might people have been more tolerant if not for the looming release of WotLK? Maybe. But I think the worst of the carnage happened too quickly to all be blamed on WoW. WAR was out on September 18, WotLK not until November 13, I think enough people bought WAR at launch and never subscribed beyond the free month to kill its chances of long-term success.
I lean towards the "wow tourist" theory.

However I believe that slowly but surely those wow tourists will get introduced to new game types. While they might not stick the first time they leave to tour a game, they might on the next go.

Slowly training customers away from the megagame I think is the reality that these games face. They should be aiming for 300k customers and just slowly picking away at WoW.

I think in hindsight it's clear that Warhammer should have been a faithful Dark Age of Camelot 2. Focus on a core group of customers and then slowly chip away. In general Warhammer's endgame needs an almost 100% replacement not the evolution they are trying to do. While good in theory, ultimately the WoWish things they did to make it comfortable for tourists distracted them.

Eve and Lord of the Rings have managed this. I think Darkfall will achieve something like that growing success in the next year (it's getting pretty amazing and unique in what it offers).

Age of Conan I think has no idea what their customers are about. They've never fixed the sieging which is the core of the game and they're is almost no pve in the game. Confusing.

I say all this because at one point I was a WoW tourist and slowly but surely AoC, Warhammer then Darkfall led me far away from WoW to the point I couldn't even concieve of going back.

Darkfall/Mortal Online or Death!

What is happening with Aion? I hear almost nothing about it now...
I was one of those that left after the first month. I went to Warhammer online expecting something new after I got bored of WoW. To my dismay, there were too many similarities between the two. I felt there was no point starting all over again.

The trade profession system on Warhammer Online was a failure. It discouraged me from advancing it with all the unnecessary annoyances such as scarcity of ingredients.

Warhammer Online did have its own unique features but they were too few.

It is a undeniable fact that the success of new MMOs is determined on how many ex and current WoW players they can attract and keep. In order for a new MMO to succeed, it has to have its own style and gives players a brand new experience.
I was one of the players who bought WAR and went back to WoW at the launch of the LK, so maybe my reasons will help shed some light over this.
One of the reasons I got the game in the first place is about my job. I get payed to know about games and how they work so that was a factor in getting WAR in the first place.

But why didn't I stay with it? Well, I think I was supriced at how much the social aspect of an mmo means to me. Honestly I think that in a lot of ways WAR was superior to WoW, but the communication structure at launch was weak. The 'forced' group quests was seen as a great way to get people to co-op. The only problem was that, you would just auto inv. people and hardly chat with them at all, and once the group quests where over, you would split up again.
On days when I felt like soloing, WAR was better, but after a while you started to miss the online friends you had in WoW, and the guild-chat options in WAR didn't do anything to build up any kind of kindship.

In short: the chars, and the way combat worked was great. The overall story and the multiplayer part of the game... not so much.
Regarding Paul Barnett, i've heard from some sources that EA has sorta cherrypicked him, and he's doing lectures on game design and stuff to their other studios. Also, he popped up at the Brutal Legend pre-release stuff, helping EA hype that up at a trade show or two (i forget where).

lol he is also doing recruitment talks at universities, which, if he is good at it may not necessarily be a bad thing for EA. Nevertheless, he certainly wasn't working on the latest game when he came to Carnegie Mellon a few weeks back. My favorite part of the talk? Winning a free copy of WAR, subscription not included. Gee, thanks!
WAR was killed be WAR itself, by the simple arrogance to slice a piece of the pie with a sub-standard product and ignoring everything what SOE experienced, when WoW entered the market. While WAR tried to avoid the "WoW" killer tag, PR for the game was cocky enough to place them into such a spot. Everything around the product was high quality, except the actual game. It wasn't Vanguard-level of failure, but this market is tough. If you can not offer 10 times the experience of the market leader, people won't reward you and they didn't for WAR.

WAR's core problem was its identity. For what they were aiming for, the product was too flawed. They could become EVE 2.0, instead they tried to become WoW 2.0. Don't try to get WoW-players with a game that pales in comparison. Mythic got trapped into their past.

Remember back when Camelot was launched? The market was waiting for a decent 3D PvP experience and Camelot filled a real void here. Back when 500k was the whole western market, your hardcore audience really did consist of PvE and PvP guys. We lost 1/3 of our EQ-raid back then to Camelot. But that was 10 years ago. Now the main western market isn't about PvP anymore. There is not a single player in WoW that is staying for the PvP experience, but WAR was betting on such a type of player. They lost their bet.
I believe there's a very interesting interview with an ex-GM at mythic somewhere, and a ton of posts explaining the numerous design faults of WAR. Simply put, it felt unfinished, and a lesser copy of wow.

