Friday, November 21, 2014

The Numbers Game : WoW, EQ2

As I observed not too long ago, it's been obvious for some time that Warlords of Draenor was generating a lot more, and a lot more positive, interest than the previous couple of WoW expansions managed. Even so, the revelation that WoD fever had tipped WoW's subscription pile back over the 10,000,000 mark was a surprise.

The pull of that vortex is now so strong it's moved on from consolidating the faithful to sucking in even the furthest outliers but no, I am not here to announce that I have joined the merry band of pod-people. I'm just here to compare that number, ten million, with the very much smaller number that Feldon of EQ2Wire has been dropping into conversation of late.

The number in question is 50,000. Apparently that's the the current "active" population of EQ2. Here's a quote "Otherwise, a game with some 50,000 active players gets unfairly tagged as a “ghost town”." I have no idea what the provenance of this 50k figure is but it sounds exceedingly low, not just by comparison to WoW's 10m, but even to Everquest's heyday of 500k.

So, what does constitute a viable population for an MMO from a large operator these days? If Feldon's figure is there or thereabouts accurate then it would seem fifty thousand customers gets you regular content additions up to and including an annual expansion (and one of pretty darn high quality at that, as these gorgeous screenshots attest). I believe Mark Jacobs suggested 50k would be sufficient to keep Camelot Unchained in business. Meanwhile Carbine's WildStar is widely perceived to be struggling with "hundreds of thousands of active players" (source).

No-one seems to like giving out detailed population figures any more but companies do seem happy to show vague traffic-lights on their server status page. As I write this late on Friday evening GMT, ten of EQ2's sixteen "Live" servers are showing "medium" and one "high". We are still some hours off of US prime-time. For that matter, a dozen of Everquest's eighteen servers are at "medium" too.

What "Medium" means in the context I have no idea. Could be a couple of hundred players, could be a couple of thousand. About all you can say is it must be better than "Low", which is the status for every one of Landmark's nine servers (and both of Dragon Prophet's but no one really cares about that).

In the end, as a player, I guess not much matters beyond enough people playing and paying to keep the lights on and the updates flowing. Then, too, the numbers playing very much do not seem to convert directly into quantity or quality of content provided. It's probably a fair bet that GW2 has ten times, if not twenty or thirty times, the players EQ2 does but the Altar of Malice expansion feels at least as substantial and satisfying (and considerably more coherent) than the sporadic, stuttering scattershot entertainment doled out this year in The Living Story.

It does rather feel as though one of these MMOs is over-performing while the other slides by on a bare minimum. Of course not everyone has to play by the exact same rules. As J3w3l points out, WoW seems to have special dispensation when it comes to keeping their vast horde of active players from wandering off: "How in the hell after over a year of absolutely no new content can they gain subscribers. Any other mmo doing that would be shutting down its servers about now yet they are thriving."

WoW loyalists, and there seem to be an inordinate number of them, are fortunate. They exist in a safe, certain world alien to almost all other MMO players. There is simply no prospect for them of waking up one morning to learn that their favorite MMO has gone dark. They certainly don't need to subscribe or play to feel secure that their game of choice will be there when and if they need it. Not for current or ex-WoW players the angst and uncertainty that LotRO players most likely feel gnawing at the back of their minds every day these days. No chance of Blizzard doing as NCSoft did with City of Heroes and closing down WoW because it's making money, just not enough.

I'm happy WoW's doing well. Much better that than for it to be slipping slowly into oblivion. A high tide lifts all boats as they say. I just hope some of the leaky vessels the rest of us prefer to sail in can keep bailing long enough to make it to their own safe harbors.


  1. If SOE is keeping EQII going with updates and such on only 50K player, then they must be doing something very right as an organization. And remember, this is a company that screwed up their virtual currency by putting in on deep discount repeatedly, to the point that they had to stop letting people buy game time or expansions with it, as the real world price was a small fraction of list price.

    Granted, they have had to cut some games, but they still are running at least one too many fantasy MMORPGs still. Meanwhile, NCsoft cuts any game not making their goal ruthlessly, though when you look at their numbers, most of their money comes from people in Korea playing the original Lineage. Cutting City of Heroes, which was still making money, was probably less of a hit than cutting the price of drinks on the corporate vending machines in Seoul.

    And then there is Turbine, which has barely managed to stumble along with two of the biggest names in fantasy for IPs. LOTRO won't make it through a contractual renew in 2017, and Turbine already has to face another D&D MMO in Neverwinter, which is frankly the game DDO should have been.

    The thing that must grind Smed's gears is that SOE was in a position to be, if not what WoW is today, then to be a much bigger player with EQII. They had the big dog already in EQ, if only they had known where to go next. As Raph Koster's post today said, Blizz took the EQ thing and found its easily consumable essence, while you and I have noted that SOE went into EQII having learned all the wrong lessons.

