The ACTUAL Secret World Review Score

Tobold picked up the story about how Funcom stocks tanked after The Secret World failed to hit arbitrary Metacritic scores. While the post is centered on the legitimacy of review scores to begin with and/or the aggregation thereof, the more salient point was acknowledge but left unexamined.

Let us not bury the actual lede here (emphasis added):

Case in point: The Secret World. It got a “low” metacritic score of 72, causing Funcom’s shares to tank, and the company to announce layoffs. But the metacritic score was just an average of some people absolutely loving the game, and others not being impressed with the unusual setting, progression system, or pure technical performance. The relevant number for a subscription MMORPG is obviously the number of subscribers and the time it manages to hold onto them, not the review score.

So… what are The Secret World subscription numbers? My guess: not good.

Companies are always pretty eager to belt off “250k/500k/1 million subs!” press releases, and as of the time of writing, Funcom has… well, not said much of anything. The launch day press release awkwardly mentions:

“[...] as of now several of the game’s dimensions – which can hold tens of thousands of gamers playing at the same time – have started filling up due to the ever-increasing number of players coming into the game.”

I cannot help but note that “several tens of thousands” is not, say, 100,000. I am not even sure if I can fault Funcom for their hesitant confusion here, as it mentions that over 1.5 million people signed up for the TSW beta. I am no MMO economist, but I imagine a less-than 7% sale rate from people willing to sign up for a beta for your game is a mite unusual.

Then again, isn’t that near the approximate rate of people who buy stuff in F2P games?

But let us dig deeper. According to VGChartz.com, TSW has sold… 0.05m copies. Um, wow. I only recently started using VGChartz though, so maybe they are not all that reliable. How often is it actually updated, anyway?

Oh. That often, eh?

I dunno, those look legitimate to me. “Nearly 50,000 players worldwide!” is not exactly the sort of MMO (or any game, for that matter) press release that would garner positive attention.

[Edit] As pointed out in the comments, VGChartz almost assuredly only counts physical box sales. The page for Diablo 3, for instance, indicates only 2.6 million sales whereas Blizzard has said 10 million. While good to know for future reference, it is not entirely germane to the point at hand, e.g. Funcom hasn’t belted off a 250k or even 100k subscriber press release. [/Edit]

But at this point, I am almost more interested in what Funcom themselves expected. You can read the press release everyone is quoting for the wrong reasons (e.g. “Metacritic is the devil”) here. Or, you know, let me do all the fun stuff for you (emphasis added):

Funcom has on several occasions presented two financial scenarios for the first 12 months following launch of the game; please refer to page 17 in the 1Q 2012 presentation *). Funcom does not consider it likely that either of them will be met.

To improve sales going forward, Funcom is currently enhancing distribution by launching the game on the Steam platform as well as focusing on key areas for improvement of the game and on-going activities on content updates, sales initiatives and communication. The effect of all these initiatives together with other factors impacting sales are difficult to predict, but based on the available early data, one scenario is that sales for the first 12 months following launch will be less than half of what was presented in the “Conan-like” scenario. It should be noted that the sales amount in the “Conan-like” scenario is significantly higher than for the game “Age of Conan”, due to the assumption of better retention implemented in the scenario. Also it should be noted that the company has significantly lower operational cost for The Secret World than what was the case for Age of Conan. As less initial sales than expected is considered an indicator of impairment, the company is currently evaluating the need for recognizing an impairment loss for the game in the profit and loss statement.

Oh how very meta of them! In order to solve this riddle, I have to navigate to a 3rd party website, download a PDF, and then open their 1Q 2012 presentation to page 17.

And the answer is…

01000010 01100101 01110100 01110111 01100101 01100101 01101110 00100000 00110010 00111000 00110000 01101011 00100000 01100001 01101110 01100100 00100000 00110100 00111001 00110000 01101011

*cough* Sorry.

I’m assuming posting this screenshot is not illegal.