In short, i think it all boils down to us MMO players being (mainly) normal people. We play to have FUN, and wow is still the game with the best accessibility / fun factor out there. That's not exclusive of a lemmings factor, too.

TLDR: The mmo market is a rational market. Wow got a marketing advantage on it. Wow works. :D
Forgot to say, War was unbalanced, crafting borked, and public quests were the only original mechanism in it. :D
I've recently played the endless trial and it's been quite fun but it's really highlighted the problems of the game.

If I play in the day which is around 6am US Eastern time everything is dead. I can't solo the Public Quests, RvR areas feel empty and rather pointless and scenarios don't pop for ages.

Now this is playing in Tier 1 on the servers where the game is free. It should be packed (and is late at night when the Americans get home from work).

It's a different game when the server is busy but it sucks when quiet.

It really hurts the game that there's no low key solo activity worth doing like crafting or grinding mobs.

If it's not busy the game is pointless.

Having said that I love many of their ideas, some are still ahead of the genre imo, and I'd love to see a Warhammer Online 2 in a few years which continued their strengths but in a system that crunches the available players into crowded spaces.

It's really not a game that should allocate players to a single server and leave them there.
I would think that there a big rationale to leave an MMORPG just after 1 month after release.

At release, you have to buy a retail box. And it does cost a lot. With a lot I mean just the same as any commercial equivalent of a single player game.

So... If you pay 50$ for a game to play it just for a month just scraping it's surface.... And then throwing everything in the bin...

I would think that have strong reasons to leave and burn a 50$ investment.
If you want big subscriber numbers, your game has to either be the same as and better than WoW (which I don't think is possible), or it has to bring a new concept which is so good that players will accept the initial clunky- and buggyness.
WAR tried to be a better WoW and failed, simple as that.
It's a mixture of both the first and second idea.

Certainly many of my guild mates vanished when WOTLK came out, and returned to WoW. Others vanished from WAR shortly after simply because they wasn't having as much fun with less friends online.

But also, once I got to the end game I found the RvR somewhat lacking. The levelling game is comparably to WoWs, and I found it as much fun. But the endgame quickly because either tedious (with lots of waiting about in keeps for attacks that never came), or futile (getting rolled over by bigger enemy force). Once in a while there was a sweet spot, where even forces battled it out back and forth across a map.

So in summary, my own personal experiance of WARs failings where a mixture of the competition still having a popular product (the WoTLK effect) and RvR not matching my own expectations.
I believe in the "WOW tourists" theory. But this is not necessarily irrational. Once people have invested massive amounts of time into any MMO, it is incredibly difficult to unseat. You're fighting inertia. People have learned the mechanics, love their characters, and have made friends online. So producing a competitive MMO that is just as good or slightly better will never work out. You need a massive, clear-cut improvement in tech or quality: Ultima Online => Everquest => WOW. Alternatively, go niche, eg EVE or LOTRO.
Well, WAR is a mess. I didn't play it at launch, but by most accounts it was even more of a mess then.

It has a really quite well-designed PvE backdrop, into which Mythic neglected to put any PvE content of note. The world is actually very detailed and fascinating to explore - there's just no actual PvE gameplay to speak of.

The RvR, on the other hand, is universal but generally very, very thin. It has no depth but an awful lot of weight. It suffers from many of the problems of early DAOC, in that Mythic clearly think it's fun for players to spend two hours jammed in a tiny space with scores of others, all lagging out of sight while they try to hit a static object. "Improving" this by rewardign "RvR" in which both sides studiously ignore each other hasn't really helped.

I could go on, and on, about what's wrong with WAR. It failed becasue of some appalling design errors, many of which have been compounded by subsequent "improvements". It didn't have a "fixed" audience. If it had been "better" than WoW, the tourists would have stayed longer, more would have come to see why, the snowball would have rolled. It wasn't good, they left, the game is in steep decline.

That said, Tier 1 was always fast knockabout fun and making that free to play is a great move. Now they need to speed up the rest of the tiers to match it, drop the city-seiging, add an item mall and make the whole thing F2P. Then it will have some kind of future. Otherwise, not so much.
Well.. Firstly, I don't subscribe to the 'wow tourism' crap as that assumes certain things about Warcraft players.

