OT: Subscription and Correlation

Did you know that ice cream makes it more likely you will drown? It’s true. When ice cream sales increase, so do the number of drowning deaths. Clearly linked! Speaking of spurious correlations…

I fully expect Rift to now follow in the footsteps of WoW, in that it will decline. Vanilla and BC days had challenging content, and it’s not a surprise that sub numbers grew. WotLK made things ‘accessible’, and surprise surprise, the response was pretty meh (sub numbers dropped in the US/EU, but were offset globally by WoW launching in new regions, hence the overall stagnation). Cata tried to play both sides of the fence, but a combo of too little too late, a gimmick of progression (hard mode rehashes rather than straight-up new content), and a one-track, insult difficulty 1-85 game did it in. With no new regions to offset things, subs are dropping.

(SynCaine in the post “Accessibility killed Rift“)

World of Warcraft’s growth rate went from a perfectly stable 2 million subscribers per year during 2006 to 2009, to zero during WotLK. This was exactly the time when Blizzard changed the character progression mechanic.

(Nils in the post “Smoke and Mirrors“)

“If developers design a game which requires too much effort from the average player for too little gain, the average players will start leaving the game. “

This is the part I strongly disagree with, and WoW’s sub history does as well. Vanilla/BC, which had a MUCH harder end-game that fewer players saw to completion, saw massive growth. WotLK/Cata, with raids being cleared by all who stepped inside, have brought decline.

(SynCaine in a comment on Tobold’s post “Syncaine on Accessibility“)

The reason I bring these examples up is because this type of thinking (or lack thereof) is what I consider one of the most pernicious, asinine fallacies in any discussion of World of Warcraft. It is intellectual laziness at best, intellectual dishonesty at worse. Before I begin in earnest however, here is a slightly augmented graph from MMOData that most people refer to when they talk about WoW subs:

1) Correlation does not mean causation.

Standard preface to any claim that X means Y. Ice cream and drowning are only “linked” because there is a third factor involved.

2) Even if correlation did mean causation, why this particular correlation?

This specific point is the reason the argument is intellectually lazy. When you look at the graph, it is true what Nils and SynCaine said about there being a relatively rapid period of growth during vanilla and TBC that was not apparent after the release of Wrath. However, tying that solely (or even partially) to accessibility/character progression/difficulty/etc is a completely unsupported leap of logic.

There is zero evidence given by either author as to why it was “existence of more challenging content” and not, I dunno, the introduction of the PvP Honor System and BGs in the summer of 2005, which coincides with a 500k sub spike in WoW-West on graph. Or the release of ZG in September of that year, also suspiciously near another 500k sub bump. Or if I looked at WoW’s overall numbers like Nils does with his “2 million per year growth” argument, perhaps I could argue Patch 1.12 with it’s wildly successful:

The stage is set for intense, objective-based land battles as Horde and Alliance vie for control over important strategic positions and resources around Azeroth. Head out for Silithus and Eastern Plaguelands to engage the enemy on the field!

…was responsible for the corresponding bump of 1 million (!) subscribers. Clearly, clearly, more things like Silithus and the old Eastern Plagueland towers is just what WoW needs.

3) What does endgame accessibility/difficulty have to do with anything?

This is another intellectually lazy part of the argument that the authors never bother to address. What percentage of the playerbase ever actually makes it to the endgame, and is this percentage big enough to even impact subscription growth? That is an open question.

The best metric that I can come up with is to look at the number of guilds who killed Beasts of Northrend in 10m ToC after two years of it being out (86,187 guilds), multiply that by something charitable like 30 players, and then divide by the approximate population in the graph above while only taking into account the regions in which WoWProgress collects data (~6.5 million). The result is 39.77% of players killing the easiest boss in the easiest tier of which we have data (something like Noth the Lootbringer from Naxx 2.0 would have been better, but alas…). That actually sounds like a lot of people, and 19.88% assuming only 15 raiders per guild is not too shabby either when referring to raid content.

That said, there is no evidence whatsoever from those two that difficulty-related gyrations amongst the top 1/3rd of players doing raiding content has a meaningful impact in comparison to whatever the remaining 2/3rd non-raiders are doing. Between 2005 and 2009 the subscriber base was growing at ~25% per year. Is it even remotely likely that the top 40% had anything to do with a meaningful drop in growth rate?

4) Growth, or lack thereof, does not really mean anything other than what it is.

What I mean by this is that you cannot simply look at growth as anything other than what it is: growth. It does not mean anything else without further information. For all the talk about growth rate percentages and “the design decisions that caused them,” look at the pink line for a moment. That represents subscriptions in NA alone. Unfortunately MMOData stopped tracking that information individually (or perhaps Blizzard stopped giving it out), but the whole of TBC resulted in ~650k more subscriptions in NA over a two-year period.

Is 325k sub growth per year more than the apparent zero sub growth in the year of Wrath? Sure… but we have no real way of knowing why that growth was occurring. Was player churn less of a factor in vanilla and TBC? Was the growth simply due to the release of WoW in additional regions? Does market saturation have any impact? Do we simply ignore, I dunno, one of the worst global recessions in world history?

Oh, wait a minute… early 2009 was when the markets were at their worst? And yet WoW subs were relatively stable in most regions during that entire year? Clearly Wrath’s accessibility and stress-free raiding were the only things stopping WoW’s overall decline in a tough market, as evidenced by Cata’s increased difficulty leading to subscription loss once markets improved. QED, amirite?

The bottom line here is that you cannot use WoW subscription numbers as evidence of a claim without first proving said numbers have anything to do with said claim. Did World of Warcraft gain six million subscriptions worldwide in its first year? Yes. Was that because of the strength of its class balance? Its risk versus reward structure? Its accessibility? No one can really say; all of it would be conjecture.

Personally, I believe the initial rush was due to the strength of the IP – I know I certainly gave WoW a shot because of how much I enjoyed Warcraft 3 – and also due to the strength of the Blizzard brand. The designers also got a lot of things down perfectly that I feel other MMO designers stumble across to this day, such as letting characters jump, making solo-play possible, having quests with interesting plots, getting the reward faucet just right while questing, and so on. The tone and tenor of game balance has certainly shifted quite a bit from when I began in TBC, but where I disagree with Nils and SynCaine is that I feel that Wrath was actually a step in a better direction in most (not all) ways. Unfortunately, until the duo, and others who believe as they do, let go of the absurd notion that “the numbers” support their conclusions, it is impossible to have any rational discussion about it.

