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MMO Weekly: Subscription And Launches

Hey, friends and fellow geeks, and welcome to this latest, greatest edition of MMO Weekly. For extremely obscure reasons, the topic of an MMO’s paying player-base came up this week and this led to an interesting discussion. Normally, this kind of chit-chat wouldn’t be something I’d write about, but a couple of interesting things came out of it, and I thought I’d share them with you. Bear in mind, this article stemmed from a rather free-ranging discussion, and thus is composed largely of insights and opinions, so take it for what it’s worth.One of the central topics under discussion was the “under half a million” phenomenon. I’m referring to the fact that every recent major MMO somehow, someway, ends up with less than 500,000 subscribers. In fact, every launch since WoW has resulted in some comparatively low subscription numbers.It’s not like players aren’t looking for something new. If anything, the initial launch figures of several games indicate that players are, in fact, sniffing around for a new MMO. For example, both Conan and Warhammer sold over a million copies of their game early on, only to have their subscription numbers dwindle later. It’s rather widely believed that LOTRO, Warhammer, and EVE all boast similar subscription figures, at around 300,000. Of course, hard information on all this is very challenging to come by. (Figures released by developers, calculations done by fans, estimates by “experts” are all questionable IMO. All of these sources reveal varying figures, so feel free to pick your personal favorite. I’m sticking with the very speculative, but otherwise widely believed 300k estimates.)The question, of course, is why. Why do these games, some of which are really very good MMOs, level off at less than half a million subscribers? This is in extremely sharp contrast to WoW, with 11 million players worldwide. What is going on?In chatting this up, we strayed pretty far and wide off topic, and stumbled into some interesting observations. There wasn’t one single, definitive answer to why so many MMOs stay in the sub-500,000 subscription range (Mind you, we also strayed a bit, and began discussing games that had died). However, we did find a couple of interesting themes. Allow me, for your reading pleasure, to recall a select few things that came up during our musings:Age of Conan: “The big problem was the broken promises early on. Within two weeks, players were pissed. Some stuff just wasn’t in the game. There was no endgame content, either.”Tabula Rasa: “The content was basically the same throughout the entire game. Boring.”LOTRO: “Very solid game, although you have to play the good guys, which kinda sucks. Also, Turbine’s marketing is freakin’ weird and underfunded. The game launched and not all that many people noticed.”EVE: “Great game, but really hard to get into, even with the tutorial. It’s just really hard to figure out what’s going on at first. Flew completely under the radar at launch, mostly because they got screwed by their publisher.”Warhammer: “Didn’t they launch just before WoTLK? Stupid move. Also, little or boring endgame content. Heck, they had boring midgame content.”Hellgate: London: “Rough launch. The content at level 1 was exactly the same as the content at max level.”Vanguard: “Horrible launch and Brad McQuaid.”Everquest II: “They launched right around the same time as WoW, and WoW had all the buzz going for it. They should have launched long before.”Now compare all that to the 800 pound gorilla of the genre, WoW.WoW: “Pretty smooth launch, except for overcrowding. Lots of races and classes to choose from. Great timing – everyone was sick of the MMOs already on the market. Lots to do, right up through the level cap.”{PAGE TITLE=MMO Weekly: Subscription And Launches page 2}One of several things that I drew from our discussion was the importance of, of all things, *midgame* content. As everyone already knows all too well, endgame content is critical. This isn’t news to any fan of the genre. A lack of endgame content has crippled more MMOs than I can count. However, a number of the games we discussed also had trouble with midgame content, and this caused players to quit long before they ever reached the endgame. Basically, the zones were similar from the first day of play to the level cap, the monsters were basically the same, and there was no real variety in anything as players leveled up. Apparently, some of us got badly bored long before reaching the endgame. This came up several times, referring to two dead games (Tabula Rasa and Hellgate), as well as Age of Conan and Warhammer. Interesting midgame content, apparently, is important in keeping player interest.Also, it’s no big surprise that many games on the above list had a flawed launch for some reason. This seems to piss people off, or at least cause them to write off a game, if they experience a bad launch. Also, a game seems to be fighting an uphill battle, pretty much forever, if the game has a bad launch. This isn’t a surprise to anyone who plays MMOs.The surprise was that a couple of the games *did* have really good launches, but somehow, not many people new about the game. It seems that an under-marketed launch has the same effect on subscriptions as a botched one. Interestingly, more than one of us believed that the 500,000 barrier could have been broken by either one of these games had pre-launch marketing been handled differently.Consider EVE Online: from a technical perspective, the launch was fine. However, virtually no one knew about it. CCP got utterly screwed in a publishing deal when EVE first launched. No one disputes that EVE is a great game. However, they’ve been in existence for over six years, but their under-marketed launch hamstrung them. Though they’ve grown substantially (they started out tiny), they still have 300k-ish subscribers.LOTRO was another anomaly. From a technical standpoint, the launch was actually fine, and we all agree that LOTRO is a very good MMO. However, the game didn’t generate a lot of buzz (though there was some) prior to launch, and marketing seemed to drop off almost immediately afterward. Publicity has been pretty darned spotty since then, and we felt this is limiting the game’s appeal. Under-marketing, again, has been a factor since day one.Is it possible that either EVE or LOTRO could have been a much bigger game had marketing been handled differently? If either game had had a bigger, more highly publicised launch, could they have 700k or 800k subscribers? A million? They certainly are both very good games. This intriguing possibility was brought up, and kicked around pretty good. Of course, we’ll never really know.

I’ll leave you to speculate, and share your opinions below. And that’s all for this week, folks. If you you enjoyed this nonsense, come visit us over at Wandering Goblin. We serve up that kind of tomfoolery each and every day. For now, Ciao!

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