The latest numbers are in for World of Warcraft, and as of March 1st they were down 600k subscribers. That would ruin any other subscription MMO on this continent, but for them it’s just a few percent.
That article goes on to talk about how their player base doesn’t rise and fall linearly. They’re referring to the rebound cycle: your hardest-core players leave periodically, and then come back later. But there’s something missing from this picture.
World of Warcraft has always had a huge newbie hose: a constant stream of brand new players that flood into the game every day. This stream appears to be dwindling — or at least getting more expensive to maintain.
I’m still incredibly impressed with their newbie hose. Can you imagine if your favorite non-WoW game got newbies at the same percentage as WoW has? What if multiplayer console games just kept getting huge waves of new players every week, for year after year, so you never had to keep playing against the same old people? A newbie hose is incredibly valuable — all those newbies make the game more fun for existing players, and when everybody’s having fun, the newbies are more likely to stick around, too. When a game’s newbie hose drops off, its overall retention rates can drop too. So getting new blood in is extremely valuable.
And most games fail at it, or don’t even try. Most MMOs that have been around a few years have basically no newbies coming in, and they are slowly, quietly shrinking.
As an MMO shrinks, the dynamics of its game systems change. For instance, the economy of WoW is just like most other MMO economies: it’s designed around the newbie hose. As long as a constant influx of new characters show up, there’s always going to be people to buy your herbs. But when the newbie hose runs dry, and everybody finally gets all the alts they want, suddenly the bottom falls out of the auction house. This is par for the course for pretty much every other MMO in existence.
Every other MMO has to constantly and aggressively address problems like this one. (For instance, by making herbs do an ever-larger and more valuable array of things, so that people keep buying them.) So one way to get a feel for how many newbies WoW is getting is to watch for changes like this. When fishing becomes a more and more valuable skill in order to keep the value of rare fish from dropping to 1 copper, that’s what you’re seeing: the newbie hose dwindling.
Now, to repeat, I’m not saying their newbie hose is even close to dry yet! But I do think it’s slowing down, and unless they do something really magical, it will continue to dwindle. That would mean a slow death by attrition, which I calculate will take… lesee… holy… well my guess is it will take about 9 years before it’s under a half-million subscribers. So unless they do something stupid (like stop making expansions, or stop advertising hard), they can keep this baby going for another decade. And if they change the game in some innovative new way, they can bring the newbies back too.
But while they aren’t in danger, they’re certainly very aware of their newbie hose.
Cataclysm’s Newbie Experience: Self-Indulgence
It seems like Cataclysm was designed specifically to revitalize the newbie hose. At least, I’m sure that’s how the live team pitched it to upper management. “By improving such-and-such areas, we’ll convert x% more newbies.”
But really, this was a self-indulgent move by the live team. What live team hasn’t wanted to just fix everything? And that urge isn’t unique to games… ask anybody who has to maintain something for years and years. Who wouldn’t want to start over, to apply the lessons they’ve learned?
Can you imagine a city planner that got a chance to completely re-design their city? Tighten the zoning, bolster the transportation structure, maybe get some high speed rail into downtown… sure, it means destroying everything that’s there, but the new stuff will be so much better! Who could resist such an opportunity?
The urge is near-universal, but it rarely makes sense to completely rewrite everything. While you’re busy rewriting things to make them 25% better, you could have been adding new content and features that made the game 35% better instead. Adding new stuff is usually just a lot more efficient. And rewriting stuff has its own dangers. Everybody makes mistakes, and nothing’s perfect the first time. So you’re inevitably going to throw out some time-tested stuff and introduce new stuff that has unforeseeable problems in it.
So gigantic rewrites are only worthwhile to the bottom line if they cause a tremendous amount of expansion when they’re done. Cataclysm’s re-envisioning of the old world did not accomplish that.
I’m not saying they should never change their old world. But most of the time they should be improving it incrementally. EQ2 did this pretty well, I think: some of their original zones were so bad that they actively caused players to quit. (Seriously.) So the live team redid all of those zones. But by “redid” I mean they refactored all the quests and adjusted monster placement. They left the terrain itself unchanged! And these were some very ugly zones. Let’s just say they could have stood a revamp. (If you contrast them to the later EQ2 zones, you won’t believe they’re in the same game.)
