Wrath Gained More than Vanilla

One of the perennial WoW criticisms from certain sectors was that Wrath started strangling the goose that laid the golden eggs. “WoW grew in vanilla and TBC, stalled out in Wrath, then declined thereafter. Clearly New Blizzard with its LFD, welfare badges, etc, was at fault.” We already know the New Blizzard dichotomy is fiction, at least in terms of Wrath itself, but a recent debate with SynCaine resulted in an unexpected discovery:

Wrath gained more subs on average than during vanilla, and was on par with TBC.

Technically, this is all supposition. But just follow me for a bit. First, here is one of my older WoW graphs that I augmented from MMOData (RIP):

WoW-Subs

From that, we can clearly see the plateau into Wrath. The missing puzzle piece though, is something I brought up before in a different context: churn.  Churn is the natural loss of players for a myriad of reasons. Perhaps they no longer have time. Perhaps they lost their job. Perhaps they died. It doesn’t particularly matter why they left, they just do. Consistently. To the tune of roughly 5% per month for MMOs. Here are two quotes:

“Even a good game churns 5 percent of its users out every month,” says Gaffney. “That means every 20 months you’ve churned out your whole user base.” If you have one friend who still plays an MMO, that means you might have 10 friends who used to play that MMO.

And this one:

In a new analyst note, Mike Hickey from Janco Partners has been examining Blizzard’s World Of Warcraft success in light of the Activision/Blizzard merger, suggesting average monthly WoW revenue in “the low teens” per user, and a churn rate as low as 4-5% per month.

That second quote is in reference to WoW circa 2007, for the record.

So now let’s go back and look at that graph with an understanding that 5% of the population leaves every month. For ease, let’s just look at WoW West, which includes the US and European subs. It remains steady at around 5.125 million from 2009-2010. Assuming a 5% churn rate, that means 256,250 new subs had to be gained every month (on average) just to keep steady.

Now, let’s look at… well, any other year. 2005-2006, when the WoW phenomenon took off? WoW went from 500k to 2.5 million subs in the West, meaning that it had to maintain the 500k it already had and gain a total of 2 million more. 500k * 0.05 + 2m / 12 = 191,667 subs per month. In other words, vanilla gained new subs at a 25% slower rate that year than Wrath.

The next year (2006-2007) was 2.5m * 0.05 + 1m / 12 = 208,334. Again, almost 20% less.

It is not until the 2007-2008 release of TBC that we see Wrath being overtaken: 3.5m * 0.05 + 1m / 12 =  258,334. The difference there is… 2,084, or 0.8%. Basically a rounding error.  The last year of TBC is a bit sketchy depending on how you want to interpret that final tick on the graph. If it’s 4.9 million, then TBC gained the same 2,084 number more. If it’s any less, Wrath wins.

If you want to follow the global population line instead, the figures come out as follows:

  • 2005-2006 = +537,500
  • 2006-2007 = +477,084
  • 2007-2008 = +562,500
  • 2008-2009 = +625,000
  • 2009-2010 = +575,000 (<—Wrath)

If you want to look at an MMO-Champion graph instead, here you go:

WoW_Subs_11022015

Pump the brakes, kid.

The graph is less helpful numbers-wise, but it shows the sub consistency throughout Wrath.

Now it’s entirely possible there is a better way to mathematically model this information. Hell, I may even have made a calculation error somewhere. If so, feel free to correct me. But it’s a simple fact that if WoW had a 5% churn rate through Wrath, then a “plateau” really means 575k-600k new subs a month  worldwide were gained to replace them. It’s not a small amount. And it gets even bigger if we start thinking about 6% churn or more. You know, because the expansion was so bad.

So whatever you want to say about Wrath, go ahead. Fact remains it got more new players per month than vanilla.

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Posted on April 18, 2016, in Commentary, WoW and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. LFD was introduced in the middle of Wrath. At first, LFD was convenient. You created a group with 3 your friends and the tool instantly delivered the fifth player. You didn’t have to search for that fifth player. You still enjoyed the run with 3 of your friends and the random was just a random from another realm. Didn’t really matter if the 5th spot goes to a trade chat random or an LFD random.

    But you didn’t add a single new player to your friend list. Why would you, dungeons are easy and you instantly got another disposable DD for your group.

    The LFD only showed its ugly face after months when churn started to eat your friends. You started to build a group with 2 friends and let LFD fill the last two spots, then the last three spots and by the end of Wrath you were alone.