Not only that but it's the same old argument anyone trots out when the masses don't appreciate a game they do. Especially one certain blogger.

I bought, played, and enjoyed Warhammer. It was a great game until the crazy AoE and CC kicked in. That, compounded with T4 issues and the fact that PvP players were forced early on to do PvE for gear rewards at times killed a large portion of the early wave of players.

Since then they have pushed tons of bug fixes out the door for loads of things except the issues that existed from launch. Its a case of too little, too late these days. I resubbed lately and the changes made have improved things a lot but there are still issues. You only need to look to the bandage they just quickly applied to T4 in taking out the Forts to see that they still have no real idea how to fix endgame.

That is the reason it failed imo. Not tourism but constant fixes to anything but the actual problems that exist. Then when they cant ignore it any longer, instead of fixing the problem they simply removed content from the endgame.
here's the interesting interview i was refering to :
The problem with MMORPG is that all these games are fighting in one single pie where the people often refuse to eat two slices of pie. It doesn't make sense to me why most players are unwilling to subscribe to more than one MMORPG even if they enjoy playing more than one MMORPG.

Of course cost is a factor, but let's be honest, if you can afford $15/month, you should be able to afford $30/month. Heck, people have spent hundreds of dollars/month for their phone bill. Or buy new shoes/shirt/whatever that they only end up using once or twice. But somehow most players refuse to subscribe to more than one MMORPG.

Time is another factor. Yes, MMORPG takes time and dedication. But at the same time, many of MMORPG players play offline games too where they spent many hours/week as well. So time isn't really an issue.

But yet, MMORPG players are still mostly refusing to subscribe more than one game. That is irrational.

Applying this point to WAR's case, I believe that for those who played WAR but then return to WoW, they did so because they were afraid to leave WoW. WoW is an MMORPG that so many people played. Your friends play it, your grandma plays it, your auntie's neighbor plays it, heck, the dude from the take away shop plays it together with his librarian girlfriend. It's an MMORPG that a lot of people play. Of course people are afraid to leave that 'comfort' to experience new stuff. As long as WoW kept on pumping out new content, people aren't going anywhere. Whether that's actually rational or irrational, I'm not sure myself.

What I find interesting to see is what will happen when WoW-2 is released. Will it kill WoW? Will it be killed by WoW? Will it actually make people subscribe to both and start a new trend where people are subscribing to more than one MMORPG in the future?
It should be noted that the very number of subscribers to a MMO is also one of its qualities. The more subscribers, the easiest to form a group, the more stimulated is the economy, more patches, more devs, more servers. All that account for the continuous WoW success.
Tobold, you played this game at least from launch. You write "I'm still wondering *why* WAR failed to hold onto the players who had already bought the game." Are you really? As you point out, the heat has rather gone out of the discussion now, so let's just say it: Warhammer Online is not a very good game.

No doubt many took up WAR in the final months of Burning Crusade with no intention of staying on once the new WoW expansion was released. Rather than being a negative thing this was an amazing opportunity for Mythic. An opportunity that they were unable to capitalise upon due to the profound crappiness of their mismanaged, poorly designed game.

If I whipped up a word processor that dropped every 10th character, constantly crashed and froze, and was only usable for three hours a day would we be sitting around wondering why I wasn't luring a lot of business users away from MS Word?

I'll tell you quickly why I personally left the game. Two reasons:
a) The second round of server mergers was announced and my server wasn't on the list, despite having been a ghost town for months, with 1 to 3 players per zone at "peak" time.
b) The terrible performance. As much as I hated the OP AoE that goes through walls, I don't think Mythic had much choice because good luck meleeing at 6 fps when your target isn't actually where it appears to be on your screen.

One final point. WoW, if you haven't noticed, is at a bit of a low ebb in the lead up to patch 3.3. All those despised WoW tourists still have their copies of Warhammer Online and are potential customers who could be easily drawn back into the Warhammer fold for the price of a monthly sub. But are they returning? Why would they? A year from launch, how has the game improved? It's still grindy, buggy, laggy and lonely.

If Warhammer Online is still running come Xmas 2010 I'll be shocked. (If they'd just decently recode the server and client, I'd re-sub tomorrow, regardless of all the other problems).
My guess is that WoW 2.0 will actually be Eve 2.0.

