300k subscriptions to fail, 50k to profit.

Much like Tobold’s knowledge of MMO blogging history (Lum invented it, if you did not know…), his understanding of business success also seems to be a little off. Actually I’m going to go out and say the above-linked post is just a troll attempt to drum up traffic and get him more Blizzard freebies, because I believe Tobold is a lot smarter than that post would indicate, but sometimes its fun to play along and feed the trolls. Plus it seems Tobold is not the only one confused on this subject, so in the spirit of giving, here goes.

If one MMO has 300k subs, and the other has 50k, which one is more successful? If you answered anything but “that depends”, you are Tobold.

Because if that 300k MMO cost 50 million to produce, and the 50k one cost 5 million, guess who is going to get in the black sooner? If that 300k MMO need 500k subs to just break even based on all associated costs, while the 50k one needs 40k, guess who is profitable? If that 300k MMO spent 10 million on advertising to boost initial sales, and the 50k MMO spent nothing, who again needs to sell a lot more copies just to break even? If that 300k MMO is losing 5000 players a month, and the 50k MMO is growing at a rate of 10% month-to-month, guess which one is going to have a server shut-down party and an employee meeting in the parking lot? And finally, if you are an MMO dev, which title would you rather be associated with; the expensive failure or the small success story?

Numbers aside, it would be wise of Tobold (and anyone else in that camp) to research EVE’s history of growth, and compare it to the rest of the MMO genre during that time. I’d also look at the number of MMOs growing after 5+ years, because the list is rather short. Actually, the list of MMOs that continued to grow after just one year is rather short itself, although come February it will have another name added to the list, one that both Tobold and Lum wish would go away.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in Aion, Darkfall Online, EVE Online, Rant. Bookmark the permalink.

63 Responses to 300k subscriptions to fail, 50k to profit.

  1. Xyloxan says:

    I am confused. Your post just explains why indeed “it depends.” Does it mean you are Tobold?

  2. Xyloxan says:

    Oops! My bad. Read it too quickly. You are saying that “it depends” so you cannot be confused with Tobold. :-)

    • SynCaine says:

      The point was that people are quick to take a snapshot of sub numbers and automatically assume more subs/sales = more success/profit, and that’s simply not the case, be it in the MMO industry or any other.

  3. Matt says:

    Personally, I was enjoying your site before your “blog war.” Darkfall is a great game and I enjoyed reading about things you did and saw inside the game world. Just my $.02, no offense intended.

    • SynCaine says:

      I try to balance it, I don’t want to post too much about in-game stuff, and at the same time I don’t want to do these style of posts too much either. Lately it’s been more reactive though, and I can’t control when source material happens.

      As for in-game, I’m still waiting for VAMP/NEM to pull out our ships in force and really do some damage. We had a good siege battle on Nifl not long ago, but I did not see enough of it to really justify a post. The highlight of that though was our boat parked just off the coast, providing cover fire and demolishing the town while we fought among the ruins. I wish I had arrived at the start of the siege, as it would have made for a good read.

  4. Draynore says:

    Out of curiosity, unrelated to this post, are you still playing Blood Bowl? How is it going for you, or did you give up on it finally?

    You were the only person I knew playing it, and I was starting to consider buying it, and then it dropped out of your blog.

    • SynCaine says:

      I’m waiting for them to add auto-matchmaking before I go back. Its a great game, but without that feature online play gets stale too quickly, too much cherry picking. I’m looking forward to going back though, especially since they have added the Dark Elf team since I’ve left.

  5. silvertemplar says:

    I’d thought i’ll throw some oil on the fire:


    It’s a little outdated, but luckily we know what’s happening in 2009 , right? It shows how EVE subs looked in 2003 -> 2008

  6. Maladorn says:

    Syn, I’m curious about something. Where do you see Fallen Earth on the sandbox – theme-park continuum? Your recent posts have gotten me thinking.

    • SynCaine says:

      From what I’ve played and read of FE, it seems to be a sandbox MMO based on PvE, which is why it does not appear as full-on sandbox as something like DF. I’ve not really kept up on what direction they are going in since just after launch though, but I do continue to hear good things about it overall. The thing I’m most curious about FE is it’s economy, and how it will eventually play out. If they get that part right, I think they will continue to be very successful.