There is a separate argument as to linear raid progression vs episodic progression, but that is an OT for another time.

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Posted on June 18, 2011, in Philosophy, WoW and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 57 Comments.

  1. You may disagree but I feel that wow has always had a bleed problem. It is an especially fun game for the first few months and then gets tedious slowly until endgame. Compare this with other MMOs where it is rather tedious from start to end. I have not playedrift, the last mmo i have tried is dcuo.

    I think wow has two problems. It has finally reached a saturation point where there are not enough potential customers compared to leaving customers, and two, the player base has nothing really to look forward to.

  2. I would actually agree both with the bleed problem and also with the saturation. It seems obvious that at SOME point everyone who would be open to play WoW will have done so, and then Blizzard is simply fighting over recidivism rates.

    My overall point here is that people cannot simply point to sub numbers as proof that their argument is correct without first proving the argument has anything to do with the numbers (and nothing else). I cannot, for example, say with any sort of confidence that the 600k sub loss was because Cata was too difficult. Did Blizzard radically change their design philosophy around the same time the 600k dropped? Yep. Does that make sense to me that they are connected? Sure. Does one prove the other? Not at all.

  3. scottiegazelle

    *Excellent* reading, thank you.

    A point on saturation: I think you are mistaken. This because, unlike most products, many WoW customers aren't making their own financial decision. And yet, over the course of a few years, they begin to.

    I don't know what the numbers are for teen players, but I know this: in tight financial times, the (responsible) parent who isn't getting anything out of the game will cancel said teens account. But as the teen gets a job and/or goes to college – in short, as they move to becoming an adult – they take control of their own finances and can begin to fund their own WoW habit.

    Similarly, there is a constant “fresh” influx of new customers – both children young enough to have just started who were “too young” a few years ago, and teens whose parents would never let them play at all, who get out on their own.

    I have no clue what the hard age numbers on WoW players are, and of course figuring out the economics of teens…yeah. I know there are more adults – heck, I'm one of them, a mom whose kids have their own WoW account, even.

    Which one do you think will get turned off first? :p Hint: not mine. And if I were a non-gamer parent, how much faster do you think said children's account would be turned off?

    Anyway, great discussion. Saw this on TUJ and had to come over; gonna find your feed to become a permanent reader. :D

  4. I'm not sure that you noticed, but you said “people cannot simply point to sub numbers as proof that their argument is correct without first proving the argument has anything to do with the numbers (and nothing else)” about 500 times in your piece here, which really bumped up its length and I believe was caused by the decline in Cata subs.

    The thing is, both Nils and Syncaine appeared aware that they were not operating on a level of deductive proof, and were merely giving opinions on possible causes for trends. In this light, repeating your correlation/causation accusation 500 times, and accusing them of intellectual laziness another 500 times, without giving some examples of the kind of evidence they neglected to provide, reeks of … intellectual laziness.

    Much of the numbers you did provide were relatively irrelevant to their point, such as “Or the release of ZG in September of that year, also suspiciously near another 500k sub bump.” Are you seriously claiming that the level 60 ZG raid instance had a long term effect on subscription numbers? Every x months there's a new raid instance, which bumps subscriptions but has no lasting effect on subscriptions, making it irrelevant to this debate. If you analyzed the subscription bump and subsequent decline for every single raid instance, that might be useful. Why didn't you? Intellectual laziness? See how this chain of accusing other people of laziness goes? Now someone else can come accuse me of laziness for not doing every possible data analysis relating to anything I've commented on. Possibly they weren't lazy, they just did as much analysis as they cared to for a short blog piece, not intended for peer review.

    I agree with your point that there interesting other factors that could have affected subscriptions that they didn't analyze.

    In support of the endgame raiding having a disproportionate effect on the sub numbers: Raiders, anecdotally, tend to subscribe longer than more casual players. They also have a larger social effect, in that they are more likely to influence their friends in real life to begin playing as well. This would tend to amplify the impact of the raid changes mentioned by Nils and Syncaine. This argument is even less backed by numbers than the one you disdained earlier, but you're getting what you paid for. I'm fairly sure someone has done a statistical analysis of the above claims, but I'm going to be intellectually lazy, or just plain lazy, and not look them up to cite them.

    An argument against Nils and Syncaine's point: looking at that 60% of nonraiders that you mentioned earlier, what changed in wotlk/cata? Well, the lower level dungeons got nerfed hard, but purely based on my own experience, a more significant change was the quest design chain. The linking of the quests in wrath and cata into a strict progression is something that I find completely distasteful. The ability to pick and choose which quests one did in the old model presented the player with “the illusion of choice”. Under the new system, the feeling of being herded around is always in the forefront of your mind, and if you bring a second alt through the area, it becomes some kind of surrealistic hell-reality where every single questgiver becomes a sadistic prison-guard whose punishments are vaguely known ahead of time with some kind of torturer's deja vu.

    Is that language a bit strong for a scenario where absolutely nothing has changed save that now this arbitrary quest is accompanied by the knowledge that one must complete it or suffer the rest of the zone's quests, and even much of its phasing area, to be forever locked from that toon's view? Possibly, but consider this analogy: Heaven, where you sit at a table with interesting companions, surrounded by delicious food and drink which you may sample at your leisure. Hell, the same place, but where everyone suffers from a compulsion to eat continually.

  5. (continued)
    Well, that's my personal opinion as to why sub numbers dropped, or at least as to the most significant reason. Again, lacking in numbers, but I doubt anyone has done studies on WoW questing before and after WOTLK. Someone's probably done some work on similar “illusion of choice” scenarios in a non-MMO context, however.

    Bringing it back to your original theme: why don't I feel any desire to provide references to transform my opinion into a scientific claim? Well, the lack of personal benefit to me in doing so is obvious. Viewed on a larger utilitarian scale, would it be beneficial to the world as a whole for my opinion to be so treated? Possibly a little, but I suppose I don't feel the benefit justifies the cost in time. I don't see a study about choice-illusions in a non-MMO context to be all that superior to my anecdotal perspective actually in that MMO context, and I'm certainly not going to conduct a giant study on this matter. If you disagree with me, and think my opinion does deserve a scientific treatment, it makes absolutely zero sense for you to deride me for intellectual laziness. If we are operating on a nonpersonal benefits moral evaluation, then the responsibility for updating my opinion to be scientific devolves as much on you as it does on me.

