February 6, 2009

Player acquisition vs player retention

This post is a closer look at the subscriber numbers for Warhammer Online and EVE Online, two MMOs have gotten me thinking a lot about player retention recently.

Very high acquisition, very low retention

Warhammer initially sold 1.2 Million copies in 12 days, ending September 30, 2008 (plus an undisclosed amount they've sold in the 3 months since then).

It was just announced that as of December 31, 2008, WAR had "over 300k subscriptions."

The possible reasons for this drop in numbers have been thoroughly discussed elsewhere, so I won't belabor them here. Suffice it to say they fell short of their high hopes by quite a bit.

Very low aquisition, very high retention

I think CCP is the perfect example of a company that focuses on player retention. This might be a bit surprising to some people, because EVE is considered a very unfriendly, frustrating game by its detractors. I've spoken to several people who tried it and were overwhelmed by the complexity.

However, EVE has been out since 2003, and according to CCP, its population has increased by "0.9% per week since launch," or "80 percent per year," depending on which statistic you read.

Slow, steady growth has allowed this game to be one of the few western MMOs to boast a consistently increasing playerbase, especially for so many years in a row. Even Everquest leveled off and started losing players by the 5 year mark:

(EVE is the orange line. Courtesy of MMOGChart.com)

All that, and CCP didn't have a significant marketing budget until 2007. When a company is gaining new customers in such a gradual and organic way, player retention is the only way to stay in business.

There are lots of ways to keep players happy. I've mentioned EVE's constant renovations and improvements before. I also think the dangerous and complex nature of their game also drives people to form much tighter communities to educate and protect each other. EVE also releases frequent expansions, for free.

A significant portion of players who try the game seem to give up during the tutorial (which CCP is continually reworking), but those who do seem to stick around for quite some time.

As of June 2, 2008, EVE had 236k subscriptions.

The tortoise and the hare

WAR officially had "Over 300k subscriptions" on December 31, 2008. Since 350k is a nice round number that they would have reported, the number must have been less than 350, and presumably subscriptions have continued falling in the month since then. So for the sake of argument, I'll guess that WAR has 325k players today, and falling.

Eve officially had 236k players on June 2, 2008. At the stated average growth of .9 percent per week, and 35 weeks since then, that'd put them at around 323k players today, and rising.

Effectively, EVE Online is passive Warhammer Online in subscription numbers. It may have happened last month, or maybe it will happen next month, but there is good reason to believe we're right about there. When people realize this, this is going to be a big deal.

EVE is old and gruff and complex, and a little bit crazy. WAR is young, loud, and very well marketed. It'd be the game industry equivalent of Tom Waits outselling 30 Seconds to Mars.

Consequences of these differences

EVE has been making a solid paycheck for the past 5 years, but had many fewer players at first, and no revenues from box sales. Then again their budget and team are likely a lot smaller than WAR's, and they've spent very little on marketing. WAR has likely spent obscene amounts of money developing and marketing the game, but made quite a bit more on their 1-2 million box sales.

I can't really speak to the differences between the two companies' financial situation. Maybe both paths have made approximately the same amount of money.

There are certainly many other benefits to the slow growth method though:

1 - Of the several million players who aren't playing EVE, most of them have never tried it. Many of the several million players who aren't playing WAR have already tried and disliked it. MMO players aren't known for giving games a second chance, even when there have been drastic improvements.

2 - Since EVE's players are generally so satisfied, they're more likely to recommend the game to their friends. The game is offputting to some, but I think their players understand this and are more likely to only recommend the game to friends who they know will like it. This results in an even higher percentage of satisfied players.

3 - EVE had a very small playerbase at launch to witness its mistakes. It actually had a fairly troubled launch. It reviewed much more poorly (with a 69 Metacritic) than WAR did (with its 86 Metacritic). But nobody remembers that, because nobody was playing it. EVE corrected many of its problems while it still had a very small userbase of devoted players, before trying to reach out to a larger market. WAR probably made fewer mistakes with its launch, but it made them in front of many many more people.

4 - It makes me wonder what I'm missing. Although this probably sounds like a gushing fanboy post, I've never played the game. Every time I hear about some new developments, or their constantly increasing playerbase or sets a new concurrency record, I'm more tempted to plunk down some money, out of sheer curiousity and professional respect.

5 - In the process of revising their game so much over so long, CCP has begun to systematically rewrite large chunks of the game whenever they start to get clunky. This gives their game engine a very high capacity for longevity. Members of the team talk about how the game might play in ten years, as though 15 years weren't an amazingly long time for an MMO to survive.

If their playerbase continues to grow at .9 percent per week, that would put them at... 34 million players?


Eolirin said...

Oh I don't know, if past history is any indication, any game that has an EVE-online size population easily has a decade or more in it. UO and EQ are still going strong, I mean heck, Meridian 59 still has players.

Also, trial keys are freely available on the official site, so trying it out won't cost you much but time, something I suspect you may not have all that much of right now. It's really hard to appreciate without being part of a Corp though, a lot of the gameplay only really works with larger amounts of players.

Mike Darga said...

It'll be very interesting to see how long they'll manage to keep growing so steadily.

I definitely don't have time to start another MMO at the moment, but it's definitely on my list.

Eolirin said...

When things do calm down a bit for you I'd be more than happy to point you toward some resources for the game. I'm not exactly an expert, but I've got friends who are much more heavily invested in the game than I am that are pretty knowledgeable.