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Estimating GW2’s Population

About two weeks ago, I was browsing the Guild Wars 2 subreddit and came across this post that estimates GW2’s “active population” to be 3.3 million players. That number seems so impossibly absurd, that I almost did a spit-take. Even if you define “active population” as someone who logs into the game once a month, it still seems way too many.

The methodology behind the estimation involves the following very difficult math:

From /r/GuildWars2 subscriber counts: 165,105 * 20 = 3,302,100
From GW2Efficiency account numbers: 169,052 * 20 = 3,381,040

No, really, that’s it. The estimate hinges on a game developer(s?) on Tumblr, who says 80% of a given playerbase doesn’t ever engage with the community outside the game, 20% of them do, and 5% provide content/posts. And Reddit subs are the 5%. Ergo, just multiply whatever by 20 and you’re good to go, QED.

Incidentally, the /r/wow subreddit has 511,692 subs, which means WoW’s current population is 10,233,840. And /r/FFXIV’s turns into 3.3 million active subscriptions. So there you g…

in fact, you don’t need any kind of rule to estimate subscription game player numbers: you just count the number of subscribers.

this rule, in fact, is only useful for estimating the population of games like GW2.

Of course. That’s not what the Tumblr dude stated, but whatever.

Well, applying the math to /r/PUBG means there are 2.2 million people playing per month… of which a little over half are playing right now, simultaneously, as I type this at 2pm. The reality is PUBG hit a peak concurrent userbase of 3.2 million last month – and the weekly playercount is 20 million (!) – which requires some rather vigorous hand-waving to salvage the Pareto Principle-esque methodology.

In the interests of science though, let’s explore some alternative facts.

One way is revenue. Luckily for us, NCSoft reports quarterly numbers…. quarterly. And they happen to break out how much revenue GW2 specifically brings to the financial table. Here it is, going back to GW2’s release:

GW2_Chart

The number there is revenue in millions of Korean Won. Google tells me the exchange rate is about 1072 Won / $1 USD, so last quarter GW2 had $18.8m in revenue, $12.6m in the previous quarter, and so on. You will notice that the spike there at 4Q15 and 1Q16 corresponds with the Heart of Thorns expansion release (October 2015) and the transition to F2P. The present “bump” in 3Q17 is similarly explained by the fact that Path of Fire was released in September 2017, which sort of straddles the quarters a bit. The question of the hour will be the 4Q17 results, which will likely come out in the next week or two.

Incidentally, Wilhem has posted SuperData’s latest report, which includes the 2017 revenue figure for GW2: $87 million. I’m not sure if SuperData has some sort of insider access to revenue figures before they go public, but… we can work with that. The first three quarters of 2017 add up to 47,928m Won, or just shy of $44m. If SuperData’s number is accurate, that means 4Q17 brought in $43m. That pretty much lines up with the prior expansion: the two quarters HoT released in added up to $62m, and PoF’s two expansion quarters will hit just shy of $62m as well ($43m + $18.8m).

Here is another point of information:

“Guild Wars 2 has proven pretty resilient historically, with about 1.5 million monthly actives,” SuperData Research CEO Joost van Dreunen says. “Since it switched to free-to-play in late August, Guild Wars 2’s monthly active user base has doubled to 3.1 million (October 2015).

Yes, it’s SuperData again, whatever. What is tricky and/or pure conjecture at this point is how to incorporate the above quote into the revenue graph. Can we correlate 4Q15’s revenue and purported monthly active playerbase? Because six months after the expansion, one or both dropped by 46%. Even without the expansion though, revenue stayed in a 19k-22k range for six quarters pre-HoT and that was with “1.5 million actives.” In the five quarters since HoT, revenue hasn’t broke 16k. Is that because the playerbase is declining? Or is the playerbase steady, but filled with more non-paying players now?

Here’s my gut check: GW2 probably has ~1.5 million monthly “players,” and many times less people who actually log on when there isn’t a holiday event/Living Story taking place.

Look, the numbers and the quotes can be massaged to basically say whatever you want. What is considerably more objective is what ArenaNet does. And what they did extremely recently is the following:

Even though world linking has brought world populations closer together, it is impossible for us to get populations and coverage any closer because the current worlds do not give us the granularity needed to do that. For example in NA, Blackgate has decent coverage across all time zones whereas worlds like Crystal Desert have higher peak times and lower off-hour times. Because world linking isn’t granular enough, we don’t have the ideal link that allows Crystal Desert to have coverage that is similar to Blackgate.

This is why, in the new World Restructuring system, we will remove all players from their current worlds, and make new worlds every eight weeks. This will create more granular pieces, which allow us to avoid situations like the Crystal Desert example.

