The attention surrounding MMOs (massively multiplayer online worlds) has never been greater. But it’s not just role playing games along for the ride; non-game, avatar-driven virtual communities are just as popular, if not by more, and we’re not just talking Second Life here. So in an […]

The attention surrounding MMOs (massively multiplayer online worlds) has never been greater. But it’s not just role playing games along for the ride; non-game, avatar-driven virtual communities are just as popular, if not by more, and we’re not just talking Second Life here.

So in an effort to cut through the hype and glean some context, here are the most popular MMOs in terms of active users or subscribers, based on publicly available data. These titles may or may not be games, but the medium has expanded far beyond Tolkienesque fantasy worlds. They all are Mac-friendly/Web-based with exception of Guild Wars.

1. World of Warcraft, released 2004 – 8.5 million subscribers.
While Habbo is giving Blizzard a run, the numbers generally support WoW as the biggest MMO in the world. Important qualification, though: only 4 million are based in the West and monthly subscribers, while its 4 million Chinese players only pay roughly 4 cents an hour to play it in Internet cafes.

2. Habbo Hotel, released 2000 – 7.5 million active users.
The Finland-based “social game” MMO popular with teens and growing fast. Look out, Horde!

3. RuneScape, released 2001 – 5 million active users.
A Java-based MMORPG operated by Jagex Ltd. with over nine million active free accounts. Boasts one million paying customers. Fancy that.

4. Club Penguin, released 2006 – 4 million active users.
MMO for the kiddies developed by New Horizon Interactive. The game shares similarities with other social environments like Habbo Hotel.

5. Webkinz, released 2005 – 3.8 million active users.
Here’s a novel idea: create beanie baby like stuffed animals, assign them a unique ID, then create an MMO portal in which kids can spend even more time using your product. When kids graduate from Club Penguin, they go to Webkinz (or so I’m told.)

6. Gaia Online, released 2003 – 2 million active users.
Not quite an MMO, not quite a social site, but founder Derek Liu has openly stated the networks desire to focus on social gaming. Forums make up 30% of the current site activity.

7. Guild Wars, released 2005 – 2 million active users.
Another MMORPG made by the popular NCsoft out of South Korea. No Mac love here, but a lot of active users.

8. Puzzle Pirates, released 2003 – 1.5 million active users**.
Published by Ubisoft and developed by indy king Three Rings, Puzzle Pirates merges casual games with a rising interest in pirate culture. Puffy shirt aside, it’s working like a charm.

9. Lineage I/II, released 1998 – 1 million subscribers.
Published by South Koreas NCsoft, Lineage was once the most popular MMO of its day. At one point total active users peaked at 3 million. A Western release in 2002 mostly fizzled.

10. Second Life, released 2003 – 500,000 active users.
No introduction needed here. Created by Linden Lab, this virtual world features a rabid fan base, inflated numbers, a high influx of corporate doppelgangers, and lots of digital genitals. First life optional.

Other popular MMOs are sure to exist, particularly new-comers and non-localized Asian games that are sure to grow. Also, this list reflects popularity alone, not necessarily revenue models, though World of Warcraft is performing well on both counts.

For all intents and purposes, the most popular MMOs represent an estimated 50-75% of the total MMO market (30-60 million active users.) Is that enough attention to justify MMO’s recent surge of attention? Maybe not all of the hype, but definitely a large portion of it. And who wouldn’t want a piece of Blizzard’s reoccurring pie or another revenue model with a similar install base?

Interestingly, however, it’s apparent that no single business model is winning out. Subscriptions work well for MMORPG games like WoW that are more akin to crack cocaine than mere entertainment. But what about other non-game MMOs? How will companies bank on consumer attention in those areas? One thing’s for certain: with all the popularity surrounding MMOs several new business models are sure to flourish in the coming years, as it’s not just about games anymore.

*Of Western origin or with a localized presence here. “Active users” based on most recent monthly log-in figures when available. Subscriber numbers are not necessarily a reflection of active users. Figures compiled from Wikipedia (excluding, to the best of my knowledge, free trials, beta users, and web visitors without accounts.) Virtual Worlds News also referenced; Habbo figures taken from company spokeswoman, Second Life figures from most recent published stats. Special attention was given to notable MMOs in terms of where they stack up when looking at the numbers in addition to their popularity and/or high profile (i.e. Second Life.) Amendments and additions welcome.

** Update, June 15th: Puzzle Pirates active users are actually 200,000, according to company CEO Daniel James. With no single tracking authority or qualitative filtering, this list was bound to be controversial. Other MMO candidates named in Comments include Bots, Neopets, Final Fantasy XI, City of Heroes, Virtual Magic Kingdom, Lord of The Rings Online, along with others, many of them considered and rejected, others not. All will be considered in an update to this list.

By Blake Snow

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  1. Any idea if all of these track user hours? Subscriptions are fine, but as you point out, their value also varies. In addition to the different pricing structures, someone might have a sub and not log in for months. Or people might share account. In both cases it doesn’t give us a sense of how engaged people are with the application.

  2. If you’re interested in hearing more about how these companies are making alternative business models work, I’d encourage you to come to the Virtual Goods Summit at Stanford (http://www.vgsummit.com). We’ll have a number of the companies mentioned in this article talk about how they’ve grown their businesses and successfully deployed new models.

  3. Xfire actually puts together a monthly collection of stats on the actual user-minutes for the top games on their service. That shows the relative engagement of these “top MMOs” – and a lot you haven’t really hear of. It’s not the whole subscriber base of MMOs, but with a couple million registered users, Xfire’s a pretty good sample.

    You can see their MMO stats here – good stuff. Stats going back for a long time.


  4. The numbers for at least one of those are WAY WAY off: Puzzle Pirates isn’t even close to 1.5 million active users. The real numbers are less than 10% of that.

    Email me for clarification if you want. Dan (Three Rings’ CEO) and I ran roundtables together at GDC the last couple of years and I’ve heard it from his mouth.


  5. You also left out some like Maple Story, for instance, which has crossed 50 million registered users and has about 3 million active users. (I seriously doubt that Guild Wars has 2 million -active- players incidentally but that’s a gut-level reaction on my part rather than hard info).


  6. Feel free to delete this comment, but you’ll find this useful: http://gigagamez.com/2007/03/10/three-rings-dishes-digits-casual-game-studio-estimates-7-mill-revenue-in-07/

    Note the first comment in the thread from Daniel, for instance. 25-30k paying customers. Believe me, that doesn’t translate into 1.47 non-paying additional users. ;)


  7. Sourcing the publicly available data would have been appreciated.

  8. David Riedmiller Thursday, June 14, 2007

    I may be wrong but isn’t Final Fantasy 11 a MMO?

    Im surprised that it isn’t listed. Maybe it’s not as big as I thought.

    Oops… I re-read the article again.

    “They all are Mac-friendly/Web-based with exception of Guild Wars.”


    “Other popular MMOs are sure to exist, particularly new-comers and non-localized Asian games that are sure to grow.”

    I am pretty sure FF11 is not a Mac game.

  9. Where did you get these numbers? Thin air? Lineage I/II has way more subscribers. Final Fantasy and City of Heroes is way up there on the list of subscribers as well. Try spending some time researching what you post instead of where to lay the ads out on this site.

  10. And isn’t referencing to Wikipedia a cop out? Either the WP data has a reference, or it doesn’t. It’s not a primary source either way. I hate to say it, but it’s sloppiness like this that gets blogs their poor reputation in journalism.


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