Show Me The Players!

There’s a hole bigger than the one Tom Cruise put in Oprah’s couch, in the MMORPG playerbase.

Last post, I suggested that World of Warcraft might be able to achieve greater than 20 million subscribers after Cataclysm releases because many former players will resubscribe simply to see the changes to much of the low level content throughout Azeroth. While I still believe that, I find myself wondering where all those old subscribers are hiding.

World of Warcraft has been out for nearly six years now, and WoW will be six years by the time Cataclysm releases. Yet despite the games growth, far more players have left World of Warcraft than have stayed. If you consider that there is a constant churn of players coming and going, then a best guess could put the number of former World of Warcraft players at more than 20 million, and that could be just the Western players.

I have no hard figures here, while Blizzard let us know the peaks of their subscriber numbers, we don’t know the actual churn rate. The actual number of former subscribers could be lower, or much higher.

So where are they?

I used to believe that despite World of Warcrafts perceived flaws, that it was a great gateway game for the MMORPG genre. When a player started to want more than WoW had to offer, then they would go out and find a game more suitable for their needs. I used to think that when a player got sick of WoW, they’d go out and pick up another MMORPG and give that a try.

That does not seem to have happened as much as the numbers suggest it should have. There are a few reasons why this could be the case.

  • WoW has less actual subscribers than we are lead to believe.
  • The churn rate is much lower than expected. Players that start the game stay with it for years, but not many new players are coming in.
  • The World of Warcraft experience is so offputting, players give up on MMORPGs entirely.
  • Players are just trying out MMORPGs starting with WoW and aren’t hooked enough to keep going with the genre. If box sales add to the subscriber numbers, then players leaving after the free month might account for this part of the churn.
  • Players may have liked WoW, but don’t want to invest the same amount of time in a new MMOG.

To be honest, none of these reasons is a satisfying explanation for the missing MMORPG player conundrum.

We do have sales figures from retail chains showing that box sales of WoW are continuing, hence new players are coming into the game. Coupled with the relatively static subscriber numbers, and Blizzard really doesn’t have much of a reason to lie about these numbers. The conclusion is that the churn rate is also consistent and that Blizzard has a very large number of ex-subscribers.

And WoW is popular, despite it not being everyones cup of tea, it’s been a remarkably successful game for a long time. That kinda indicates that the experience is enjoyable for a lot of players. These players should then be open to a new game, at least a reasonable percentage should be. That also applies to players that are unsure about the time commitment for a new game, many should overcome that and get into other MMOGs. Yet we don’t seem to be seeing that.

The only explanation that hold any weight is that a lot of players are just giving the game a try and don’t get past the first month. Blizzard in the past has said that a lot of players never make it past level 10, and these are probably the trial/free month players. Of course that means that Blizzard has to count a trial download, or a box sale as a subscriber for their figures, and they might do that for shareholder reporting. But is this enough to distort the churn rate enough to hide all ex-subscribers? I’m not sure it does.

So where have all the players gone?

What do you think has happened here?

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  1. Arkenor

    I think that in some cases they move on to games that you and I would consider entirely different to an MMO, but that might fill the same place in their mind. Diablo, for instance.

    Essentially, there are so many online games that aren’t WoW, it’s hard to keep track of everywhere that people might have wound up.

  2. Stropp (Post author)

    That’s a great point.

    It crossed my mind that there are a lot more MMOGs in the mix now, but I didn’t consider multiplayer games that cannot really be classified as a MMOG.

    Here’s another question: Would non-gamers starting their gaming career with WoW move into single player games in a significant measure?

  3. Arkenor

    I find it hard to imagine that WoW is the very first computer game for many people, though I suppose it might be for some older players. For such folks I guess it’d lead to single player gaming just as easily as it does online. And then theres games like the FPS’s that can be played either way.

  4. Zoso

    A couple of years back, when SirBruce was publishing his MMOGCharts of best estimates of subscriber numbers, it seemed that the rising tide of WAR wasn’t lifting all boats ( )

    I suspect that a large percentage of the WoW player base is in China, otherwise it’s a bit convenient that they were awfully quiet about numbers until they got WotLK launched over there; Western numbers will almost certainly dwarf all other MMOGs, but I’d be very surprised if total Western subscribers (past and present) were over 10 million, I’d guess maybe around 5, but that’s just pulling numbers out of the air.

    Even then that’s a lot of people not going to other MMOGs, but on top of the reasons you mention, and other online games in general, I think there’s a large number of people who’d perhaps classify themselves as gamers in general, perhaps not consider themselves gamers at all, who only play a few marquee games; if Wikipedia is to be believed, Grand Theft Auto IV sold something like 17million worldwide, Saints Row 2 around 3 million, other open world-type games like Red Faction: Guerilla maybe a million or so. FPS-wise there’s the Call of Duty and Halo series, in RTSs I don’t think anything gets close to Starcraft and Starcraft II, etc. Anecdotally, there’s a husband of a colleague of mine who has an XBox 360 *just* for Halo; bought it for Halo 3, only other game he has is ODST (not sure if he’s bought Reach, but I suspect so). I think WoW is the MMOG equivalent, much more successful than its rivals for a number of reasons, not all of them fully understood, even though other similar games maybe be technically or critically as good, if not better.

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  6. Scarybooster

    The recent announcement of 12 million players is based on total accounts through the life of WoW. It is not active accounts. People like me that don’t play anymore, are part of the 12 million. It is marketing tool to make people believe there is 12 million people currently playing. I’m not sure it counts trial players

  7. Stropp (Post author)

    @Arkenor — probably right there. I expect a lot have dabbled in arcades and sport games, and with the prevalence of the Wii. I guess I still think of games as a bit of a niche or hardcore hobby, playing a Facebook game doesn’t necessarily count! ;-p

    @Zoso — I kinda figured on the Western only audience with my guestimates, but 5 million seems a little low over five years. That would indicate that nearly all Western players have played for an average of 2.5 years. If the average subscription period was six months, then you would expect the bulk of the player base to have recycled 10 times over the last five years. I guess it depends on the average lifetime of a WoW player.

    @Scarybooster — are you sure about that? If that was the case, I’d have thought the game would be a ghost town. I figured that they were talking about 12 million active subs.

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