    Hence my ultimate criticism of the main point of your blogpost here. If you really think that Nils and SynCaine's opinions deserve a full scientific treatment, than the responsibility for giving them that treatment again devolves equally on you as it does on them. Therefore, for you to write this post in an accusatory fashion, showering them with insults, is at best inconsistent with the scientific mode you propound, and at worst destructive to the scientific mode you seem to regard so highly.

  6. p.s. In response to a Randian counterargument that people are inherently more responsible to update their own arguments, due to their closer connection with their genesis and more intimate knowledge of their subtleties: true, but by writing this article, you have placed yourself into an equally privileged class.

    Also, I believe that your nonscientific insults were in some sense essential to your article, as the overriding impression from your article written from a truly scientific viewpoint, (this evidence is needed. this other evidence is needed…etc) would have left the reader thinking only, “Ok, when are you going to start doing the research you are constantly calling for?” In this analysis we see that the primary purpose of your article was not scientific, but to strew insults.

  7. Nils and Syncain's premise in their arguments were that accessibility and/or change in character progression method resulted in a drop of subscriptions (and therefore implicitly bad). Neither author specified why those two changes were more impactful than any other changes that occurred in the game at the same time. It is the equivalent argument of saying Bush and/or Obama (or their policies) were responsible for the Great Recession without even considering the Housing Bubble, or any other primary economic factors.

    I quit my old job around October of 2008, and the economy collapsed three months later. Coincidence? I think not!

    As for the rest of your post(s), the burden of proof is on the person making the claims. The default position is “We don't know why subscriptions stopped growing.” If Nils and Syncain merely said they disliked Wrath/Cata for X, Y, and Z reasons, that would be fine. Linking X, Y, and Z to subscription trends fills those arguments with a false sense of clout, as any fallacy tends to. I do not demand someone to prove subjective, opinionated claims. If they want to pretend that their opinions reflect objective facts (or are proven thereby) however, they must prove it or admit they cannot.

  8. If raids didn't affect subs much, I doubt Blizzard would design expansions around them.

  9. “I do not demand someone to prove subjective, opinionated claims.”

    But, that was the whole point of your post.

    “If they want to pretend that their opinions reflect objective facts (or are proven thereby) however, they must prove it or admit they cannot.”

    Hey look, your next sentence is you demanding someone prove subjective claims, via some magic formula whereby any subjective claim that has any association with objective facts becomes a wholly objective claim.

    “As for the rest of your post(s), the burden of proof is on the person making the claims. “

    If the person making the claims is stating that they are objectively provable, then yes, that person has assumed the burden of proof. Otherwise, no.

    “The default position is “We don't know why subscriptions stopped growing.”

    The default position is : blogposts reflect the the blogger's opinion, and are not statements of fact. Seems hypocritical for you to demand they uphold a default position that is only applicable due to you ignoring the default position incumbent upon yourself, eh?

    I detect that this conversation is nearing its end, I'm not seeing any desire in you to construct any of the data-based claims that you demand others do for you, no acknowledgement that you are making assumptions as great as those you criticize. You didn't respond to any of the constructive attempts I made to engage you in discussion of this issue. You're laser focused in on “I have to keep talking shit about bloggers, because that's what real scientists do.” Ok man, have fun with that.

  10. If raids didn't affect subs much, I doubt Blizzard would design expansions around them.

    Nearly a third of the non-Chinese playerbase did end up downing Beasts of Northrend, although that particular raid and time period was different than vanilla and TBC (or Cata for that matter). Raiding obviously has some effect. How much effect in regards to other in-game changes, let alone outside influences, remains to be seen.

  11. Hey look, your next sentence is you demanding someone prove subjective claims, via some magic formula whereby any subjective claim that has any association with objective facts becomes a wholly objective claim.

    First, allow me to revise my use of “claim” in the second-to-last sentence of which you are quoting. There is, in fact, no such thing as a “subjective claim” by definition. It is a contradiction in terms. Substitute the word “worldview” or “argument” in there.

    Secondly, I am not a scientist. I am merely a guy that is annoyed by fallacious arguments. WoW's sub numbers do not prove anything other than what WoW sub numbers are. Even if Syncain and Nils were merely “voicing their opinion,” it is a fallacy to use sub numbers like that as a rhetorical device either way. One that, unfortunately, makes their argument/opinion sound more credible than it otherwise is. This is not, of course, an uncommon problem in punditry.

    Finally, as far as engagement in this conversation goes, I already specified what my relatively baseless assumptions were in the original post. Namely, I believe that the strength of Blizzard's IP is what was responsible for the initial growth, and that was followed up by an amazing leveling experience. Once a critical mass of players is reached, the social aspects of the game kick in (e.g. friends inviting friends) and keep people playing.

    I would agree vis-a-vis questing changes, but only in Cataclysm. Cata's “on rails” questing along with frequent, jarring cinematics and only a handful of zones makes leveling alts more of a chore than in any other expansion. You might not like Wrath questing, but that whole expansion was definitely a renaissance of alt-making for me.

  12. First, let me point out that “subjective claim” has more google hits than “objective claim”. 27k to 23k. I will refrain from making any claims based on these factual numbers, as you will no doubt claim them to be fallacious.

    “Even if Syncain and Nils were merely “voicing their opinion,” it is a fallacy to use sub numbers like that as a rhetorical device either way.”

    This is a fallacy known as “begging the question.” Fallacies are rhetorical devices, so you have assumed what you were trying to prove.

    At this point, you are saying that you would be ok with them merely giving their opinion based on their personal gameplay, but that you believe that by mentioning sub numbers in what was otherwise a nonscientific essay, they have committed a fallacy which makes you angry. I'm sorry that you are unable to deal with people attempting to converse at a level in between strict academic discourse and everyday chit-chat, especially as many subjects, like this one, do not currently have enough research done on them to make any real discussion on them possible, by your lights. I would advise keeping your opinions to yourself when talking to people in the real world, however, they might get you seriously hurt. Good luck to you.

  13. First, let me point out that “subjective claim” has more google hits than “objective claim”. 27k to 23k. I will refrain from making any claims based on these factual numbers, as you will no doubt claim them to be fallacious.

    Claim -verb; to assert or maintain as a fact.

