Monday, June 6, 2016

How Many WoW Players Does It Take To Save A Movie?

Mojang's recent puff piece on how many copies of Minecraft they have sold and continue to sell started an intriguing round of discussion and analysis in this corner of the blogosphere. SynCaine used the opportunity to beat "new" Blizzard with the same old stick he's been using for years. Wilhelm weighed in with a strong point-by-point rebuttal and then Azuriel arrived to remind everyone that big numbers are big

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.


  1. WoW hit 100 million accounts in January 2014, for the record. That figure includes trial accounts, but still.

    1. 100 million is a lot of people however you cut it.

  2. After checking the reviews it's quite clear that the "computer game effect" is in full swing..... with every critic following each other for fear of being ridiculed. "It's from a computer game, so it must be bad".

    I've seen the movie in the week-end, and in the same week-end I saw X-Men: Apocalypse.
    The WoW movie is average, an average resulting from highs and lows, there are some great scenes, there are some horrible ones. There is good acting, there is bad acting. But overall it's not a bad movie, and for a fantasy movie it's definitely ok.
    On the contrary, X-Men Apocalypse is bad. As in REAL bad. There's absolutely NOTHING except special effects. It's a 2:30 experience where you look at your watch to see how long you still have to deal with it. People were making jokes on how horrible the plot is on our way out. If it manages 48% on rotten tomatoes it's just because people (critics?) have become used to superhero movies and not to computer game ones.

    1. I think it's the other way around actually. You mention X-Men, but both myself and other comic book nerds (reading X-Men since the early 90s) thought the film was a huge love letters to us. The convoluted plot line seemed like that to you, but to us it was a huge freaking Easter Egg. Every second scene we were muttering "this is so spot on".

      The same thing will be with the Warcraft movie. People are giving it low scores because they judge it like another high-fantasy movie, and the comparison with the spectacular LotR films will be inevitably made. As you said, people were more accepting to X-Men due to the super-hero genre being popular, but Fantasy movies are always meant to appeal to a broader audience, which inherently has no idea about what Warcraft even is.

    2. Your opposing viewpoints and reactions exemplify what must be a real problem for movie makers, I think. It comes up over and over again, both in reviews and in conversation. The balance between satisfying the fans, who know the source material, and the general audience, which doesn't, can be very hard to find. It's really no different for comic-book or video game adaptations than it has been for a century or so for movies based on novels or plays. No wonder there was a fad for "adapting" theme park rides and board games for a while - far less to go wrong there.

      I haven't seen either movie yet but I'm a much bigger X-Men fan than a WoW fan. That said, Apocalypse arrived in the comics just about the about the time I stopped reading them so this particular movie isn't going to work as fan service for me. I really do need to catch up with Days of Future Past though - that storyline was a seminal experience for fans of my era.

  3. I had no intention of watching Warcraft until I listened to Mark Kermode's review (I tend to agree with his opinions on a lot of films). I saw the movie this weekend and was pleasantly surprised. I really liked it, and I would love to see more of them. However, while I haven't played WoW in many years, I did go into the film with feelings about two of the main characters. By contrast, my husband, who has much less knowledge of WoW lore and played even less recently than me, thought the film was mediocre. He said he wasn't bored during it and liked the special effects, but he found the plot bland.

    Interesting insight into why WoW (maybe) became so popular - its attraction to non-Blizzard players. Sounds plausible and is certainly true in my case.

    As always, interesting blog post!

    1. Thanks!

      As with Batman vs Superman it will be interesting to see how the eventual sales for Warcraft compare with the terrible press it's been getting. I doubt that word of mouth along the lines of "it's not actually all that bad" is going to help much but if a lot of people find that, as you say, they really enjoyed it and wouldn't mind seeing a sequel then it could, I guess, have a long tail.

      I think I'll wait for the DvD though.

  4. I kinda feel, having not really thought too hard about this, mind, that WoW mostly just got lucky. Right product at the right time. It came about just as internet access (especially broadband) really took off, and was accessible, pretty and polished enough (for its time) that it really was a kind of special snowflake.

    I also don't think the falloff in numbers is a direct result of WotLK's quality (or lack thereof; I started playing at its release so naturally I view it in a more favourable light than SynCaine). I suspect it's more just a coincidence: the 'WoW phenomenon' was, like any major cultural event, simply reaching its peak and starting to wind down.

    I also don't think it makes sense to compare sales numbers between a game like Minecraft and a subscription game like WoW. More useful, I think, would be a chart of active players over time.

    1. That's about my take on it, too. The few people I've talked to who played WoW without having previously played other Blizzard games generally lasted a few months. They enjoyed it for a while but then they lost interest, as indeed happens with most cultural phenomena. I am a lot more skeptical than SynCaine over whether the content or the quality of the expansions had much to do with the inexorable slide although it obviously would affect the core, committed audience whose time in the game was measured in years rather than weeks.

  5. I am not sure if my post was so much a point-by-point rebuttal as it was a list of ways that Minecraft and WoW are so different as to make any such comparison silly.

