WoW: Churn and burn

The closing of a private WoW server has sparked some good debate, particularly around my favorite fact (not topic) of discussion; that WoW stopped growing during WotLK, thanks in large part to the design changes made at that time. Az disagrees (with a historical fact…) because he believes during WotLK more new players signed up for WoW than ever before. And while that’s true, very true actually, it doesn’t help the cause of WotLK as the total number of subs flat-lined. It actually hurts it tremendously.

From a revenue standpoint one sub is the same as another in any given month. Meaning someone who has played for a year pays the same $15 that someone who is new paid (ignoring the one-time gain of selling a box), so you aren’t growing revenue if you are bringing in more people than ever, while at the same time more people are leaving than ever before (churn), and from a business standpoint if you aren’t growing you’re dying.

Az brought up churn rate, but never answered whether he thinks WotLK or Vanilla had the higher rate. He doesn’t really need to answer (other than for a sanity check), because I think we all clearly know the answer, but that answer leads into some interesting territory; what sells an MMO, and what sustains it?

Mr T sells your MMO. TV commercials sell your MMO. Marketing, hype, and yes, the basics of what your game is all about sell your MMO (mostly graphics and the general theme, not the damage % of ability X on class Y being nerfed .5%). Those things get people in the door, but no one playing at the time said “ooh, Mr T is talking about WoW, let me buy another 6 month sub to continue facerolling content that isn’t getting updated for a year!”.

Once you are playing an MMO however, the details of what the game is actually about is what retains you. If the content you are enjoying changes to something worse, that might make you leave. Hell, if the content you enjoy stays stagnant or doesn’t have long-term appeal, and another MMO comes along that does what you like better, that might make you leave. Retaining a player in an MMO is both very easy (social hooks and all that potentially being so strong) and very hard (because unlike most other genres, the goal here is keeping someone months if not years longer than they would play a single-player game, though titles like LoL, CS, and CoC already blur the lines a bit in this regard.)

In other words, while hype and marketing will get you in, content and design choices will determine whether you stay or not, and for how long. Today WoW still has the hype and history to move boxes when a new expansion hits, but it’s also a dumpster fire in design, as almost everyone that comes back leaves shortly after consuming the little bits of bleh content that were added. How WoW arrived to its current sad state started with WotLK.

Vanilla grew more than anyone thought was possible, and TBC continued this unprecedented growth. That growth trajectory was very different (unique really) from other successful MMO. EQ1 hit its peak 1-2 years after release, EVE had a far longer growth, but obviously not nearly as sharp before hitting its current stall, Lineage 1 hit its peak something like 15 years after release, FFXIV is still growing 3+ years in, etc. Point being: there is no magic timeframe of expected growth and then decline for an MMO, because how you update your MMO is what really determines whether you grow or fade. Had WotLK been designed better, ala vanilla/TBC, WoW would have kept growing.

So yes, during WotLK the marketing and hype for WoW dwarfed what it was during vanilla or even TBC, and you no doubt had far more new people jumping in to try it. The actual design changes of WotLK though? All of those combined resulted in a game going from gaining millions of subs to flat-lining, and then ultimately declining by 60%+. Factor in all of the social hooks and forward moment WoW had at the time (to say nothing about the financial ability to spend on content and marketing compared to anyone else), and stalling out growth of that snowball rolling down the hill is actually quite the amazing feat that WotLK pulled off, and its why its place in MMO history is so significant.

PS: On the topic of Blizzard hosting vanilla servers and how difficult/costly that would be; if multiple amateur teams can do it, even to the scale of 150k+ accounts, I’m pretty sure Blizzard (even New Blizzard) could figure it out (Hell if TWO separate teams can get Darkfall 1 up and running, I’m pretty sure its easier than current-day WoW dungeons!).

From a technical standpoint this whole thing is trivial, and the easy money is there on the table. But again, imagine the ego hit (and really, reality check) everyone at New Blizzard would take when vanilla WoW had more active players than current-day WoW? The server will eventually happen, because current WoW will continue to decline, but we won’t see Blizzard do it until desperation really sets in. Perhaps once the WoW movie flops and Legion follows the same pattern as Warlords, but not before that. Early prediction time; we see legacy WoW servers in 2017. Second prediction; those servers become insanely popular, and that popularity sustains itself far better than EQ1 legacy servers or similar ventures.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
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18 Responses to WoW: Churn and burn

  1. John says:

    But what if the movie dont flop? What if it brings new and “happy” customers? Like, more Grandmothers and mamas that will just raise the sub numbers and not the activity? Will Blizzard claim that wow is successful again?

