Saturation

There is a fascinating quote from WoW’s Tom Chilton in this IGN interview that, I believe, conclusively discredits the notion that Wrath of the Lich King (or really any expansion) was somehow responsible for the stagnation and peaking of subscriptions:

Moving forward beyond 4.3, Chilton explained the focus of the development team. “I would say that the majority of our mindshare as a team goes toward our existing player base. How do we keep them entertained and how do we keep them enjoying World of Warcraft? I don’t know if that’s necessarily the right approach as time keeps going on. If you look at, if you look at the way the population breaks down, we’re at a point in our history where there are more people that played World of Warcraft but no longer play World of Warcraft than currently play World of Warcraft. That was totally not true four or five years ago, and so in a way the demographic of the potential returning player becomes more and more important over time.”

On the one hand, some might argue that this phenomenon is not particularly noteworthy at all. If a MMO sells 100 copies and two months later only 49 are still subscribed, then more players have played that MMO and stopped than continue to play it – that does not means that there could not be another 100 potential customers who might not have known about the MMO.

The difference with WoW, of course, is one of magnitude. Depending on when Chilton looked at the population breakdown, that means WoW could have had in the neighborhood of ~24 million players overall. How much bigger can we imagine the market for a fantasy-based Warcraft IP MMO be? While we can only speculate, I think it is reasonable to assume based on Chilton’s response that the market is saturated to the point that Blizzard’s time is better spent recapturing lapsed players than it is marketing new ones. Surely they have done the market research, and if we accept them as rational businessmen, then this interview (and their actions) confirm the hypothesis of market saturation. In which case, as I argued several months ago, raid/reward philosophy shifts in Wrath of the Lich King (and Cataclysm) likely had little to nothing to do with slower subscription growth.

Beyond that, what is similarly fascinating about that interview is the very next paragraph:

“I don’t think we’ll ever be able to stop feeding the beast,” said Chilton. “It’s kind of what we call trying to keep the players entertained, you know the guys bored right now and you know what are they going to do next month? But I think that for us to continue to be successful we have to think more and more about the new players that are coming into the game now and the potential returning players. What are we doing to the game that lowers those barriers to entry?”

I suppose it could be read multiple ways, but I got the impression that going forward Blizzard’s design will be less centered on keeping existing players happy and more on enticing back former players. Obviously, things like tier sets on vendors and more accessible raids make hardcore players unhappy, but this seems a confirmation that – in true triage form – the designers would rather make you (an existing customer) unhappy if they could potentially lure back two former customers. The ideal would be that they could both make you happy and former players happy simultaneously, of course. That said, this is the first time I have come across so candid a game designer.

As a former player myself, it will be interesting to see how this shakes out.

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Posted on September 3, 2011, in WoW and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Well, Azuriel, here is my interpretation.

    It means that the inflow of new players never was a problem (up until Cataclysm?). And that means that the fact that the growth suddenly stopped with the beginning of WotLK, is due to a sudden growth in players who unsubbed after reaching endgame. Which would make sense, considering that there were no sudden changes to the leveling game with WotLK that could explain the sudden stop in growth.

    If old age were the problem you would expect a lower inflow of players, no just a sudden exodus of endgame players.

    Now, if Blizzard wants to get back old players, I suggest that Blizzard just reads the comments below the Gamasutra article. Epics for everyone doesn’t seem to be what the old players want (?).

    Actually, I am suprised that they reached this moment only now. I would have assumed that there are some 50mio+ players out there who at one time have played WoW. Seems it’s only some 25mio.

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    • Here’s the issue: even if WoW retained 100% of the players who bought the game for all time, the subscription rate growth still would have slowed. The market is finite. Does anyone actually expect iPad sales growth to continue to be larger year-after-year into perpetuity? At some point, everyone who was interested in an iPad will have had one.

      What gets explained as “ease of epics” and “catering to casuals” could just as easily be explained by WoW always having a 50% turnover rate and simply finding itself on the other side of the Bell Curve of market saturation.

      The actual player churn rate circa Dec 2007 was apparently 4-5% per month, which was described as “staggeringly low.” Was it low because of the amazing TBC endgame, which was likely experienced by less than 10% of the playerbase (only 20% of players killed a single raid boss in Cata)? Because of the hard heroics that only “a dedicated minority” did? I don’t find those compelling arguments. I believe that WoW is a game with amazing depth to it to this day, but once you reach the end and the novelty of the experience is consumed, people quit. And that first few generations of WoW players are like Baby Boomers all retiring en masse. Are they retiring because it’s too easy to get good jobs (epix)? Or are they retiring because they’re old and that is the natural order of things?

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  2. The actual player churn rate circa Dec 2007 was apparently 4-5% per month, which was described as “staggeringly low.” Was it low because of the amazing TBC endgame, which was likely experienced by less than 10% of the playerbase (only 20% of players killed a single raid boss in Cata)? Because of the hard heroics that only “a dedicated minority” did?

    I’ll be frank (as you are;)
    If you don’t know the reasons non-raiding players had when playing TBC with the lvl 70 chars, how can you even dare to assert that changing the endgame in WotLK was a good decision? Shouldn’t one understand what makes a game successful before one argues that changing it is for the better?

