My WoW subscription expires in two days, and I think I’ll let it.
This isn’t particularly Big News or anything, but experiencing the internal process has been interesting to me. I have been cashing out my gold for the past several weeks, to the point where I keep around 200k liquid gold, one WoW Token in the bags, and applying Blizzard Balance to the rest. Even now I could just right-click the WoW Token and be good for another month.
But what am I even doing?
Well, making gold. I still make Hexweave Bags because they still sell for 1400g despite current-expansion 30-slot bags go for 800g. I still do the MoP farm on one character, because those mats sell daily for around ~1500g. I herb whenever I run around on the Demon Hunter doing dailies (towards unlocking Pathfinder, Part 1), and that pulls in a couple extra grand. All told, I log in every day to the tune of 5k-10k a day. Peanuts to any serious goblin, but since I’m not seriously doing anything, getting paid $30-$45/month to play WoW seems pretty good. Especially when there is a spike in demand when the Warfront Contributions come around.
But… that’s it. There’s a bit more involved than the Garrison days, but I’m essentially logging in to collect my gold, muck around a bit to see if there are new markets to explore, and then logging off. That was good enough to justify things last month. Not so sure it still holds up this month.
Yeah, it’s probably for the best to let things lapse. I’ll check back in patch 8.1. Maybe. Fallout 76 beta should be in the next three weeks, so who knows.
Minecraft has sold over 100 million copies. In 2016, the average rate of new sales was 53,000 per day. That’s… pretty big. Here is part of the infographic Mojang posted:
The above infographic really surprised me though, for several reasons. As I pointed out in January of last year, the Minecraft stats we had circa June 2014 were the following:
- PC/Mac: 15 Million
- 360: 12 Million
- PS3: 3 Million
- iOS/Android (Pocket Edition): 16.5 Million
But look at the infographic again. Actual PC sales of Minecraft is just a small fraction of total sales, which was the trend we saw already happening in 2014. If you average the PC sales together, you only get about 23% of total. Which, if you math it out, means PC/MAC sales have been ~9,577,735 in the last two years (106,859,714 * 0.23 – 15,000,000). Or roughly 13,120 sales per day on PC.
The reason I bring this up is due to a recent post by SynCaine. His thesis is:
The bigger point here though, as it relates to MMOs, is that this is a very important date point related to the “Everyone who wanted to play WoW already has it” talking point and how it relates to the failures of the game from WotLK and beyond. Minecraft has a much larger user base than WoW, yet it’s still attracting a horde of new players daily, so why do some people think WoW is a special snowflake and had/has tapped out the market?
In other words, “how can market saturation exist if Minecraft is still doing so well?”
Wilhelm deconstructs the argument pretty thoroughly already, but I wanted to spend a moment, again, to remind people about big numbers. Specifically, the extremely likely chance that WoW is selling more copies per day than Minecraft is on PC. Yes, even now, in the nadir of Warlords.
The two questions you need to ask yourself are 1) what is WoW’s current population, and 2) what is its churn rate (i.e. percent of players that cycle out per month). Historically, the churn rate of WoW was 5%. Is it higher now? Probably. So, to throw out two numbers, let’s assume that WoW is holding steady at 5.5 million subs at a 10% churn rate. That means WoW needs to sell 18,333 new subscriptions a day, just to keep pace.
WoW is losing subscribers these days, of course. Since the numbers are no longer being reported, we may never know how many. But let’s do some sanity checks. The last reported sub number was 5.5 million in September 2015. As already noted, maintaining that number would require 18,333 new subs a day. But WoW probably isn’t maintaining anything – it’s losing customers. Rather than be arbitrary, let’s assume it’s “only” getting something like, oh, 13,120/day.
18,333 – 13,120 = 5,213 * 30 * 9 = 1,407,510
Do you believe WoW is currently at ~4.1 million subs or less? If not, hey, it’s still selling more boxes daily than Minecraft on PC.