    I really feel sad about wow developers right now… They are desperate to show they are better than the Vanilla/TBC team… thats why they closed Nostalrius.. their ego got a big hit for sure, but instead of become better developers they just turned out to be big fat bullies

    • SynCaine says:

      The movie is a bit of a lose/lose IMO. Obviously if it outright flops or just does ok that hurts the brand and ‘fails’ in terms of helping the game. But even if it does well (short of 300m+ blockbuster well) and a lot of new people try WoW, they are still going to find current-day WoW, which has the life-span of a month or two. So at best (and I think the movie has like a 90% chance of being a bust) we are talking a short-term bump in activities followed by more continued decline. WoW’s problem isn’t getting people to try it right now, its getting people to like it after they try it.

      • John says:

        “WoW’s problem isn’t getting people to try it right now, its getting people to like it after they try it.”

        Could not say it any better… thats exactly the problem..

  2. Dobablo says:

    You assume that WoW hasn’t consumed any of its potential player pool and there is an infinite number of potential WoW gamers. Since there are now more ex-WoW players than humans that have ever lived it must be very difficult to capture enough hold-outs to offset the inevitable churn.

    • SynCaine says:

      WoW peaked at 12m active players. LoL has 30m+, CoC has 100m+. Prior to WoW the belief was that 500k was the absolute max an MMO could have. In 2003-2007, did anyone really think a niche game like EVE would have 400k subs in 2016? Why did Lineage 1 hit its peak 15 years (or something like that) after release to the tune of millions?

      Point being, people like to say “This number is the max, no one else is out there”, and that remains true only until the next title comes along and shatters that belief, or a title believed to be ‘maxed out’ improves enough to push past its previous max.

      • Dobablo says:

        I cannot imagine there are many people interested in playing an subscription based MMO that wait over 10 years before trying it out. Every game has a limited appeal (of varying sizes) and will eventually start to run low on potential converts. At that point, unless churn is non-existent. The only way to remain viable is to exploit a new market or become something different.

        • SynCaine says:

          Someone who was 5 years old when WoW came out is now 15, and someone who was 15 is now 25. Out of the 100m+ CoC players, have even half played WoW? Where did the millions of Lineage 1 players come from to push that game to a new high? Are all 30m+ active LoL players former WoW players?

          Again, thinking that a game attracting 12m people is any kind of max is incorrect thinking. Even Facebook, used by practically everyone alive on earth (but me), still sees new users joining. Toyota still improves and tries to expand the sales of its most popular cars, decades after the launch of some of the models and with millions of buyers each year. It’s honestly a loser mentality to say “we can’t get bigger”, especially when the sample size is as small as 12m.

        • Dobablo says:

          WoW’s limit is not 12m. CoC is not the same type of game as WoW and cars will always need replacing.
          Despite what you think a there is a limit to the number of people that will want a product. You cannot just sell more through better marketing. To expand you must evolve what is being offered so that more people want it. If Toyota or Facebook failed to constantly update they would fade to irrelevance. The same applies to gaming.

  3. vexis58 says:

    The thing that bothers me is that they recently started up a team dedicated to updating and preserving their old games. There were patches for Warcraft 3 and Diablo 2! And yet, despite this, they tell us they won’t open classic WoW servers? They will. They’re just not willing to announce them yet.

  4. tithian says:

    To be completely honest, Wrath was not completely bad. Ulduar was the peak, for sure, and even ICC had some great encounters. However it was right after Ulduar that they decided to move into a new style of raiding and then the Group Finder was added, along with the very controversial (at the time) Sparkle Pony.

    You make a good point when you say that the social hooks were in full effect during Wrath, because people playing all that time certainly weren’t going to leave on the first sight of trouble. That happened on Cataclysm, when they destroyed PUG raiding (pure genius, that was) and the sever changes to classes and game design philosophy caused people to leave and the social hooks to disintegrate. It did’t help that some people also saw the end of Wrath and the end of WoW altogether; these people were playing due to their attachment to Warcraft 3 and killing Arthas was the culmination of that trip.

    Ironically, they were kinda right.

