Updated Mon, Feb 20, 2012 by Messiah
A lot is made about subscriber numbers in the MMO industry, how many do they need to be profitable, how many do they need to be a success, how many do they need to just survive. World of Warcraft has obviously been a huge success with numbers unheard of, neigh undreamed of previously by MMO creators. So how do you rate WoW subscriber numbers now, is it still a success, or is it dying a slow death.
World of Warcraft launched in 2004 and hit roughly 2 million subscribers by mid 2005. That was considered a huge number and marked WoW as a run away success. By 2006 WoW had hit 6 million subscriptions, then 8 million by 2007, and 9 million the year after. Nothing else had come close to those numbers.
Over the course of 2009 and through the end of 2010 World of Warcraft maintained around (or just under) 12 million subscriptions. This was a massive number.
However since then it has slowly been falling, and with the announcement recently it is now at about 10.2 million.
Over time many other games have come along that claimed to be the next big thing and were supposed to be WoW killers. I remember many of them, and even liked a few of them. All of them had high asperations due to WoW’s success, all thought they could kill WoW.
These games included titles like Aion, Warhammer, Rift, Lord of the Rings, Age of Conan, and most recently Star Wars: the Old Republic. The games hit subscriber numbers roughly as shown below:
Before World of Warcraft was released each and every one of these games would have been considered a hit. However since they are all being compared to WoW they are considered flops by many, which I think is unfair. As long as a game is able to make a profit after recouping development and operating costs it should be considered successful, at least in my mind. For some reason though they are not considered in that light by the general public simply because they do not match WoW for subscriber numbers.
After each expansion for World of Warcraft there has either been a massive increase to subscriber numbers or at least a return to past peaks. I see no reason to doubt that this will occur again with the launch or Mists of Pandaria as despite some complains (You can find details in the article "Why MoP?") it is a shaping up to be a highly anticipated expansion.
Past MoP though, I am not sure. The engine and graphics in WoW, while still great at portraying the atmosphere of the game, are getting old and dated. I mean really, they are ancient by gaming standards. Unless WoW is completely re-written with a new engine, which just won’t happen, then it will continue to fall further and further behind. This means that subscriber numbers will have to drop at some point, and I see that as being after MoP. By the time of the next expansion it will likely be close to 2014 and the game will be pretty much 10 years old, long past its prime.
It will however still be operating and likely way above 5 million players. I can’t see it dropping below 2 million until the next Blizzard MMO is released.
While some may want to argue about this since WoW has lost so many players, I will state that it is flat out still a run away success. Could you really consider it anything else? After all even though it has lost roughly 2 million subscribers from its peak, it still has over 10 million players paying a fee each month. Both of those numbers are bigger than most other MMO’s have managed, or that many have even come close too. That definitely means that WoW is still a run away success in my books.
While I have seen some arguments that WoW isn’t the biggest success because other MMO’s have gotten higher initial subscription numbers faster, I call BS. Other MMO’s do reach big numbers quicker, such as the reported 1.7 million Star Wars subscriptions announced recently for it’s second month. However, if not for WoW pulling in 12 million subscribers and growing the MMO player base by so much, there would not be that many players willing to go and try a new MMO.
A key thing to remember is that it takes a lot to convince someone that there is value in a game that they have to buy and then pay monthly for as well. It is a really tough sell until they see first hand the updates, new content, social interaction, and overall options in an MMO. WoW sold players on that value, and they are now willing to take that risk on other games.
While World of Warcraft will not last for ever, I can’t see it being anything but the #1 MMO for a long while. Even if it fell to half it’s subscriber base tomorrow it would still have to be considered hugely successful.
The bigger issue to me right now is players, journalists, and the industry getting over pure subscriber numbers. Yes they are a measure of a games success, but they don't tell the full story.
If a game is developed and published for a cost of $1 million and gets 100,000 subscribers at $15 a month, then it should be considered a run away success, since it made a huge profit as of month one. On the other hand if a game costs $200 million to develop and only gets 100,000 subscribers it has obviously lost money, and therefore should be considered a flop.
Obviously development costs are not the only number to consider as a portion of our monthly fees go towards server maintanance, staff costs, bandwidth, ongoing development, and more, but you get the picture. Subscriber numbers are just a tiny piece of the puzzle and should not by themselves be used as a judgment of a games success.
Wondering where the numbers came from?
The numbers for subscription numbers came from http://mmodata.blogspot.com/ and I can not confirm their accuracy. You can check out all the details on that site to find out how they determine the numbers and track them and to read their disclaimer about the numbers. Even if they are not spot on though, they are more than close enough for the comparisons done here. It is an awesome site though, very informative, and well worth checking out occasionally.