In other words, Funcom anticipated The Secret World getting between 280k and 490k subscribers. That means the “one scenario” mentioned in the press release refers to 140k subscribers… after 12 months. Technically they are referring to sales, but at this point moving even 525,000 boxes seems a tad aggressive; it is “only” a ten-fold increase in sales since launch.

None of this is to suggest that The Secret World is a bad game – lord knows my blogroll is filled with positive posts from across the spectrum. Personally, I never had much interest in the game primarily because the most lauded feature, Investigative quests, represents what I consider to be bad game design elsewhere: the necessity to look up outside information. Morse Code headlights? Fuck that, I’m an American. If your quest items don’t have a giant, deep-fried corndog floating over them, I’ll Alt-Tab my way into a whole different game entirely. Adventure games like Myst have their place (uninstalled in my Steam library), but I am typically more interested in performance-based games than puzzle ones. The former tend to last longer and feature more granularity in its progression.

But, hey, 50,000 people can’t be wrong.

P.S. One of the more surprising things I stumbled across in the Q1 Report was the fact that Age of Conan is apparently still profitable and will continue to be into the foreseeable future. At least, that is what I assume “cash flow positive” translates into. The bad news is that Funcom themselves appear to be hemorrhaging money, even before taking into account TSW lead-up to release.

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Posted on August 14, 2012, in MMO and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. Yeah, when I read elsewhere that FunCom’s second tier scenario involved the sale of a million boxes I could only roll my eyes. Conan at least had name recognition and a fan base. The Secret World on the other hand is pretty much true to its name… it is a secret.

    I love how FunCom keeps shooting itself in the foot in front of investors as well. In the second rank scenario they estimate “poor retention” and then frame that as “a bit better than Age of Conan.” I realize that Conan had crap retention, but you don’t put it that way on a PowerPoint for investors.

  2. I tried this game in the beta and then again for their recent free weekend. Decent game for sure but I didn’t pick it up. Maybe when they go to FTP or drop the box price I will check it out but until then it’s a pass for me.

    On a side note I find it interesting how much slack this game is getting due to the innovations on the genre it has. I.E. skill wheel, moving while casting and new quest styles. I been watching the community take a dump on SWTOR all year for lacking content and then this game comes out with arguably even less content and it’s forgiven because they do a few things different. I guess it just shows how desperate people are for something different.

    • It’s a tricky thing to manage expectations. The SWTOR dump has a lot to do with what people imagine ~$200 million buys in the AAA MMO space, or what KotOR 3 could have been like, etc.

  3. I feel bad for Funcom and lament the MMORPG industry as a whole when a company takes a huge risk like TSW and fails completely. The worst part is that TSW isn’t failing because it’s a bad game, it’s failing because the MMO fanbase has decided TSW isn’t worth its time. I don’t know why. Bad word of mouth from people expecting a revelatory combat experience and who aren’t interesting in actually putting any effort into questing? Coming from me, an extremely harsh critic of MMORPGs, TSW is worth at least a month of your time. Of anyone’s time, if they’re a fan of the genre.

    MMORPG players love to talk about how they want something new, interesting and different but when the time comes to put up or shut up, they’re nowhere to be found.

    Investors will continue shying away from innovative MMO products as long as the fanbase continues to throw money at stagnancy. And that’s what we’ll continue to get, if anything at all.

  4. Two minor things in cautious defense of the game, because all valid negative points that I can think of have already been said by you and Wilhelm:

    1) How accurate is VGchartz? For example, it only lists 520 000 copies sold for Rift. Is that correct? I remember numbers thrown around by I Trion about 1 million accounts created, so I would’ve expected much more there. But maybe they only count physical boxes?

    2) TrippinNinja, I think one of the complains I saw was the slow (by, for example, Rift standards, not by, also for example, WoW standards) development cycle and speed at which new content was released. So TSW got a couple of more months before you’ll see those complaints. ;) I _am_ worried though, that their “issues” idea might suffer from those numbers.

