World of Warcraft and the long, long tail
Although Western subs may have been slipping, don't be fooled into thinking that's the end
World of Warcraft. In years to come it's entirely possible that it'll be the term that people use to describe subscription MMOs, a bit like the Hoover was for the vacuum cleaner. It needs no further introduction.
But as we head towards the launch of its next expansion, Cataclysm, on December 7 it would be all too tempting to look at subscriber numbers and make an all-too-hasty assumption.
On the face of it, things are pretty healthy for Blizzard's mighty MMO - a new record for subscriber numbers, hitting 12 million and continuing to outclass anything and everything put in front of it.
Dig a little deeper and you might notice a few cracks, however. Let's run down the story so far, for anybody that missed it.
The game launched in the US in November 2004, followed by Europe in February 2005 - both were hugely successful and outstripped anybody's wildest expectations. The total subscriber numbers started to become very press release-able, and surpassed 1.5 million in March the same year.
The pace of increase was slowing by this time, but for a game that was now three years old it was still remarkable growth - and it didn't stop there. By July of 2007 Blizzard was up to 9 million, and in January of 2008 the magic 10 million mark was achieved, with 5.5 million of those people playing in Asia.
11 million was the next milestone, and that was passed in October 2008, just a few weeks ahead of the launch of second expansion Wrath of the Lich King, with 11.5 million the number to beat shortly after that release.
But that's where the game seemed to find its plateau - the moment everybody knew would come, of course, but something that nobody had wanted to predict. It was still 11.5 million in July of 2009, and in February of 2010.
Finally last week the launch of Wrath of the Lich King in China pushed numbers passed 12 million, although the numerical split between the two territories wasn't disclosed. For those fans of napkin calculations, a Western subscriber pays around $15 per month, plus the initial cost of the game and any expansions, while in China a user pays around $4.50 (at current exchange rates) for almost 67 hours of access. Without knowing the playing habits of that market, it's not possible to draw solid revenue conclusions, but its likely the core Chinese gamers are paying about half the amount that Western gamers are on a monthly basis.
The apparently telling factor in all this is that it needed, after long delays based on political issues and a change of operator, an expansion launch in China to push it passed the 11.5 million number - some unverified reports have total numbers dipping significantly while the game was offline in that market.
And from that information it's possible - though not advisable - to conclude that the less lucrative Chinese market is propping up Blizzard's MMO, while Western realms are appearing increasingly deserted, so therefore World of Warcraft's tail could be finally be coming to an end.
Most of that is nonsense, of course. Running a subscription MMO like World of Warcraft is a bit like carrying a bucket with a hole up a hill. The size of the bucket, the size of the hole and the length of the journey all depend on the quality of the game and when new expansions are released - which is when the increasing spurious analogy means that the bucket is refilled, or replaced with a larger one, or something.
Anyway, the point is that the water is constantly trickling out after a certain point, no matter who you are or what your game is - World of Warcraft has been far more resilient to that than any other MMO on the market, even after nearly six years in business.
And of course, we're fast-approaching something of a re-imagining of the game with Cataclysm in December, as most of the original content is revised and reworked. That will prompt large numbers of people to invest in that set piece product, plus a whole lot more to return to Azeroth for more questing - while the potential revenue streams in vanity content, such as the Celestial Steed, remains largely untapped at this point.
Add in merchandising and tournaments and the WoW machine appears still very much alive, and let's not kid ourselves that Blizzard is staking its retirement fund on this one game. Earlier this year a new category quietly appeared on the company website recruitment section, alongside the existing franchises and the acknowledged "Next-Gen MMO" team.
"Unannounced Game Title" with a handful of vacancies, prefaced with the following:
"Do you have a deep passion for developing the tools that empower designers and artists to create epic gameplay experiences? Does the idea of joining a new team in its early stages and establishing pipelines and development environments excite you? How about doing both of these at one of the coolest companies around? Here's your chance!"
Whether you play World of Warcraft or not, and regardless of how you rate the ability of EA's Star Wars MMO to succeed next year, there's no mileage in making too many predictions about Blizzard's behemoth - not for a while yet, anyway.