      • Sarzan says:

        The economy seems to be more based on raw materials and repair kits and less on finished goods. Since a single toon can possibly craft everything, most hardcore folks will have a dedicated crafter toon so every player has a chance to be self sufficient, limited soley by gathering time.

        Ammo is amply available via repeatable quests if one chooses not to craft their own. Yesterday alone I completed a 5-10 min quest for 200 rounds a competion. A few hours and you are set for a decent amount of time.

        • Bhagpuss says:

          I only really craft for myself, but I throw everythign I make to skill up onto the Auctioneer. It all sells. Really, all of it. So do raws.

          I would guess that although you CAN craft anything, the time-investment will be more than a lot of FE players want to deal with, so the economy will be healthy.

          Also the recent patch introduced the Construction skill, which is pretty slow to level. I am sure this will lead into Player-Made housing in a later patch (they already said 40% of the landmass was intended for player towns etc). When that happens there will be more work for crafters than they can handle.

          As for the direction of FE, at the moment it is indeed mostly a PvE sandbox, but the direction is supposed to be towards a PvP “endgame” (insofaras FE will have such a thing). There are PvP areas and NPC “conflict towns”, which can be taken by players on behalf of the six factions we align with. There’s a “Deathtoll” mechanism to give credit for PvP kills.

          I think the PvP element will become much more important later on when Player-Built towns come in.

  7. Irenor says:

    It’s odd. There’s that weird mentality where quantity>quality which, despite having been proved wrong thousands and thousands of time, is wrong.

    300k is a lot and anyone who hear that your MMO has 300k players will go “Nice!” because 300k is impressive, I don’t make $300k a year so imagine the money the company must be making. And then they compare with a smaller company with 30k subs and believe it’s “low”.

    Problem is, there’s a lot more going on behind the scene that determines, as you mentionned, wether it’s a success or not based on how much it cost per year to keep alive and wether or not the company has enough paying customers for it to be viable.

    • Irenor says:

      Small mistake there

      “It’s odd. There’s that weird mentality where quantity>quality which, despite having been proved wrong thousands and thousands of time, has yet to be understood.”


    • adam says:

      Personally, in terms of in-game quality-of-life it seems like in a game like Darkfall, you don’t WANT a ton of players. 4-5k or so on a server at a time seems like it would more than enough. Last night I played DF for a couple hours and ran into about 15-20 other players near Hammerdale, none of which I really wanted to see since most of them were mowing down the nearby spawns (the ones that weren’t already broken). So I got tired of that and wandered a long 20 min run/swim and found an untouched brownie spawn, and used it to happily skill up my lesser magic and swords for an hour. It was nice, not getting ganked or having to compete for monsters. Of course, then I got curious about the ghost spawn close by and got my butt kicked, but that’s the way things go in Darkfall.

      So no, quantity is not always > quality. In games like WAR, low pop = death, boredom, cheese. In DF? Not so bad.

      And yes, of 400k or so (non-Asian?) Aion subscribers, likely half of those are tourists who will drop everything and leave when the next big, pretty theme park opens for business. Not that that’s so bad, it’s just the nature of the business.

      Would you rather have a wholly unique (but extremely rough) experience with hardcore, dedicated, loyal players like Darkfall has, or a run-of-the-mill, smooth, polished on-rails thrill ride with half a million players just looking for a quick fix, like Aion? Which is more successful from a business perspective?

      Eh, whatevs. I’m not judging. I’m using DF to keep me entertained til Star Trek Online in February. ;)

  8. sid67 says:

    No offense, Syn — but your post (starting with the ad hominem personal attack) is more of a troll response than anything Tobold wrote. Let’s see, we’ll call him out for having no business sense and then not address his point at all. Wow. Great response!

    His point is pretty clear: Profitable or not profitable, Darkfall’s mere 20K subscription numbers means the game is fairly INSIGNIFICANT relative to other MMOs.

    And he’s right. If you are talking about people voting with their wallets (as you often do) then Darkfall is insignificant when compared to other games in the genre.

    Which is incredibly ironic considering that **YOU** think the most popular games in the genre shouldn’t be in the genre at all. (i.e. WoW is not an MMO, DF is an MMO)

    • SynCaine says:

      So wait, a PROFITABLE game is insignificant in the MMO space (land of profitable titles, right?) after delivering a quality product aimed at a particular niche, compared to the amazing significance of one which is going to be added to the list of failed “me too” games?

