Boasting an estimated 8.5 million subscribers, it's impossible to ignore the influence of World of Warcraft (WoW) on the massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) market. It's the first MMOG to flirt with the word "mainstream," it redefined the way studios think about their development process, influenced designs and sent dozens of start-ups on a quest to get their slice of the apparently expanded MMOG pie. There's just one problem: In North America, there is no evidence that there are significantly more MMOG fans than there were in the days before WoW swept the world off its feet.
MMOG fans are the few hundred thousand North Americans who have played every MMOG before and after WoW. Studios look at WoW, which is an MMOG, and assume that because it has those sexy subscriber numbers, there are more people running around willing to fling money at them. That's just not the case. Just like not every whiskey is a scotch, MMOG fans may be WoW fans, but WoW fans are not necessarily MMOG fans. There is little evidence to suggest the average WoW fan knows what MMOG stands for, let alone what the heck a Tabula Rasa is.
The expected WoW refugee trickle-down has stubbornly refused to materialize. As a conservative estimate, it is safe to assume that in any given month, 5 percent of WoW's player base cancels their accounts. Where do these people go? Some undoubtedly dive back into the MMOG pool and spread out among the infinite titles floating around, but at 5 percent, that means there are roughly 425,000 WoW refugees milling about every month. But 425,000 people aren't playing new games each month. WoW just doesn't grow the genre.
When developers talk about those 8.5 million subscribers, they're presenting that data in a way North American consumers aren't used to hearing. Traditionally, when gamers read about subscriber numbers, they're getting regionally focused numbers. For example, Turbine licenses The Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online to Codemasters , who handles distribution and subscriptions in Europe. This means most estimates evaluate the two pools (Codemasters and Turbine) separately. WoW, however, is all under one banner, and this inflates the numbers. In reality, only roughly 2.25 million players subscribe to WoW in North America. To hit the full 8.5 million, Blizzard counts 3.75 million in China, 1.6 million in Europe and additional few hundred thousand in South Korea, Australia and Asia.
Outside of WoW, the numbers are tragically anemic, near an all-time low. The genre used to have echelons, but now there is only WoW. Everyone else, by comparison, is non-existent.
City of Heroes/Villains, NCsoft's most successful subscription-based game, has 143,127 subscribers in North America and Europe. Star Wars Galaxies and Vanguard are each at approximately 100,000. And, despite widespread media attention, as of March Second Life only had 57,702 paying subscribers across the globe.
While developers learned a lot from WoW, they missed one very important lesson: It's a videogame and was marketed as such, whereas MMOGs are thought of as being their own unique snowflake and are promoted differently. Industry insiders talk about how WoW's success is good for the genre as a whole, but none of them have stopped and truly taken advantage of it. For years, MMOGs have existed in their own little segregated world. Sure, WoW appeals to MMOG fans, but it transcends the genre in a way other companies have failed to grasp.