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WoW Back to 10 Million Subs

Christmas came a little early at Irvine, as reported by MMO-Champ:

This afternoon Blizzard released the subscribers count as of November 13, 2014. This is up 2.6 million from the Q3 2014 call that listed WoW at 7.4 million subscribers.

Warlords of Draenor has sold over 3.3 million copies so far, up from 1.5 million pre-ordered in August.

There is an interactive graph on MMO-Champ, but for posterity’s sake here it is again:

That Bell Curve is looking more like an Arby's logo.

That Bell Curve might end up an Arby’s logo.

There is already a lot of prognostication and pontification out there as to what this means for WoW, what Blizzard is doing correct with Warlords (that presumably it did incorrect with Pandaria/Cataclysm), and so on. The only thing I know for sure is that everyone commenting is just firing blindly into the dark – not even Blizzard expected this level of engagement, as the server issues attest.

That being said, I just want to point out a few things that might get lost in the weeks and months ahead.

1) This is the largest expansion jump in the game.

Just look at that graph: 2.6 million people coming back is unprecedented. The next closest was the 900k bump coming into Pandaria. Prior to that, the norm was 500k. Of course, the total population had been the lowest it had ever been since vanilla WoW, but still, this clot of players would be enough to make any other MMO the #2 in the industry.

2) The Warlords endgame doesn’t even exist yet.

The first Warlords raid doesn’t unlock until December 2nd, two weeks from now. I’m pointing this out because all the people talking about a return to “old-school WoW” can only really be talking about story-wise or quest-wise. Or I suppose dungeon-wise, but I strongly doubt that.

3) WoW went 13 months with zero new content.

Siege of Orgrimmar was released September 10th, 2013. The pre-expansion patch 6.0.2 was released October 14th, 2014. You can view historical information in this Reddit thread, but the bottom line is that the next closest content drought was ~9 months at the end of Cataclysm. Technically there was a year inbetween Icecrown and Cataclysm’s release, but an extra raid was released in the middle of that. For similar reasons, I don’t count the gap between Black Temple and Sunwell back in TBC given the release of ZA (etc).

Guys, do you understand how impossibly stupid this is? Any other MMO that up and went dark for an entire year would be declared abandonware. Instead, WoW went from 7.6 million subs in Sept 2013 to 6.8 million at the lowest, then back to 7.4 million in anticipation of patch 6.0.2. And, as you know, it’s sitting at 10 million right now.

There is no clearer evidence demonstrating that WoW is more platform than game than this. Blizzard got a whole year of subscription payments and gave back nothing until now. It boggles the mind.

4) The 10 million figure doesn’t include China.

From the official press release:

The expansion launched today (November 20 local time) in South Korea, mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. […]

*More than 10 million subscribers as of November 13, 2014.

Given how “subscriptions” work over there, I suppose it’s possible for some “preorder” shenanigans or whatever to have influenced the final count (e.g. they’re already being counted). No doubt that Blizzard will be ready to fire off another press release about 11 million subs if the China/SK bump ends up being significant. I’m just saying it could be significant.


 

As for why Warlords is bringing everyone back, your guess is as good as mine.

You can’t really ascribe it entirely to the MMO Tourist/Locust phenomenon, simply because there’s too many people. There were 10 million subs at the start of Pandaria, so perhaps this can be expected to be the normal plateau, with ~2.5 million people cycling in and out as new expansions are released. Maybe Warlords has simply came out at an auspicious time, just as the darling MMOs from the last year begin their slow descent into obscurity. Or was it the revamped character models? Or the instant level 90, rescuing lapsed veterans from the horror of Cataclsym leveling? Or perhaps even the server merges connected realms change revitalized the community?

The safe (and lame) answer is most likely “some combination of all the above.”

I myself plan on coming back for the token month or so, starting whenever Blizzard decides to discount the expansion. And why would I do this? Well… the core game never stopped being fun for me – I simply ran out of things I wanted to do. As mentioned before, I have little interest in dedicating more mindspace learning to dance in raids, so there is ever a natural expiration date to my return. But compared to the token efforts I make trying out these other F2P (or soon to be) MMOs? I do miss that sweet, sweet feeling of character progression in a game that feels big enough to matter. And for me, that has always been WoW. And likely only ever will be.

Of course, I am kinda nervous about the culture shock of going back to tab-targeting and lack of Shift-running and/or double-jumping.