      People are voting with their wallet, and those votes result in one game being PROFITABLE, and the other not. Again, how is that insignificant? Someone today is looking to create an MMO, and you are trying to tell me they are going to look at Aion, ignore DarkFall, and follow in THAT path?

      • sid67 says:

        It’s insignificant because even a modest game which has 300K subscribers has 15 times the number of players that Darkfall boasts.

        It’s insignificant because the number of players PLAYING the game or INTERESTED in playing the game is so incredibly small relative to any other game in the genre.

        It has almost zero impact of the market at all.

        Quantity is not always greater than quality, but you have to HAVE quantity in the first place if you want to call something successful.

        Kudos on it being profitable. That’s one measure of success. But from an average joe player’s perspective? It’s an insignificant game.

        • SynCaine says:

          You could spend 10m in advertising and get 300k people to buy a box of crap, does that make the box of crap significant because 300k people bought it?

          And when did EVE become significant? At what point does a profitable MMO go from being insignificant to something everyone not named Blizzard wishes they could be? Then would it not also make sense that the sooner someone picked up on the EVE formula, the sooner they were able to try and mimic it’s success? I mean if it takes Aion failing to make someone realize “me too” MMOs are not a good investment, aren’t they a little behind the ball?

          I can accept that a game like WAR or Aion are significant for a reason, but being a significant failure is not something to be very proud of, is it? Sure future dev teams should look at Aion as a cautionary tale of what not to do (although one would think the previous mass market failures would have already taught this lesson, but what can you do), but if you are studying how to make a profitable MMO, would it not also make sense to study, you know, the ones that ARE profitable, be it with 10k subs or 300k?

          Last I checked, a little profit off marginal sales is a lot better than a loss with huge sales, right?

        • jim says:

          You keep bringing up EVE. Darkfall is not EVE.

          The only thing is has in common is it is an open world. Claiming that DF will be as successful as EVE is a stretch.

        • sid67 says:

          Profitability is a measure of success.

          Market share is a measure of impact.

          See the difference? Darkfall has no impact.

          That’s the point Tobold is making. He’s saying ‘kudos for being profitable’ but you are ‘chicken feed’ in relation to the rest of the genre.

          As for profitability, that’s a poor measure of what PLAYERS want out of games as well. Facebook games produced by Zynga are VERY profitable (and really lousy games).

        • SynCaine says:

          The Zynga games are profitable through some rather dubious means, not sure those exactly count.

          As for impact, time will judge that. And Aion’s fledgling market share is having exactly what impact, other than being another tick on the “don’t me-too design an MMO”. (And even now, I’d say DF has already had plenty of impact, it’s just more difficult to mimic say, it’s naval combat vs mimicking WAR’s ‘queue anywhere’ feature.)

  9. Irenor says:

    Gah stop comparing niche with mass-market,Indie and Big Business, Orange and Apples.

    Otherwise WAR should be the second most significant game after WoW….which it clearly isn’t.

    The point isn’t that people vote with their money since DarkFall is a NICHE game, meaning that from Day 1, it does not attempt to appeal to the same audience as mass-market games like Aion. You CAN talk about people voting with their money when comparing Aion, WoW, WAR, AoC, etc but don’t mix in niche games as they have nothing to do with this as they plan and function differently.

    • bonedead says:

      But what about the game successfully going after their target market and then retaining those players? That is something I would say is more of an even keel, no?

  10. sid67 says:

    Otherwise WAR should be the second most significant game after WoW….which it clearly isn’t.

    In recent years, it IS the second most significant game after WoW. That doesn’t make it successful.

    After all, there is also significance in failure. In some ways, moreso than in success. It’s much easier to learn from colossal mistakes.

    But Darkfall, by contrast, isn’t even a big enough blip on the radar to be significant either way.

    • sid67 says:

      By the by, if I were Syncaine I wouldn’t be getting into this pissing match with Tobold over subscription numbers and profitability.

      Tobold is right when he calls Darkfall’s 20K subscriber base ‘chicken feed’ in relation to other games.

      If it were ME, I would focus on why it’s not chicken feed. I would focus on the innovative game design decisions and how those types of successes in a small indie game may bleed over into bigger titles.