Means: Blizzard were stupid to try to beat WoW. Even if they succeded they wouldn't gain anything.

Eve, on the other hand, is a proven concept with just a (quite bad) interface and perhaps not anough 'action'.
This is all about market type. WAR thought they would establish a strong niche market and get away with draining players from WoW. They failed to realize that they designed a game which became a head-on-confrontation against the WoW position.

Lanchester's Laws say you need 3 times the marketting budget of an incumbent to get away with this. Good luck.
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I'm firmly in the first camp. At the time I was really tired of WoW and I was so looking forward to something different yet of similar quality. WAR just utterly failed at being a decent MMO, it was plagued with a lot of really stupid design decisions that made me appreciate Blizzard's designers even more after the experience.

Here's a quick example: because the PvE was so incredibly bland and the public quests useless after the population spread out, the only way to level was doing scenarios. That's not necessarily a bad thing, after all PvP was the main attraction of WAR, but it spectacularly failed at rewarding participation. If you were an AoE class, particularly a fire mage which were quite overpowered at the time, you could set yourself to be in a different group, alone, so all the renown and experience from the damage done were rewarded to you.

This was an incredibly stupid decision because it left all the group players - which means the tanks and the healers - receiving about 1/5 of the XP and renown of the soloing dps. Much bickering on the forums ensued. The problem was that Mythic decided to support the behavior as being something they intended to happen, thus creating a huge disincentive to playing anything other than a ranged aoe class. Why they couldn't just share xp and renown gains through the whole raid instead of just one group is something that eludes me, but sticks out as a sore example of Mythic's failure to adapt to player behavior.
Warhammer certainly had a lot of hype, and failed to deliver on that hype. I'm sure many people purchased the game based on Paul Barnett's comments such as "War is everywhere!" and his very funny comments about killing bears. Well it turns out they had absolutely no idea how their game design would influence players. The player quests became "tag fests" where you ran around tagging mobs to get credit, and no one RVR'ed until they added RVR influence. The developers seemed to envision a magical RVR zone where people participated in epic sieges and fought til the death for their realm. In reality, people captured Battleground Objectives (BOs), basically flags in the ground, and stood there for 3 mins. Why? The rewards were greater than sieging keeps. But aren't keep takes for fun? Why would people choose something incredibly boring? Because they are rewarded for it. Boring RVR (the main selling point for the game was exciting RVR) coupled with other disappointing elements of the game such as awful crafting (actually had to be completely redone a few months post-launch), and the usual lack of refinement just took too long to get right, most people quit before they saw the game improve at all. I don't think the developers learned from their mistakes at all in terms of RVR, I think they just don't understand why they had such success with DAOC and such failure with Warhammer. We spent hours discussing this within my guild, but here are some highlights: 1. You don't matter in RVR, you are just +1. There was little opportunity for small groups to do anything in RVR, as soon as you touched anything, a beacon lit up on the map and all enemies descended upon you. 2. Too easy to camp spawn points. You couldn't set foot into a frontier without being easily boxed in to your spawn point. There was little penalty for death, so people would repeatedly run to their deaths like little lemmings. 3. RVR was tiny. It looked big on the map, and there were multiple areas, but really it was small. You could get anywhere very quickly so there was no way to accomplish much without lots of enemies showing up quickly. 4. No speed. Lack of speed meant that everyone moved at zerg speed. No ability to have a small group zip around the edges of a zerg to escape or choose a fight. This is really important to reduce the importance of pure numbers. A small group has to have some advantage or the game will descend into a zergfest. In conclusion, there was so much wrong with Warhammer that I could go on forever. Of course people are rational. It was not fun, and it's not the players responsibility to make it so.
There is actually a way to empirically test the second theory. If it is true that the majority of those who left were "WoW tourists," then you would expect there to be some variation in the subscription numbers for WAR as the WoW tourists finished and got bored with WoW between successive patches. If the number goes steadily down, then you would expect that those that left were disappointed with the game and would not return.

Personally, I found that the lack of population (of either faction) made it impossible to do public quests or RvR in any organized fashion. And it was taking forever to level and find new content. PvE was simply too boring and the PvP battlegrounds, while fun, were not worth the monthly price. Game design drove me away.
Personally I only bought WAR to keep me busy until the next WoW expansion. I never meant to play it for a long time.

