Why is World of Warcraft Still Growing?

in Blog, Business, Observation, Trends by LAS on October 22nd, 2009No Comments


Subscriber graphs that compare World of Warcrft to other MMORPGs are comical. Without separate scales it’s difficult to even see the competition clustered way down there by zero. Companies keep claiming they’ve developed the ‘WoW killer,’ but we should start coming to terms with the fact that bringing down WoW from the outside is no longer possible.

World of Warcraft now has 13.1 million subscribers if unofficial reports are to be believed, and that number can only go higher when Wrath of the Lich King is finally approved for release in China. Not only is it unrealistic to expect a developer to make a game that significantly diverges from WoW’s mechanics, but even if they did it wouldn’t matter.

World of Warcraft has built up such a large community and so much of the potential MMORPG player base has invested themselves into WoW that any subscriber erosion from competition would barely register compared to the natural ascent and decline of the game.

What does the competition look like?

I’m going to define the competition as MMORPGs that could potentially thrive in western markets. This is not because the Asian MMORPG player base or interest is not significant; quite the opposite. It’s merely because Eastern developed games have much smaller budgets and less complicated play styles vs. an archetypal MMO style such as WoW.

This also excludes social networking games such as Mafia Wars and Farmville. I don’t consider these to be in the same category despite their popularity, and it’s not a competing user base.

I believe these to be fair constraints given the different fee structures paid in the east and west. Every $1 by a US MMORPG subscriber equates to 6c paid in Asia given the game minutes based system. It is only natural to assume that since the vast majority of revenues come from Western markets, that the largest budget and therefore most likely to globally dominate games are going to come from Western developers.

I’m going to go one step further and use AION as my ‘competition proxy’ for simplicity. While most will immediately jump to bickering over whether WoW or AION is better, I’m just going to assume that AION takes everything WoW does and improves upon it slightly. Despite this generous assumption, AION has zero chance of displacing WoW at the top of the pecking order.

You might want to cut back on playtime a bit and take a shower, man. You're not looking so good.

You might want to cut back on playtime a bit and take a shower, man. You're not looking so good.

Economies of Scale

NCSoft has 1,230 employees total and they now operate two significant MMO’s: AION and Guild Wars. Despite AION only comprising 40% of revenues, it’s likely a larger growth opportunity so I’m going to assume 2/3 of the employees are working on it. This implies 800 developers for AION compared to 5,000 for World of Warcraft.

World of Warcraft earns nearly $1.2 billion per year. AION makes is on pace to make $140 million although given its recent launch in North America let’s be generous and say $250 million. Even so, this is 1/5 the size of World of Warcraft’s revenues. The amount of additional resources that gives to Blizzard is staggering, and AION has no ‘game changing’ features with which to diversify itself.

AION is targeting annual expansions, as is Blizzard (although even Blizzard’s huge development team can’t quite seem to pull it off). Given the disparities in size of developer, however, it’s likely that Cataclysm will have orders of magnitude more content compared to AION’s first expansion.

AION has already been criticized and seen a fall off in peak users compared to launch because of abusive hackers and gold farmers. While this is to be expected in any MMO, it’s merely another symptom of growing pains that WoW experienced (fortunately for them) during the relatively early days of the explosion of MMO popularity.

You mean AION looks this good *in-game*?! Do they have twin blades of Azzinoth though? Oh, they do, huh? Well ... crap

You mean AION looks this good *in-game*?! Do they have twin blades of Azzinoth though? Oh, they do, huh? Well ... crap

It’s good to be the king

AION looks like a great game. It’s the prettiest MMO on the market and its character mechanics are functionally identical to WoW. Unfortunately, content must be built up over time and that’s one benefit for Blizzard of being incumbent.

AION launched with 1,500 quests. While this is greater than what World of Warcraft launched with, NCSoft isn’t competing with WoW in 2004. According to Allakhazam’s database, there are currently over 8,200 quests in WoW. This reduces grinding, allows all different styles of players to enjoy the game and significantly increases the vibrancy of the world.

In addition, it’s unlikely that AION development will focus on the highest level content as is natural for an early-stage MMO. Instead of changing up raid boss mechanics, it’s easier to just parrot some tried and true MMO mechanics mostly now being advanced by Blizzard and instead build out the world. The leveling aspect of the game is far more important to a new MMO than the end game.

Blizzard is mandating that players sign up to Battle.net as of November 11th. Not only is this going to increase loyalty to the game, but Battle.net is going to develop into a fully fledged social platform with potential digital distribution a la Steam (if Bobby Kotick has anything to say about it). This will mean leaving WoW is more than just abandoning your guildies in-game, but abandoning an entire social community that integrates all Blizzard games.

These are just several of the roadblocks that illustrate how tough it is to break into the market. Without a significant differentiating factor, there’s simply no catalyst for mass migration among the player base. Perversely, there’s also no commercial reason to deviate from WoW’s model as it’s the gold standard. WoW’s popularity has taken the current MMO mechanics built up by games like Everquest and UO and codified them into an ‘MMO design bible.’

I tell you this (Blizzard's unnamed MMO), for when my days have come to an end, you shall be king

I tell you this *Blizzard's unnamed MMO*, for when my days have come to an end, you shall be king


Finally, the community has rallied around WoW and invested so much time and so many resources, that the incentive required to overcome the inertia of the player base has ballooned to unrealistic proportions.

Whether you’re discussing Deathwing statues, pumpkin carving contests or elaborate Cosplay, the World of Warcraft community dominates.

Nobody is arguing that World of Warcraft will continue forever. Eventually the hordes of fans will tire of it, especially as Blizzard transitions to a new game and fewer coders release less and less content every year. It’s going to be an organic decline from the inside, however, as neither AION nor any other MMO can realistically expect to compete.

This isn’t to say it’s unwise to enter the market. The growth in potential audience will be substantial and there is no reason there can only be one player. AION could go on to massive success. Expecting to steal away WoW’s core, however, is a fool’s game. It’s like going up against the Yankees, or Microsoft of the 1980’s; don’t expect to win.

I’m interested in your thoughts on the matter. Hit up the comments!


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