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Summary:

After 32 months of continual growth, the largest MMO in the world may, at long last, be peaking. That’s my conclusion, at least, looking at the latest stats from WarcraftRealms.com, a large fansite which tracks and analyzes population statistics and demographics for Warcraft. The site publishes […]

After 32 months of continual growth, the largest MMO in the world may, at long last, be peaking.

Sad ElfThat’s my conclusion, at least, looking at the latest stats from WarcraftRealms.com, a large fansite which tracks and analyzes population statistics and demographics for Warcraft. The site publishes concurrency data that WoW’s developer, Blizzard, doesn’t actively provide, through a system called Census+.
“[I]t works by utilizing the in-game ‘/who’ functionality to take a snapshot of every character currently logged into the game for your server and faction,” administrator “Rollie” explains to me. “These shapshots can then be uploaded to WarcraftRealms.com, which are then aggregated with other people’s snapshots … During the month of May there were over 180,000 snapshots uploaded and processed.”

With that, they were able to compile pretty solid data on players during WoW’s peak hours, and the numbers for the last few months are very interesting.

Data from www.warcraftrealms.com
Chart courtesy of www.warcraftrealms.com— forgive me if the formatting looks out of whack. As you might guess, the first month of 2007 is when Blizzard released The Burning Crusade expansion pack/sequel, which spiked prime time players from the US and EU to near 900,000 in February. Since then, however, activity has been dropping at a steeper rate than it increased through 2006. (While Warcraft boasts 4 million monthly subscribers in the West, by the way, it’s more meaningful to look at concurrency levels. Subscription-based MMOs are like gym memberships: even if you have one, that doesn’t mean you use it—and the less you do, the more likely you’ll finally say “Who am I kidding?” and cancel it.)

Rollie notes that WoW’s active player counts are still higher than they were before TBC’s release. “As for why numbers are dropping now,” he speculates, “it is only natural. There is a very noticeable spike when The Burning Crusade came out… As more and more people have gotten over the euphoria of the new content, they are settling back into their normal play routines, and thus the nightly averages are really correcting back to the norm.”

That might be. But with so much fresh content to explore, why would the spike last only two months, then begin dropping sharply? It’s too early to conclude WoW is actually losing players. (Though Amanda Rivera of the WoW Insider, the blog where I first spotted Rollie’s chart, thinks that’s the case.) I’m checking with Blizzard for their take, but assuming the chart is a reliable extrapolation, it’s pretty safe to say two things:

- The Burning Crusade added few if any new subscribers to WoW.
- The Burning Crusade’s appeal to existing subscribers was short-lived at best.

“This is how Open Big MMOs all go,” veteran MMO developer Raph Koster observes on his blog. “A big rush, peaking a little bit after the launch. Then a plateau for a while, then a tailing off.”

Blizzard’s much-anticipated expansion pack arrived more than two years after their game’s November 2004 debut. The studio is notorious for its slow development schedules, but to keep their hardcore fans happy, they’ll need to get their next expansion out a lot faster than two more years from now. This is one fundamental problem with traditional MMOs: their most passionate players quickly churn through any new content the company creates, then share its secrets with less regular players. (Who either decline to follow in the power players’ footsteps, or now that they have the inside scoop, do so at a much faster pace than they otherwise would.) It’s one fundamental reason why MMOs which foster user-created content are generating so much interest: without a regular stream of new material, a popular MMO just breeds its own downfall.


Image credit: World of Warcraft.

  1. I’m interested to see the trend over the next few months. If what Raph says above is true does that mean we are already tailing off or haven’t yet hit the plateau? I was an avid player for about a year from release but then I remembered I had a real life to get back to. ;P

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  2. James, it could be because WoW’s latest patch really sucks on Macs. My son showed me the latest WoW and it’s only getting 10 to 15 frames a second on OSX. It’s also not reliable on Vista. But gets 60 frames a second on XP.

    http://scobleizer.com/2007/06/17/the-coolest-dad/ has more on this issue.

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  3. Seems likely that competition from the successful LOTRO release has contributed to this as well.

    My guild alone has 50+ people who left WOW for LOTRO.

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  4. All that data shows is that there was a spike in player numbers around the release of the addon (before it, through people who had been playing less often getting back into the game in preparation, and afterwards due to the hype surrounding the launch). I don’t think WoW is dying yet (I’m a GW player btw, I don’t particularly care either way).

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  5. It took most players less than a month to level to 70 in the Burning Crusade expansion, thereby completing the exploration of new areas. All that’s left is long chains of attunement for raid type dungeons, all of which is very time consuming, more than it was before the expansion. My guess is that the drop in activity corresponds to the exodus of the more casual players (incl. me).

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  6. [...] this weekend GigaOm reports that World of Warcraft has stopped growing (see chart below, originally sourced from Warcraft Realms, showing player activity at peak hours [...]

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  7. As someone who used to play wow (but stopped a few months ago) what Adriaan has said rings very true with my experience.

    Before the most recent expansion pack you could play the “endgame” (raiding) without needing to invest massive amounts of time.

    In TBC you need to put in huge amounts of time to get attuned (i.e. completing the prerequisite tasks to enable your character access to the endgame content). I found this tedious and extremely time consuming so I stopped playing.

    Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed wow pre-tbc.. my guild were right up there on our server progression-wise from MC/Ony all the way to Naxx. Before TBC I didn’t think of myself as a casual player (my guy was decked out in raid epics).. after TBC I realised I wasn’t hardcore enough for the endgame so I stopped playing.

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  8. Second that, I counted myself among the hardcore, but reorganized my priorities, life is more than a videogame, and found the whole “reset” of TBC to be a pain in the ass. After grinding a few more factions to exalted, and getting keyed, and doing the new content, just got tired of it all and bailed.

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  9. [...] James Au is reporting that World of Warcraft player numbers are going down. Maybe partly because of this [...]

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  10. [...] proclaiming the beginning of the end for World of Warcraft; most notably The Guardian Gamesblog, GigaOm and Raph Koster’s blog. To be totally fair, only The Guardian post carries any apocalyptic [...]

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