    I prefer using Dictionary.com as a resource in these sort of situations, but if you have a differing definition please share so that we may move on from semantics. I also recommend this Wikipedia article on Argument.

    This is a fallacy known as “begging the question.” Fallacies are rhetorical devices, so you have assumed what you were trying to prove.

    Actually, you are utilizing the fallacy known as “straw man.” What I set out to “prove” was: “[...] this type of thinking (or lack thereof) is what I consider one of the most pernicious, asinine fallacies in any discussion of World of Warcraft.”

    Incidentally, fallacies are not rhetorical devices. I would be interested in hearing about where you found that they were, considering I am not even sure I used “rhetorical device” correctly (“rhetorical bludgeon” would have been safer).

    At this point, you are saying that you would be ok with them merely giving their opinion based on their personal gameplay, but that you believe that by mentioning sub numbers in what was otherwise a nonscientific essay, they have committed a fallacy which makes you angry.

    I remain amused that you continue hanging onto the “nonscientific” nature of the posts as if science has something to do with this. The two articles argue, in spirit, that ice cream causes drowning. I am pointing out that this is not the case. Not only is that circular reasoning (“Greater accessibility causes subs to drop as demonstrated by subs dropping with greater accessibility”), but subscription trends are sufficiently complex in WoW that someone can just about make any argument using them. After all, based on sub numbers, achievements and the Barber Shop killed WoW.

    In any event, thank you for your feedback.

  14. Thanks for the effort.

    Now, the first thing that needs to be understood is that nobody can be certain. Not even Blizzard with an own statsitics department knows for certain why their sub numbers behave the way they do.

    The strength of my argument is not the correlation. That's just another hint !

    My reasoning starts with that character progression mechanics are causally related to sub numbers – everybody agrees, I think.

    Blizzard changed this mechanic dramatically in WotLK. Now, maybe the new one was as good as the old one, maybe it was much better, maybe much worse. 90% of my posts is about why I think that the new mechanic is worse.

    In one sentence:
    They changed the progression mechanic from one that allowed all players to experience the game at their own pace and at an auto-adjusted difficulty level, to one where players need to experience the content within a few months and at a fixed difficulty level.

    We cannot be sure whether this had any influence, let alone whether it was the deciding factor. But that doesn't mean that we should stop to guess.

    If nobody had guessed that the earth might be a ball and given some anecdotal evidence, we t still wouldn't know it. In fact, we don't. It's still just the best guess we have until somebody comes up with some better explanation.

    Concluding: Correlation is not proof. But it is a hint. We would be stupid to ignore this hint.

    http://nilsmmoblog.blogspot.com/2011/06/when-team-b-took-over.html

  15. “Not even Blizzard with an own statsitics department knows for certain why their sub numbers behave the way they do”

    They probably have a better hint than the rest of us in the form of the exit survey – “Why have you decided to unsubscribe?”

  16. Interesting fact, Bernard: I unsubscribed a WoW account just the other day, and I couldn't find the option “just got tired of it after playing for a long time”. Not even a “it's not you, it's me” option. It may have been there among the branching sub-menus, but I just didn't find it.

    So maybe their “statistics department” (I bet is't just a single overworked controller in a basement somewhere. A guy with a name noone remembers, that guy who everyone laughs at in the basement… what? I'm not bitter :)) don't really have the data they need.

    And Azuriel, thanks for a nice post. Thoughtful and well summarised.

    Nils… “correlation is not proof, but it's a hint”? I thought the whole point of Azuriel's comments and posts was to dispute that there is an accepted correlation. I agree with him. Your views on Blizzard's changes to the game are well reasoned and well formulated. But the sub number delta is emphatically *not* sufficiently clear (to the extent that it's even known!) to even give a “hint” that the majority of the subscribers reasoned along with you.

    Finally – anonymous. Where'd all that vitriol come from?

  17. e key, do you haz it?

    Seriously you even changed Tobold's title to get it wrong…

    As I said over at his blog, you are a name on the internet, as am I to you. If I say that it sounds to me like I've talked to more MMO devs over the years than you have, you could ask for proof, and I'm not going to post emails or recall specific conversations here.

    I'll just say that I've talked to many devs from different companies, and the conclusions I come to, specifically on this point, are not just pulled out of thin air. Does that mean I can prove harder content = subs? No, but I have a pretty solid idea that it did for WoW 2004-2008. What Cata tried to do (but failed) should be a pretty clear indication to you what Blizzard's opinion is as well, especially coming off the heels of WotLK.

  18. Oscar, you say: “I thought the whole point of Azuriel's comments and posts was to dispute that there is an accepted correlation.”

    .. of course there's correlation:
    Blizzard changed the progression mechanic exactly when the sub numberrs stopped to grow.
    That's not necesarily the cause and so on and so on. But there's certainly correlation.

    And there's certainly “some” causal influence the progression mechanic has on sub numbers. Progression mechanics are the heart of an MMORPG like WoW !

    @Syncaine:
    The argument of “trust me, I know, but I won't bother concinving you why” is really a bit cheap. But you probably didn't want to convince anybody with this statement, and just wanted to well, make a comment. Which is alright I guess.

  19. It is cheap, I fully admit to that.

    I'm just throwing it out there so when the history of WoW is released in 10 years from one of the lead devs, and in that book he writes how early game raiding was key to retention, and the mistake that was WotLK, internet people can come back to this and say “hey, that SynCaine guy was right”.

    I'm in it for the long haul.

  20. Nils,

    “Progression mechanic” is such a wide concept that that's a bit like saying that there's a correlation between the quality of the game and subscriber numbers. Yes, I would certainly think so. But it seems about a mile away from the rather more specific point you were making earlier and in your posts about the specific types of mechanics.

    I never put much faith in the “B team” theory. I believe WoTLK was the most successful expansion in WoW so far (and probably ever). I have seen loads of people claiming that Ulduar is the best raid of them all (both from the rookies as well as from the “I won vanilla” crowd). That's why I don't agree with your argument.

    I also think that Cataclysm is arguably the best expansion of the three, even though I have quit again now, sooner than before.

    Basically, I call Occam's razor: the simplest explanation for people leaving the game is that people are done with it. I mean, really: isn't it amazing that they retain any subscribers at all, after six years? People have always grown weary with the game, during each expansion. It has happened faster each time, but it has always happened. Every expansion has been better than the last one, but the basic template is the same. It just won't sustain us as long anymore. Based on this, I'd say Cataclysm's real failure is that it didn't fix my kitchen sink. That, and no free ice cream.