    1. The 50k figure would be less than half of what I'd have guessed. I don't know where Feldon gets it from but hes used it at least twice recently, dropping it in as a fact not a speculation. He does have all that EQ2U data of course so maybe he's able to derive it from there.

      Given my multiple fears for EQNext, namely that a) it may end up going the way of Blizzard's Titan b) if it does launch it may be a disastrous failure and c) even if it launches and is successful I may find it unplayable, unpalatable or both, I feel I have a vested interested in at least one of the existing examples of the Everquest franchise maintaining some kind of commercial viability. I'd settle for either but of course I hope for both. If I was going to throw any of them under a bus it Landmark could go first and EQN close after it.

    2. I suspect... and that this is speculation without any real foundation... that Feldon, with his database access, has found a tell that he believes indicates the number of unique accounts in EQII that are signed up for All Access. 50K All Access subscribers playing EQII might be par for the course.

    3. I was writing my reply to Simon Pole below as you posted that comment I think. Yes, I suspect the All Access factor might explain this anomaly. Perhaps they have 250k or more AA subs (plus who knows how many ad hoc F2Pers spending in the SC store) spread over the whole portfolio. At the same time they also cross-fertilize their developer pool between games to some degree. Looked at that way it begins to seem more likely.

  2. Mark Jacobs is quoted somewhere as saying his upcoming Camelot Unchained will be profitable and sustainable with 50,000 subscribers. Now, CU is going to be a niche or "boutique" MMORPG targeting RvR'ers and crafters, but it appears that perhaps 50k is the threshold for a certain level of competence/quality to be viable.

    (An interesting aside: other niche PvP-type MMORPG games still chugging along on the market seem to have other dynamics that allow them to survive. For example, Mortal Online is literally run by a trustfund baby with his father's money. And Darkfall Online apparently survives on grants from the Greek government).

    In the case of EQII which was once a "mainstream" PvE game, I would assume all the initial upfront costs of development are long since paid for. And that it also shares an infrastructure with SOE's other games (a benefit I don't think W*, for example, could claim from NCSoft). Perhaps these are advantages unavailable to others.

    1. There's the move to automatic "All Access" to consider too. Looking at the Server Status page right now, coming into peak time on a Saturday evening, DCUO, EQ, EQ2 and Planetside2, which you'd take to be SOE's core games, have almost all servers at Medium with a couple on HIgh. An All Access sub allows you to play any of those so I guess they could be treated almost as one product even though chances are most subscribers really only play one of them to any significant degree. That might well give the AA portfolio an "active player" base in the hundreds of thousands. There's always been a degree of flexibility between games within the SOE dev pool so perhaps that has something to do with how they maintain such a strong output.

    2. Which raises an interesting question about SOE. One would think the mutual support of AA would allow them to take a chance on more innovative, experimental or next-gen MMORPGs. This would see them operating like a 1970's-era movie studio or publisher, using surefire blockbusters to finance riskier projects, in the hope one might be a breakout.

      They are attempting things like H1N1, though that appears almost like a "me too" project, after DayZ. Perhaps it is too much to expect of a company that size. (As the 70's movie studios were not yet over-corporate--something that can be also said about publishers today).

  3. As alluded to by TAGN, Raph Koster recently posted about the WoW legacy/'mojo'

    It could be that one of the factors that e.g. EQ2 can get by with 50k players is that it seems to have relatively little marketing costs, with another being that it doesn't have much in the way of PvP.

    While the '1 year content draught yet still return' thing with WoW might see baffling, it's actually less so if you consider that current-WoW is very much aimed at current-cap Achiever types/Raiders and Arena players.

    These kind of players are conditioned to munch through the Raids/gain high Ranking ASAP (in case of the raids by scouring the PTR/Beta for practice and exploitable bugs) and then unsub till the next Patch starts the whole gear/Rating treadmill anew, using the play time left between Cancelling and actually running out of gametime to boost others for enough gold to make unsubbing without 'losing resources' more than feasible.

    Or, to use a popular analogy, WoW is a continual 3-monther that is 'worth' returning to because the 'status/assets' gained remain due to the large numbers factor and in-game pecularties (like e.g. using the aformentioned exploitable bugs is almost never punished or rolled-back, the one exception being levelling 'too fast' to the new level cap at the start of an Expansion - then, while otherwise they claim they can't reverse level gains due to e.g. bugged-out XP-Locks, they can suddenly de-level characters & otherwise roll-back things)

    Note that this also partially explains why new 'WoW Clones'/games aimed the same Achiever types almost invariably 'fail': they ask WoW players to postpone if not outright give-up their WoW 'status'.

    Personally, I seriously doubt that WoD will retain much of their current, MoP-start sub numbers.

    MoP lost a lot of subs due to Dailies killing-off the Chinese market, and increasingly-bad PvP (with some Rating scandals and the highly-unpopular merging with the Russian Realms in case of EU WoW thrown in for good measure) but it offered loads of activities and 'stuff to do' at cap - once (due to Accountwide Mounts and Achievements) - with Pet Battles being the surprise MVP.