But it's a good question: why do you currently play WoW and not WAR? Are you one of those mindless sheep?
"So instead I'm asking you for your opinion: Do you believe that subscription numbers are based on customers making rational decisions, influenced by what economics tells us should influence them, like personal preferences and price? Or are MMORPG players completely irrational and just go for whatever everybody else is playing?"
These aren't exclusive. MMOs are partly their communities. If there aren't enough people, it will be less fun. If your friends aren't playing, it will be less fun.
I'm inclined to go with the "design problems" explanation, in that WAR struggled to be best at anything.

Want PvE content? Well, WOW, LOTRO & EQ2 do it better.

Want PvP? WAR is arguably better than Conan at this, but is it better than EVE or Counterstrike? Not really.

Whilst WAR had some great design features (e.g. public quests, artwork), it lacked that "I play WAR because it's the best game for X" factor.
Hype sells alot of boxes but only a good game gets subscribtions.

Your two aruguments are in no way mutualy exclusive.

People like being part of a success that is why some vote for the party they think will win the election.

It is irrational because if you like playing others will too but the fear of being part of a failing game is what made me go back to wow. The stock market is kind of the same.

I believed that WAR was going to be more fun than WOW I believed in the design priciples of WAR but I went back to WOW.

War had a huge hype bubble partially because Barnet sold WAR well but there are so many factors you could not think of them all.

At some point that hype bubble burst and when it did disapointed people, like me, realised that what they believed or what looked fun is not really all that much better.

Some stay but for many simply being part of a "failing game" will keep them from investing more time in it no matter how fun it is. A kind of after effect of hype. As soon as I had that feeling of WAR not being the next big thing I left.

I think the two biggest things influencing gamers-choice is disapointment(rational choice) and being part of a failure.

Being part of a success is why I went back to wow I knew I would not suddenly be alone. I am glad I went back but at no time did I think WOTLK looked better than WAR.
In your second theory, the consumers are also acting rational. They are acting according to their desires. It is not the desier of the people who wish they could control the market, that does not mean it is not rational.

It's been proven over and over since the 60s that individuals make average decisions, and groups tend towards more extreme solutions. Often the extreme is worse. (I can't remember the name of the original experiment and couldn't find it in a quick google). The groupthink and hype of bloggers promoting WAR making predictions may be an example of the group mind coming to an extreme conclusion: That WAR would have a million subscribers.

But the average player was much more rational than the bloggers and reviewers.

What is irrational? Any company thinking it can duplicate the 800 lb gorilla in the room and somehow compete with it. That's never worked.
Basically it comes down to gamers searching for their personal "perfect game". For me primary features are:
- Single character able to access most of the content and a reduced need for alts.
- Single server preferably.
- Party based content (I actually prefer FFXI style content where you grind to level but quest for specific objectives and questing is not a method of leveling but something grand arc-ey and pugs are mostly good once you get out of the newbie areas).
- Interesting crafting with a robust economy (Nothing comes remotely close to EVE on this one and that will be the main reason EVE won't be affected by most new releases in the sci-fi genre. Every one else is still in some kiddie pool in the middle of Kentuky while EVE is shooting the tube on 30 foot waves off some remote island in the pacific).

I've been a tourist in WoW, Vanguard, EQ2, WAR, various F2P, Aeon, guild wars, champions, CoX. The two games that I did at least 2 years are: FFXI (3 years), EVE (2.5 years so far). So I'm gravitating to games that have features I consider important, but I'm still looking for the game that will deliver what I'm looking for. EVE has the single server aspect I prefer, but doesn't cater to the carebear enough to be "perfect". FFXI has the party environment I prefer in a fantasy MMO but does not cater to the single server paradigm I'd really like to make it's in game economy more robust. Non of the other games have the "single toon can do most of it" that both EVE and FFXI support. If FFXI's subscription model was not so arcane and their character deletion policy for un-subscribed accounts not so draconian, I'd probably bop back and forth between those two. I have hopes for FFXIV as they indicate they are getting rid of playonline.

In the end I'll keep trying out new games in the hope that one of them turns out to be more along the lines of what i want feature wise, but until that happens I'll just be a tourist for most new MMOs that come out. I think the problem with WAR was more "WOW clone with more pvp (and I don't like most fantasy pvp mechanics - not to mention any PvP centric game without integrated voice coms is starting with a handicap from day 1).

