May 8, 2009

The Tortoise and the Hare

As you've probably noticed, I've been thinking a lot about player retention this year.

Back in February, I took some subscriber numbers from EVE Online and Warhammer Online and made some projections as to what their subscriber numbers were at that time. This involved some educated guessing, and some blind speculation.

EVE seemed to be a game with low player acquisition and high player retention, while WAR so far had shown high acquisition, but low retention. I ended up hypothesizing that EVE was in the process of passing WAR in subscription numbers, and that more or less everyone would be completely shocked when they realized this:

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

So who's winning?

Today EVE is six years old and WAR is six months old, and they've both announced subscriber numbers of "over 300k." I was a few months off on the timing, and I was apparently dead wrong that anybody besides me would find this event to be so significant.

In January, Warhammer's numbers were also announced as "over 300k," so it's hard to guess if those numbers have stabilized, are still falling, or are increasing again. I believe that 350k is a round enough number that a company would announce "over 350k" if they had broken that threshold, so I assume both games are fluctuating somewhere between 300k and 350k.

EVE's current numbers are significantly lower than my estimate (I extrapolated that they were at 323k back in February). EVE officially had 236k subscribers on June 2, 2008, and 244k at the start of 2009, which is a very modest growth of only 8k players in 7 months. However, their growth so far this year has been much faster:

We started out the year with around 244,000 subscribers and in five short months we've had a 22% growth in subscribers. In the past couple days we surpassed the impressive milestone of 300,000 active subscribers.

Why does this matter?

What I find so interesting about this situation is that we have two games, both somewhat niche and aiming for fans of PvP, at approximately the same number of subscribers. One is good at attracting players, and seems to be getting better at retaining them. One is good at retaining players, and getting better all the time at attracting them. I'm extremely interested to see what happens from here.

It actually seems that both games are shoring up their weaknesses. EVE has seen no shortage of scandal this year, which I'm sure has been great for publicity and player acquisition. WAR seems to no longer be losing players, and has taken strides to bring back lapsed players.

These two games, occupying a similar niche, have arrived at almost exactly the same subscription numbers, at the same time, by very different means. This is about as close as the market can provide to controlled conditions. We'll be able to see how each of the games adapt and progress from here, and how well each approach works over time.

Perhaps both games will level off around 400k, and we'll see that 800k players (plus however many Darkfall has) is the size of the current PvP market. After all, a million players is quite a bit more than most people ever believed PvP games could secure. Perhaps after a certain market cap is reached, the PvP games will stop growing organically and need to rely more on enticing players from each others' audiences.

Maybe we'll see that EVE really does have another ten years of growth left in it, as it continues to become more accessible and while keeping up its high levels or retention. Maybe WAR has distilled its true target audience, and that same 300k players will be playing the game until they unplug the servers.

Right now, these two games combined have about 5% of WoW's subscribers (600k versus 13MM). If those ratios stay constant as WoW continues to grow (and I do believe it's reasonable that 5% of WoW's players end up becoming fans of PvP), games like these can continue to grow at a healthy rate without ever having to directly compete with WoW. If WoW was a successful sushi restaurant, PvP games would be the fat, happy cats who live in the alley behind it.


Tesh said...

To me, retention is key to sustainable long-term design. That's what I'm aiming for when I write about keeplayability. Churn is inevitable because of elements in players' lives beyond game design control. Still, when you can bend your game design to reduce churn and extend retention, it's probably a good idea.

It's baffling to me why so many MMOs rely on cheap grindy tricks to try to feign retention by extending the stick the carrot's dangling from, rather than give people reasons to just *play* the game.

Eolirin said...

Tesh, the simple answer to that is that they don't actually have a game beyond that grind, and really, they never did.

If you look at say, WoW, the content is finite, and the grind is simply a way to stretch that finite content over much larger span of time. There isn't another viable way for the system to work; the core mechanic relies on completing limited content.

So in a lot of cases, they'd have to be building completely different games than they are in order for them to avoid those issues.

EVE on the other hand, has much less excuse, but I put that on CCP not having gone into designing EVE with exactly the highest level of understanding about what they were doing. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but there were a lot of mistakes in EVE's design at the beginning, and they're only gradually correcting them over time.

Tesh said...

Eorlin, actually, that part I get and wholly agree with. I should have been more specific. What baffles me is that more MMO devs aren't designing for the long run with sustainable design built specifically to be near-infinite, rather than stretching out a known finite grind.

I suppose the easy answer is that it's hard to design that way... but that's not much of an excuse in my book.