  21. Oscar, you are allowed to think whatever you want. From a sub numbers growth point of view it's hard to argue that WotLK was great. But I'm sure you and many others enjoyed it; that's not contradiction.

    Progression mechanic is indeed a rather broad term. And with WotLK they changed everything about progression mechnics in the endgame. Once the dungeon finder hit, even the progression mechanics during leveling was seriously altered. If for better or worse is another question.

    About that B team. You did read the links I supplied. Did you?

    This is the senior and lead engineer of Asheron's Call 2 on the tpoic. It was Summer 2009. WotLK was 8 months old.

    This is Shane Dabiri, WoW Lead producer in an interview where he says that he switched after TBC. The Lead producer …

    This is the Gamasutra interview where the Blizzard COO says that key staff has moved on to Titan.

    I, also believe in Occam's razor. The simplest explanation for why a game over-night goes from growing 2 mio a year to nothing a year, is the quality of the game, in my opinion. That doesn't mean that there were no other and even outside factors. But the quality of the game is one factor says my Occam's razor ;).

  22. There you go with the “sub numbers point of view” again! You need to switch to a four-blade razor, dude. :P

    Nope, didn't click your link this time. But I have read them before. Well, not the WoW propaganda interview with Shane Dabiri. And I have read others saying the opposite, not least from the developers themselves (unsurprisingly!). But really, if you approach it from a business logic point of view: if you want to milk a franchise for the maximum amount of buck for as long as possible it makes absolutely NO sense to put anyone other than the best people you can get on board. No sense.

    And of course people will move on after working on a project for six years. Just like the players, developers will move as well. That's not a bad thing, it's a good thing.

  23. Deleted last post, because it might have been a bit too harsh. I think we go around in circles, Oscar. ;)

  24. We sure do. Thanks for removing whatever derogatory language you thought of deploying against me. No offense intended towards you, of course. Other than concurring with the intellectual laziness part, perhaps, but that's just common courtesy :P

  25. I don't use derogatory language, Oscar. I was just pointing out that it's useless to discuss with someone who changes his opinions on-the-fly *grin*.

    Thanks for the discussion, though ;)

  26. Nils: Concluding: Correlation is not proof. But it is a hint. We would be stupid to ignore this hint.

    The main reason to nip this line of thinking in the bud is simply that if we allow that as an argument, then stuff like: “After all, based on sub numbers, achievements and the Barber Shop killed WoW.” would be an equally valid argument. Unless you're going to do the research and at least show some causal relationship, that hint is no better than conjecture.

    Syncaine: I'll just say that I've talked to many devs from different companies, and the conclusions I come to, specifically on this point, are not just pulled out of thin air.

    That's the main problem. You never even tried to supply this type of proof in your original posts. Sure, there is a bit of trust involved, but I think most of us aren't desperate enough to resort to outright lies to win an internet argument. However, even if we accept that you've talked to game devs and they agree with difficulty = subs…

    Syncaine: Does that mean I can prove harder content = subs? No, but I have a pretty solid idea that it did for WoW 2004-2008. What Cata tried to do (but failed) should be a pretty clear indication to you what Blizzard's opinion is as well, especially coming off the heels of WotLK.

    This undermines your theory. Maybe the game devs are convinced that difficulty = subs, but game devs are not law. They are human like you and me, so although they might perhaps have a bit more knowledge on attracting players, their knowledge is not infinite. The fact that they tested the theory and failed is a statistical point of evidence that suggests that harder content reduces subs rather than increases it. You say that they “failed” at it, but I'm not really sure how you can “fail” at making content difficult, and from the cries of casuals, the dungeons are plenty difficult.

  27. Actually, now that you say it Pzychotix… It's the dance studio. First, as the Studio™ was presented, people came to the game in droves. Then, when it was nowhere to be seen in Northrend, people were disappointed and dropped off. With Cata, many people are now giving up on ever seeing it. Only the Studio's most ardent supporters remain. Wiping to trash all the while.

  28. Round and round we go ;)

    Imagine you see smoke coming out of the window of your house. You suddenly remember that you might have forgotten to switch off the oven. You also remember that magazine you read a week ago that warned about your kind of oven.

    You tell a friend that you suspect that it's you oven.

    Your friend tells you that this magazine can't be used as proof. After all there are millions of ovens like this around. And most haven't made problems. Really, since your entire argument is based on this report in that magazine, you are making a fool of yourself.

    The smoke can impossible be due to your oven, because the report in the magazine is just not even a hint. Most ovens like this never made problems!

  29. Elaborating a bit more:

    Your friend is right: If there weren't smoke and you wouldn't have remembered that your forgot to switch off the oven, the report in the magazie on its own were useless. It would be utterly ridiculous to assume, just because you remember that week-old report that your oven is about to set your house on fire. There's not even smoke!

    In fact, there are reports about your fridge as well. (Yeah, it could as well be the dance studio- silly).

    The reason that report in the magazine is actually not completely useless, is because there are other reasons.

    TOGETHER these reaons make you form a picture. And only together are they useful. There's no other reason to assume it's the dance studio (the fridge). But I have given ample reason as to why the changes in WotLK on their own were actually bad.

    Add all the things together and even a small hint adds to it. The most ridiculous thing I saw as reaction to the post was to tell me that the entire argument is based on the sub numbers. 90% of my posts were about other reasons.

    The sub numbers just add nicely to the larger picture.

  30. Except:
    Your friend tells you that this magazine can't be used as proof. After all there are millions of ovens like this around. And most haven't made problems. Really, since your entire argument is based on this report in that magazine, you are making a fool of yourself.

    The magazine, realistically speaking, is going to uphold some basic journalistic responsibilities, and isn't going to say “X oven is likely to burst into flames” without some sort of proof, research study, recall notice, or SOMETHING in the way of showing that their conjecture is believable (e.g. a video of the oven in question, spontaneously bursting into flames).

    You haven't even provided this much! You haven't provided anything but your own word! No one's trying to deny your possibility. But the fact of the matter is that the possibility that you've provided is no where near the smoking gun that one would need to prove it as such.

    You're free to do more research on it, but that's all your conjecture amounts to: a hint that provides a possible direction towards to truth. Truth is not built on hints. Truth is built on facts.