Part of the problem for any Diku derivative that does not have unique features is that they need to overcome vested interest. For the NON-pvp aspects WAR was too much like WoW to grab the visitors that were not into PvP specifically. PvP alone is not a popular enough feature to grab the masses and the rest of the game was more or less wow-like, so unless the wow tourist had a specific PvP interest they were just about guaranteed to go back to WoW after they tried it out and realized that it wasn't different enough from WoW apart from a feature they didn't have interest in.
Economists are finally beginning to re-craft economic theory to accept that the market is not rational, that trade-offs are not done rationally, and other premises on which the mainstream economic theories are based that relate to human behaviour, are false.
The second theory is just crap. If a significant number of players were irrational at all about WAR is was probably that they gave it the benefit of the doubt longer than they should have to grab them in the initial honeymoon period.

MMO players if anything suffer from so much Stockholm Syndrome that they are willing to suffer through and stick with a rough game longer than a truly rational consumer would.

If a game sucks, it sucks whether there are any players there to notice it or not.

WAR's problems were all self inflicted at the design stage. Almost everything they did separated players rather than bringing them together. Absolute death for a PvP game.

The game was designed in boxes with each division slicing and dicing the player population until it couldn't function as entertainment.

The list is too long for a comment. Faction balance, zone straddling PvP lakes, lack of real incentive for open world pvp, tiers in boxes, game performance with modest player density, etc., etc.

Unfortunately, it worked as designed, not as intended. People didn't leave WAR because it wasn't as good as game X, they left it because it wasn't good.
Like you, I was expecting WAR to do a bit better than it actually did ( But not even I was anticipating just how far it's fallen, despite writing "Lets be honest here. What have we heard about WAR that we haven't heard about every other MMO that's debuted in the past two years? Nothing, really."

Like you, I believe theory number one personally. It didn't take me long once I did start playing to figure out there were a host of things I really didn't care for, or felt just weren't good enough to encourage me to stick with it. Theory number two has it's impetus in that there are many people (myself included) who are getting weary of WoW. But the problem with other games is what is keeping us in WoW. Not WoW that is keeping us from those other games.

I think a lot of the problem is that games are trying too hard to not "be" WoW, and are creating features which I look back on and say to myself "what were they thinking". Games don't have to be clones obviously, but why fix something that isn't broken. Obviously Blizzard figured out over time just what the market wanted, so why are other developers trying to disprove the point? Different features and mechnanics does not mean they should be changing the equation which Blizzard has proven.
I think that War failed because it was to focused on RvR which was a good thing years ago during the DAOC days, but now a days there are way to many casual players and players that are even new to gaming in general. MMO's used to befor people who are hard core or semi hard core players. Now you get mothers and fathers playing these games. So with that you go simple games like WOW that attract a very wide audiance. WAR though was based on RvR which the "now" average gamer doesent want.
I had a very simple reason for quitting WAR: I wasn't enjoying it. I really don't care if its a superior game or not, it wasn't fun, so I stopped playing. Why do things have to be more complicated than that?
I guess I fit in the WoW tourist category. I was pretty burnt out from WoW when I started WAR. I quit that after about a month because I didn't enjoy it. Admittedly, I'm not a big fan of PvP. There were parts of WAR I enjoyed, for instance the public quest concept. However, the instances were pretty boring and the questing terrible. In the end the game was a BG grind. I don't find that BG to be as social experience as an instance. I'm made many friends by pugging instances but never in a BG pug.

Anyways, I quit WAR and spent a bit of time not playing any MMO at all. However, I recently resubscribed to WoW which was the game I enjoyed more.

I think the initial sales of WAR was boosted by WoW tourists. However, WAR failed to retain the tourists because the game design was not to their liking. I don't agree that there would be significant numbers of people who made an irrational choice to go back to WoW. However, the factors contributing to the rational may limited to game design (eg all my friends play WoW).