      Because while the number of subscribers is chicken feed, I think you can make a great argument that the INNOVATION is NOT chicken feed or insignificant.

      But that’s just me…

      • SynCaine says:

        The innovation topic was last weekend, and that horse is tired, KEEP UP! :)

        In 2004, if I’m a start-up MMO dev house, would it have be wiser to pay attention and mimic the upcoming surefire megahit EQ2, or the chicken feed population of EVE?

        In 2009, who’s future looks brighter, the chicken feed from 2004 or that surefire megahit?

        In mid 2009, if I’m a start-up MMO dev house, should I mimic the surefire megahit Aion, or pay attention to that chicken feed DF title?

        In 2014, who are we more likely to still be talking about?

      • Mig says:

        Are you serious? These blog wars bring more attention to Darkfall than it otherwise would get. As there is no multi-million dollar advertisement budget backing up Darkfall any exposure that Darkfall gets is huge. Tobold is one of the most visited blogs out there. The more people that get exposed to Darkfall the better. Even if he shines a negative light on the game it leads to others who would otherwise not know about Darkfall or Syncaine investigating the issue and eventually maybe trying out the game.

  11. Mig says:

    I see 3 elements within the definition of success when it comes to MMO’s. The first is the business side. The key here is return on investment. Subscription numbers alone mean nothing. If the company can see a good return on their investment then it is a success.

    While the company might be focused on the return of their investment, for the developers themselves I would say that success is about having steady employment while working on something you love. The majority appear to care passionately about bringing their vision to life. So long as they can maintain what they consider to be a comfortable standard of living, working on a project that they love and believe in is a success.

    For us gamers, I would define success as a game we enjoy playing. Arguing success under those criteria, however, is rather pointless because the elements are completely subjective. It is only natural that we defend what we like and attack that which we do not. Gevlon would call this an ape-subroutine, and it does seem like these arguments bring out the baser qualities of our nature.

    At the end of the day you need all three elements for long term success as they all become interdependent. If the gamer does not enjoy the game he will not resubscribe, without passion and vision the game will eventually become bland and heartless, without a decent return on investment the game won’t stay around for the gamers to play and enjoy. Each element might be able to exist in the short term without the other, as a developer could create a game they love that absolutely flops, so he only had success for a short period, but the goal for mmo’s needs to be set on the long term for everyone to reap the full benefits of the genre.

    • Sarzan says:

      Mig raises a good point. He boils down success into 3 elements. What are the elements that we can agree on that would define a success or failure?

  12. Wilhelm2451 says:

    *golf clap*

    Some very nice theoretical numbers there. However, when I read what Tobold wrote, he was talking about two specific games that exist here in the real world while you’re playing make believe with these two mythical 50K and 300K player games for which you have created your own set of financial numbers.

    I know you’re all over the whole sandbox thing, but I thought you said it was, you know, the rules that were important. It is the rules that keeps it from all being so much BS.

    • SynCaine says:

      Because Tobold uses some real numbers huh? So real they are pulled from a message board, which uses some faulty math (FYI: An inactive or even deleted character still shows up on a DF clan roster until he is removed). Backed up by pre-order numbers for a game that is BLEEDING subs, not having trouble getting them initially. Great point, let’s focus on those ‘real’ numbers and not my make-believe numbers to show an overall point.

      Unless of course, you are trying to add something here and believe Aion is doing better financially than DF? But no no, that would require actually contributing an opinion to the discussion, rather than trying to derail it.

      • sid67 says:

        We talk about profitability a lot but I often wonder about that initial box sale.

        The assumption always seems to be that if you take a game like WAR, sell a million boxes, then end up with only 100K subscribers that it is unprofitable.

        Says who? Maybe they only needed to sell 500K boxes to break even and everything above that is profit. We don’t really KNOW what development and marketing costs were on a lot of these titles.

        It may very well be that games like WAR and AoC while failing to deliver the cash cow subscriptions, made a profit on the box sales.

        If that’s the case, it kinda shoots holes in this whole idea that a game like Aio is unprofitable because it bleeds users.

        If anything, that’s just more fuel to the fire about what I posted above that “profit” is a meaningless measuring stick for PLAYERS.