  5. I think VGchartz is physical box sales. Virtual sales are probably not counted. I do remember Funcom saying that they were surprised at the number of direct sales that they got.

    However, I think at best, that 50k number jumps to 100k.

  6. “I only recently started using VGChartz though, so maybe they are not all that reliable.”

    Approximately as reliable as “making up a number out of whole cloth”.

    • Not counting digital copies, which I think is a problem everyone has given lack of transparency, is definitely a legitimate blind spot.

      Regardless, we can be relatively certain TSW has sold less than 140k copies simply by virtue of their own press releases. Likely much less, which is unfortunate for everyone involved in the genre.

  7. The VG Chartz data is useful – it gives us a lower boundary.

    If you consider the Conan scenario your upper boundary, you should have a fairly good view of TSW numbers.

    What makes me sad is that new players will now be scared of picking up this game, as it has been branded a ‘failure’ and could be expected to go free to play.
    It doesn’t matter how fun (or not) the game is…

  8. I am disappointed TSW doesn’t appear to have the numbers the game deserves. I hope they do have over 100k subscribers – CCP has proven that a good game can definitely do well with small starting numbers, as long as it has developers who can continue to improve and expand the game.

    I fear, though, that Funcom is not a very smart company and has likely stacked eggs into th basket ala EA with SWTOR. This lesson has been taught on countless MMOs so I don’t feel bad for Funcom — just for their employees, who don’t deserve to be tossed aside as though they didn’t do their jobs because some suits want bigger promises of money.

  9. For the longest time, I thought the emails about Secret World I was getting are for a browser game. Nothing in terms of graphics or anything else indicated to me that this is a 3D virtual world, until very recently.

    Age of Conan had an amazing trailer, had a lot of buzz based on reviewers only playing Tortage, so Secret World looks like a marketing failure.

  10. I don’t understand the VGChartz data and how it is a relevant data source. It hasn’t updated since 8/4 and doesn’t take into account any of the box sales coming from preorders, which started (I think) 4/4. So three months of box sales (which was the only thing you could buy) aren’t being taken into consideration?

    Am I reading this correctly?

    • http://www.vgchartz.com/methodology.php

      If you know where I can find additional data sources, given Funcom’s pointed silence, I am all ears. It does make sense that VGChartz would not have access to non-publicized preorder or digital copy sales numbers, and thus the 50k figure being solely box sales at retail. As I mentioned upstream, that does indeed limit the usefulness of the 50k number.

      That being said, it was Funcom themselves who admitted that one of the scenarios is “half of AoC numbers,” which is less than 525k copies and 140k subs after a full year. Did FunCom mention that possible scenario in good faith, or is it their most optimistic one? Either way, 50k box sales correlates pretty well (IMO) with low sales overall, even if most copies were preorders/digital.

  11. I can appreciate that there are some gamers who do not like adventure games or who prefer “performance-based” games (read: inane time sinks) to puzzle-based ones, but not everyone is looking for the same old quests/missions in MMOGs.

    When I encountered the mission that used Morse code to transmit the message and the coordinates, I was surprised and delighted. Granted, I know Morse code well enough to figure it out at slower speeds, so it did take me a short time to decode it, but it was well worth the effort, and it made a lot more sense in the context of the game scenario than yet another NPC asking me to go to the red area marked on the mini-map and kill 10 rabid wolves who all seem unwilling to stray from this one invisibly contained section of the world.

    Another mission sends you back through the mirror (looking glass?) to several points in history to stop a series of murders and perhaps un-haunt a mansion. But upon your return, the question is posed to you: are you in the past of the present and which is the real reality. Nothing revolutionary, but the presentation of the mission in the context of the world serves to provide a fun way to experience the history of that setting, and immerses you in the story of the current and previous owners.