But SOE’s product-driven mindset protected them from falling into that trap. By default, SOE assumes “new” is always more valuable than “improved”, because “new” goes on store shelves. This might be short-sighted in today’s digital-download environment, but at least this mindset stopped EQ2’s live team from going overboard here. The EQ2 artists were so busy making new areas for expansion packs that they couldn’t take the time to redo old areas. Old stuff isn’t sexy, it doesn’t sell boxes. I’m sure the designers would have loved to do it, but the people with money kept them in check.
Nobody keeps WoW’s live team in check very much. So they went ahead with a total universe-wipe. This meant that vast chunks of everybody’s knowledge about Azeroth, their shared experiences, were wiped out.
Now you have to ask yourself two things:
Question #1: If I’m a new player, will this revised world make me significantly more likely to stick around?
Well, in the past, an amazing 30% of WoW free-trial players stuck with the game. This is so much higher than any other long-running MMO that it is frankly hard to take seriously. But of course they are interested in getting that number much higher.
To make this number go up, we’ve watched the WoW live team tighten their newbie experience dramatically over the past several years. They’ve said that if players got past level 10 in their free trial, those players were likely to stick around. So it made a ton of sense to make the first part of the game more fun and a bit shorter.
But before Cataclysm, they did this by iteratively tweaking and refining. Cataclysm let them completely redo the newbie experiences. So… the question remains: does Cataclysm’s newbie experience significantly increase the number of newbies that sign up?
I dunno that. But I do know that the new newbie zones are so graphically complex that old PCs can’t play them anymore, and many of the new zones are also over so quickly that some of the elements of “sense of place” are lost from the experience. Those problems are countered by tighter quests with more diverse and engaging activities, so for the most part it’s hard to argue that the new zones are worse. But how much better are they, really?
More specifically, in how many zones was the old content so clumsy, and/or the new content so amazing, that players will sign up when they would have quit before? There were some stinkers, but I suspect most zones could have just been revised, not rewritten.
And even if the content is amazing, WoW’s sign-up rate can only get so high from content alone. Sign-ups are affected by a million factors, from hardware requirements to how many of their friends are playing to whether the game seems popular, stigmatized, or the underdog. Different people want different things. There’s no way to get your acquisition rate up to 100% — that would mean that everybody who tries WoW likes it. No video game is that good.
So my guess is their newbie hose was improved, but only for a while. On the other hand…
Question #2: If I’m a returning player, will this revised world make me significantly more likely to stick around for a few months?
No. Simply put, no. It boils down to one thing: leveling has been sped way the heck up.
Leveling has been sped up, which means you don’t spend nearly as much time in these brand new areas as you did in the old areas you remember. You don’t have time to replace your old memories with new memories. Everything just seems like a blur: oh weird, the mailbox moved. Where was the bank again? Hmm, the whole city’s been redone…
If leveling took as long as it did five years ago, this would have worked a lot better. As it is, it just makes a jumble in returning players’ heads.
WoW seems to be mixing their messages here. On the one hand, they rewrote the entire first half of the game so that it would be stickier for new players and interesting to returning players.
But on the other hand, they sped the first half up so much that you fly right through it, right to the latter half, which is not better than before (and some argue is worse).
What was the point of rewriting the content if you’re going to reach level 10 in 2 hours? Why not just speed up leveling and be done with it?
Why? Oh yeah: because the live team really wanted to do it. And I don’t blame ’em one bit. I would have tried to get to do that, too. It musta driven them crazy, knowing that players couldn’t fly in the old world, and not being able to fix it.
I don’t know how effective it really was, but from an outsider’s viewpoint, it didn’t seem to make the game a lot stickier.
Live teams have their own agendas, and those agendas aren’t always the best way to make money.
Newbie Hose vs. Holding On To Rebounding Players
You can now get a lot further in WoW in your 10-day trial than ever before, yet clearly this has not spiked their newbie acquisition rates to dizzying heights. I’m not saying there’s definitely a causal link here — for all I know, their newbie hose had dropped to 0% and now it’s back up to 30%. I’m just a stupid blogger.
But I just have to ask this: what if, instead of completely redoing twenty newbie zones, they had added twenty new zones to the end of the game? Hindsight is 20/20, but I’m sure that would have been a much bigger win for their retention.