Perhaps a better view of the Wow tourist is that the typical WoW audience don't fit the right profile for WAR. WoW is a very strong PvE game. WAR is a PvP game. WAR was never going to be something a majority of WoW players liked.
(Although I would have thought there would be more WoW players who fit the WAR profile)
Rational. Sort of. I think people are not getting the experience they want out of new MMOs in general. However, I think this is due somewhat to an irrational expectation. Namely, that expectation is that a new MMO will give you that really amazing feeling of the first MMO you ever played. Everyone remembers that feeling of awe when they played their first MMO, no matter what that MMO was. I think people get tired with their MMO and are desperately trying to recreate that feeling. The problem is you can't. It has to do with YOU, and not the game, whatever it was. In the end, people keep hopping, or going back to what they already know/are established in, once they realize whatever the new game is doesn't give them the feeling they want.
The game didn't live up to the hype because of one main reason: it wasn't fun. Mythic clearly had no idea why DAOC was so (at the time) popular and attributed their success to the wrong reasons. Mark Jacobs is something of a George Lucas to me. George Lucas also has absolutely no idea why the first two star wars movies were so damn good. He figured it was the stupid, kiddie crap and included wayyyyy to much of that crap in the next four star wars movies. Jacobs figured correctly assumed that RvR was what made DAoC great, but failed to capture the essence and transfer it to the new game.
The actual reason to quit, lack of faith in Mythic's ability to turn it around, disagreeing with their vision. I sought DAoC 2.0, but got instanced scenarios and city sieges.
WAR sucks, I could leave it at that but I'll expand a bit:

-Hype. Mythic hyped this game to epic proportions. Hype may have sold more copies of WAR, but it also led to disappointment when WAR did not live up the picture that Mythic painted.

-WoW. Releasing WAR when WoW was nearing the end of an expansion and WoWers had grown bored was a good thing. Releasing WAR slightly over a month before WOTLK was a huge mistake. Even players who enjoyed WAR most likely went back to WOW because WOTLK really delieved epic. Wrathgate quests anyone?

-RvR, this buzz phrase was tossed around constantly. RvR was kind of interpruted as something new, innovative, different. It isn't. Not only did Mythic themselves do RvR before, but RvR is just PvP. Infact since the races are split into factions it only is PvP.

-Too much like WoW, yet too different. WAR stole too much WoW, yet changed things that shouldn't have been changed. BOO YOU SUCK!
As a guy who played more WAR than probably 90% of the people who bought a box, it came down to this: If you ignored the bugs and the lag and whatnot, you had a game with very, very uninspired pve, and very repetitive pvp. The highest I ever got was lvl 32, because there's only so many times you can hang out and watch people bang on a door, then bang on another door, then aoe the hell out of the place. Or, for objectives, kill everything and sit for two minutes. It was really unfun after a while. Simple as that. Could have been cool, but it was sort of like WoW pvp was just Arathi Basin, all the time. And this is coming from a guy who enjoyed WAR leveling a lot.

That said, I do think that an MMO these days will have a WoW tourist problem no matter what. People want to try new things, but their friends, characters, and all the rest of it, call you back.

The initial crash is WoW tourists; any deterioration past that is probably just poor design.
One of the things I enjoyed about WAR was the PQs (Public Quests). However, once the initial wave of players moved on there was never enough people to do the full round of PQs anymore.

I liked being able to jump right in and pvp, but it was no different than WoW battlegrounds.

I'd have to look through my own blog to remember exactly why I quit...

But I don't think WoW players are to blame. If a game is fun it will stand on its own merits.
What killed war is people phrasing the question as 'what killed war?'. Or to be more exact, what removes subscribers is some sort of mental toggle switch which has 'The best mmorpg' or 'It's been killed' and can only toggle between them, with no middle ground that's 'Hey, I like this and it doesn't matter to me much what other people do or don't like'.

It's the fiscally nasty side of aiming for viral 'social' games, because social customers come with this mindset. Live by the social game sword, die by the social game sword.
I have been really turned off of anything Mythic has done since the Trials of Atlantis expansion pack for Dark Age of Camelot back in the day.

I would like to think the majority of players are more rational in their preferences than any sort of band wagon effect when it comes to subscription numbers.

What killed WAR for me could be a combination of things, it wasn't DAOC II, Blizzard makes killer games that turns us into tourist for other MMO's in the same genre, Mythic has yet to learn from past mistakes in end game design.
I realize this post is late, but I quit WAR because it failed to deliver on its promise. At the time of its release I was playing no MMO at all - I was waiting for a PvP focused game that would draw me in.

WAR was not that game. Its PvP is repetitive, and it still has way too much of a PvE loot grind.

I think WAR failed because it was just all over the map, and it lacked any real focus. Instead of taking a single core aspect and making it really good, Mythic decided to copy as many features from WoW as possible. They actually did a fair job at this, but... if people want to play WoW, they're going to play WoW.

I don't think WAR failed because of 'WoW tourists.' I think it failed because it offered nothing new to WoW refugees, who were tired of the WoW experience and were left looking for something different.
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