    I feel that Funcom has managed to fit some adventure gaming into an MMOG and has elevated the genre from its current WoW-clone stagnation. However, the problem is that even though gamers might say they want something fresh and new and different, what they really want is another WoW expansion pack. How can it be explained? Humans are creatures of habit and a habit once formed is hard to break, especially if it is something like a hobby where a time/money investment has been made.

    For comparison, try to get a die-hard Coca-Cola drinker to switch to Pepsi or even to try a Coca-Cola variant permanently. Or try to get a smoker to switch the brand of cigarettes they smoke. Why are FPSes are the same year-over-year, repackaged with the new graphics engine hotness? Because studios have tried to make different games, and they fail.

    That said, did Funcom do enough to ensure the success of TSW? Perhaps not. Maybe the beta should have been kept smaller in order to at least garner some more initial sales/subs. As for the quests/missions, I am the first to complain if a game requires me to go outside the client in order to play it, but not in the sense of quests/missions that might require some thought or research.

    I dislike games that require me to go searching the Internet to figure out how to use an interface function or to find a slash command that is undocumented or to download multiple interface add-ons in order to properly manage aggro in a boss fight. But TSW does not require this. TSW requires you to think for some missions. Some. Really only the investigation missions require it, and they are not required to complete the story missions.

    Also, if you are reasonably intelligent, the investigation missions won’t even require you to search outside the game. And even if you do have to search, it’s not hard to find answers with the right clues, and solving the missions is a gratifying feeling. At least with the investigation missions, there’s no “adventure game logic” which I could see infuriating some people like you, Azuriel, who don’t like the adventure game genre. But that’s a small nit to pick as again, if you have tried out the game, you know that those missions are optional.

    The remainder of the missions types guide you along to each successive step in the same manner as AoC, WoW, etc. do.

    Regarding the 50,000 number, I don’t know for certain that it is wrong, but judging by the amount of people playing the game when I log in, it certainly feels like there are far more players than that. Cerberus is always packed with people when I am playing. But again, that is just my anecdotal feeling. The cited presentation does state that it is a target scenario and my guess is that Funcom will state numbers/revenue at least after the first year is over, if not at quarterly results meetings. Until that time, everything is just supposition.

    I’d be interested to know how many people opted for the lifetime subscription offer. I did, and at $199, it works out to about 13.3 months of subscription fees at the standard, monthly 14.99 USD rate. Knowing that AoC went free-to-play, and knowing that TSW was going to be a niche game no matter what, I still felt the price was right. Of course, I plan on playing the game for quite some time, and I am a casual (~4 hours per week) player so I will have plenty of content to keep me busy for a long time to come.

    If the game does go free to play, it will not be in the first year. Funcom is one of the only (if not _the_ only) developers to maintain a subscription fee + cash shop model. Most games either do one or the other, but not both. Turbine does the optional subscription + cash shop. While I dislike the model, it apparently works because even before AoC went F2P, it maintained a positive cash flow. The beauty of the model is that it can maintain a lower subscriber base and still prove to be profitable.

    I don’t think that the future of MMOGs is in multi-million player blockbusters anyhow. The ability to pull that off doesn’t just rest in the game itself much as we’d like to think it does. Humans are a fickle bunch, and it’s never that simple. Then again, “MMOGs” are fast turning into single-player games with a subscription fee and a lobby of thousands of other players as well, so one could bemoan the demise of true group-based, large-scale games of old such as EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, et al. where there was game content that was completely unfinishable by a solo player.

    Anyhow, I’ve rambled for far too long when all I really wanted to point out is that TSW is a very fun game, in my opinion, and so far, the community of players is a very good one. I hope they manage to grow the game over time (a la Eve Online) and prove that a niche MMOG can be long-lived and worth the investment capital.

  12. Happy to see Funcom suffering. Best news all year.

  13. Bugs aside this game is the by far the best MMO I’ve played for years.

    • Agreed. I don’t care if it’s got millions of players, aside from my wanting it to survive so I can keep playing!

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