Tuesday, July 7, 2009

WoW has 11 million subscribers. No it doesn't?

Its not often that I really disagree with Tobold but this is one of them. Tobold opens his blog post of the day with the title " WoW subscriptions down to 5 million" and then goes on to write about that since the9 has now officially shut down it's servers because of the loss of its license to netease it effectively means Blizzard has lost about half of its subscriber base.

In asking Tobold where he got his figures from since Blizzard hasn't stated a break down of its subscribers in recent memory tobold replied:

The source is the last Blizzard press release which still announced user numbers by continent. Unfortunately they stopped doing that a while ago, and we can only assume there have been no major shifts since then. Of course from now on that assumption will not be valid any more.
Unfortunately he couldn't point to the source any better than that, however the last time I recall Blizzard releasing any information that detailed was prior to the Burning Crusade when WoW had a few million subscribers. That was at least three years ago if I recall correctly. At the height of the Burning Crusade the best information available indicated Blizzard had approximately 8-9 million subscribers which was a significant growth from Vanilla WoW. I thought Blizzard had indicated they had achieved 11 million subscribers in January or February of this year, but it was actually in December 2008. So from mid to late 2007 to December 2008 Blizzard's subscription base grew from 8 to 9 million subscribers to 11 million. Not nearly has high an increase from Vanilla WoW to the Burning Crusade but still a healthy increase, and still dwarfing any other game on the market. In fact dwarfing pretty much all the major MMOs combined.

Unfortunately Blizzard has not delineated where the growth in that subscription base is taking place. Tobold's belief is that since Blizzard had indicated about 50% of their subscribers were in China (three years ago? And I would still like to see this myself since Tobold can't point to it officially apparently) that any increase in subscribers is linear. 50% three years ago would still be around 50% today. That's an astounding leap of logic considering the amount of advertising Blizzard has done in the United States in 2007 and 2008. Remember the WoW commercials? Perhaps he is right, but perhaps he isn't. One would think that if you are going to make pronouncements of this magnitude one would at least link to evidence of some sort but instead the only link to information in his post was a link to a rumor that NetEase's license is on hold in China.

When I pointed out to Tobold the flaw in his logic, or at the very least the weak evidence he was basing his post on he replied:
I am not suggesting there has been a big drop in subscriptions in the US or Europe. And if WoW comes back up in China in a few weeks, Blizzard will probably be back to 10 to 11 million subscribers. But as Blizzard for years artificially inflated their "subscriber" numbers with the Chinese players (which don't actually have a subscription in the US/Euro sense), it is only fair to point out that these Chinese players currently aren't counting, because the servers are down. Whether the remaining number is 5 or 6 million isn't really relevant for that.
Actually it is relevant Tobold. It's very relevant since you are claiming half of all WoW subscribers are Chinese when we have absolutely no evidence to base that claim on. It could be 10%. It could be 25%. It could be 75%. We simply don't know until Blizzard releases that information so any argument you make about the servers--the9's or NetEase's--are simply an ambiguous figures pulled out of thin air as far as I can tell. I would, however, like to know the demographic breakdown of WoW subscribers as I'm sure you would.

Tobold continued by saying:

Well, when Blizzard last detailed their numbers by continent, half of the 8 million subscribers were in China. In the latest official statement (see http://www.wow.com/2009/05/07/activision-conference-call-wow-still-at-11-5-million-subscriber/) they said that they have 11.5 million subscribers, and growth has been highest in China. So take a bit over half of 11.5 million, and you get 6 million Chinese subscribers. A number that is frequently quoted on all sorts of WoW blogs and forums, because it is the best guess we have. It also fits with the last statement of The9 of over 1 million concurrent users, as the industry rule of thumb is to multiply concurrent users by 5 to 10 to get subscribers.

Of course I could change "6 million" into "5 to 7 million", if that would make you feel better. But the exact number really isn't relevant at all. In any case it's roughly half of WoW's player base that is currently excluded from the game. And with Blizzard's official definition of subscriber saying that "Internet Game Room players who have accessed the game over the last thirty days are also counted as subscribers.", they officially lost those Chinese players today, WoW China being down since June 7.
Unfortunately Tobold seems to have misinterpreted what Mike Morhaime said in May. The WoW blog post Tobold linked to just above says:
Morhaime says that numbers are growing everywhere, but that China will be a main focus of growth this year as Wrath of the Lich King releases there soon.
Morhaime actually says:
“We believe there continues to be growth in WoW in all regions but especially in China. Our first expansion launched eight months after it did here. We’re looking for a similar response when “Lich King” is launched there,”
WoWinsider is saying that Blizzard expects to focus growth in China this year (2009). is Morhaime saying the highest growth has occured in China? He doesn't actually say that, but rather is saying they expect it. Remember, this is a conference call to investors discussing quarterly returns and he would be focusing on what just occured in the preceeding quarter, as well as trying to paint a picture to investors to what they expect to happen in the next.

Obviously Morhaime's expectation on continued growth in China is on hold, and obviously some number of Chinese aren't currently playing. But there have also been a number of reports during the period where the9 was attempting to bring WotLK to China that many Chinese moved to Taiwanese servers. WotLK was never released in China, so they were still playing the Burning Crusade in China proper. The9 lost its license, reportedly, because they weren't able to get the proper permission from the Chinese government required to do so. Blizzard apparently believed NetEase could get that permission and ultimately awarded the license to them.

Whats important in all that is that we don't know how many Chinese moved to Taiwanese servers. It could be all of them that were playing in China, or it could be none. Again, we simply don't know. Which is entirely the point I was trying to make to Tobold and was unable to get him to grasp.

I'm sure we can all agree that Blizzard would have lost some level of subscribers throughout all this. But is it the 50% Tobold says it is? You be the judge--without any more information that I, or Tobold have at our disposal.