Is there an accurate way to know if a MMO is in decline? For most players it’s something we can sense by intuition. We make mental notes of our anecdotal experiences: we start noticing that there are less players when we log on; fewer guildmates are showing up for raids; it’s harder to find people to group with; there are fewer people buying our goods in the auction house and so on.
Naturally MMO companies like Blizzard will never tell us the truth about how many players are still subscribing to WoW and how many are actually playing on their servers. When they are not busy trying to shut down mom & pop companies that are making iPhone apps, webcomics and fan stores by sending cease and desist letters they seemingly find the time to make exuberant self-congratulatory press releases touting their recent millions served number of WoW subscribers.
I hate to break the bad news to Blizzard but I’ve seen a couple of charts on Alexa.com that have analyzed the traffic that WorldofWarcraft.com has been getting in the past 22 months. Could these charts be predicting the decline of WoW?
Here’s my brief understanding of how Alexa.com works. Alexa.com is a company that ranks websites using various criteria such as of traffic rank, reach, pageviews, bounce rate, etc. Essentially these criteria determine the popularity of a website.
Rank – determines how popular a website is compared to other websites
Reach - determines how many visitors a website is getting
Pageviews – determine how many unique pages a visitor is viewing
Bounce Rate – determines how long a visitor is staying on your site
For purposes of this article I’m going to simply things and only look at 2 criteria: ranking and reach.
Alexa Charts for WorldofWarcraft.com: 22 Months August 2007 – June 2009
This 22 month graph shows a steady rate of decline in the ranking of Worldofwarcraft.com compared to every other website in the world from April 2008 to June 2009. The lower the ranking the less popular the website. It’s very obvious here that the official WoW website has been losing ground to other websites in the public consciousness.
Now this graph with the same 22 month time period shows a steady rate of decline in the number of daily visitors to Worldofwarcraft.com from April 2008 to June 2009. What is interesting is how it mimics the first chart. Again it seems that their website is losing popularity among web surfers.
Chart Spikes = New Content
You will notice various spikes on both graphs. In most cases the spikes represent new patches released by Blizzard for WoW. For example, there is another huge spike around the time of March and April in 2008 when Patch 2.4 was released that introduced the much anticipated Sunwell content and the Isle of Quel ‘Danas. There are two big spikes you can see on the graph when Patch 3.02 was released October 2008 which introduced the latest expansion: the Wrath of the Lich King.
It stands to reason that more people would be visiting the official WoW website around the time when new content is being released in order to find out information.
What Does This All Mean?
Given the trends we can plainly see in these charts, I believe there is a direct correlation between the popularity of their website and the popularity of WoW the MMO.
From the charts it looks as if interest in WoW’s website peaked in April of 2008 when the Fury of the Sunwell patch was released and has been in steady decline ever since. The most shocking realization here is that despite a small bump in interest after its release, the Wrath of the Lich King expansion has not done anything to curb the steady downward trend of people interested in WoW.
Another possibility is that WoW players are not finding the official website as useful as it once was. The bounce rate (a measure of how long people are staying on the site) has been getting worse lately as well which tells us that people are heading to the site, finding nothing to their liking and abruptly leaving.
The poor quality of the content produced by forum posters and lack of moderation of the forums could also be part of the problem. Even Wowarmory.com — arguably one of the most useful offline services that Blizzard provides for WoW subscribers — has started to see it’s numbers decline too.
Regarding Subscribers and Press Releases
Of course knowing the total number of players currently subscribed to WoW would be another way to gauge its popularity but the problem is that there is no way to independently verify Blizzard’s numbers. Let’s also not forget that half of WoW’s subcribers come from the Asian market which has a completely different pay model.
Blizzard Entertainment’s Mike Morhaime and Paul Sams accepted the records for World of Warcraft for the Most Popular MMORPG with a total of 11.6 million subscribers and Starcraft for being the Best Selling Strategy Game for a PC, selling 9.5 million copies worldwide.
I created this graph showing the various subscriber milestones from data from official Blizzard press releases. As you can see the growth of new subscribers has started to level off in recent months.
MMO Life Expectancy
A few weeks ago Spinks posted a nice article that examines the lifespans of MUDs and MMOs. She made the following astute prognostication:
When I was playing MUDs/ MUSHes I had a theory that after about 3-4 years, a game would have to fundamentally change or else it would inevitably die…
…I think the 4 year mark just tended to be a perfect storm for all of these things coming to a head at once. The community turned in on itself, all the main evangelists had moved on, and the game itself became less friendly to newbies. And the result was that people looking for a new game would find one with fewer barriers.
Using the Spinks equation this puts WoW into decline at the same time the Alexa charts has Worldofwarcraft.com starting to lose popularity in April of 2008. Coincidence or insightful forecasting?
In the mind of the public interest in WoW is waning and has been for a while — now we have some actual independent data from Alexa to prove it. While it’s not direct evidence that WoW is in decline it’s surely a harbinger of things to come for this aging MMO.
Despite the cheery corporate smiles, it should be great cause for concern at Blizzard that the release of new content — especially their latest expansion is not doing much to address the MMO public’s loss of interest in WoW. A decline in total subscribers is probably not far behind and can be absolutely certain that Blizzard would never make a press release stating that.