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Is World of Warcraft really the most popular MMO?

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Probably not, as it turns out; certainly not in the Western hemisphere, anyway. Working with publicly-known figures, veteran MMO developer Raph Koster recently made this observation on his blog:

[I]t may be possible that World of Warcraft is actually sitting around #4 or #5 in the top MMOs in North America and Europe.

This is because while Blizzard claims 8.5 million subscribers (as of January 2007) only 3.5 million are based in the West. Let’s be generous and assume the game’s recent expansion pack boosted that to 4 million– even then, WoW would be trailing far behind the top Western MMO. [digg=]

So which virtual world rules this region? The name will surprise you – but here is a clue: it is based in Finland, and doesn’t involve bashing Orcs in the head.
Habbo.comHabbo Hotel from Sulake boasts 7.5 million unique active users a month, according to a spokeswoman. Primarily for teens, the web-based social game is extraordinarily popular in Europe, and is beginning to promote a US version in earnest.

But that means WoW is still the most popular worldwide, right? Even that’s not certain. Blizzard’s own definition of subscriber [bottom of the link] includes everybody who “purchased the game and are within their free month of access.” However, if you assume a churn rate of folks who try the game but give up before the month ends, and others who stop playing but don’t get around to canceling their monthly subscription, that would put WoW neck-and-neck with Habbo.

None of this is meant to take anything away from WoW’s success, of course; it indisputably remains the most popular subscriber-based, traditional fantasy MMORPG that runs on a non-Web client. The thing is, that just means Warcraft rules but a small segment of the virtual world space.

It’s important to make these distinctions, because for too long, the game industry has been defining what counts as an MMO. As I recently argued, it only includes the fairly narrow conception of fantasy RPG games that its Lost Boy constituency are personally interested in.

It also confuses matters to count WoW’s Asian subscribers with their Western counterparts, because in Asia, Warcraft is primarily played in Internet cafes on a by-the-hour basis; in China, some 4 million players pay about 4 cents an hour. (People often assume all 8.5 million are paying a monthly subscription.) In the end, investors and analysts come away with a mistaken perspective on a virtual world market that is, when you take a broader view, forecast to claim 80% of active Internet users by 2011. But most of them won’t be acting like elves.

So what are the other MMOs giving WoW a run for its gold coins? Stay tuned, we are working on compiling a top ten, set to run next week. The results, as they say, may surprise you.

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32 Responses to “Is World of Warcraft really the most popular MMO?”

  1. I wonder if this still holds true 3 years later. I can’t say I’d be overly surprised if a game like Wizard 101 or Free Realms had surpassed WoW at some point, given that the more casual a game is the broader of an audience it tends to reach.

    Do you know if anyone has done a followup article recently? Blizzard claims to have passed 11 million subs, so I’m interested in finding out if their NA numbers have passed Habbo yet.

  2. It seems to me like world of warcraft is more known and it will continue to grow for years to come. I never played Habbo, but then again, now that they are promoting it in the US, things could change and it might very well get ahead. I am still sticking to WoW though, no matter what.


    *Sorry if this gets posted twice, the website keeps giving me an error message for some reason.

  3. There are games that are undoubtedly MMOs (that is not the case with Habbo – its not an MMO in my book) that have more subscribers. But WoW has entered the mainstream consciousness way more than any other. Its appeal is broader and it is working its way into populay culture more and more (sports drinks ads anyone?). Those other games have more subscribers because most are free to play but make money from ingame item sales so it stands to reason they have more accounts.

  4. Oliver

    Compare WoW with habbo? Habbo = chat, WoW = game with a good game build and based a lot on the social part aswell.
    But, WoW wont be played with out updates, its still a game for gamers, they dont stick to a game, and gamers want something nice or then they would just go buy another game.
    Habbo hotel Is for people that goes for the social part, and its a good way to connect with people, but even tho WoW beat that part in many ways. WoW just cant be compared with habbo, habbo is based on who that are using it, I wouldnt use habbo if i didnt have any irl relations in there. And you dont have to pay for habbo, Habbo are accesable for idiots and you dont need to be a nerd cause you use it. WoW are for gamers, people and non gamers doesnt want to waste time on playing.
    There arent 1million of the 8.5million not playing and just paying. I know the numbers are a lot different when I posted this message.
    I would say if you had to compare the numbers, you have to double the WoW players and compare them, or maybe more than just double. Because the numbers that are using their time on the computer for social are a lot higher than the people that uses it for real gaming.

    The competition in the gaming industries are a lot higher and are not always 100% the way people likes it, but also for the performance and many other things.

    Maybe you should rather compare WoW and MSN, really the same thing in my eyes, even tho MSN cuts a lot of the fundamental parts of Habbo away(squeeze everything for money, getting new contacts, and the 3d world).

  5. It’s become a matter of definition which “game” is the biggest but if you start defining a game as MMORPG or MNO or whatever I think you should start dividing them in “fanatsy games”, “real life simulators” and so on. Also, is there any statistics on diferent ages playing different games?

  6. Interesting write up. I know WoW is extremely popular, and using the definitions of what is an MMO, you could say alot about alot of games.

    One thing to mention though is that everyone knows Wow. My mother knows what it is for crying out loud. There are primetime commericals for it. There are 7 people in my company playing it right now with active subscriptions. One other guy plays FFXI and 2 play Halo online.

    Alot of the other communities make fun of WoW, and I have played about 10 other MMOs in my time. The problem is that these other games are just not as fun as WoW, so let them with their sub 50k subscribers make fun of WoW, im sure Blizzard is too busy raking in money to even pay attention.