In the comments to his post, SynCaine pointed out that since WoW is in decline, we can’t actually say that 100% of the churn are new players coming in. Er… okay. That’s not how churn (or reality) works, but let’s roll with that. What is the population at then? The same 4 million-some? Zero new players and 1.4 million vets burning out in the last 9 months? That’s an average of 156,390 per month, which equals a churn rate between 2.8-3.8%. Meaning this dead period of Warlords retains players better than vanilla or TBC ever did.
Granted, the reality is probably somewhere inbetween there. Still, big numbers are big.
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):
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.
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:
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.
Rather than risking burying the lede, it feels more like there’s a risk of being buried by them.
First, WoW “only” dropped by 100k subscriptions in Q3:
I did not specifically offer a prediction for this quarter last time, and I’m glad I didn’t. Is it weird to say, though, that I’m both surprised and not surprised at only a 100k loss? It is one thing to expect the WoW house of cards to continue collapsing after seeing 1.5 million subs evaporate in the three months prior. But it is also entirely true that there are people still playing the first EverQuest and Ultima Online like it’s 1999. Is there any doubt in anyone’s mind that there would still be people out there playing Star Wars Galaxies or City of Heroes if they could? In that sense, we kinda know already that there will be some kind of baseline level of WoW subscriptions that will always remain. The question is just where that floor is.
Of course, we may never end up knowing where the floor is because Blizzard has decided to stop reporting WoW sub numbers. I pretty much agree with the rest of the internet that this is a rather embarrassing PR maneuver meant to obfuscate the declining success of the game. It’s a shameful, shameful display, Blizzard… how could you sink to the level of EVE Online and FF14’s “lifetime total subscriber” tactics?!
That said, I do find this brave new world of faux news amusing. For example, from the last link:
Instead of subscriber numbers, Activision Blizzard intends to use unspecified engagement metrics.
As the company has pushed toward a “year-round engagement model” with its franchises, it has similarly de-emphasized traditional performance metrics like sales figures. It has never reported sales figures for Destiny, instead relying on “registered users” numbers, sometimes even pairing that with the number of registered users for the free-to-play Hearthstone and reporting a combined number. In its quarterly earnings, Activision Blizzard pointed to “key engagement metrics” for Hearthstone being up 77 percent, but neglected to detail what those metrics were.
I wonder how the job interview went for the person who writes these press releases. “Why should we hire you?” “I’m 77% better than the other applicants.” “In what way?” “Key ways.” I did end up listening to the entire Investor Call for more Hearthstone tidbits, but the only non-zero piece of news was it achieved its highest quarterly revenue in Q3. So… X+1 > X, at a minimum. I suppose we could extrapolate that Hearthstone is still growing, but without a baseline, we’re back in the weeds.
The lede of ledes though, is Activision Blizzard buying King (aka Candy Crush) for $5.9 billion. Pretty much everyone, everywhere has questioned the sanity of this move, and I’m a bit inclined to agree. King is on the decline, even Activision Blizzard agrees there are no synergies between the franchises, and this move has drained the company’s cash reserves of $4.5 billion down to… next to nothing. We can even envision a scenario is which the WoW movie flops – and that’s a real chance – and suddenly things could start looking unexpectedly grim.
At the same time… you kinda have to look at this from a business perspective. Throughout the Investor Call, Kotick and crew repeatedly stressed how they more or less bought ~340 million mobile customers. The sum total of Activision Blizzard’s exposure to to the mobile space up to this point has been Hearthstone and some Call of Duty apps. Could they build some amazing mobile games with $5.9 billion? Maybe. King is on the decline from its heights, but at least they demonstrated that they were successful at some point. If they can release/steal another hit, or start leveraging the mobile eyeballs to cross-pollinate franchises, this could suddenly seem like amazing foresight.
The other thing to look at? King is based in Ireland, which is famous for its double…. sandwiches. Or was that the Dutch? On top of that, of Blizzard’s $4.5 billion in cash they had prior to this deal, $3.6 billion of it was held overseas. As in, evading US taxes. Spending it this way gets the maximum
value purchasing power which they may not have been able to realize any other way. And, of course, it moves Activision Blizzard from having little mobile presence to being a dominate player in the field. Even if King turns into Zynga.
So maybe this deal is a bit better than people think.
