Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Is the MMO market rational?

Massively had the news this week that Warhammer Online is shutting down two more servers. I remember we all speculated how many copies WAR would sell, and the safest bet was between 1 and 2 million. The problem was that these sales didn't result in subscriptions beyond the first free month, and in early 2009 the subscription numbers were already down to 300,000. Which isn't all that low a number, but obviously failed to meet expectations, leading to EA laying off a lot of people at Mythic.

Now that the discussion around WAR has pretty much cooled down, I'm still wondering *why* WAR failed to hold onto the players who had already bought the game. Basically there are two mutually exclusive theories: In the first theory, players made rational decisions. They bought the game based on all the good things they heard about WAR on the internet, found out they weren't actually having all that much fun when they tried it, and made the rational decision to unsubscribe. In this theory, the drop in numbers is a result of game design: If the game had been designed to be more fun, with less flaws (whatever you think those flaws are), it would have held on to far more players.

The second theory is that the drop in WAR subscription numbers was preordained, and nobody could have prevented it, not even with a perfect game. The million or so people who bought WAR were just bored "WoW tourists", who promptly went back to WoW when Wrath of the Lich King was released. