As reported by MMO-Champion, the subscriber total was 8.3 million at the end of the quarter, a loss of 1.3 million subs since Q4 (which had its own 400k loss). For those keeping track at home, Blizzard had 9.1 million subs back on August 3rd, 2012, during an eight-month lull of zero content at the end of Cataclysm, i.e. pre-Mists of Pandaria. That is a net loss of 800k this expansion – with a 1.5 million sub rollercoaster in the middle – and the lowest subscriber count WoW has had since 2007.
By the way, RIP to MMOData.net, which has not made an update in nearly nine months now. How can we pontificate without graphs? Sigh.
I went and signed up to listen to the investor report as there was not a transcript available, wondering where MMO-Champ got the rest of those bullet points. Plus, you know, Press™:
To save yourself 38 minutes, just trust me when I confirm MMO-Champ got all the relevant information.
What did interest me though was hearing how ultra-conservative Activision Blizzard is. I mean, that sort of thing isn’t a particular trade secret, but when Bobby Kotick explained that the company wasn’t interested in the mobile sphere because the Top 10 titles change every year, I cocked an eyebrow. Call of Duty and WoW still have a lot of viable milking years ahead of them, but this is the same company that gushed about their $1 billion Skylanders franchise that didn’t even exist two years ago. If CoD: Ghost ends up pulling a Warfighter along with the further expected losses (their words) in WoW subs, you can almost imagine a scenario in which they conserve themselves right off a cliff by the end of this year.
But, alas, the money machines continue unabated.
Finally, I sort of chuckled at this part of the WoW presentation:
- There has been less engagement by casual players.
Well… yeah. What did they imagine would happen when you release
one of the most alt-unfriendly expansion in the history of the game? And then proceed to put everything behind a triple-gate of dailies and rep, all but remove leveling dungeons (only to put them back), and then essentially stop all production of 5m dungeons for the rest of the expansion? Oh, and don’t get me started on the continued embarrassment of no-pop servers languishing.
At this point, all I’m really interested in is Hearthstone (as hopefully a cheaper Magic: Online) and maybe Bungie’s new game; Titan has been too much of a cocktease for too long to even get a rise out of me anymore. Otherwise Activision-Blizzard might join the ranks of EA as a big-budget publisher who only produces one title that I am remotely interested in, with all the “risky” indie ventures soaking up the money I leave on the table.
And as Doone points out, that’s probably the best thing for everyone involved.
As MMO-Champion reports, WoW had “more than 9.6 million” subscribers as of December 31st, 2012. This is down at least 400k from what Blizzard reported at the end of Q3 2012. I’m not particularly interested in spin or theories of causes, because as we all know, these sort of losses are rarely attributable to any one thing.
I do find it useful though, to keep the following in mind: the subscriber count was 9.1 million back in August of 2012, pre-pandas. If this is what decline and a descent into irrelevance looks like, then we’re in for a pretty soft landing.
A few days after my friend ran me through some of the MoP heroics, he asked what I thought about them. To be honest, I did not think about them much at all. They are much easier than Cataclysm heroics, of course, which should be a reason to like them as much as I did the Wrath heroics; I am solidly in the “random pug content should be easy” category. At the same time… something felt off about them. It was not until I queued for LFR that I realized what it was.
LFR is everything that LFD strives to be. It is the final evolution of the LFD process, if you will.
Like many people, I was annoyed to find out that Blizzard backslid on reputation gains with MoP, removing the two-expansion precedent of running heroics with tabards. On one level, their argument makes sense: daily quest hubs are one guaranteed way to get people back out into the world. And while Blizzard has a long way to go with their stubborn “strangers are competition” design – Guild Wars 2 fixed it so thoroughly that anything less feels archaic – the daily quests became a quasi-guild event for my group for at least two weeks.
But there is a longer con going on here, and Blizzard is being a bit more clever than I thought. Put simply: Blizzard is intentionally marginalizing heroic dungeon content. The decreased difficulty is irrelevant compared to the fact that there isn’t really ever a reason to run heroics anymore. When tabards gave reputation, you always had a reason to run X number of dungeons far beyond the possibility of upgrades. When (BoP) Chaos Orbs only dropped from bosses, crafters had a reason to run dungeons. When Valor was only easily capped from heroics, you had a reason to run them every day (or at least 7x/week). None of those things are true or relevant anymore.
Raid Finder as a solution to the endgame problem is goddamn genius. The biggest problem with the raid scene in WoW was with how low participation has been; no matter how awesome raids like Ulduar are, it gets hard to justify the expense when less than 25% of your players see the first boss. Solution: LFR. No matter how much they bribe tanks to queue for heroics, I do not think I have seen a DPS queue less than 40 minutes long. Solution: LFR. Seriously, I had an 8 minute DPS queue for LFR the other day to possibly get gear 20 ilevels higher than heroics. Random jerks that you can’t kick harshing your vibes in heroics? Solution: LFR. People Need-whoring your drops? Solution: LFR. If there was ever a clearer indication that LFR is in and LFD is out, it would be how LFR has the new looting system and LFD is stuck with “mage won the healer trinket.” Once they start letting you win off-spec gear in LFR, there won’t be a reason to do anything else.
Oh, and how many new 5-mans are coming out in 5.2? Exactly.
So if you are wondering what I think about the Raid Finder system, I think it is fantastic. LFR is not perfect by any means, but it is probably the biggest improvement in WoW’s endgame structure since LFD. It provides practice for the “real” raids; it provides complexity in a somewhat more forgiving environment; it provides something more substantial than endless heroic runs; there are/will be enough of them to take up a good chunk of your playtime if you wish it; better loot with less grinding; and, finally, LFR offers an elegant solution to DPS over-representation.
I sometimes question the decisions they make over in Blizzard HQ, but whoever designed the integration of LFR into the game proper deserves a raise.
A little over a week ago, I pointed out that Funcom’s The Secret World was not selling all that well; Funcom’s own public press release highlighted a (presumably optimistic) scenario in which they sell half a million boxes and have ~120k subscribers after a year.
Some of these initiatives are part of normal procedure following the launch of a major project, such as adjustments to the customer service staffing based on the number of customers in the game as well as adjustments to the production team as the project goes into a post-launch phase following years of intense development. Many of those affected on the customer service team are on temporary contracts which is common for a live service such as ‘The Secret World’ where customer service demand shifts based on the game’s population levels.
Even the “good news” part of that – the developers/designers were less affected than “temp” customer service reps – comes across as bad news to my ears. After all, if the MMO was doing better, then one would presumably want to retain a robust CustServ department.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I wonder whether or not we should start using layoffs as a metric of MMO success. Obviously subscription numbers have been used as the de facto measurement for years, and I imagine it correlates with layoffs pretty strongly already, but I think most of us recognize the dissonance between claiming “Game X failed” while it still remains profitable. I mean, for god’s sake, Warhammer Online is still kicking it with a subscription¹. EA is not keeping that thing alive out of the goodness of its heart. In fact, arguably, keeping Warhammer alive is unnecessarily cruel.
Or… perhaps we would all be better off not bothering with arbitrary success or failure designations entirely.
…nah, this is the internet. There can only be one!
Speaking of immortals losing their heads…
You will be forgiven if you have not been following the “Example #38417 of How Social Media Will Ruin Your Day” Diablo 3 news story, staring Jay “And Double It” Wilson.
The short version is that one of the developers of the original Diablo (David Brevik) made some comments about Diablo 3 in an interview, and essentially said he would have made different decisions. More or less. The current developers of Diablo 3 did not like that too much, and Jay Wilson thought it was a good idea to respond on Facebook by saying, and I quote, “Fuck that loser.” You can read the Kotaku write-up if you like, as it includes snippets of the interview in question and a screencap of the Facebook post itself.
Looking at the other comments, I’d say Eric Bachour’s “You’d think that guy wasn’t responsible for Hellgate: London. Lol.” was the more epic burn.
In any case, Jay “Fuck that loser and Double It” Wilson has an official pseudo-apology up on the Diablo 3 boards. I do not expect you to actually click on that link, because most of it is PR bullshit (redundantly redundant much?). Well… alright, if you skip the first four paragraphs, things get more interesting. Or you can simply read this handy list of bullet-point quotes:
- “We believe it’s a great game. But Diablo III has flaws. It is not perfect. Sales mean nothing if the game doesn’t live on in all of our hearts, and standing by our games is what Blizzard does.”
- “If you don’t have that great feeling of a good drop being right around the corner — and the burst of excitement when it finally arrives — then we haven’t done our jobs right.”
- “Out of our concern to make sure that Diablo III would have longevity, we were overly cautious about how we handled item drops and affixes. If 1.0.4 hasn’t fixed that, you can be sure we’ll continue to address it.”
- “Part of the problem, however, is not just item drops, but the variety of things to do within the game. “
- “As it stands, Diablo III simply does not provide the tools to allow players to scale the game challenge to something appropriate for them.”
- “Later in the development of Diablo II, the ‘players 8′ command — which let people set monster difficulty — was added to address this issue, and we’re considering something similar for the next major Diablo III patch to allow players to make up their own minds about how hard or how easy is right for them.”
- “The Auction House can short circuit the natural pace of item drops, making the game feel less rewarding for some players. This is a problem we recognize. At this point we’re not sure of the exact way to fix it, but we’re discussing it constantly, and we believe it’s a problem we can overcome.”
I have a spoiler alert for you Jay: that last bullet point ain’t going to happen. Not only is that cat out of the bag, it has been skinned in more than one way across all nine of its lives.
I played a few hours of D3 since the patch, and I have noticed three things:
- “Normal monster health increased by 10%” = +5 terribly boring seconds per mob.
- I can tank Act 3 Inferno elites in the same gear/skills I was 2-shot in pre-patch.
- Gold prices have gone from $2.50/million down to $1.06/million.
That last one is a real shame, as I was hoping to cash out my ~5 million gold and (combined with the few bucks from earlier sales) maybe purchase a month of WoW ahead of MoP. Then again, that would be kind of silly to do given the Scroll of Resurrection’s free server transfer bonus, and GW2′s imminent release notwithstanding. Oh well.
Kind of wonder if that dude who paid $200 for my friend’s 2H sword is still playing the game. I do not know which possibility would be more sad for him/her.
¹ Warhammer says it is F2P on the website, but as far as I can tell it operates more as an unlimited duration free trial than true F2P. For example, you cannot go to the capital cities, cannot engage in any economic transaction with another player, and are limited to “Tier 1 scenarios,” whatever the hell that means (it’s been years since the one month I played).
Do you know what I like more than an MMO being treated as a single-player game in nearly 100% of its (blogged) reporting? An MMO with an official State of the Game developer post seven (7) days after launch.
I know that developers of The Secret World are not the first to write the following, but I was especially amused this time around (emphasis added):
We’re going to be releasing fresh and tasty new content FREE to our subscribers on a regular, monthly basis. The first update is due on Tuesday, July 31st, and we will be releasing more details about that particular update later this week — including a couple of fun surprises. (You’re going to love it.)
* Mission packs on a monthly basis! The first few packs will contain new investigations for every adventure zone in the game — but we also have more action and sabotage missions planned for the near future. These missions will feature fully voiced cut-scenes and new media pop-ups, and will match the quality of the missions currently in the game. Oh, and like everything else in our monthly updates, these packs are FREE for our subscribers!
Allow me to summarize my feelings with the following:
I have, of course, been cheerleading the concept of single-player MMOs for quite some time now. But I almost wonder if The Secret World has gone too far, and otherwise fallen into the Uncanny Valley abyss between the two (*ahem*) worlds.
Instead of being interested in an MMO that is going the incredibly novel route of monthly updates, my very first thought was “$15 DLC packs each month.” In the abstract, all subscription MMOs function in this manner, right? And companies like Blizzard certainly are not doing anyone any favors by letting 6+ months lapse between content updates.
But… it’s not just me, is it?
I am not playing the game, but I would rather FunCom put out twice the content every two months even if they end up sitting on the completed work. It feels too fast. And weird, like an MMO with a $13.84/month subscription. Or a doctor who keeps insisting on showing me his medical license. It bespeaks a curious lack of faith in the product itself.
P.S. I smirk every time I see the following patch note in any MMO:
* And speaking of dungeons, we’re also working on a dungeon finder tool, allowing players to more easily put together a team to handle the instanced content
Does that make me a bad person?
As you slaughter more skeletons and zombies than should technically exist based on historical human population levels, remember this:
I never ended up pulling the trigger on the Annual Pass, and the RMAH fees Blizzard settled on are completely ridiculous, but hey. Give it the old college try, and let’s see what happens.
Every time Blizzard makes some nice progress towards actually implementing player feedback, the actual improvements remind me exactly how boneheaded they originally were. Take, for instance, the following hotfix:
- Inactive guild leader replacement now requires 90 days of absence, up from 30 days. Ascent to the rank of guild leader is now only available to guild members at Rank 2, 3, or 4.
Oh, yeah, I remember that discussion now.
Of course, the irony of it all is that the change can be read so many different ways. Is this Blizzard (finally) responding to the player feedback lodged back before 4.3 went live? Is this Blizzard being tired of all the tickets and sleeper agent alt coups? Or is this a tacit Blizzard admission that, hey, maybe it’s not so reasonable to expect players to stay subbed each and every month? Especially given A) the two million people already out the door, and B) there are actually other games worth a player’s time to check out (MMO or not).
One such game is Blizzard’s own Diablo 3, out less than a month from now. But, honestly, it is just one of a mighty deluge of games coming out in front of the apocalypse.
In any event, I am very much enjoying this newer, more reasonable Blizzard.
When we last left our intrepid heroes in Q3 2011, WoW had lost 800,000 subscriptions and the following four salient points were made in the earnings call:
- Majority of the sub loss is occurring in the East.
- Implicitly, the difficulty of Cataclysm content was the cause of sub losses.
- Expect some (more) “aggressive” World of Warcraft marketing.
- Patches are more about recapturing the recently churned.
I suppose the holiday box sale and Annual Pass count as aggressive marketing, but let me not get ahead of myself. If you want to read along from home, Seeking Alpha will hook you up.
1. Is Bungie not working on Titan?
Eric Hirshberg from Activision Publishing buried this gem 25 paragraphs into vapid gushing of COD and Skylanders:
Looking further out, we continue to lay the foundation for our new universe from Bungie, one of the world’s best developers. Bungie continues to make incredible progress on what we expect to be a genre-defining new IP that will provide us with tremendous new opportunities and which remains one of our key strategic growth pillars for the future.
This may or may not seem a non sequitur, but I have always entertained the notion that the Bungie acquisition might have had something to do with Blizzard’s Titan development. Why?
Let’s look at the entrails. First, both Joe Staten and Rob Pardo have been playing it coy as recently as 2 years ago about Bungie working with Blizzard. But we also know that Bungie’s secret project “Destiny,” is slated as a sci-fi MMOFPS that is, quote, “WoW in space.” If you have a tinfoil hat handy, things can get even more bizarre when you consider that Ensemble Studios was working on a Halo MMO to directly compete with Blizzard… that was code-named Titan. And when Ensemble Studios was disbanded, several ex-members joined Blizzard. And now Bungie is here with a 10-year contract, making a brand new MMOFPS IP to be a “strategic growth pillar” for Activision Blizzard at the same time Blizzard is making a “casual” new-IP MMO that isn’t supposed to compete with WoW… that is code-named Titan.
Technically a lot of this is old news, and the earnings call did not reveal anything new either way. But in reading that paragraph under the Activision Publisher heading, it occurs to me that it is entirely possible that we could see two new, separate MMO properties out of Activision Blizzard even with WoW still sucking most of the oxygen out of the MMO room. In some respects, that outcome is crazier than Titan turning out to be a Blizzard-Bungie joint MMO.
2. Around 1 million Annual Passes sold… in the West.
Another initiative that has been very successful is the World of Warcraft Annual Pass. This program was announced at BlizzCon this past year. Under its terms, players who commit to being a World of Warcraft subscriber for 1 year will get a free copy of Diablo III, unique digital items in World of Warcraft, and other benefits. To date, we have signed up more than 1 million players in the West for the World of Warcraft Annual Pass.
The more I think about that number, the crazier it ends up being. While the Annual Pass appears to be non-binding (your access to D3 will simply go away), can you otherwise imagine another MMO who can count on 1,000,000 Western subscription accounts being locked in for 12 months? That would make SWTOR automatically profitable for an entire year.
3. Mists of Pandaria information out on March 19.
Some of you may have seen recent news about the upcoming World of Warcraft expansion, Mists of Pandaria. Last week, we began inviting global press to visit our office to get a hands-on look at the game. The press visit will take place next month, and our players will be able to read the latest news on the game on March 19. We’re looking forward to showcasing the game to our community and collecting more feedback as we prepare for the upcoming beta for Mists of Pandaria.
By the way, that means there is an automatic 1 million beta-testers for Mists, yeah?
4. Chuck Norris was super effective!
Neil A. Doshi – Citigroup Inc, Research Division
Mike, I was wondering if you could provide us a little more detail around the subs for World of Warcraft. What was the impact from some of your marketing efforts? And then how many subs did you add from Brazil? And if you have any comments on trend that you could share with us, that would be great.
Okay. So we were very pleased with the results of the marketing initiatives in Q4. The Chuck Norris spot was very effective. We’ve got over 29 million views of the spot on YouTube. And I think, just looking at how well the subscribership held up during our most competitive quarter ever, we’re very happy with that. Engagement of the player base is very strong. We do not break down regional. We do not provide regional breakdown of subs, but we’re off to a good start in Brazil. And I don’t have any detail on churn.
Nothing to add to that.
As reported everywhere, WoW did implicitly lose another 100,000 subs in the quarter. There have been a lot of “See? Not dying!” posts over in the MMO-Champ and WoW Insider comments, but it’s worth pointing out that A) if someone unsubbed for SWTOR, then they won’t count as “missing” until January, e.g. Q1, and B) WoW launched in Brazil this quarter, as noted above. There are several more high-profile MMO launches coming this year, and let’s not forget that everyone is stuck with Dragon Soul until Mists actually launches… which could be six months from now, or more.
In any event, sub numbers really only matter to me in the context of having objective data by which we can interpret future design philosophy, and MMO player desires by extension. If Blizzard’s reaction to losing 1.8 million subs is to make the game easier, then we can assume that they believe a hard game is why people left.
It’s crude, it’s imperfect, but it is all we really have as armchair game designers.