File this under “Potentially Interesting Information.” MMO-Champion has a graph up showing the percentage of players (e.g. accounts, not characters) who have defeated various bosses in this raiding tier. This is how the data is described in the post:
The data used today is a sample made up of 2.1 million accounts, with at least one character active after April 1. The sample is slightly biased, as players who are not in a guild are much less likely to appear in our sample.
Someone in the comments made a dumb post that 2.1 million accounts isn’t representative of anything out of 7 million. Chaud popped into the comments to clarify:
You ignored the rest of the sentence and ignored the fact that ~half of the 7 million “subscribers” are in Asia, which we don’t track. We track a total of ~3.3 million US and EU accounts, which is likely the vast majority of them.
And further clarified how these figures are determined:
We only can see what you can see on armory. Achievements, ratings, season games played/won/lost. The other 1/3rd in our DB haven’t logged in since April 1.
It’s not news that about half of WoW’s total subscription numbers are NA/EU accounts, with the rest coming from South East Asia. This sort of information has been known for quite some time, even if we stopped getting regional figures around 2010:
What is significantly more interesting is that out of 3.3 million US/EU accounts, only 2.1 million have logged in once since April.
The reason this is merely interesting and not particularly ground-breaking news is due to all the unknowns. Around 1.2 million NA/EU accounts have not been logging in since April… but did they unsubscribe months beforehand, and therefore are already accounted for in the earlier subscriber drop? How many still have active subscriptions going, even if the person isn’t playing? What’s the margin on Chaud’s claim of “the vast majority” of accounts being counted? 95%? 80%? The difference between those two percentages is nearly another million subscriptions.
In any case… kinda interesting, yeah? WoW has always seemed like this unstoppable juggernaut, and still technically is in comparison to its peers. But the reality is that there are only 2.1 million players you could conceivably play with, and even less if you are playing on your own continent. Based on that graph above, the high point for WoW West was ~5 million. Now less than half are still online.
I’m still not convinced that FF14 will overtake WoW just yet overall, but that wall is looking more assailable every day. And who knows, there may already be more NA/EU players.
In news both kinda expected and yet still rather shocking, WoW is down 2.9 million subscriptions from last quarter.
At a certain point, the sheer magnitude of the change makes commentary moot. You don’t lose nearly three million people because of Garrisons. Or screwing up professions. Or having easy-mode raids. Or hard raids. Or whatever. And as I mentioned when we first heard about the 10 million sub surprise, the numbers are too big to ascribe to the expected MMO Tourism/Locust Effect either. I mean, yeah, the numbers jumped to 10 million and then back down, so people went somewhere. But unless we’re willing to state three times as many wished to tour Draenor than Pandaria, it had to be a confluence of all sorts of things.
Whatever those things are, it’s clear that it isn’t enough to last a full quarter.
There is no transcript of the call as I write this, but I went ahead and listened to the whole 42 minutes of PR bullshit anyway. No real juicy tidbits were found… unless you consider Guitar Hero on your phone to be juicy. The whole WoW Token thing was mentioned only in passing, which makes sense considering any of its effects won’t appear until Q2. Oh, and I suppose there was this bit about Hearthstone (PDF):
Still doesn’t clear anything up in terms of the money part of Hearthstone’s success, but I suppose another data point is another data point.
According to EEDAR, by the end of 2015 MOBAs will generate more revenue than (F2P) MMORPGs in the North American market:
The difference is small – $501m vs $499m – but it’s impressive nonetheless for a genre that didn’t (formally) exist five years ago.
One thing is for certain though: MOBAs are the “new” hotness and are poised to overtake F2P MMOs either this year, or Soon™ in any case. Which is a fascinating turn of events for someone who really has less than zero interest in MOBAs specifically. Indeed, nearly every mechanic that make MOBAs “deep” are the same mechanics that make many MMOs terrible. For example, the whole Last Hit mechanic. Or having over a hundred different characters, many of whom are direct counters to others, requiring one to memorize a truly voluminous amount of minutia to succeed. You thought the whole Raid Dance memorization was dumb? Just wait until you spend time researching dozens of characters who don’t even get picked. Oh, and hey, I heard you like 40+ minute LFG fights were you (ideally) lose 50% of the time.