  31. When you say that I haven't provided anything but my own word, what do you mean? I can give you massive amounts of links that proof that sub numbers go down.

    Just as well links that prove that new team got into control at that time. The reasons as to why the new progression mechanics are bad, cannot be researched. They nned to be understood.

    I gave ample reasons to assume that the new progression mechanics are bad. That's analog to the research the magazine did. (You need to comprehend these reasons, of course).

    There's an obvious causal connection between bad progression mechanics and sub numbers. Sometimes I feel like you are even denying this(?).

    Sub numbers did go down at the exactly the moment you would expect given the other considerations.

    Given these hints, is it more probable that there was no causal connection or that there was some causal connection?

  32. You're free to do more research on it, but that's all your conjecture amounts to: a hint that provides a possible direction towards to truth. Truth is not built on hints. Truth is built on facts.

    Mmh .. so you agree? You agree that it is a hint?
    It seems we agree, actually.

    I might undertsand our problem right now. You think that I think that it is 100% proven fact that sub numbers go down, just because of the change in progression mechanics .. ?

    Of course, I don't. I can't be sure. All I can give is some argumentation. Reasons. Hints. Guesswork.

    In absence of other hints and reasons these make it more probable that the hypothesis is correct than that it is wrong.

    If you want the undeiable truth. I'm afraid nobody can give you that. I said before: Not even Blizzard knows why exactly their sub number behave the way they do.

    If they knew, every human on the planet probably played WoW by now ;)

  33. And a final word on this. Sorry for spamming the blog:

    Had I not given sub numbers, would you be more inclinded to believe the hypothesis (that progression mechanics are bad??)

    I don't think so. In fact, if sub numbers had started to grow with 3 mio a year with WotLK release, my hypothesis would be under heavy attack. It would seem unlikely that the progression mechanics are worse when sub number growth increases!

  34. @Nils

    Had I not given sub numbers, would you be more inclinded to believe the hypothesis (that progression mechanics are bad??)

    I would not be inclined to believe your hypothesis because I believe you are wrong. That the sub number “correlation” was used for exactly the purpose you just admitted to (e.g. to make people more inclined to accept an otherwise dubious hypothesis) is exactly the reason why I made this post.

    @Syncaine

    Proof by Eminent Authority aside, there are two follow-up (somewhat rhetorical) questions that I just have to ask.

    1) Had Wrath been TBC 2.0, would you have expected subscriptions to continue at the same 2004-2008 rates?

    2) Understanding that the argument already suggests designers like Ghostcrawler et tal “don't get it,” what makes you confident that the designers you talked to know (more of) what they are talking about?

    I absolutely would agree that difficulty has some impact, just not to the degree you and Nils suggest by linking it explicitly (and solely) with sub numbers. Difficulty should be a level-cap concern, should it not? Would that not suggest some kind of massive exodus in a population most people are aware of (i.e. the heroics/raiding crowd)? Do we even know from which end of the sieve subs are leaking from?

    Finally, as far as what we can know about numbers, I leave you with a link to an older post of mine called What Players Actually Want, and the words of Bashiok:

    “By looking at actual stats, actual progression, time spent playing, where, and to what extent, we can see that most people are looking for more accessible raid content, so yes, we absolutely are able to tell without a doubt that the plan we're enacting is actually what players playing the game want and need, and are not just listening to people on the forums.”

    P.S. Sorry about lack of “e.”

  35. Nils: When you say that I haven't provided anything but my own word, what do you mean? I can give you massive amounts of links that proof that sub numbers go down.

    No one has even denied that sub numbers have gone down. But it is only your word that tries to use that information as if it means something when that data is not statistically capable of showing anything other than subscription numbers are going down.

    Nils: Mmh .. so you agree? You agree that it is a hint? It seems we agree, actually. … In absence of other hints and reasons these make it more probable that the hypothesis is correct than that it is wrong.

    Sure, I agree that it's a hint, but the problem is that you're promoting this particular hypothesis as much more valid than several other much more simpler explanations or hints (player burnout, player saturation, so on, so forth), when so far, we've seen no reason to believe as such.

    You should realize that your role in this entire ordeal isn't about proving the plausibility of your theory (which is an entirely different matter that needs scrutiny), but rather to show that your theory is MORE plausible than any other theory.

  36. Pzychotix, what have you done to show that your theory is more plausible than mine? So far I've only seen you argue that burnout and saturation are more plausible, because they are 'simpler'.

    I agree with Occam's razor. But I don't think that 'game got worse and thus lost players' is such a complex theory, really.

  37. But I don't think that 'game got worse and thus lost players' is such a complex theory, really.

    It is pretty complex when I feel the game got better than it was in TBC.

    And supposing you are 100% accurate in that it was difficulty/accessibility that caused the drop in subs, is your argument that had WoW been TBC 2.0 (same philosophy, new raids), WoW would be sitting at 16+ million subs today? If you do not, then that should indicate more than simply difficulty going on.

    P.S. Would be interested in your thoughts on the Bashiok quote from my What Players Want post.

  38. This Bashiok quote shows that Blizzard thinks that they are able to make the game better by using metrics. That's the big hype right now. Look at Extra Credits.

    To some extend this is certainly possible. The problem is that metrics need to be interpreted. And that's extremely hard. Almost as hard as to design the game without metrics, in my opinion.

    Imagine you put something really fun, but time intensive into WoW that does not give any rewards. 90% of the player base won't do it.

    Now imagine you put something very boring and repetitive into the game. But you give out rewards for doing it! Suddenly 90% of the players do it. It must be a hell of a lot of fun …

    Unfortunately a month later players start to quit, because 'the game is not fun'. And that's just one obvious example of how metrics are extremely dangerous.

  39. On the TBC topic you asked about:

    Of course, Blizzard needed to do something at the end of TBC. TBC was designed to require new content all the time and it was even designed to require item-resets every now and then.

    There's a hell of a lot of things they could have done. From adding housing, epic server-wide battles against lich king minions up to rated battlegrounds back then and much, much, much more.

    Among other things they decided to change the character power progression mechanics. I tried to guess some of the reasons in my original post.

    In the end that was a mistake, I think. This part of the game was alright. They should have concentrated on adding conent, not on changing central game mechanics.