What the above does is make “World vs World” the biggest misnomer since… well, “Guild Wars.” Originally, WvW was Server vs Server. Then there were megaservers in 2014, which are server merges with lipstick on. Then there was world-linking, which was Cluster vs Cluster. With the above change, it’s now pretty much Warm Body vs Warm Body.

Combined the number of times I have been bribed to transfer to more populated map channels in general PvE, makes me extremely skeptical there are millions of people kicking about.

Ultimately though, I think Guild Wars 2 is actually uniquely well-positioned to survive regardless of whether it consists of a million actives or three million tourists. For one, there is no monthly fee, so people cycle in and out all the time. More importantly though, the game is structured to funnel people into zergs no matter the map. This gives the “illusion” of a populated, lively community even if everyone is transient strangers you literally cannot even Inspect. But you know, that’s worlds better than my experience in other MMOs with higher monthly populations that were sequestered away in private realms.

 

Auchindoun Really is a Graveyard Now

Since I am quickly approaching the end of all story content on the druid, I had a notion to try leveling some of my other characters. Specifically, one of the dozen or so I have been playing for the past 6+ years on Auchindoun-US. After about two hours, I have come to one, sobering conclusion: Auchindoun may as well be a graveyard for all my original characters.

You see, I didn’t quite realize how well I had it on Sargeras-US, Alliance-side. As far as I know, it is the most lopsided Alliance-favored PvP server in WoW. I just sort of took it for granted that I was only ever ganked twice (both times at the end of far-flung Flight Paths), and that there were always a dozen or so Alliance members attacking a WQ mob at any given moment. Even if there were rogues skulking about, I quest in Bear form, so… good luck, buddy.

Back on Auchindoun, the situation is much more grim. According to this site, it’s 77.2% Horde.

Sargeras is… oh, 92.9% Alliance. Wow. Goddamn.

Anyway, the bottom line is that the very minute that my level 99 rogue step foot in Azsuna the other day, I was one-shot by a hunter, presumably out of principle. What followed after was a harrowing two hours of questing, where I was constantly stealthing after every mob kill, and had to be ready to Cloak of Shadows/Vanish the moment anyone else showed up.

Worse was the simple fact that even if the Horde were content to leave me alone, I could never actually contribute meaningfully to any kills. The vast majority of every class and spec cleaves by default, which means I either spam Pistol Shot from 20 yards out or simply die to collateral damage.

All of this nonsense and anxiety was occurring on my rogue. I can’t even begin to imagine how many combined hours of time spent in spirit form I’d need for my mage or warlock. And, remember, Blizzard severely nerfed the experience one gets from dungeon queuing, because of course they did. What are my options? Battlegrounds? $25 server transfers? Straight-up rerolling? Even if I did manage to get to 110 in spite of everything… hey, I’m still fucked with WQs and  world bosses.

“PvP on a PvP server,” amirite? Well… technically, yes.

But for one thing, Auchindoun wasn’t this imbalanced faction-wise for the first six years I called it home. It was a barren wasteland, for sure, but the current situation is inarguably worse for me. Indeed, had the server been this way all along – filled to the brim with hostile Horde – I would never had gotten as far as I did on it. This is all entirely Blizzard’s arbitrary doing, without ever offering an escape mechanism from a server that has declined in playability to effectively zero.

The feeling I had at the end of the night was the same I experienced in Wrath, when my account was hacked. These characters are effectively gone. RIP in pieces.

Pirate Communities

Another aspect of the Nostalrius news that caught my interest was the non-stop mentioning of the tight-knit community. “I made so many friends in the span of a month than i did in retail over 2 years” I have no doubt that this was a true experience for this random internet denizen, but perhaps not for the reasons he/she thinks.

If you played on Nostalrius, you automatically had a whole lot in common with everyone you happened to encounter. One, you’re all filthy pirates. Two, you’re capable and willing to download cracked versions of MMOs and play them. Three, you are extremely invested in the vanilla WoW experience. And fourth, you are a member of a self-perceived persecuted group: one that Blizzard doesn’t cater to any longer.

There was a brief, dumb period of my life where I was a smoker. I’m an unabashed introvert, but there was literally nowhere I could go and not have a pleasant smoke-break conversation with whomever was outside the back door of whatever establishment I was visiting. “Do you have a light?” “How about that weather, eh?” “Hear about that new anti-smoking bill?” There was an instant connection due to shared circumstances with someone I would likely have nothing else in common with. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

Two random people playing WoW have one thing in common: they play WoW. That’s not much more to go on than encountering a random stranger walking around your city of residence. Private servers though? You are practically co-conspirators just for logging in. There is an instant sense of camaraderie which facilitates connections.