        • SynCaine says:

          That’s very true, it’s hard to know how much the initial sale of those $50 boxes factors in, and how much of that $50 ends up in the pockets of the devs/company.

          But as an overall, it’s hard to imagine the business plan working with “launch huge, die fast”. Selling a million or so boxes must take the sting out of those fading subs, but I can’t believe it completely makes the venture worthwhile.

          And of course, from a players perspective, box sales mean nothing and the dev team being cut back and the servers shutting down means everything.

        • sid67 says:

          I know if I were in charge of budgeting the development of an MMO, I wouldn’t want to spend more than what I thought I could get from launch sales.

          Meaning that if I thought I could make $15M off of the initial sale of 500,000 boxes, then my development and marketing budget would be less than $15M.

          That way, even if the game “failed” I am not losing money.

        • SynCaine says:

          That would be ideal, but something tells me it would be hard to spend $15m today and get a product out that sells 500k copies. 500k is a high number for MMO sales, and $15m seems like a very low amount to spend (WAR was what, close to $60m if not more?)

        • sid67 says:

          By the by, that’s not planning to fail — that’s planning for the RISK of failing. Which is how you mitigate risk and remain profitable.

          Honestly, that might really be the approach with some of these WoW clones. What do they care if they sell ‘crap in a box’ as long as they can sell at least million pieces of crap.

          And if it turns out not to be crap? Then it’s a gold mine.

        • SynCaine says:

          Oh of course. The guy who invented the pet rock made a million dollars (best movie ever), and I doubt he was overly concerned that his ‘invention’ was crap.

          I mean all the devs who have ever made a Batman or Superman game (not counting the latest Batman game, which was actually good), they all knew they were making total crap, but if the crap was made shiny, enough people would buy it to see a pay day.

        • sid67 says:

          WAR was what, close to $60m if not more?

          I was being conservative to make a point, but I think WAR and Aion are in different situations.

          Aion is a rehash port of an already successful Asian game. The dev costs to Americanize that game were likely not nearly as high as WAR.

          It could very easily have been ‘crap in a box’ and been profitable.

        • SynCaine says:

          What do you mean, ‘could have been’? :)

        • Draglem says:

          So are you related to that singer guy?

  13. Dblade says:

    Well, EVE is a failure compared to FFXI, which has been humming along profitable for the same time as EVE with less advertising and double the subs. EVE really isn’t that much of a success-it survives, but is heavily reliant on multiboxing, and is a very hands-off kind of game.

    EVE also has had zero competition in its specific niche, same as FFXI and console MMOs, so both are historical accidents. I think the MMO genre isn’t really one where you can make general comparisons in terms of subs, because each game really is unique in terms of launch and circumstances.

    If you are using finances though as a form of success why aren’t you playing Maple Story? Maple Story is probably much better in terms of cost/revenue than even WoW.

  14. Draglem says:


    Just want to point out the one reason WoW has clones, marketshare, whatever. Not saying that because everyone else buys box that box is great, but maybe why “box online” and “the new adventures of box” just came out and why any game other than box is not box.

  15. JoBildo says:

    Wow, judging by those ratings LotRO’s #2… good for Turbine!

  16. Draglem says:

    Does it matter how your game preforms fiscally as long as you enjoy playing it? Or is the heart of the issue playing a game that will not be around forever? Personally I would want to get in on a good thing while it lasts instead of contributing an equal amount yet proportionally insignificant pittance all things being equal especially knowing there is finite time to enjoy it.

    Or it the whole idea that when your game (being licensed to you, not developed by you) is profitable for its shareholders you are somehow justified paying as long as you are not the only sucker donating to the coffers? The unquestionable measure of worth is the width of the profit margin regardless of marginalized content?

    I dun’ git ‘et.

  17. Derrick says:

    From a gamer perspective, I’m much happier with the games (and I’m not pointing towards any particular titles here, just the overall concept) with titles that may not sell so well off the start, but manage to maintain or grow their subs continuously.

    One that sells heavy, gets a big number of initial subs may well be very profitable, but if it quickly hemorrages subs it’s not going to stick around long, and see significant post-release development.

    On the other hand, a game with a solid, reliable ongoing income via subs is much more likely to see noteworthy ongoing development.

    Whether a game is considered successful or not, significant or not… it’s academic really. While I’m interested in the gaming world overall, as a gamer all I care about is what games I have to play, and how much fun they are. Games with even or growing sub numbers long term get more development, and become better games overall in the long run.