  40. Nils,

    I don't think that was Azuriel's question. He asked if you think that WoW would be sitting on 16 million subs today if the “character power progression mechanics” as you call them had been left unchanged. I am also very interested in hearing what you think about that. :)

  41. There's a hell of a lot of things they could have done.

    Right, but would have player housing, rated battlegrounds*, epic server-wide battles, etc, etc, have continued to grow WoW at 2 million more players per year? Is the growth potential for WoW actually unbounded? Is there no such thing as market saturation in MMOs?

    WoW may have had 12 million subscribers a while ago, but honestly how many MMO players have played WoW at some point in the last six years? MMOData says there were 8 million MMO players worldwide before WoW, and there are 21 million today. That 21 million number has not grown in the last year and a half. What does that say about the likelihood of accessibility in WoW's endgame being the root cause of a lack of growth, as opposed to market saturation and/or the depressed economy keeping players out of subscription-based MMOs?

    *Rated BGs are the worst design failure Blizzard has ever done in the game. They took a concept players had been asking for for ages (making BGs where players were rewarded for NOT fighting in the road, but rewarded for flags/etc), and instead gave everyone 10v10 Arena. You can see their floundering even today in getting people to use the function, abandoning any pretense that it's successful on its own.

  42. @Azuriel

    “You can see their floundering even today in getting people to use the function, abandoning any pretence that it's successful on its own.” (re: RBGs)

    What evidence is there of this? My experiences have been to the contrary – PvP guilds and PUGs popping up everywhere.

    Regarding the original topic, Nils' hypothesis only accounts for churn, not new subscribers. Who knows why the MMO market isn't growing…

  43. @Azuriel

    Thanks for an excellent post. It drives me crazy when people project their own prejudices onto data.

    Incidentally, if it helps, I did a quick analysis of raid numbers at different tiers last year (see here). It broadly supports your “~40% have done the easiest raid content” estimate in section 3.

  44. I don't think that was Azuriel's question. He asked if you think that WoW would be sitting on 16 million subs today if the “character power progression mechanics” as you call them had been left unchanged. I am also very interested in hearing what you think about that. :)

    If they had released WotLK the way they did, but without the character progression mechanic changes and adjusted the rest of the expansion for that in a smart way?. I think they would have grown, yeah.

    By 2mio? I don't think so. The progression mechanic change is not the only thing that's responsible for the stop in growth, I think.


    Next time I make a post with arguments pointing some problems out, Sven, I will just omit any references to sub numbers. Because no matter whether they grow, stagnate or decrease I am always 'projecting my prejudices on them'. Right?

  45. That 21 million number has not grown in the last year and a half. What does that say about the likelihood of accessibility in WoW's endgame being the root cause of a lack of growth, as opposed to market saturation and/or the depressed economy keeping players out of subscription-based MMOs?

    The 21 mio number tells us that the number of players leaving equals the number of players joining MMORPGs. Since the leveling game remained mostly untouched during the TBC-WotLK transition, that points towards a faster burnout.

    Make no mistake: There is a HUGE market out there: players who played MMORPGs at some point and often wish they found another fun MMORPG. And this market is still growing. Even if active sub numbers may not.

  46. “Claim -verb; to assert or maintain as a fact.

    I prefer using Dictionary.com as a resource in these sort of situations, but if you have a differing definition please share so that we may move on from semantics. I also recommend this Wikipedia article on Argument.”

    Imagine a debate between a subjectivist and an objectivist. The objectivist is looking for a biased judge to moderate the debate in his favor. Could he really do any better than a dictionary author?

    I counterpropose we examine the etymology of the word “claim”. dictionary.com which you love, refers us to -“hlowan”, to low, to make a noise like a cow.- I'm tempted to attempt to debate using that definition, although the latin “clamare” – to cry out, shout- would be a more rational alternative. Mooving on.

    “Actually, you are utilizing the fallacy known as “straw man.” What I set out to “prove” was: “[...] this type of thinking (or lack thereof) is what I consider one of the most pernicious, asinine fallacies in any discussion of World of Warcraft.””

    See, I was referencing one (1), and only one (1), sentence of yours. You have quoted a different sentence. This is a “bait-and-switch” fallacy. Woosh, it sure is fun accusing other people of fallacies, right? It's something I call the “fallacy fallacy”, where people start using fallacies as an accusatory method and not as a classification tool. But, I'm right and you're wrong, so I'm going to assign all the blame for falteringly falling into “fallacy fallacy” failure, upon you. (Fallacy fallacy has a different pre-existing meaning, which we also are verging on, of course) Plus you started the fallacy war by basing your entire article on your dislike of 'post hoc ergo propter hoc'.

    “Incidentally, fallacies are not rhetorical devices. I would be interested in hearing about where you found that they were, considering I am not even sure I used “rhetorical device” correctly (“rhetorical bludgeon” would have been safer).”

    Paraphrased from the wikipedia article on rhetoric, per your recommendation, under Aristotle's theory of:

    ethos: how the character and credibility of a speaker can influence an audience to consider him/her to be believable.
    pathos: the use of emotional appeals to alter the audience's judgment.
    logos: the use of reasoning, either inductive or deductive, to construct an argument.”

    Broadly speaking, fallacies can be grouped into the fallacies of ethos (appeals to authority, etc), fallacies of pathos (ad hominem, appeal to emotion, appeal to motive, etc), and the more numerous fallacies of logos, in which the logic is applied incorrectly either in structure (formal logical fallacy) or through the relation of content to structure (informal logical fallacy). Historically rhetoricians and more traditional philosophers have often been at odds, as the latter view the use of the first two methods to convince an audience as irrelevant, and the misuse of logos to deceive an audience as being downright offensive. Hence, your post above, yes?

  47. It is a reasonable view to regard the classic lists of fallacies as an effort by logicians to classify and refute the persuasive tools of the ancient rhetoricians, such as the famous Sophists of Greece. No one calling themself a rhetorician today would advocate using deductive fallacies as rhetorical tools, and yet they permeate the airwaves nonetheless, showing that rhetoric has not changed, but the types of people referred to as rhetoricians has. In this historical sense, therefore, fallacies and rhetorical devices are virtually synonymous terms. Currently, the term enjoys a much more literary connotation, although the more ancient meaning still functions. As you can see, this is an incredibly long explanation for something that functioned as a mere throwaway remark in my original usage, but I feel that the degree to which this entire situation mirrors this ancient divide amply justifies this diversion. To wit, as a consequence of this historical formation, whereas the prevailing and deductively false means of communication were exhaustively classified; any reasonably informal speech will, on the whole, consist almost entirely of logical fallacies. Quickly redounding from this analysis, is the knowledge that any piece presented as opinion were only redundantly searched for such inevitabilities. So, in brief: chill out, man.