    • tithian says:

      and the end of WoW = as the end of WoW
      Christ I need to stop posting this late.

    • SynCaine says:

      Yea I’m not saying Wrath was 100% terrible, just like Vanilla wasn’t perfect, nor was TBC (10-25 man raiding instead of 40, the one-track zones). It’s more that the sum of all the parts resulted in people leaving, while the sum of vanilla/TBC had people asking friends to join them.

      I also think the conclusion of the Arthus story is valid too, especially when you follow that up with Cata and then MoP.

      • Cristian Dobrescu says:

        Indeed, after killing both Illidan and Arthas and seeing almost everyone from Warcraft the game had little lore to go on.

        Would have loved a single player game to expand on the warcraft series and then bring in those characters into a MMO for a different perspective.

        I used to hate Valve for Half Life, but looks like Blizzard managed to top the cake on ruined/killed/abused franchises.

  5. Mikrakov says:

    Personally I think Wrath got a lot of things right, the questing and story peaked here, and I thought Ulduar was one of the best raid dungeons that they ever released. Alas though, good story and questing don’t get you logging in once you have finished them as you allude to, and this is where Wrath dropped the ball. The LFG tool is the chief offender, as on face value it offers an invaluable service, you can jump into a dungeon straight away instead of spending half an hour forming a group, but that means you form absolutely no social bonds, which in hindsight is the real reason you keep logging in. I quit in Wrath, but kept playing long after I stopped enjoying it primarily because of the friends I had made in game.
    The other chief offender is “accessibility”. Making content available to the lowest common denominator is the absolute worst thing an MMO can do, because if you consume all the content on offer, then what is left? They often state that less than 1% of people saw the vanilla Naxx, but this was not a bad thing as it gave noobs something to aspire too, and the knowledge that it took a massive amount of time and effort to get there usually encouraged people to play more, not dishearten them.
    I often wonder if I will quit CoC once I hit max TH11 and I think the answer is probably yes, because even though I love wars, without the feeling of “progress” I might not be bothered logging in. But of course, I won’t hit max TH11 for ages, and by then they will have probably released TH12 anyhow by then so it’s not really an issue. SuperCell have gotten the progress grind pretty much spot on. People almost always use the word “grind” in a derogatory fashion, but it’s key to all the successful MMOs. Best way to get someone to unsubscribe – let them “finish” the game.

    • SynCaine says:

      Exactly. The moment I finish building in CoC or BB is the moment I quit. Wars and Ops are great, but they are great in part because we are always evolving, always gaining more power/complexity. If I was max TH11 with 40/40/20 royals, every war is the same beyond the layout of the enemy max TH11, and that would get very boring fast.

      The grind comment is also spot-on. People view it as an issue, when in reality its a games greatest strength; if you are still grinding, you are still playing.

  6. Thomas says:

    I don’t know if talking about sub peaks is ever going to satisfy everything, because it just can’t acknowledge that the games market – particularly PC gaming – has got a lot lot lot more competitive since WoW started. Vanilla WoW had very poor competition for people’s attention, now the array of games available to people is so much more diverse and of a much higher quality. People couldn’t be playing LoL or DayZ or The Witcher 3 or Fallout 4.

    Quality aside, Vanilla WoW was the game to beat in terms of content in its time. Nothing else could fill the hours as competitively. Nowadays WoW is very below curve in terms of content for money. Sure you can play WoW everyday. But for $15, whereas you can play LoL everday for nothing. You can play DayZ everday for an entry cost, you can play GTA everyday for entry cost… WoW just doesn’t have the same value. It’s impressive it survives as it does when there are so many F2P games and MMOs

    • Thomas says:

      Think about this. No MMO has ever dethroned WoW. No-one has made a vanilla WoW lookalike. WoW has only been beaten by new types of games offering a non standard MMO experience

      • SynCaine says:

        That’s not that uncommon though. No MOBA will ever top LoL, no mobile game will ever top CoC, no shooter will ever be as popular as CS, no MMO will ever top EVE for retention, etc.

        Vanilla WoW was far better than WotLK+ WoW, but vanilla also had a ton of other unique factors going for it that resulted in 12m subs. It’s the same for LoL. Is it 3-4x better than DoTA2? No. But being better-enough AND having good timing/luck is why it’s at 30m+. Is CoC 100x better than other games of it’s type? Ok… that one is a yes.

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