  18. Pingback: I’m glad I’m not Syncaine or Tobold « Experience Curve

  19. Random Poster says:

    Think this has been pointed out a couple of times but what the hell, i’m bored and I feel like typing.

    you can’t compare Aion and Darkfall as to whether one succeeded or not to the other. One both were aiming for entirely different goals.

    Aion followed the same path that the previous NCSoft MMO’s (sans Tabula Rasa) in which they make sure they have a profitible game in their home territory and then port it to the US. Thus much reducing the risk and money involved. So while sub numbers in the US may seem low, NCSoft views pretty much all the subs as a bonus from NA, not the meat of their business.

    Darkfall was created on a shoestring budget so any and all subs count as “success” from their viewpoint.

    In the overall view of the MMO genre (in the west) both are failures. Aion generated a ton of buzz, got some good initial numbers and is quickly losing relevance in the west due to some of the very “eastern MMO” type directions it has sent itself (hi there Lineage and L2).
    Darkfall neither generated much buzz nor generated a bunch of numbers. It has some hardcore fans but hell so does AoC, UO for current MMO’s and then for failed ones there were rabid people for AC2, and Shadowbane.

    So for both publishers they were successes, but neither can they be argued as significant to the MMO genre (much like Eve can not be). Funnily enough I feel both would have different goals to be “significant”. For Aion it would have had to have huge numbers say, 1-2m and kept them in the west. For Darkfall a few hundred thousand, keeping them and growing from there would have made it significant.

    As for the so called Blog War, meh only one person went straight to personal attacks to try and bolster their opinion.

  20. JdJdJd says:

    So lets use your numbers. Per this http://www.massively.com/2009/11/09/aion-reports-nearly-1-million-copies-sold-in-north-america-and-e/

    As of November, Aion has sold approx 970,000 units. Just to be conservative we’ll use numbers for the regular box and not the collectors edition.

    970k x $49.99 = $48,490,300.00

    Now lets add in just one month of subs using your 300k number.

    300k x $14.99 = $4,497,000.00

    Total sales = $52,987,300.00

    Using your own number of $50 million. It’s hard to call it a failure when it pulled in enough to pay for it’s own development less then 2 months after release.

  21. Tobold says:

    So if I make a MMORPG for $1 and scam 1 idiot into playing it, I just created the most successful MMORPG game in history? Sorry, Syncaine, but success is still measured in Mega-$, not in growth rate starting from an insignificant base. And what game exactly are you claiming has 50k subscribers? Not Darkfall, that one has only 20k.

    • willee says:

      So if success is only measured in Mega-$, would you consider Eve a failure? If not now, would you have considered them a failure a couple years ago?

      If a game makes mega-$ but also costs mega-$ to make and run, and also is bleeding subs, is that a success? But a game with 20,000 subs, costs very little (in comparison) to make, and has an impressive growth rate is a failure? I think you may need to take a few business classes if you insist on talking success/failure in the business world.

      I’m sure the Darkfall devs are wallowing in their miserable failure of a game as they see it growing, making money, and providing enough funding to keep their company running, moving into new offices, hiring folks, and allowing them to work the ultimate dream jobs of making mmorpgs for a living. On the other hand the War devs must be throwing parties every day since the game by all accounts did bring in some mega-$, even though some of those same devs may currently be collecting unemployment. hmmmm

      Success is relative Tobold. It’s easy to see that you look at everything from the perspective of Wow, instead of the perspective of the developers who make these games and whether or not the game achieves their own goals and definition of success vs say the definition of success from a WoW fanboi which, of course, would be mega-billions of subs and enough cash to run a small country.

    • SynCaine says:

      No Tobold, your one subscriber MMO would not be a mega success. It would be more profitable than Aion in the NA/EU though. So again, small success > big failure. Plus at your profit ratio, your game is less likely to have it’s servers shut down and it’s dev staff cut, which is a brighter future for that one player.

      You are arguing Waterworld was a bigger success than Paranormal Activity, because overall more people saw Waterworld and Paranormal Activity had ‘chicken feed’ budget/actors/hype.

  22. Sifo says:

    seriously WoW is horrible and anyone who plays it is retarted… yes retarted

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