  7. So when does it become a game and not an IM? “Games” like these, provide autonomy, but no actual sense of completion, such as completing a quest in World of Warcraft could. I admittably haven’t tried Habbo Hotel… and it seems a lot of people haven’t which makes these claims seem odd to me, but i’ve played lots of games like this and they just seem more expression than gameplay…

  8. Good article, you make some good points and coming from other non-WoW MMO’s I can tell you, most people think of WoW as a bit of a joke.

    One problem, no such thing as a ‘western hemisphere’ only North and South.

  9. gonharrea on my joystick

    What was that one MMORPG that was on Prodigy dial up/BB service? Or was it Compuserves?? Don’t rember but, it was OG fo real!!

  10. I have two sons, at school in two different years. They all play WoW and think Habbo is “naff” – thats about 30 for WoW, 0 for Habbo. The other game they play a lot of is Runescape.

    Not a summer, but a pretty big swallow.

  11. Throrak

    Oki, just getting back to “popoluarity”…
    I don’t want to seem an “all cost WoW defender” :-) cause I really don’t care as much but in my opinion there’s no competion at all.
    WoW was guest star in a Simpson episode and in a South Park episode, and this give quite a lot of popularity. WoW has 3 popular videogames background, a RL annual world event plus a well known CCG. If you search with Google “World of Warcraft” I get nearly 16 million pages while only 8 million for Habbo; same for YouTube (148K for WoW, 4.53K for Habbo).
    I honestly think that saying “put WoW neck-and-neck with Habbo” it’s just pushing it too far and the Raph Koster’s statement (may be possible that World of Warcraft is actually sitting around #4 or #5 in the top MMOs in North America and Europe) seems to me just pure fantasy or he should have some strange hidden (actually quite well hidden) datas somewhere. XD
    But I can be wrong, of course. :-p

  12. LotusRoot

    If you insist on mixing chat/communications tools with games, please settle on a set of metrics that are meaningful for comparing the two. “Popularity” while sounding nice is not a universally measurable quantity. Are you popular if you have lots of hits? Long sessions? Big revenues? Lots of registered users? What?

  13. The question of how much revenue WoW is making is a different issue than popularity, though.

    “MMORPGs are the oldest form of MMOs”– that’s not clear at all. The first commercial MMORPG seems to be Island of Kesmai, while the first commercial MMO was Habitat (more similar to Habbo), and both were launched roughly around 1985. As a medium, MMORPGs are clearly a sub-genre of MMOs.

  14. Throrak

    Er… First of all “purchased the game and are within their free month of access” means that they are paying even more than the monthly fee.
    Actual monthly fee for WoW is around 12 Euro per month (depending on various factors). That means that the nearly 4 million active players are paying smt like 45-50 million Euro per month. Ok… Eastern customers pay on a hour basis but they usually play more than westerns and 6-8 hours per day is not uncommon… But just making the hypothesis of only a medium of 4 hours per day at 4 EuroCent it gives 10-15 more million Euro per month. On the overall the approximate income of WoW is smt around 50-60 million Euro per month or 600-700 million Euro per year.
    Maybe the users of WoW in the western world are not so many but I don’t think any other MMOwhatever can beat his income by now. Even the 7.5 million users of Habbo will have to buy really many furni to reach just the half of that sum. :-)

  15. spanker

    Yeah, I’d have to agree with Rodolfo that comparing Habbo and WOW isn’t really that meaningful. You might as well compare Madden and ICQ. Club Penguin, Puzzle Pirates, and Runescape are all better candidates than Habbo if you’re looking for Western comparables. But, you need to account for business model differences.

  16. Rodolfo

    habbo hotel is a nice user interface for chatting. WoW is a game. They both fall under entertainment but they have nothing to do to each other. Habbo has more things in common with myspace facebook etc.

    what is not addressed in the article is the cash machine that wow is compared to habbo and its growth in the chinese region

  17. MMORPG = Massively Multiplayer Online RolePlaying Game.
    MMO = Massively Multiplayer Online

    See the problem? Massively multiplayer online…what? If you ask me, Second Life is not a MMORPG and it’s not a MMOG, and it doesn’t really compete with WoW. And same probably goes for Habbo Hotel (which I admittedly haven’t tried out).

  18. John Thacker

    It’s important to make these distinctions, because for too long, the game industry has been defining what counts as an MMO.

    Well, considering that you keep switching between different terms like “MMORPG” and “MMO,” of course it makes sense to try to define the terms. Habbo Hotel is not an RPG, so it’s not an MMORPG. It is a virtual world, and it certainly can be considered a massively multiplayer online game. Habbo Hotel falls in the same category as Second Life, for instance.

    MMORPGs are the oldest form of MMOs, so it’s not surprising that many people think of them when they think of MMOs. It’s perfectly natural to think of the others types as something different. You seem to be complaining that MMOs which are not primarily games are being made by people who specialize in things other than games, and that the games industry concentrates on thinking about, competing, and making MMOs which are games.

    The virtual world MMOs, which are all tremendously popular, are made by companies that are programming companies, even if they don’t make pure games. It seems that you’re claiming that the companies aren’t part of the game industry because they concentrate on these type of games (or have only one big product), therefore self-justifying your claim that none of these MMOs are made by the games industry.

    It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. You read out of the games industry any company that makes these social worlds, and then proclaim that the games industry isn’t interested in them. Perhaps companies just specialize.