Inevitability of Decline

Nils and I have been debating here lately over whether the decline of WoW’s growth had something to do with Wrath and Cataclysm’s design. One of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to WoW discussion is the notion that subscription numbers are somehow correlated with endgame design. They are not. As I mentioned in that article, only ~20% of subscribers killed the easiest (non-Naxx) boss in the entirety of Wrath and the stats for Cataclysm thus far¹ are not any better: 17.9% have killed Magmaw, even after the nerf. But my actual argument goes further than that:

The decline of WoW was/is inevitable. That is to say, WoW’s subscription growth would have slowed and eventually declined no matter what Blizzard did. This is in contrast to the implied argument from Nils and others that had Blizzard simply copy & pasted TBC, they would have gained 2 million subs per year into perpetuity. My argument about the inevitability of decline has further consequences when it comes to MMO game design, because I believe that good design decisions can still lead to net loss in subscribers. Bad design decisions can certainly increase the magnitude of the hemorrhaging, but the best you can hope for with good design is to stave off the inevitable as long as necessary. This argument rests on a few premises.

Premise 1: Fun has diminishing returns.

I explored this premise a bit in The Diminishing Returns of Fun post. The basic idea is that Novelty is the ineffable quality of “newness” of a game that is consumed as the game is experienced. It can also be expressed by the quotes “You can’t go home again” and “You can’t step into the same river twice.” Novelty can be about learning new systems (i.e. rules) within a game, but it can also be about seeing new areas². Part of the “ineffable” problem is that novelty is not just about new things in of themselves. A jigsaw puzzle you previously solved does not become novel simply because new rules are introduced, like forcing yourself to not start with edge pieces or playing Tic-Tac-Toe before being able to place a piece. Once you feel confident of the contours of an experience, the remaining novelty quickly evaporates.

Nils described this once as: “The longer you play a game, the lower its potential to keep your mind busy, because you get ever better at it. If you so want, the game is in the cache now and you don’t have to think as much to play it.”

How this relates to WoW can be expressed in this investor call quote from Blizzard president Michale Morhaime:

“As our players have become more experienced playing World of Warcraft over many years, they have become much better and much faster at consuming content,” he said at the time. “And so I think with Cataclysm they were able to consume the content faster than with previous expansions, but that’s why we’re working on developing more content.”

Players become much better and faster at consuming content because the novelty of said content has already been experienced. A quest that might once have been novel (despite being built from un-novel components like Kill X Foozles, etc), becomes much less so the Nth time around. With the novelty gone, there is no compunction against finishing the content as quickly as possible – the quest becomes a task to be completed, instead of an experience to be sensed. Anyone can open a book to its final chapter and read how it ends, find a plot summary or otherwise “spoil” it. That we do not do this is a function of our desire to experience the story, which (typically) only occurs by limiting ourselves to reading it in order from beginning to end.

Unfortunately for Morhaime, developing more content will not stop the decline, no matter how good it is.

Premise 2: Market Saturation exists.

As I talked about in Saturation, Tom Chilton made the intriguing comment in an interview that:

” […] 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.”

If measured at the peak of WoW’s reported subscription rate of 12 million, that means roughly 24 million people have played WoW at some point in time. How many more people would play WoW that have not done so already? That is somewhat of an open question. However, if we look at the Wikipedia list of best-selling games of all time we see that more people have bought World of Warcraft than Halo 1-2-3 combined (5m, 8m, 8.1m), more than Super Mario World (20m), more than Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64 combined (11.62m, 9m), more than The Sims (16m), and damn near two-thirds of the way of overcoming the original Super Mario Bros that came with every single NES (40m).

I doubt that Chilton was including Free Trial downloads in his statement, but either way, it is difficult to believe that the market has been anything other than tapped. If we assume that Blizzard is staffed with rational bussinessmen (if not designers), then we can infer from Chilton’s statements that the market for WoW has peaked according to Blizzard’s own data, and further sub growth is more likely to come from additional localizations than, say, capturing/retaining more US/EU subs.

Premise 3: Players consume content faster than designers create it.

The difference between this and Premise 1, is that Premise 1 is about how it becomes increasingly difficult to create subsequent content as novel as the original. This particular premise is simply how long it takes to create content versus how long it takes to consume it, novel experience or no.

Factoid: There were 8.75 million subscribers in vanilla.

Back in my Subscription and Correlation post, I augmented a graph from to show the release date information of the WoW expansions for illustration purposes. This is what it looked like:

The interesting thing to note is that the total subscription numbers (the green line) is actually above 8 million before the release of TBC. China did not get TBC until the end of 2007, so if you add that interim period (the blue line) to the whole, we get WoW’s vanilla population at 8.75 million.