    Yes, Wrath did a lot right and was a fun addon. But LFD was what killed what was left from vanilla. LFD turned the virtual world into a MOBA-experience (other people are just there to insult you and your mother). But that took time and the damage LFD did only really showed at the end of Wrath/the beginning of Cata. (And Cata being the shittiest expansion ever, didn’t really help.)

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    • (And Cata being the shittiest expansion ever, didn’t really help.)

      Apparently you haven’t played much of Warlords.

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    • I dunno. What would have happened if churn ate your friends anyway? Go to a new guild? Trade chat spam? Or perhaps stopped playing altogether?

      I have nothing bad to say about LFD because it was one of the only features that allowed me to actually play the game towards the end of Wrath. I can’t tell you have many times I would log onto an empty guild in TBC or early Wrath and then just log right back off. I get that LFD might have contributed to the decline in other social circles, but it was the only way my own survived into Cataclysm.

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      • I’ve lost a lot of friends to churn during the years, that’s expected. But I was constantly adding new people to my friend list from vanilla up into Wrath.

        When LFD was introduced there was no option to add people from different realms to your friend list. Not even the battle.net friend list existed back then.

        And then later it required the email address to add someone. It felt kind of creepy to, after a 15 minutes dungeon, whisper someone “Hey, can I have your email address? Maybe we could run another dungeon these days.”

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  2. 1. Cata killed Classic, literally. This can’t be stressed enough. And it created more issues than any Wrath introduced or exacerbated. We can go deeper if you want, but needless to say, this is hugely important.

    2. The mainstreaming of social media is almost always left out of these, and in fact likely had an even larger impact.

    3. SynCain is making a post hoc ergo proctor hoc argument, but never really confronts it. Discussing in-game issues with his preconception is I think where everyone goes wrong. Get him to face that, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll make some headway.

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  3. Got to agree, yes, LFD killed aspect of social growth. Convenience that made social bonds unnecessary, and at the same time destroyed staying power – with exception of raiding which remained social activity.

    Then Cata killed “social raiding” by making raiding brutally hard, thus making people who were largely there for social part but were not great for game part (just passable, maybe) quit.

    It didn’t help that Cata’s “harder dungeons” also required pre-LFD social bonds and expectations…

    And it was downhill from there.

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    • You know… I hadn’t really remembered it until just now, but you’re dead-on about the “social raiding” change. In Wrath, there were four distinct difficulties 10m, 10m Heroic, 25m, 25m Heroic, all with different loot. In Cataclysm, they changed it so that 10m and 25m shared the same loot and ilevel, so they upped the difficulty of 10m to compensate. I seem to recall Magmaw 10m Heroic boss being harder than its 25m Heroic equivalent until it was nerfed later on.

      Cataclysm was definitely when I stopped playing WoW for the first time, in any case. My exit was written on the walls before that – endless raiding of ICC long past I ever wanted to do was a big cause of burnout – but Cataclysm officially killed the magic.

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      • They fixed that with flex, which they now call normal. (Smart move! Nobody wants to play at a sub-normal level.)

        Flex was one of their best additions since vanilla.

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  4. Your reasoning becomes flawed when you try to compare 2 products in 2 very different markets, using absolute numbers.

    2004 WoW was a niche product, that had to build its reputation from the ground up on the shoulders of the existing Blizzard fanboys (not a huge demographic). Development budgets were limited, Operational budget and personnel was limited. Advertisement went by word of mouth. MMO market was occupied mostly by nerds and ultra geeks, since most people weren’t involved in the internet anyway.

    2009 WoW was a mainstream product, that had iterated multiple times on its technical aspects and had added 5 years worth of content (and lore) on top. Development and Operational budget was extensive, since at that time the studio grew exponentially. Advertisement was by all media, including TV. MMOs at the time were ‘hot stuff’ (as evident by the various wannabe WoW-killers), and even non-gamer people knew about WoW. The momentum for super growth was there (but they failed to capitalize on it, as opposed to Riot).

    You took into account churn as a % (which would favor the higher population by default) and then failed to account for every other aspect. 2004 WoW growing by 540.000 subs was a huge success (100% growth would be celebrated in any company). 2009 WoW growing by 570.000 subs was a disgrace.

    What you’re saying is equivalent to my local soda company having 90% of the sales of Coca Cola and then claiming that Coca Cola is obviously doing better because 100 > 90. In the first case the management of the local business would be given awards and be featured in Forbes, in the latter case heads would roll.

