Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Top 5 MMOGs?

The NPD Group has come out with its estimate of the top 5 virtual gaming worlds, as reported by and 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

  1. World of Warcraft [10 million subscribers]
  2. RuneScape [1.2 million subscribers]
  3. Lord of the Rings Online [1 million subscribers]
  4. Final Fantasy XI [500,000 subscribers]
  5. 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); 2); 3); 4); and 5)]
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. 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).

Friday, May 16, 2008

Research Conference in World of Warcraft

I had the pleasure of attending Saturday’s session of last weekend’s “Convergence of the Real and the Virtual,” a conference that took place inside World of Warcraft. Attendees had to be on the Earthen Ring server and have a Horde character. The locations varied by day, but on Saturday the session took place in the sewers of the Undercity.

I’ve attached some photos of session discussion (click to enlarge) that I took as well as a group photo (courtesy of Joanna Robinson) taken during the expedition to Booty Bay.The conference consisted of a research discussion followed by an expedition to different parts of the world. The expeditions were designed to highlight some of the more spectacular views and locations in WoW. The topics for each day were as follows:

Session 1: Research and World of Warcraft (May 9)
Session 2: Relationships between WoW and the "Real World" (May 10)
Session 3: The Future of Virtual Worlds (May 11)

Detail on the activities and discussions can be found on the conference wiki, including screenshots and video footage. Additional information on the conference is available from Virtual Worlds News and Science.

I found the session I attended to be interesting and insightful. I’ve posted the chat log from Saturday’s session for those interested. Tim Burke, a history professor at Swarthmore, made the following observation about the research value of virtual worlds:

My first angle of approach with virtual worlds is always to treat them as "accidental social simulations". They're richer and more complex than any model in normal social science. But they're simple enough to study in ways the world at large cannot be… Models in social science are predictable. Scholars can make them do what scholars want them to do. Virtual worlds aren't predictable: they have all the organic character of human society….So that's my answer to whether research in World of Warcraft is useful for understanding the real world. Of course it is. (and vice-versa). Yes, with very firm limits, but yes nevertheless.

It was also kind of exciting to be conducting a research-oriented discussion inside WoW, especially seeing all the other participants’ avatars ranging from Undead warriors to Tauren shaman Blood Elf thieves. The expedition was also an enjoyable group excursion. The underwater reefs off of Booty Bay were particularly neat to see (until, that is, I strayed too far from the group and was killed by a murloc).

Beyond the benefit of the session discussion itself, I left the conference with a couple important impressions. It seems desirable to see serious applications of MMOGs. In the real world, the most popular places for conferences are Tampa, San Diego, Atlanta and New Orleans. They are not places like Duluth, MN in January, or Odessa, TX in August. No slight to those cities, but people want the location of their conferences to be fun and exciting. The same goes for virtual conferences. If you are going to have a conference in a virtual world, why not hold it in a MMOG, where you can hand out goodie bags and participants can make friends for adventuring as well as research? In addition, to put a slightly different spin on the same point, it seems evident that such serious applications of MMOGs are inevitable. After all, as the most profitable sector of the virtual world market, MMOGs are more likely to produce technologically advanced worlds that attract serious applications. These impressions simply reinforce the points discussed in my earlier post, “Apples & Oranges, or Shades of Grey?”.

The conference was organized by Bill Bainbridge and John Bohannon. Bainbridge is currently affiliated with the Center for Social Complexity at George Mason University and is Co-Director of Human-Centered Computing at the National Science Foundation, while Bohannon is author of the Gonzo Scientist column in the AAAS journal Science.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Virtual Worlds & Pop Culture

Ren Reynolds has an interesting post up at Terra Nova about the mainstreaming of gaming and, indirectly, virtual worlds. That got me to think on the number of times virtual worlds had permeated plot lines of major TV shows. Although this list is likely not exhaustive, virtual worlds have made a central storyline for such popular prime-time shows as:

I am not sure if I would really count it, but The Daily Show also had a “news” story/paraody about the Congressional hearings, airing 4/7/2008 on Comedy Central.

I may be missing some shows or episodes, so feel free to rectify my oversight with a comment or an email to me and I will update the list. UPDATE: I will continue to post additions and updates to this list over time, so keep 'em coming.