WoW’s Magic Number

Boasting an estimated 8.5 million subscribers, it’s impossible to ignore the influence of World of Warcraft (WoW) on the massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) market. It’s the first MMOG to flirt with the word “mainstream,” it redefined the way studios think about their development process, influenced designs and sent dozens of start-ups on a quest to get their slice of the apparently expanded MMOG pie. There’s just one problem: In North America, there is no evidence that there are significantly more MMOG fans than there were in the days before WoW swept the world off its feet.

MMOG fans are the few hundred thousand North Americans who have played every MMOG before and after WoW. Studios look at WoW, which is an MMOG, and assume that because it has those sexy subscriber numbers, there are more people running around willing to fling money at them. That’s just not the case. Just like not every whiskey is a scotch, MMOG fans may be WoW fans, but WoW fans are not necessarily MMOG fans. There is little evidence to suggest the average WoW fan knows what MMOG stands for, let alone what the heck a Tabula Rasa is.

The expected WoW refugee trickle-down has stubbornly refused to materialize. As a conservative estimate, it is safe to assume that in any given month, 5 percent of WoW‘s player base cancels their accounts. Where do these people go? Some undoubtedly dive back into the MMOG pool and spread out among the infinite titles floating around, but at 5 percent, that means there are roughly 425,000 WoW refugees milling about every month. But 425,000 people aren’t playing new games each month. WoW just doesn’t grow the genre.

When developers talk about those 8.5 million subscribers, they’re presenting that data in a way North American consumers aren’t used to hearing. Traditionally, when gamers read about subscriber numbers, they’re getting regionally focused numbers. For example, Turbine licenses The Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online to Codemasters , who handles distribution and subscriptions in Europe. This means most estimates evaluate the two pools (Codemasters and Turbine) separately. WoW, however, is all under one banner, and this inflates the numbers. In reality, only roughly 2.25 million players subscribe to WoW in North America. To hit the full 8.5 million, Blizzard counts 3.75 million in China, 1.6 million in Europe and additional few hundred thousand in South Korea, Australia and Asia.

Outside of WoW, the numbers are tragically anemic, near an all-time low. The genre used to have echelons, but now there is only WoW. Everyone else, by comparison, is non-existent.

City of Heroes/Villains, NCsoft’s most successful subscription-based game, has 143,127 subscribers in North America and Europe. Star Wars Galaxies and Vanguard are each at approximately 100,000. And, despite widespread media attention, as of March Second Life only had 57,702 paying subscribers across the globe.

While developers learned a lot from WoW, they missed one very important lesson: It’s a videogame and was marketed as such, whereas MMOGs are thought of as being their own unique snowflake and are promoted differently. Industry insiders talk about how WoW‘s success is good for the genre as a whole, but none of them have stopped and truly taken advantage of it. For years, MMOGs have existed in their own little segregated world. Sure, WoW appeals to MMOG fans, but it transcends the genre in a way other companies have failed to grasp.

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MMOG companies continue to channel their message through a select group of publications that focus on the MMOG genre exclusively. While each game gets the occasional day in the sun on a larger outlet like GameSpot, they rarely stay in the limelight for long. Blizzard doesn’t ignore MMOG sites, but they hardly covet them, because they have the distinct advantage of being the elephant in the room. Smaller sites have to cover WoW if they’re covering the genre. It’s too big to ignore.

When game companies focus their message on MMOG players, they fight with each other over a small, stagnant group.

This phenomenon explains how in’s annual Reader’s Choice Awards, EVE Online was able to sweep WoW. EVE has 180,000 subscribers worldwide, just over 2 percent of WoW‘s subscriber base. The average WoW player just doesn’t care about what the typical MMOG fan does.

Since MMOG fans and WoW fans travel in different circles, it is up to MMOG studios to figure out not only how to appeal to WoW fans, but where they came from in the first place.

The biggest advantage Blizzard had coming in was a built-in fan base no one – with the possible exception of BioWare – can rival. Then, they marketed themselves beyond the established MMOG circles; they even ran TV ads. And if their initial success wasn’t enough, they were immortalized in a South Park episode poking fun at the game’s addictive qualities.

MMOG companies need to get creative if they hope to duplicate WoW‘s mainstream success. Most recently, Turbine seems to have learned that lesson. Since its launch in late April, The Lord of the Rings Online has dominated NPD sales numbers, and in a recent interview, Executive Producer Jeffrey Steefel was quoted as saying their game was the second most popular MMOG ever, but it remains too early to guess how many subscribers they might actually have.

Turbine leveraged their mainstream license and attracted attention outside the traditional routes. Their studio name doesn’t carry the weight of Blizzard’s, but many more people know the works of J.R.R. Tolkien than know Warcraft. Turbine still evangelized on fansites and gaming portals, but they also had placement in major newspapers and other mainstream outlets. If Steefel’s quote is accurate, the strategy paid off. But they still have a long way to go. Despite its epic license, improved marketing and generally top notch reviews, no one expects The Lord of the Rings Online to compete with WoW anytime soon.

It would be naive to think no MMOG will ever top WoW. It will happen – it always does – but it definitely won’t happen until game companies wake up and stop fighting over the same hardcore group that’s played every MMOG since EverQuest. WoW appealed to a wider audience, and to achieve that level of success, studios must reach beyond hardcore MMOG fans, through WoW fans and out to people who still look confused when they hear the word MMOG.

Dana “Lepidus” Massey is the Senior Editor for and former Co-Lead Game Designer for Wish.

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