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    • 2004 WoW was a niche product, that had to build its reputation from the ground up on the shoulders of the existing Blizzard fanboys (not a huge demographic).

      What? The Blizzard fanboy market was huge pre-WoW. Straight from Wikipedia: “[Warcraft 3] proved to be a best seller and one of the most anticipated and popular computer game releases, with 4.5 million units shipped to retail stores and over one million units sold within a month.[3]” StarCraft is genre-defining, and sold 1.5 million in the first year, back in 1998. Diablo 2 sold 4 million copies in just over a year. These sort of numbers were crazy for such niche markets like RTS and ARPGs back in the early 2000s.

      2009 WoW was a mainstream product, that had iterated multiple times on its technical aspects and had added 5 years worth of content (and lore) on top.

      Yeah, and 2009 WoW had more competition, not just from other MMOs, but from the very interconnectedness that it generated in a then-novel fashion. By 2009, F2P was mainstream, social media was mainstream, and killing dragons for loot was mainstream. If anything, 2004 WoW launched at the perfect time in practically a virgin market (e.g. casual, soloable, non-punishing MMOs).

      2009 WoW growing by 570.000 subs was a disgrace.

      This sort of thinking is literally insane. How big a market do you imagine subscription MMOs to be? How do you explain away graphs like this? Do you believe WoW should have been at 24 million by 2009? Wait… that would be disgraceful too; flat growth, can’t have that! So Wrath should have had 48 million, and so on, until every human being on the planet is playing WoW by 2024.

      It doesn’t work that way.

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  5. So… all of this helps my point, not yours.

    Let’s assume all of the number crunching you did was correct; what it’s telling us is that in vanilla and TBC, new people were joining but old people weren’t leaving as quickly as they were during WotLK and beyond (the churn rate obviously goes up or down based on multiple factors, one of which being the quality of the game itself). In WotLK the churn really kicked in, but was offset by new people coming in (both because of a much larger advert budget, and because around this time MMOs were white-hot as a genre).

    That’s a negative reflection on WotLK, because existing players were aware of its quality (low), while a new player wouldn’t be, at least until they play for a bit and then get churned out. In Vanilla-TBC someone new joining was far more likely to stay around longer.

    If WotLK was even close to the quality of vanilla or TBC, the sub growth would have been insane, because you had more people coming in than at any other time, and if the game’s quality was still high, all of those new people would also cause the social snowball effect to gain even more traction. It’s exactly why LoL is the monster it is for the last few years; the quality has stayed high, so every new person that tries it is far more likely to pull in their circle of friends as well (or be pulled in because of a friend who is playing).

    Yes, Cata and beyond were far worse than WotLK, but that doesn’t change the fact that WoW’s growth was stopped by WotLK, which laid the foundation for the game’s downfall, at a time when it really shouldn’t have declined (it’s not like a true WoW-killer came out at this time, or the MMO trend hit a wall, etc).

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    • You’re making retention arguments based on nothing, like at all. Do you have average account lifespan figures? And the point about MMOs being a white-hot market actually works in Wrath’s favor, considering how it managed to remain steady population levels in Wrath in spite of millions of people playing other (F2P) MMOs of the time. What was WoW’s competition in 2005?

      In WotLK the churn really kicked in, but was offset by new people coming in (both because of a much larger advert budget, and because around this time MMOs were white-hot as a genre).

      If churn was higher in Wrath, then… QED. At 6%, that means Wrath was gaining 720k per month.

      Yes, Cata and beyond were far worse than WotLK, but that doesn’t change the fact that WoW’s growth was stopped by WotLK, which laid the foundation for the game’s downfall, at a time when it really shouldn’t have declined (it’s not like a true WoW-killer came out at this time, or the MMO trend hit a wall, etc).

      The MMO trend DID, in point of fact, hit a brick wall by mid-2009. One it has never recovered from.

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      • What was WoW’s real competition in 2009, when at that time it had already established itself as the clear-cut market leader? In 2004 WoW (the unknown MMO) was up against already well-established titles like DAoC, plus known-IP releases like EQ2. SOE did them a huge favor with EQ2 being garbage, yes, but WotLK still had it far easier than WoW in 2004 all things considered, and its not even remotely close.

        Again, the higher the churn during WotLK, the worse the retention rate, which is the whole point in all of this. WoW attracting new players is done via marketing and hype, WoW retaining players is due to game design, and WotLK failed horribly in that regard compared to vanilla and TBC.