    On the Warcraft movie, I plan to go see it this weekend when it opens in the US. I suspect that my own modest familiarity with the lore will be more help than hindrance. Being close to the material tends to be problematic for me. For example, the much beloved LotR movies... not a big fan here having been deep into Tolkien for years. I was okay with the first movie, but it was downhill after that. And The Hobbit movies are an abomination... but mostly because I liked the source material so much that the changes and additions... so many additions as to make the three movies take longer to watch than it would to simply read the book... grate.

    So being interested in WoW but not deep in the lore probably makes me the prime demographic.

    1. I probably should have re-read your post before trying to summarize it in a pithy phrase! Hard to resist the opportunity to use the word "rebuttal" though.

      I think you're spot on with that analysis of who will find Warcraft easiest to enjoy. There's a sweet spot for these things, where you know just enough to feel included but not enough to feel you could do it all so much better. My guess is that people who can go "Oh, that's Stormwind Castle! It looks amazing" are goin gto have a good time, whereas those who can name all the orcs without referring to a scorecard are not.

      Curiously, I have read LotR three and a half times but I can barely remember any more about it than a few of the big set pieces and some of the hobbit jokey parts. That served me well with the movies. I do think an unretentive memory is a boon when it comes to appreciating adaptations.

      I have The Hobbit trilogy on DVD but I have yet to watch it. I can't say you're making that any more likely...

  6. I've found critic reviews a fairly hopeless predictor for whether I'll like something, be it a movie or game.

    I suspect it's either because said authors run in different circles (people who set out to write movie critiques tend toward prefering more arty, literary media styles, imo., whereas my eyes would glaze over watching something like Brazil) or because said critics were "strongly influenced" by interested parties to skew their reviews one way or another.

    I think my personal movie barometer has softened after many years of avoiding seeing movies in the theatre. I went to see X-men Apocalypse, after being appropriately forewarned by a colleague that it was utter shite and that great liberties had been taken with certain mutant origins, and I actually found it decently watchable.

    Just had to block out all things Storm (but then I've been practiced with that ever since Halle Berry's perky overacting, and they managed to have this actress speak a lot less), assume cartoon-style plot (aka no character development whatsoever for the villains) and everything else was sufficiently entertaining from the viewpoint of strictly movie lore.

    I might pop in to see the Warcraft movie at some point, as a diversion. I have no vested interest in WoW lore. I just know there are orcs and humans and that an orc hero is a shaman named Thrall, I'll be a completely blank slate and be prepared to watch an Avatar movie (which I disliked, tbh) with aliens colored green.

    It's probably going to be fairly easy to please me, having previously set my expectations as low as they could go. Can't be disappointed that way, just either pleasantly surprised that it wasn't that bad or grimly satisfied that it was as predicted.

    1. Don't get me up on my critic/reviewer soapbox again! For 45 years I've held the strongest belief that good critical analysis is the absolute equal of the creative endeavor it reflects. It's a pure synergy. Half of my major influences and role-models are critics!

      Of course, reviewer and critic aren't synonyms. Reviewing does carry a burden of informational expectation that critiquing doesn't. It's the user of the review that needs to do the lion's share of the work, though, if that information is to be meaningful.

      Anyway, enough of that. The interesting piece of news that appeared after I wrote the above post is that Warcraft has somewhere north of $100m in U.S. pre-sales before it even opens there. Word of mouth seems to be running ahead of critical evaluation too. I suspect the movie will wash its face and then some once global receipts are counted. Maybe we'll even get a sequel...

    2. As Azuriel said, WoW topped 100M in '14. Activision-Blizzard had 544 million monthly active players last quarter.

      I think commenters miss that games and movies are global now: "The Warcraft movie made around $47m in one day in China, whereas it's on track to make just $25m at its opening in America, according to Forbes. Star Wars: The Force Awakens apparently made between $30-$33m in China in a day."

  7. Long time lurker here. I am one of those who do not need a scorecard to name orcs, been playing for years, and I still like it.
    For me, the movie was awesome. Moreover, watching it in a full cinema with other nerds (some football championship was on that day) was a truly amazing experience. In my opinion it's one of those movies that are worth watching in the cinema.
    My view of the critics is simple - they probably watched something else :)

    1. Welcome to the comments!

      Belghast's post after he'd seen the movie was very telling, I thought. As a long-time fan he clearly got a big recognition hit from seeing the familiar places and people upon the big screen. As for the reviews, although the aggregate is very poor, the actual reviews I've heard and read from the critics I pay attention to (mainstream movie critics that is) have been largely benign, if bemused.

      I remember going to see Blade Runner on its original release. It bombed commercially, it was critically savaged and I was lucky to get to see it the one week it played, in an art house screening. Now it's a classic that no-one can say enough good things about. I don't think Warcraft is going to end up there but it probably has a long and financially rewarding future ahead of it and, no doubt, a critical reappraisal when enough time has passed. I mean, people say nice things about Total Recall now...

  8. I usually do not like watching movies in 3D. But this one was gorgeous (IF you like the high fantasy aestethic and hybrid CGI). I would suggest watching it in the theater for sure. The story is not amazing by any stretch, but it is serviceable and makes sense, and with action and visuals like that, it certainly kept me engaged for the entire movie. I would definately watch a sequel.

    Full disclaimer. Long time wow player, but not strong with the lore. Probably just at the sweet spot :-)


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