Sifting through the rubble

Well, we’ve certainly got a lot of mileage out of Richard Bartle’s interview in the Guardian the other day. Oh, wait, most of us haven’t talked about the whole long interview, we’re just responding to one throwaway question at the end of it and using that to discredit the man who’s probably forgotten more about virtual worlds than most of us put together. Bartle clarifies the question and answer here, and I think it’s pretty clear that this is a thought experiment, and not an actual prescription for the state of the mmorpg industry. It’s tough to argue with people who are just grabbing on to that one line out of the whole interview, though, so I’m kind of done trying to explain what I think Bartle meant. He’s fully capable of defending himself if needed. And I certainly don’t think his statement needs defending in this case, not if you understand the context and the purpose of his statement.

There’s a good discussion on Broken Toys about Bartle’s interview. Some people get where Bartle’s coming from, Brian Green in particular.

What’s got my interest tonight, instead of deconstructing what Richard really meant, is the conversation about what those 8 million players would do if WoW was suddenly not there any more. I’ve seen statements that say something along the lines of “Most of those players didn’t play MMO’s before, and they’ll just go back to their non-mmorpg games”. The more I think about this, the more I question that logic.

Stay with me here. When we want to claim that a majority of WoW players would return to non-mmorpg games, are we sure we’re crunching numbers correctly? According to this report from last August, there were 5 million Asian WoW subscribers and about a million each from the US and Europe. Add the US and Europe together for 2 million gamers, and suddenly I don’t have as much trouble seeing them move to other mmorpg’s instead of vanishing into the “I’ll never play another mmorpg again” rabbit hole. EQ had what, 450k, 500k subscribers at its peak? Dark Age of Camelot had 250k? Star Wars Galaxies had 300k? There’s overlap in some of those games so you can’t just add up the numbers and say there were a million US and European mmorpg players before WoW, but to grow from, say 600k unique gamers to 2 million unique gamers isn’t the stretch going from 600k to 8 million would be, especially when there are three years of growth between 600k and 2 million.

In Asia, it’s a similar phenomenon. There were millions of players in Lineage and Lineage 2, and there are a multitude of other successful mmorpgs available. Sure, there are 5 million people playing WoW, but there were millions of people playing other mmorpg’s before WoW. They’re going to want to continue playing mmorpg’s.

Blizzard’s huge success wasn’t just bringing mmorpg gaming to an hugely expanded audience. Their amazing subscriber numbers reflect the fact that they’re the first developer to be simultaneously successful in both the US/Euro and the Asian market. I think, if WoW somehow disappeared, those gamers would still want mmorpg experiences. I don’t buy the “it’s WoW or nothing” for millions upon millions of mmorpg players. Are there some players who will only play WoW? Sure, but the pre-WoW numbers in Asia and US/Europe make me think that there’s still plenty of gamers who would want more mmorpg gaming in a post-WoW world. Blizzard definitely helped expand the reach of the mmorpg industry, but it’s not like they grew the industry from only 500k Everquest subscribers to 8 million WoW subscribers worldwide. Let’s keep the size of the market pre-WoW in perspective, especially in the Asian market where more than 50% of WoW’s numbers originate.

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3 Responses

  1. Hey, thanks for the kudos. 😉 Glad someone appreciates the insight.

    A mild correction: according to a press release in January, there were 2 million in North America, 1.5 million in Europe, and 3.5 million in China. This was back when there were “only” 8 million worldwide.

    But, I agree with your assessment. I think some people would probably go, “Oh, that was fun,” and go back to single-player games. But, I think a lot of people would want to seek out a similar experience in other games to what they had in WoW if it were to suddenly go offline. I think the people that think the majority of people would stop playing online entirely are those that assume everyone would do what they think they’d do. (And, I suspect that most of them probably would find another online game to play as well.)

    But, you’re right: one element of Blizzard’s 8+ million subscribers figure is that they managed to do extremely well in Asia and Europe in addition to the U.S. Not to downplay their major success in North America, though, because 2 million is still a huge leap past the former top dogs. But, the different markets do change how all the current subscribers would react.

  2. Ahh, I’m glad you found that link. I found the DFC cite from last August and figured that was good enough for the purposes of the discussion. The difference between Blizzard’s Chinese subscribers and the DFC report is fairly substantial, 1.5 million customers. Obviously, I’d trust Blizzard more.

    “I think the people that think the majority of people would stop playing online entirely are those that assume everyone would do what they think they’d do. (And, I suspect that most of them probably would find another online game to play as well.)”

    Yes and yes 🙂 I’m reminded of “I quit!” posts on message boards.

    Thanks for stopping by. Your Blizzard numbers will shape my arguments a little differently, but not too much. I’ll have to Google around and see if I can find older subscriber info from Blizzard and see if the US numbers really spiked at the end of last year, or if the DFC numbers weren’t cited properly. Right now, though, I’ve got a kid who wants me to play with her 😉

  3. Remember, too, that most Asian gamers pay by the hour, not by the month, so the cost to play multiple games is much, much lower for them. I think I read somewhere that what they pay would be the equivalent of a quarter per hour in the US? Sure, I’d play WoW, EQ1, EQ2, LotRO, DAoC and CoH if I didn’t have to pay 6 x $14.95 to maintain subscriptions.

    But here in the US, we can only afford to play one or two expensive games at a time. The sheer cost of MMOs in both money and time is what keeps them still relatively uncommon in the US.

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