        That brick wall was WoW growth stopping, which in turn sunk the genre in terms of everyone aiming for 10mil subs. If LoL released a WotLK-like update, the MOBA growth graph would also appear to stop, even if titles with 100k players remained as popular as ever.

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      • WoW’s competition was any other casual MMO that you could solo to endgame. Of which there were many more by 2009. Or put another way, what was WoW’s competition in 2004?

        Again, the higher the churn during WotLK, the worse the retention rate, which is the whole point in all of this.

        In the model I presented and you accepted, the retention rate got no better or worse – it stayed at 5%. The entire point is that once you hit the tens of millions mark, the number of people randomly leaving for one reason or another is immense. Wrath kept steady at 12 million subs for two entire years. If we used vanilla’s peak yearly growth rate instead, Wrath would have lost 900k subs in that time period. Or 2.35 million less if we use the last half of vanilla as our guide.

        You have the same magical thinking as tithian in regards to growth. WoW was still “growing” in Wrath, faster than vanilla and half of TBC, but it cannot outgrow Very Large Numbers.

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      • Why would you think the churn rate for WoW is always 5%? That makes zero sense on so many levels, and really puts a halt to any reasonable conversation we can have here. Rethink that, and answer again.

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      • Two things.

        First, I specifically mentioned twice, at the beginning and end of the post, that the numbers were assuming 5% churn. If you don’t like that assumption… okay? Submit your own, backed up with whatever reasoning you can muster.

        Second, and this is important: if Wrath grew at the same rate as vanilla with vanilla’s 5% churn rate, Wrath would have resulted in subscriber loss. This is the point of my post. Vanilla’s growth was unsustainable, even if it was perfectly replicated somehow and remained consistent across every expansion.

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      • Agree vanilla growth was unsustainable, good thing TBC didn’t happen right? Plus we all know 12m was the max for a game, I mean, its not like we have multiple examples of games smashing that number or anything (and before you toss in “but its sub!”, keep in mind at least 50% of those ‘subs’ aren’t actually subs)

        Now, can we both agree that, whatever the actual numbers are, the churn was lower during vanilla than it was during WotLK?

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      • […] good thing TBC didn’t happen right?

        Good thing the only year that TBC beat Wrath was the 2008-2009 period, which is weird, considering that’s basically the release of 2.4 (March 2008) and when Blizzard made TBC heroics easy-mode on top of general badge farming for raid-tier loot. And, oh, the removal of raid attunements across the board.

        Hell, considering that Wrath’s pre-patch came out in October, I may have to rethink those last two ticks on the graph. Did TBC end on 11m or 11.5m? If the former, that leaves it with 583,334 and makes Wrath have 633,334 for its first year.

        Plus we all know 12m was the max for a game, I mean, its not like we have multiple examples of games smashing that number or anything (and before you toss in “but its sub!”, keep in mind at least 50% of those ‘subs’ aren’t actually subs).

        A hypothetical “best year of TBC” expansion with a 5% churn rate would have leveled out at 12.5 million. If you only include “real subs” the end result is worse for TBC 2.0 as subscriber rates would have declined. So, yes, unless you start introducing some magical thinking into the equation, WoW had about capped out already.

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      • The point about TBC is that it showed growth on top of what vanilla did, growth that only stopped during WotLK. That’s a fact, not opinion. You keep bringing up what the max number was during vanilla vs TBC vs WotLK, but that’s missing the entire point. The conversation is about growth, or with WotLK, lack of it.

        Answer the churn question, since that’s the entire point of all of this more than anything.

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  6. What killed WoW in one sentence:
    When they changed the game that made you find new friends to the game that made you play with your friends.

    In other words: WoW was dumbed down for the hardcore.

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  7. Numbers, shmumbers. It’s obvious that [MY PET ISSUE] is the real culprit.

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  8. The thing that people forget is that the churn happens for different reasons.

    It is NOT the case that the game is largely surviving vanilla vets that got increasingly diagruntled when the game got easier, epics became free and dungeon finder killed social interactions.

    Many of the subscribers today never knew a time before lfr, some don’t know a time before lfr.

    So rewinding to vanilla is not the answer – there is a niche that want this but a lot of people thought WoD would deliver new gameplay and longevity. That is what Blizzard need to address (and always have done).

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  1. Pingback: WoW: Churn and burn | Hardcore Casual

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