All those are great reads. Entertaining, informative, opinionated. Everything a good blog post should be. None of it actually tells us how many people are playing WoW, though. Nor who's buying the box in retail stores. Or digitally downloading it. Or paying a sub.
The reason PR like Mojang's makes such an impact is because of the hard numbers. That was why I was so taken with Jagex's statement on RuneScape a while back. Real numbers are chewy. On the other hand, numbers can also be very misleading, especially when they get retailed, endlessly, often out of their original context.
The reviews for Duncan Jones' Warcraft movie have been searing. Currently sitting on a Rotten Tomatoes approval rating of just 18% it's already a hot bet for worst movie of the year. Moviegoers and critics can push and pull all they want over the quality but when it comes to the film's commercial success, unlike the game on which it's based we will, eventually, know pretty much exactly how well it has performed. Unlike the games industry, the movie business doesn't hesitate to make those details public.
Jack Shepherd of The Independent was one of the kinder reviewers. He gave the movie two stars while outing himself as an ex-WoW player:
For six months, I was a Night Elf, killing boars, completing fetch quests, and admiring the beautifully rendered world Blizzard had created.That means he played WoW for as long as I did. And yet he still couldn't follow the plot. He also goes on to make a thesis probably unique among reviewers writing for major news outlets, when he suggests that Warcraft might have been a better movie if it had focused on Elves instead of Orcs and been directed by Guillermo del Toro.
Well, that certainly would have been a different movie but it's not Shepherd's take on the aesthetics that I want to question, it's his math. Like a number of commentators he brings up the headline figures of WoW's heyday, when he asserts that "at its peak, World of Warcraft had over 12 million online players".
He doesn't go on, as other reviewers have done, to state that it would take every single one of those players to go see the film if it's to have a hope of getting it's money back. It does, however, leave the implication hanging in the air that around a dozen million people have played WoW.
Twelve million is a lot but it's a fraction, probably a small fraction, of the number of people who have walked, however briefly and virtually, on Azerothian soil over the the last decade and some. As an English grad, Mathematics is not my strong point, but even I can see that, with a stated monthly "churn" of 5 %, the number of ex-WoW players has to be way higher than 12 million.
Jeremy Gaffney, speaking back in 2014, when he still believed WildStar was a contender for WoW's crown, said:
We don't really give a crap about your buddy who's still playing; we give a crap about your 10 buddies who aren't playing anymore. That's the crew who goes to buy your 1 million, 2 million, 10 million boxes.Or your movie tickets, he might have added, had there been any remote chance of WildStar ever appearing on the big screen. And yet, even that is remarkably unambitious. You could hardly ever accuse SynCaine of underselling his argument but he may be letting Blizzard apologists off lightly when he says:
Why do some people think WoW is a special snowflake and had/has tapped out the market? Spoiler: It never did, it just got progressively worse as a game, to the point that it stopped growing and then started to shrink.
The current world population is just south of seven and a half billion, of whom almost half have access to the internet. Admittedly the dragon's share of that comes via Mobile, which means GameLoft probably has a better chance than Blizzard right now of breaking the billion player barrier for MMOs (good luck with that...) but even so there has to be room for a much, much bigger success in the genre than even WoW ever managed.
As Azuriel says, big numbers are big and so are big ambitions. Bigger than both, though, is serendipity or possibly sheer, dumb luck. No-one knows why WoW smashed EverQuest's six figure sales records by an order of magnitude. What or who will break the eight figure barrier and become the first billion player game? No-one has a clue about that either.
And maybe nothing ever will. Maybe there really isn't any game so universally appealing that one seventh of all humans will want to give it a try. If it does ever come about that every seventh person shares a single gaming experience you can bet that no-one will be able to explain how it happened and no-one will be able to make it happen again, or at least not when they try.
In contrast to Jack "Night Elf" Shepherd, the movie reviewer to whom I pay the most attention, Mark Kermode, doesn't play video games at all. He doesn't claim to have any feeling or affection for them. Mostly he believes they make poor source material for movies, or at least that they have done thus far.
Surprisingly, then, he gave Warcraft one of the more favorable reviews it's received. What's key about the review is that he suggests he probably enjoyed it more because he didn't have any pre-existing knowledge of the franchise, the lore or the game. He just watched what Duncan Jones put in front of him and had a fairly good time.
I would contend that that's at least one of the reasons WoW grew big enough to get the big budget movie treatment in the first place. When WoW was in its growth phase it was drawing in people who didn't already play Blizzard games, or possibly any video games. They just saw other people playing it, heard other people talking about it, read and watched news reports that mentioned it and thought they might as well give it a go.
It may well be that the audience Warcraft needs is precisely that vast horde of people who never played WoW at all but it has almost no chance now of reaching them. That would lie in the realm of serendipity, of the zeitgeist, that magic fairy dust that can't be manufactured. You can't bake in word-of-mouth in the pressing plant or code cultural phenomena into the download and you can't create a "must see" by slapping a poster on the side of a bus, either.
Maybe WoW was the peak of the MMO mountain. Maybe the disdain for Warcraft the Movie is final proof that the bubble hasn't just burst, it's been washed down the drain and out to sea, where anything that made it sparkle and shine has long since dissipated and deliquesced.
I choose to believe otherwise. Big numbers are big and while WoW was a lot bigger than people seem to be able to comprehend, at the same time it wasn't as big as all that. Something bigger will come along.
Whether we'll welcome it when it does is a question for another post entirely.