A lot of the “community” discussion focuses on all the missteps that Blizzard took in destroying said communities. Cross-server BGs. LFD. Phasing. And so on. Well… okay, fine. But my question to you would be this: do you think an MMO with nearly 100 times more players than Nostalrius would have had the same community feeling in 2016 as it was back in pre-Facebook 2005, minus the subterfuge?

I suppose my point here is that while the “Nostalrius effect” is real, it is not as particularly a damning indictment of current WoW as it is being trotted out. WoW has significant problems for sure, but just wait a while. The more people unsubscribe, the more of a community will develop amongst the remainder. Because population is the antithesis to community.

Turning Off Sales

File this under Double-Take (emphasis added):

Mike O’Brien: […] My priority — our priority — is ultimately making sure that players have a great experience. We spent five years working on Guild Wars 2, and we’re going to spend years and years supporting it. If we got to a point where sales continued to be off the charts, and it threatened the experience that players are having with the game, then we’d just turn off sales.

Q: Turn off sales?

To clarify what I mean by that, we sell the game on our website and we also sell the game at retail. And we know how many boxes we’ve created, so we know how many copies can possibly sell through retail. If it gets to the point where sales are so high that it would be unwise of us to keep selling on our website because it wouldn’t leave enough slots for all the people who’ve already bought and all the people we know are going to buy, then we’d just turn off sales.

That would be a shocking thing to do, obviously — not something that you ever see in the games industry — but for me it’s an easy decision, because for me, Guild Wars 2 is a long-term project. I want players to keep having a great experience, and I know if we had to turn off sales temporarily, it’d be okay. (source)

Wha… err… I don’t even…

Remember waaaaaay back on May 1st, when I did the Guild Wars 2 Preview for the Rest of Us? My first screenshot was this:

Please take… my… money?

As it turns out, it may have been a harbinger of things to come.

This sort of news story can probably be a pretty good Rorschach Test for people. Another sign of of ArenaNet’s “dream team” working outside the box? Baffling corporate hubris? Turning cash-strapped business model lemons into delicious PR lemonade? I mean, presumably, the standard sort of business reaction would be “open more servers,” even if the WvW interaction necessitates opening them in increments of three. Then again, I suppose if they had to close servers down later, they would similarly have to do so in increments of three.

As of the time of this writing, there are 7 Full, 13 High, and 1 Medium population US servers. At 3:30pm EST in the afternoon. [Update] Eleven hours later, there are 17 Full servers and 4 High population ones. Yikes. [/Update]

The game has not been out for a full week yet, of course, so there is understandably going to be some level of churn to reduce the load. Or maybe not, if GW2 is a runaway hit. Either way, my immediate reaction to Mike O’Brian’s words is one of… well, not exactly suspicion, but definitely a cocked eyebrow. Are they truly going to stick with just 21 servers no matter the load? Is the “increments of three” thing the concern for them?

Given my prior predictions vis-a-vis Dynamic Events, I almost wonder if keeping what population exists tightly packed into each world is exactly the business model ArenaNet is going for here. No one buys clothes for a ghost town stroll, and Events become increasingly asinine (if not impossible) when done alone. Keeping servers dense by artificial scarcity ensures that a critical mass of sorts is maintained, solving both problems.

Either way, pretty unusual news.

[Update] Yep, there is an “official” Facebook post (sigh) about them taking down GW2 sales from the website.

[Update 2] There are now 3 additional servers on the list: Devona’s Rest, Kaineng, and Eredon Terrace. How do I know they’re new? There are 24 servers now instead of 21, and those three are listed as Low population when there isn’t even a single Medium pop.

Population vs Community

Population is the antithesis to community.

In other words, the bigger a community grows, the more it ceases to be a community at all.

com·mu·ni·ty [kuh-myoo-ni-tee]
noun, plural com·mu·ni·ties.

3. a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists

A lot of words have been said regarding the degradation of the “MMO community” or a community specific to an MMO, typically in the context of developer mistakes decisions. While my argument technically supports those who claim that, for example, WoW devs killed the WoW community by pooling the population together via LFD and the like, the actual mechanism of community destruction was simply the existence of more warm bodies.

The more people you get together in one place…

  1. The lower the chances you have of seeing any individual again.
  2. The easier it is for good players to get lost in the crowd.
  3. The easier it is for extremely bad behavior to get noticed.
  4. The more incentive someone has to behave even worse (for attention, or other gain).

You may have heard about Gabriel’s Greater Internet Dickwad Theory. I suggest the “Anonymity” component is redundant with Crowd. In sufficient numbers, even one’s real name becomes irrelevant, assuming it isn’t duplicated to begin with, i.e. John Smith. Think back to the cliques that formed in high school. Chances are that the negative behavior of the members of the clique did not persist on the individual level when they were split up (beyond, perhaps, a catalyst). For myself, I distinctly remember the dichotomy between how much the football team could be assholes during lunch, but how well behaved (and friendly!) they were in Art class, including the ringleader (so to speak). Even if we assume that such a clique required X amount of sadism in order to remain a member, the fact that it was apparently modulated on the basis of number of witnesses is telling.