    In contrast, the WoD launch was utterly disastrous most notably in the EU (in fact, BBC's Watchdog is going to feature it next thursday from what I gather) and even now Garrisons - pretty much the be-all and end-all of the game atm - hog so much server space that other instances suffer from disconnects, booting and not loading (including said former-MVP Pet Battles).

    According to the official forums, Archeology progress has been wiped, the feature PvP Zone Ashran renamed Trashran because of first making a joke of PvP Gearing to then - in true Blizzard fashion - being nerfed to the ground (without, as usual, roll-backs to correct the created imbalances) , Crafting has been effectively removed from the game by being reduced to utter pointlessness, the replay value of Zones pretty much removed as Garrisons provide more resources and Rare spawns etc. only drop Loot once/character, and already people are decrying Garrisons as being repetitive and boring.

    Of course Blizzard might correct things but in all my years I have never seen so much negative feedback in so many areas so fast into an expansion. Cataclysm comes close, and that one didn't exactly do wonders to the franchise.

    1. That's a very interesting analysis. As a non-player just working from what I read I I do think Garrisons are a significant risk in respect of removing player focus from "the game" but we'll have to see how that pans out.

      A very telling difference between the way WoW, with its huge playerbase, and EQ2, with it's proportionally tiny one, manage to remain viable is the time-to-complete expansions. As you suggest, WoW expansions are relatively "completable" in a lot less time than the gap between the last one and the next. Compare that with Feldon's recent comment on where he stands, coming into AOM from the 2014 expansion: "It’s a year after ToV and I still do not have all 7 pieces of gear with 4 Potent gems. I’m still missing jewelry upgrades. Admittedly I only group a few hours a week, but I feel way behind on doing the group content enough."

      Different strokes as they say.

  4. Amid all the speculation, the obvious note should come from Feldon Even so, I would expect him to be circumspect... but, still...

    -- 7rlsy

    1. Pretty sure he doesn't read this blog. Never seen any indication that he does. I could ask him directly I guess...

  5. Your "quote" link doesn't work. :(

    50k seems awfully low for a game with over a dozen servers that still features group content.

    From what I've gathered while reading about Wildstar's troubles, part of its problem is not so much (lack of) financial success but rather a lack of viability of many parts of the game with lower player numbers. Wildstar's systems are designed to support a huge number of people: 40-man raids, 40v40 warplot PvP, repeating zone events that require 20-40 people to complete etc. You need massive amounts of players to keep these things running smoothly all the time (I'm not sure it would even work very well in WoW), and once participation numbers drop below a certain threshold, the game basically breaks down as players are left in a world where no queues pop and open world bosses can't be defeated because there are never enough players around.

    Do you think that 50k players in total would be enough to keep EQ2 "running smoothly" across several servers? I can't help but think that the number must be higher...

    1. Oops! Thanks for that - it should work now.

      Well, I was playing late last night at the closest I generally get to US peak time and I took a look at that Server Status page. As I said above, we don't really have a benchmark for what "Low", "Medium" and "High" in strict numbers but for what it's worth nearly all DCUO, EQ and EQ2 servers were at "Medium" with several on "High".

      Moreover, on Freeport, where I mostly play, there were three instances of Tranquil Sea and I saw lots of people everywhere I went, both there and in older zones. In Everquest, whenever I play, I always see several hundred Bazaar traders, 50-70 people in Plane of Knowledge and 70-100 in the Guild Lobby. That's around 500 accounts logged in and idling, not counting anyone actually out doing stuff, which you'd surely have to guess would be at least as many again.

      Thinking it over I do think it must come down to the All Access system. An account is for all the games. Feldon is only concerned with EQ2. Maybe there are only 50k All Acess account holders actively playing EQ2 and yes, I do think from the point of view of the players the game would seem fine that way - almost all sub-cap content can be soloed and at-cap content is mostly single group progression plus some two or four group raid progression. And of course there's an absolute plethora of non-combat content.

      The perspective you outline on WildStar is interesting. I knew about the 40-man raid issues but I hadn't realized that "bring a lot of people" ethos was so embedded in other parts of the game. GW2 is kind of built that way but of course almost everything scales so you can bring 80+ people or just two or three and most things still sort of work okay. I can just imagine what state GW2 would be in now if they'd built all the events to require the kind of numbers they had at launch!

  6. I never really cared for total population as much as i cared about my server and whether i could find a group for something regardless of time. This is pretty much why i swapped from EQ2 to WoW. I found it increasingly difficult to get anything done in EQ2 with the random times i'm able to play.This isn't an issue at all in WoW. It's also not a population thing so much as a separation of regions thing.

    I absolutely loved how FFXI mixed every region on the same servers which made it feel alive regardless of time of day. I was always able to find groups and, despite language barriers, was always able to communicate with in game tools.


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