On the other hand, in the Venn Diagram for MOBA and MMO I wonder how much overlap there really is. Did some people leave WoW for League of Legends? What did they find on the one end that they did not on the other? Perhaps nothing, and the audiences are from two entirely different sources. Which really doesn’t answer the question of where the MOBA audience came from. Is this an entirely different generation of gamer coming to age during the rise of MOBAs? Or was this a deep pool of potential players who hitherto weren’t being serviced by existing products?
Maybe the answer is less complicated than I am making it out to be: MOBA players seemingly sprang from the earth because it’s all F2P. Easy to get into, easy to get hooked, and then easy to get monetized. As revenues approach half a billion dollars in NA alone though, this clearly is not a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon. Despite the MOBA saturation, revenue still increase almost 20% last year, according to the chart. You will undoubtedly have winners and losers in the market, but MOBAs are here to stay.
Which is… well, good for them. I’m going to play something else.
Tobold has a post up talking about the fate of the subscription model. Namely, that while TESO and Wildstar devs are heroically trying to swim against the F2P current, the hard numbers and future MMO releases paint a different, more bleak picture. As somewhat hilariously pointed out by commenter Mike Andrade in that post, this sort of subscription analysis appears to be a Tobold yearly August tradition, but nevermind.
Both Gevlon in the comments and SynCaine in a post come out of the gate with a rather blistering one-two retort: 1) maybe recent sub games are floundering because the games themselves are bad, and 2) where are all the F2P successes then?
Granted, SynCaine moved the goal-posts a bit by specifying “day-1 F2P,” when the facts of the matter are (likely) that subscription games that have made the F2P transition are only still online because of said transition. In other words, SWTOR and LOTRO and Aion and DDO and STO and TSW (etc) are perfectly valid examples of F2P success stories by virtue of those games still being online and profitable. That all of them would prefer the giant piles of initial subscriber cash isn’t really saying anything about the long-term sustainability of the model itself. Why would any of them start off F2P if it’s possible to not leave that money on the table?
But if we’re looking ahead, I suppose ArchAge and SOE’s flagship EverQuest Next being F2P might be potential candidates day-1 F2P success (however that ends up being defined).
The subscription counter-example a lot of people have been using is FF14, which frankly shocked me in terms of subscriber numbers. Apparently there are 2 million of them? If legitimate, that would rocket it past all non-WoW MMOs to be one of the most successful subscription games of all time. Of course, it sells for $15 on Steam every three weeks, there’s a sizable console market for the game (something not many MMOs can achieve), and it technically got a do-over that allowed it to “launch” with years of content instead of the normal zero. But still! That’s impressive.
Okay, actually FF14 has two million “registered accounts,” which is sort of like subscribers in the same way F2P games are “free to play.” Still, subscriptions! 500,000 people log on at least once per day! For now, anyway.
Ultimately, I think a lot of the subscription game musing is sort of missing the point. While there are subtle pressures involved when you look at a subscription game – worrying about getting your money’s worth even if $15/month is pocket change normally – I agree with people like SynCaine that say if a game is worth it, you’ll pay the money… to a point. Because when you are talking about MMOs, the quality of the content itself is almost a tertiary concern to retention. Don’t believe me? Then tell me how a game like WoW can get away with having zero new content from September 2013 to today and “only” lose around ~10.5% of its population. It’s the people, stupid. Yeah, there’s an underlying game space that needs to be entertaining enough to collect everyone in one spot and having fun during downtime, but how long is anyone really subscribing to a single-player game? You can have the most entertaining base game in the world, but if nobody is making those sticky social connections – perhaps because they already have social networks elsewhere – then they are just going to leave in three months anyway.
Frankly, the biggest issue with subscriptions are companies whom vastly overestimate their own popularity, and otherwise set themselves up for failure. If you budget your MMO such that you need 500,000 people paying $15/month just to survive, you’re going to have a bad time. The lower that floor is, the more space you will have to grow the audience later. Or, hell, just maintain the people you have currently.