Guild Wars 2 is Fastest Selling Western MMO

During my futile hunt for Hearthstone Beta keys (c’mon Press™, don’t fail me now), I stumbled upon this GameBreaker.tv article about Guild Wars 2 sales:

With over 3 million units sold in the first nine months of availability, Guild Wars 2 is the fastest selling MMO ever in the western market.

That’s no small feat right there. Riding a wave of acclaim and accolades, Guild Wars 2 has set a high bar for quality, and it has earned them a spot in MMORPG history according to an official ArenaNet press release. 3 million units sold in the game’s first nine months of availability puts it at the top of the record books in Europe and North America according to DFC Intelligence, a strategic market research and consulting firm focused on interactive entertainment.

Technically, it may have been 3 million by January 2013. Either way, this news was mildly intriguing, considering how distant from GW2’s actual release it came.

Still, it got me curious about some other numbers and figures. For example, here is an article from VG247 parsing the latest financials that indicate GW2 box sales are down. Which… shouldn’t exactly be surprising given that that is exactly what happens with any box game, right? Then there is the admittedly anecdotal Digital Dozen feature that NoizyGamer puts out every Tuesday, measuring the Xfire hours logged. The latest pretty much show a 50% decline from December, but it’s still roughly half that of WoW today, hour-wise. So, it is probably safe to say that the game’s population is doing alright and ArenaNet deserves the accolades for its legitimate record-breaking, even if the timing is a bit PR-ish.

I was trying to find numbers on how WoW did by comparison back in the day, but it turns out Blizzard doesn’t like giving out those numbers. The best I could find was this old article from 2009, which stated Blizzard sold 8.9 million retail boxes to date in the US alone. As point of reference, MMOData.net (thank god they’re back) shows that halfway through 2009 the Western numbers were steady at ~5.25 million subscribers. There is no way to know the breakdown between US vs Europe, or even whether the numbers are even intelligible given how it counts both box and expansion sales, but there it is.

Just for giggles though: the 2010 census states there were 205,794,364 Americans aged 18-64. A Pew article says 62% of American adults aged 18+ owned a desktop circa mid-2009. If we do a bit of rounding (a couple ten thousand) and assume that every desktop computer could run WoW (no possible way that’s remotely accurate), we have a pool of 127.6 million potential MMOers of which WoW reached… 6.98% of. Back in 2009.

Take away the people whose computers couldn’t handle WoW and then further reduce by those who have no interest in RPGs (let alone online ones) and then the people with PCs but no broadband and… well, you can start to see why market saturation is/was a legitimate concern.

WoW Down Another 600k to 7.7m

If the same thing happens every three months, does it still count as news? WoW is down to 7.7m from 8.3m, a loss of 600k subscribers, meaning we are back into pre-2007 territory.

"It's about sending a message."

“It’s about sending a message.”

One of the more interesting facts, personally, was the resolution to the possible Vivendi fiasco. You know, the whole situation in which Vivendi was in the process of raiding Activision Blizzard’s big piles of cash, potentially bringing a company with several billion-dollar franchises to its knees for no game-related reason? Oh, didn’t hear about that before MMO-Champ casually talked about the stock buy-back with no context? I might suggest expanding your blogroll with the illustrious Nosy Gamer (or NoizyGamer, apparently), who has been following this particular series of power-plays since at least July 10th. Things could have turned out incredibly bad for Blizzard, and I imagine that the vast majority of even blog-aware people would have not known about it until the fan hit the shit.

Incidentally, NoizyGamer has been keeping up The Digital Dozen feature – tracking the top 12 MMOs based on XFire numbers – every week since the start of 2012. XFire is XFire, but it’s pretty much all we have left at this point, inbetween quarterly reports. There is also a bunch of EVE posts and talk about EVE bots, but nobody is perfect ¹.

Anyway, there it is. Kinda interesting (and scary) to read about all the Machiavellian schemes going on inside the gaming industry, and realizing that good game companies fail all the damn time despite producing legitimately good titles. Say what you want about WoW’s current direction, but I don’t think anyone wants Blizzard to fold because some stock-holder in Europe has a bad credit rating; we want it to fail for real reasons, like raiding is too hard/easy, LFD exists, or because Ghostcrawler was mean to somebody on Twitter.

¹ Just kidding, the stuff about bots is pretty cool.

The Number of Subs Goes Up and Down, Up and Down

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.

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.