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.

World of Warcraft

The enthusiasm that greeted the launch of World of Warcraft was unexpectedly high - so much so that Blizzard's contingency servers were used up far more quickly than anticipated.

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.

It was only three months later that the game hit 2 million, then as China came on board it jumped to 3.5 million by June.

4 million followed in August and 5 million in December, all based on the release of the original game only, along with some free key content patches that added more endgame features.

It was March of 2006 when 6 million players was announced, and by the time the first expansion - The Burning Crusade - was released in January 2007 - the game had accumulated 8 million subscribers.

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.


December will see the latest expansion released - Cataclysm - introducing Worgen and Goblin (pictured) playable races.

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.

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Latest comments (5)

Radu Ciu Product Manager, Alliance Computers7 years ago
It does not really have to be like this, i just hope they are smart about it. There are always ways to keep going the best MMO out there. Including of course offering part of the content for free. How many more subscribers do you think Blizz would add if they started offering vanilla and Burning crusade content for free?
Myself i hope they will fare well and i ilso have my fingers crossed for Bioware's The Old Republic both as a gamer and as a game distributor.
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Alex Loffstadt Community Manager, Outso Ltd7 years ago
@Radu I'd be careful throwing around terms such as best MMO. There's a lot more to MMOs than just MMORPGs and there are plenty of people out there who would argue that WoW doesn't have claim to that title either.

On pure numbers Habbo Hotel was pushing 12 mill plus 3 years ago.
On the technical side of things EvE allows more player freedom and for some is the gold standard for hardcore MMOs (notably also breaking the usual membership curve and lifespan for most MMOs), UO and other early titles encapsulate the true spitit of the genre and DAoC knocked WoW PvP into a cocked hat but Mythic lacks Blizzards marketing muscle. Monetization wise they may well be missing a trick compared to a great many other MMOs (Turbines DDO and LotRO jump to mind).

Wow, IMO, is showing it's age. It does some things very well:

It's well Marketed
Does a lot for its Community
Monetizes itself well outside of subscriptions
Easy to get into and hard to leave
And as the title that introduced a great many users to MMOs will be their gold standard
Also due to the social nature of the game, if your friends keep playing you will to.

WoW is good, and as about the only MMO advertised on TV and mentioned in mainstream media, it's definitely a name and the one on plenty of peoples lips.

But any claim of BEST is likely to be disputed.

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Joseph Salerno Games/Level Designers - DBA 7 years ago
It's like music or movies. The most popular are the most accessible, not the most edgy.

The subscription base is huge geographically, but I'm certain that people pay, errr play i mean, for a wide range of reasons, which are not mainstream. Basically, see their friends, collects all kinds of objects. Some play for the competition, others enjoy walking in a magical world.

This capacity to attract (and retain) different kinds of players is the other amazon trail of the game, in addition to it's blizzardly unique capacity to perform well in asia.
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Show all comments (5)
Max Clayton Clowes Studying Computer Science, Durham University7 years ago
"In China a user pays around $4.50 (at current exchange rates) for almost 67 hours of access"

Clearly paying for hours is not as lucrative as a pay per month system. This article suggests that core gamers play for around 120 hours a month, which is, on average, just under of a third of their waking day, every day. This is already and extremely large figure, and it is unlikely to increase. Therefore if they want to exploit this market the two simplest solutions would be to raise prices per hour or to switch to a pay monthly system.

A straight price increase would be risky, as such an obvious rise in price could lead to a substantial fall in customers, which could in fact reduce profits. On the other hand, a switch in system not only disguises the price rise, it actually may seem at first a better value for money to some. A secondary advantage of this would be that seeking to make the most of a pay monthly system, consumers may spend more time playing the game, increasing Blizzard's market share.

Other ways of increasing revenue would be to focus more on the alternative revenue streams, such as paying for items. However, schemes like this are also risky, as they cheapen the brand to a certain extent, detracting from the game experience. Instead, it seems more appropriate for Blizzard to focus on a price-based solution.

The fact remains that a large percentage of the market is currently producing revenues far beneath their potential.

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I'm really looking forward to seeing how well Guild Wars 2 fares next year. Tera and Rift should also do well, or at least Rift as I have read a review on The Escapist about it. Look at the massive attention Guild Wars 2 got though in Gamescon. The lines to play that game speak volumes about it.

If Anything I see WoW as a bold challenger. It is saying "Hey look, if you can make something better then by all means, but if not we don't mind taking all the customers." Blizzard is banking on Starcraft II, Diablo III, and the soon to be release CoD: Black Ops. They have built brand recognition very well, and they also have built buzz about their products extremely well.

But it doesn't mean that there is no way to compete with them. They are challenging you guys, and its time to step it up. I think Developers now more then ever need to innovate and push out new ideas. They need to bring about new games that will pull in their own customers that love to play their games. I mean honestly we need a Mac of the MMO industry to appear. My bets are on ArenaNet.
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