So while I do not believe the subscription model itself is going anywhere, I do think that it’s only going to be particularly sustainable to those games which have tightly-wounded social pockets. Creating said pockets out of thin air is incredibly tough, but that’s not going to stop games like TESO and Wildstar from at least capitalizing on 6-12 months of bonus revenue they would not have otherwise had if they went with B2P and/or F2P.
Almost exactly two years ago, I asked “Where are all the bodies?” in terms of a trend of flight from MMOs. Last week, Wilhelm presented the SuperData Research group’s June report. The two slides of note are below:
As pointed out in the comments over on TAGN, the accuracy of numbers and legitimacy of the research company itself might be in question. For one thing, neither FFXI nor FFXIV are even on that list. The absence of Guild Wars 2 makes a little sense given the criteria for inclusion (subscription option), but the others? I dunno. Perhaps they are being implied in the missing 26% of market share. Which, incidentally, covers $756 million of the total revenue on the chart.
In an attempt to compare the subscription revenue graph to the last update from MMOData.net, I got the following result:
My methodology was to squish the one graph until the years lined up. Regardless, I have a hard time imagining the precipitous drop in subscription revenue on their chart is correlated in reality. There is a very real decline in overall MMO population – we have reached the same population levels from mid-2008 at this point – but revenue can’t be that bad. Can it?
What is sorta interesting though is in the small text below the graph, which states the data was pulled from “36.9 million digital gamers.” If you take that figure and multiply it by the market share, you get 13,284,000 as the WoW population. Of course, WoW did not have 13+ million subscribers in 2013. Discrepancy! Or is it? If you assume a 5% churn rate each month, at the end of the year you are left with 7,178,143. That is somewhat close to the estimated 7.6 million from this year. In other words, it’s entirely possible that 13+ million players played WoW at some point during the year and 6 million of them cycled out.
On the other hand, when you plug EVE into that same equation, you get 1,107,000 players throughout 2013. So… maybe it’s all bullshit.
Accuracy aside, I think the takeaway from all this is twofold. First, the MMO market has clearly peaked and we are transitioning into a much lower (presumed) equilibrium. Second, it’s still surprising how money there is in the genre. I mean, look at SWTOR there. $165 million in revenue last year? It actually took this Forbes article to kind of shock me into the realization (emphasis added):
And what may be a surprise to many is that Star Wars: The Old Republic is actually #4 on the list, bringing in $165M in revenue last year. While much of the game went free-to-play after a disappointing debut, there’s still a subscription model that has made the MMO profitable for EA. Often SWTOR is regarded as a cautionary tale in the industry in terms of bloated budgets, over-ambition and emulating competitors, but looking at the numbers, the game has evolved into a profitable enterprise for EA, and has made even its massive budget back at this point.
I don’t even know if that is true for sure, but remember, SWTOR budget was somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million. So… are we still allowed to call the game a “failure?” The criteria gets a little goofy when you are making ~44% more than the paragon of subscription growth¹, EVE. We can maybe say that it could/should have earned more, but (presumably) profitable businesses really speak for themselves.
As always, I believe key to success is keeping realistic expectations and budgeting around that. If you need 500,000 or 1 million subscriptions to stay afloat, maybe you should calm your shit, Icarus. The entire market is like 18 million subs, and more than a third of those are locked down in Blizzard HQ. If you can get by with 50k or 100k, you should have no problems capturing a least a portion of the 500k+ people that seem to appear on MMO release days and leave a month later. Now more than any other time, you need to start small and work your way up.
¹ Which is more historical fact than current event. As far as I’m aware, EVE has lost subs at this point like all mortal MMO endeavors.
It’s been about two weeks since this Gamasutra interview with Jeremy Gaffney, but I think it’s still worth a read. Or just have your mind blown with this thought experiment:
“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.
That 5% monthly figure has been pretty consistent over the years, as WoW had an apparent 4-5% churn rate even during the heights of vanilla/TBC. That means each expansion could basically have an entirely new playerbase. Obviously, some stick around for the long-haul, so there’s some continuity.
Nevertheless, I feel like this more succinctly highlights the design pressures on MMO developers. Does an MMO ever get more hardcore over time? It’s hard to see how it could, given how one needs to entertain an entirely new audience every (at best!) two years.