I believe this factoid is important because that 8.75 million segment can be considered the Baby Boomers of WoW. Indeed, between 2006 and 2007 the sub population grew from 6 million to 8 million – churn notwithstanding, it is possible that 6 million subs aged for an entire year. Compare that with 2005 to 2006, where less than a million subs could be said to be one year old by the end. In other words, starting in 2006 the volume of veteran players more than likely outpaced new players.

Premise 1 + 2 + 3 + Factoid = The decline of WoW was/is inevitable.

Ultimately, I wanted to stake out this argument because A) I do not see many people that do despite implicitly acknowledging it (e.g. growth is always finite), and B) good MMO design decisions tend to be indistinguishable from the bad when viewed through the one-dimensional prism of subscription numbers.

For example, the general (blogging) zeitgeist surrounding Wrath of the Lich King was that it killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. What does not get separated was, say, how the questing experience was orders of magnitude better than questing in TBC (does anyone seriously disagree?), and how I feel that the episodic raiding model is a lot more honest, and better designed than a strict linear progression model. Yes, raid difficulty was poorly handled. Yes, turning heroic dungeons into 5-man daily quests burns people out (starting with TBC, mind you). None of those raiding missteps can realistically can be responsible for more than a fraction of sub losses, but that is neither here nor there.

The mechanics of what I am asserting can be visualized in the crude image below:

In frame 1, a player has just begun playing. In frame 2, they have carved a path through the majority of the game on their way to the level cap. In frame 3, they have reached the endgame, where most of their activities involve repeated content such as dungeon runs, raiding, dailies, and so on. In frame 4, the player either rolls alts or otherwise backtracks in search of novel experience in the content they missed (different leveling zones, class-specific quests, the opposing faction, etc). As expansions are added, the frames get taller… but not by much. Whereas the original leveling experience might have taken 300 hours, leveling in an expansion takes a fraction of that. If an expansion is released when you are in frame 2 or 3, that is fine. But if you are in frame 4… the end is (already) near.

So, in summation, WoW would have inevitably declined no matter what Blizzard did. That the decline “began” during Wrath is largely an irrelevant coincidence compared to the Baby Boomer population wave reaching the natural end of their novel experiences. The Baby Boomer hypothesis can be falsified should we ever get average age of account statistics or character maps of activity, but it would not affect the soundness of the underlying argument either way. Raid design decisions are unlikely to have anything but marginal effects on subscriptions compared with what the bulk of players are doing – which we know to be not raiding. And I believe that a lot of better game design could be achieved if we spent less time fixating on a drawn-out, endgame experience.

The deserved popularity of WoW proper came from the strength of its IP narrative, its pacing, its humor, the vastness of its game world, the underlying character of each of its zones, the uniqueness of its classes and how each demonstratively created their own novel experience. We should not take its declining subscription rates as anything more than the natural decline of an otherwise well-lived life. Here is to hoping that Blizzard opts for hospice care instead of the intensive life support that is currently in vogue.

If not… well, here is a raised glass to Diablo 3 and Titan.


¹ WoWProgress says 64,642 guilds have killed Magmaw as of the time of this writing. Assuming 18 raiders per guild (charitable considering 10-man raiding is vastly more popular), that means 1,163,556 players. WoWProgress only tracks NA/EU/KR/TW guilds, which number ~6.5 million. Ergo, 17.9%.

² You can probably argue that exploration equates to “learning the rules.”

Posted on September 4, 2011, in Philosophy, WoW and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Seems a pretty decent summary.

    One thing puzzles me – the Chilton quote. If the average length of time someone plays WoW for is about 6 months then after 7 years surely there are 13 people who played and left per person still active? His quote seems far too low. Or are average length of time stats we see from time to time way off?


    • Perhaps it comes down to the way they classify “former player.” Is it as soon as they unsub? Or does Blizzard wait until the next content patch/expansion to see if they come back?

      If you still have links handy for the average length of subscription for WoW (or any MMO), I’d love to have them. It’d go a long way to fleshing out my Baby Boomer hypothesis.



      This story from 2007 reckons 4-5% per month which is exceptionally low for the industry. But even if that was accurate and was maintained since 2007 it still doesn’t match Chilton’s number.

      For Chilton to be right if we’ve only just hit the point where the number who’ve given up > the number playing then on average a new player stays for 3.5 years. Still think it seems high.