    But seriously, one has to distinguish between the fallacies present in informal writing that function as lazy shorthand, skipped over by writer and reader alike, and those presented maliciously as deceit. Only the latter type are worthy of mention. In this case, what's present is obviously just shorthand, because it's unnecessary to put in a couple hundred words as disclaimer when it's obvious to “almost” all readers that it's intended as nonrigorous opinion. This is something that Nils and Syncaine have explained at length already, so I'll leave it there.

    I remain amused that you continue hanging onto the “nonscientific” nature of the posts as if science has something to do with this. The two articles argue, in spirit, that ice cream causes drowning. I am pointing out that this is not the case. Not only is that circular reasoning (“Greater accessibility causes subs to drop as demonstrated by subs dropping with greater accessibility”), but subscription trends are sufficiently complex in WoW that someone can just about make any argument using them. After all, based on sub numbers, achievements and the Barber Shop killed WoW.”

  48. Eating ice cream causes cramping, especially if hard exercise follows hard upon the consumption, which could theoretically cause drowning if it occurred while swimming. That's why your mother probably told you to wait 30 minutes after eating before swimming. Strictly speaking, was that a fallacy? Yes. Did you wait 30 minutes? Maybe you did, and maybe you didn't, but I hope you didn't yell at your mother about fallacious argumentation. P.s., “(“Greater accessibility causes subs to drop as demonstrated by subs dropping with greater accessibility”)” isn't petitio principii, it's post hoc ergo propter hoc, which you correctly claimed earlier but now have lost track of. Petitio principii would be “Greater accessibility causes subs to drop, since we know that greater accessibility must cause subs to drop”, or some such. Or, “”Even if Syncain and Nils were merely “voicing their opinion,” it is a fallacy to use sub numbers like that as a rhetorical device either way.”” :P

    pps. I don't see how to read that clause any other way but “it is a fallacy to use sub numbers fallaciously, either way.”, which is clearly circular. I'm not ACTUALLY accusing you of circular argument, because what I really take from that sentence is that you meant “it's a fallacious use, either way”, which isn't circular at all. I just accused you of petitio principii to illustrate my main point that informal argument should be read loosely and with a generous interpretation.

  49. But seriously, one has to distinguish between the fallacies present in informal writing that function as lazy shorthand, skipped over by writer and reader alike, and those presented maliciously as deceit.

    “Has to?” What is “worthy of mention” is whatever I feel like is worthy of mention. In any case, we can quibble over the “maliciousness” of the subscription line of reasoning, but there is no question in my mind that it is intended to be deceitful – Nils and Syncaine's accessibility arguments are weak without the “substance” of sub correlation, as they are unable to paint the change as bad without simply saying “I think they're bad” or “They are bad for me.” A simple counter-argument of “They are good for me/people I know” derails the whole thing, which is why I imagine they included sub numbers at all (“Hey, it's objectively bad!”).

    As for the fallacy of fallacy fallacies, sure. Then again… red herring?

  50. Azuriel, that is your opinion. You haven't even said yet why you consider my argument weak without correlation.
    In my opinion it is very strong and the correlation is just a weak additional hint. (It only becomes powerful if you want to argue that WoW got better, because in that case I'd ask you why the sub numbers didn't grew.)

    Also, please don't talk about Syncaine and me as if we had the same opinion on the matter. Syncaine is making a different point than I am. He argues that more difficulty is better then less. I am arguing that 'too easy' is as much a problem as 'too hard' content.

    While I do think that Syncaine is 80% correct in this specific case, we really aren't saying the same thing.

  51. Sorry, I meant to say “one has to…, or one becomes a giant douchebag.” I certainly did not mean to imply that I thought you were at all lacking in that capability.

    Quibbling, red herring, coffee to Narnia, what have you. If me pointing out fallacies in your writing is a red herring, then your entire post is a red herring. Enjoy.

  52. @Nils

    I consider your argument weak because it was easier to run out of things to do back in TBC: there was no 10m raiding outside Kara/ZA, daily quests were limited to 10/day (some people enjoy those), and heroic runs were either done in-house, Trade chat pugged, or not done at all. Doing heroics on a daily basis was nearly unheard of. No Alliance guild on Auchindoun killed Illidan before 3.0, let alone zoned into Sunwell – an entire tier of raiding content simply did not exist for my server. I find it unlikely that Auchindoun is alone in that.

    I would tentatively agree running out of things to do because you did them all is “worse” than running out of things to do because you can't/won't do them (since that can always change in the future). However, in practice, I believe that players having done things is a better scenario than players not having done them.

    As far as “allowing players to do things at their own pace,” I reject that out of hand. The thing that stops players from doing that now is simply finding 9 other players willing to zone back into outdated content and/or wearing blues/greens to compensate for 20% nerf. Nor would I agree that new players/older ones coming back/slow-paced players actually deserve “untouched” content at the direct expense of anyone else that could utilize that outdated content.

    Fundamentally, I am 100% fine with MMOs being ran under a Planned Obsolescence content model, as that is what happens in my experience anyway. Content I have not experience can still grow stale considering the social dimensions of progression and loot lose their luster on the back end of the content curve. Remember the Champion of the Frozen Wastes title? By the time Ulduar came out, no one really cared about that any more than they might have cared about that awesome loot off of Heigan you got the week before. You can be proud of your own progression/gear for your own sake, of course. Then again, if you play solely within that personal bubble, I don't think MMOs are necessarily for you.

  53. If me pointing out fallacies in your writing is a red herring, then your entire post is a red herring.

    A red herring distracting you from what? That subscription numbers can be used logically in the examples at the top of the post?

    Correct me if I am wrong, but everything you have been typing has been a criticism of my choice of topic on my own blog, rather than anything at all to do with the actual topic itself. That informal writing is rife with fallacies (etc) is 100% irrelevant. If you think it is pointless for me to have brought up this topic at all, again, thank you for your feedback but I disagree.

  54. BTW, GC has stated that 90+% of the players who meet the gear requiremens for LFR have participated in it. It may be that all the people who didn’t want to raid have just quit or not bothered to gear up, but this number is well above what they were hoping for,

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