The NPD Group has come out with its estimate of the top 5 virtual gaming worlds, as reported by Gamasutra.com and GamesIndustry.biz. NPD's list does not include the number of subscribers, so to put things in perspective I have added subscriber counts (in brackets) that I gathered from various sources on the web.
Q1 2008 – Top 5 MMOGs by Subscribers
- World of Warcraft [10 million subscribers]
- RuneScape [1.2 million subscribers]
- Lord of the Rings Online [1 million subscribers]
- Final Fantasy XI [500,000 subscribers]
- City of Heroes (CoH) [136,000 subscribers]
Overall, NPD estimated that there are approximately 11 million gaming subscribers per month in North America. The subscriber data was gathered over a six month period (October 2007 and March 2008). Unfortunately, NPD did not make public its estimates of individual subscriber counts, just the relative ranking. However, we know from NCsoft’s financial reports that CoH had 136,250 subscribers in the U.S. and Europe in December 2007.
When paired with subscription estimates, NPD’s list seem particularly striking for being so stratified. The drop-off of 9.9 million subscriptions between the #1 and #5 spots suggests a high degree of market concentration at the top, with many smaller players at the bottom. Raph Kosters has a good post on this large disparity.
The public part of the release had two additional nuggets of information. The first is demographic. According to NPD spokeswoman Anita Frazier:
While the majority of gaming website players are females over the age of 35, MMOG players are largely males under the age of 35.
The first part of this statement is a bit surprising, as gamers are typically thought to be young males, not females over 35. The second half is notable because the age figure is so high; this also implies that a large percent of MMOG players are over age 35. [NPD’s list of the gaming websites with the most subscribers are: 1) Pogo.com; 2) Realarcade.com; 3) Bigfishgames.com; 4) Gametap.com; and 5) Disney.com.]
The second bit of information is financial. Summing revenues from three categories – MMOs, casual games and consoles – yields more than $1 billion in annual revenue. NPD obtained this estimate by first estimating monthly average revenue at $87.2 million for the time period surveyed, and then multiplying that estimate by 12.
Although NPD’s list is interesting, it is not as revealing as it seems. First, it seems likely that a number of MMOs have subscriber bases close to or larger than CoH’s. Club Penguin from Disney has roughly 700,000 subscribers. CCP’s EVE Online reports having 220,000 subscribers at the end of 2007. NCsoft’s Lineage I & II had 2.1 million subscribers (86,000 in the U.S. and Europe). Sony Online Entertainment’s EverQuest I/II have some 250,000 subscribers and while Star Wars Galaxies is estimated to have some 100,000 subscribers. MMOGchart.com also estimates that Toontown Online has 100,000 subscribers and Dofus has 450,000 world-wide. Certainly there are important definitional and geographic differences between these estimates and NPD’s list, but the point remains that from a global perspective NPD’s list only reports on a segment of the metaverse.
NPD’s focus on subscribers also ignores the increasing use of microtransactions and/or RMT as a revenue source. I blogged about this trend in a recent post (“Money Transactions in WoW and NCsoft”), but see also the articles here, here and here. Some of the most popular virtual worlds (and granted, they are not all MMOGs) do not require a subscription, including Guild Wars (5 million games sold), Second Life (600,000 users logging in during past 2 weeks), Virtual MTV (600,000 registered accounts), Knight Online (4 million registered users), and Habbo (7 million unique visits per month). Sony Online Entertainment has been at the forefront of this shift toward use of microtransactions and RMT, implementing such capabilities into EverQuest II and the forthcoming The Agency. NCsoft’s Exteel, SOE’s upcoming Free Realms, MU Online from K2, and Nexon’s MapleStory (with 67 million registered users) are all free-to-play, making their profitability especially reliant on microtransactions/RMT (see here and here).