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    • I think the linear raid progression model for MMOs is bad design. It is one of those designs that feels good when it happens to be tuned at your skill level, but it ends up being extremely terrible in practice. Like any Bell Curve, people getting caught on the wrong side of it end up getting stuck with zero new content for the rest of the expansion – in TBC my guild was capable of Kara and about half of ZA, but that was it. SSC and Tempest Keep and Black Temple and Sunwell may as well not have existed. Meanwhile, as time goes on your playerbase stretches out like an accordion, making it difficult to actually find people at your skill level to play with. This leads to poaching behavior of the Sunwell/T6 guilds where they recruit just from T5 guilds, who recruit from Kara guilds, who advertise in Trade and General chats, leading to a “brain drain” of sorts wherein nobody below the top ever really progresses.

      So it is not so much that I am praising what Wrath did specifically, but rather praising the sane approach that is the episodic progression model. In order for the episodic model to work, of course, you need things like harder/faster gear resets, easy ways to get caught up, and so on. That part could have used some better design iteration, and maybe they shouldn’t have recycled Naxx wholesale and I’m not entirely convinced that anyone really wants to run the same heroics a thousand times. But the episodic model in general? Way better. You obsolete earlier raiding content, but the main “population wave” sees ALL of the content, which is better than spending months on raids for an ever-vanishing fraction of people.

      Besides, the big incongruity within the linear progression model was how it wasn’t actually that linear anyway. Prince Malchezaar was more difficult than the beginning bosses of T5. Lady Vashj and Kael’thas are famously more difficult than the whole beginning half of T6. And so on. Attunements kept people from doing just the front halves of these raids, but what is the design point of that? Why are the bosses in the tiers after Ragnaros (in MC) less complicated, if progression is linear? Raiding was already half-episodic with partial difficulty resets on Day 1.

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      • Azuriel, you are describing what you think was bad about TBC, not what was good.

        Again: I think you should put more thought into figuring out why the classic/TBC model kept millions of players playing for literally years before you start to modify it. Because if you don’t know why something works, there’s a good chance that your attempts to improve it, turn out to to make it worse. Sure, you can blame old age then for the statistics,but istn’t that a bit cheap?

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  3. I think the majority of the players don’t like raiding and are not interested in raiding. They did it during WotLK because of the incredible good reward per work ratio but that’s it. They didn’t like it but “it kept their mind busy” for some time. They will probably not do it again, a second WotLK would not save WOW in my opinion.

    You have to look what the game offers to the majority of players who don’t intend to raid. What TBC offered them and what Cata does not offer them.

    And no, it’s not the daily quests. They didn’t exist when TBC came out and only very few existed up until they released the island of quel’danas

    I still believe that raiding after vanilla hurted the game more then it helped. Raiding, and arena, puts to much limitations on the game on how the players who don’t raid/play arena are allowed to have fun. (No, you can only get the last seasons set, scrub! No, you can only get two troll heroics but you have to do them daily, scrub!)

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  4. @ Nils: Sure, you can blame old age then for the statistics,but istn’t that a bit cheap?

    Cheaper than assuming an unmodified vanilla/TBC engine generates 2 million new subs with a 100% retention rate into perpetuity? Cheaper than not acknowledging that WoW grew at slower and slower rate as the years went by? Cheaper than acknowledging the economic fact of market saturation and/or diminish returns? No, I don’t think it is cheap at all to assume that some of the ~8.5 million subs that were a result of vanilla alone might have gotten to the end of their experience years later and decided that old quests with new names does not have the same magic as the quests had when they first started playing.

    @Kring: Ehh… there were 26 daily quests in TBC, not counting the 19 from IQD (source).

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    • Cheaper than assuming an unmodified vanilla/TBC engine generates 2 million new subs with a 100% retention rate into perpetuity?

      Unmodified would have been bad. New content is king in WoW. But to overhaul the entire CPP mechanic was very risky. And that absolutely had an influence on casual players (daily dungeons..). See below.


      Cheaper than not acknowledging that WoW grew at slower and slower rate as the years went by?

      .. I do acknowledge that there probably was a slow decline in grow rate over the years. But it can’t have been that bad, considering that Blizzard managed to remove it via creative bookkeeping. Look at the official statistics.


      Cheaper than acknowledging the economic fact of market saturation and/or diminish returns?

      You mean “not acknowledging” :). I do acknowledge this fact. I just don’t think it happens over night and makes a game that just before grew at 2 mio a year, suddenly stop growing at all.


      No, I don’t think it is cheap at all to assume that some of the ~8.5 million subs that were a result of vanilla alone might have gotten to the end of their experience years later and decided that old quests with new names does not have the same magic as the quests had when they first started playing.

      And you think this is a sufficient reason? And the massive modificantion (daily dungeons, LFD, loot by badges, ..) therefore didn’t play a role ? Come on Azuriel ..

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  5. That’s what I meant. For the majority of TBC, which was able to keep the attention of many non-raiders, there were 7 daily quests, including unimportant and low level stuff like the hell fire peninsula stuff.

    Adding easier raids in WotLK didn’t really add content for those people who didn’t raid but enjoyed TBC.

    But adding a major daily hub in 4.2 will also not add content for those people. They don’t like to raid they don’t like to grind daily.

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