I bring all this up as a means of arguing against Milday’s mourning of the loss of “community activism,” for lack of a better term. To her, things were better when people behaved out of fear of Scarlet Letters and social ostracization, rather than behaving well simply for lack of griefing tools. It is impossible to steal a resource node or ninja a dungeon drop in Guild Wars 2, for example, and that is apparently a bad thing. Better that someone could behave badly and such behavior be punished, than a world with no wrong to be done.¹

And, hey, perhaps Milady is even right. Maybe that is better.

The problem is that social ostracization only works on a community level. Could a ninja get blacklisted in the “glory days” of vanilla and TBC? On smaller servers, sure. Or maybe even on larger servers in the “community” of people running dungeons at 3am. But then again… were they really blacklisted? Paid name changes were rolled out in October 2007; server transfers existed since mid-2006. Alts existed since Day 1. And, let us be serious here, social ostracization only works anyway when both A) the entire community acts as one unit, and B) the target even cares. Your “xxIllidanxx is a ninja” spam might have inconvenienced xxIllidanxx for the 30 minutes you posted in Trade Chat², but what about the rest of the time? Chances are that he still got a group eventually, either because someone was really that desperate or they simply did not know. Or perhaps enough of his ninja friends logged on today.

The flood of LFD strangers circa end of Wrath makes social ostracization in WoW dungeons moot, of course. But I would say it was moot to begin with, given the size of WoW as a whole and the underlying level of persistent churn. There will always be more people. Even if you stopped xxIllidanxx in his ninja-looting guild-hopping TBC tracks, such that he reformed or quit the game entirely… xxArthasxx is right behind him. And xxDethwingxx. And xxlegolasxx. And so forth and so on ad infinitum. Not necessarily because there are infinite jerks/morons in the world (there is), but because the underlying incentive to behave badly still exists.

In the land of law-abiding citizens, the one criminal is king, to bastardize a phrase.

Should we simply throw up our hands and endure bad behavior? Of course not. But with games of sufficient size, the only solution that works is a systemic one. Guild hopping a problem? GW2 lets you join multiple guilds. Ninja looting and/or Need Whoring getting you down? Individual loot has rolled out in Diablo 3, GW2, and is coming to a LFR near you. Even Copper Ore nodes cannot be stolen in GW2, only shared.

The only downside to systemic solutions is what Milady refers to as the Automatization of the Social. In other words, if you provide in-game incentives to positive social actions – such as getting XP for helping resurrect dead players – one can no longer tell whether the action was performed for altruistic reasons, or selfish ones. I might suggest there is no difference between the two (altruism typically feels good), but I also recognize the potential pitfalls – I hardly ever thanked a stranger for rezzing me in GW2, whereas it would have been a bigger deal in WoW.

The key though, is simply recognizing all the new opportunities be sociable. Ever do Diablo 3 co-op and then stop and ask if your wizard partner needed the rare staff you picked up? Would Need vs Greed been better there? I say that voluntarily giving up a “secret” item is more social than simply not hitting Need. I have mentioned GW2’s resource node sharing several times now. In WoW, maybe there was social interaction is letting the other Miner grab the ore when you both show up. Or maybe you ganked them/stole it while they were in combat. In GW2, since you both can take the same node, you have an incentive to work together to kill the spider guarding it. That’s more social than what came before, IMO, because even if you gave the stranger the node in WoW, it allowed you to get to the next node faster, or the knowledge to move to a less-farmed area to maximize your own gains.

In Conclusion…

Any non-static community will “degrade” over time as the benefits of bad behavior naturally escalates with each additional member. The only real solution is changing the fundamental interaction between members, such that the more odious bad behavior becomes more than disincentivized, but impossible. With each additional participant in a Prisoner’s Dilemma, the more likely the worst possible outcome comes to pass. Ergo, it is best to never present the Prisoner’s Dilemma at all, if you can help it.

Out of all of the social engineering experiments we have seen in the MMO space, the results of individual looting/resource nodes is the one I am looking forward to seeing the most. It is a fundamental shift away from zero-sum – I win the item, you don’t – to win-win. At least in theory. Maybe it will turn us all into asocial solipsists playing our single-player MMOs.

In which case… well, I still consider that a win-win compared to the current paradigm.

¹ Which should make one question one’s assumptions about the desirability of Heaven, eh?
² Ironically, xxIllidanxx would have a good case against you for in-game harassment.