  2. Time is something every developer has to deal with; eventually you can only lose that battle. it makes you wonder though, if they focused less on creating all content in the first place, but rather made a game where player created content has its room and meaning, you wouldn’t end up with the ‘fast consumption’ issue of #3 in the same way. the devs have brought this issue over themselves in WoW, by giving players so little freedom and chances of impact in my opinion.

    I think your summary works quite well overall for those average, rather short-time subscribers that make the majority in WoW statistics. I still think the reasons why you lose more long-term players are a little different (although time has its prominent place there too), even if the loyal player base is obviously never a focus when there’s talk about numbers and graphs. some people are very willing to stick to the same MMO for years.


  3. Azuriel, I am not arguing that old age had no effect. Of course, WoW would eventually have crumbled. Of course there is some market saturation. But to argue that a change like the new strong focus on daily dungeons / badge loot / and LFD has no influence at all. You can’t be serious !?


    • I’m not sure where I said “no influence at all,” but yes, I am arguing that those changes had, at best, marginal/fractional impacts on sub losses. I absolutely agree that the design of those things burns people out and it could all be better handled. I just do not see the counter-argument that A) the 900k losses are coming from the 1.1 million raiders or B) many of the remaining 5.3 million non-raiders are burning themselves out on heroic runs for… what reason? And even if they are, how much longer would they have played anyway?


      • Then we have at least a partial understanding :)

        We both agree there are multiple reasons and we just disagree when it comes to how important these reasons are. I fear we won’t make much more progress without Blizzard helping us out with statistics :(


  4. Interesting read but why did they create Cataclysm? Why did they do the insane leveling speed up? Doesn’t that shrink your 4th box even more?

    Wouldn’t it made more sense to not change the old world but create 20 more levels with Cataclysm to keep the players involved? Maybe without a release-raid and put that effort into more zones?

    If there wouldn’t be a release raid not heroics, it wouldn’t matter if leveling to level 100 from 80 would take 2 month.

    > Yes, turning heroic dungeons into 5-man daily
    > quests burns people out (starting with TBC,
    > mind you).

    No, it did not start with TBC. The daily TBC quest gave you some extra badges. But they didn’t matter. We talk about 2 badges on top of 3-5 badges from boss kills. It was possible to skip the daily and do 3 heroics the following day and you had more badges then doing the daily on both days. Or skip an unpleasant daily for a nice and rewarding one like Mechanar or Botanica.

    With the WotLK random daily it’s no longer possible to recover a loss as the only valuable badge is only rewarded thruogh the daily and only once per day.

    Messing that up is one of my pet peeves. :)


    • The only reason that makes sense to me for them to speed up leveling as they did, was that Blizzard wants a consistent time to hit the level cap (for the first time). Let’s just say 300 hours. As each expansion is released, it would obviously take longer and longer to reach the end, so they keep shortening it. I think their fear is that a brand new player will eventually look at the 500+ hour wall between them and perhaps the advertised fun of fighting Arthas/Deathwing/etc and/or playing with their level-cap friends, and then quit in frustration or whatever. That does not strictly make sense, but maybe they thought the 300 was a magic number since they got 8.75 million in vanilla?

      Re: daily dungeons. Ehh… yes and no. My group would run Mech and SLabs generally, unless Steamvault or something was the daily. However, once 2.4 hit and the 200-badge gear was on the vendors, our behavior changed immediately (despite us giving up on ZA and not strictly having any need for the items). We’d run heroics AND all those dumb daily quests each day for a shot at the BoJs in the satchels.

      So while you are correct that it wasn’t until Wrath that the daily heroic become irreplaceable, I would still argue that that behavior-changing seed was planted in TBC. There was just the one type of badge, but unless you were a raider, there was no way you would get enough of them to buy something in any reasonable amount of time unless you did as much as you could. A difference of degrees, in other words, not kind.


      • I see that but I don’t buy it. If the leveling game is what keeps most people paying it doesn’t make sense to me to invest time and money to hasten up this most important part of the game.

        To me it looks like Blizzard thinks that the end game, whatever they count as end game, is the most important part of the game and they want you to reach it as fast as possible without abandoning the leveling game. I think they are wrong with that. But then they are the ones who make hundreds of million every month and I dont.

        Leveling in Cata from level 1 to level 85 should be much faster then back in vanilla from level 1 to level 60. Or is my memory that wrong?

        And yes, you are right with patch 2.4. But when we talk about the “good old TBC” we don’t talk about 2.4. 2.4 was the first step which transisioned “Team A” WoW to “Team B” WoW. :)


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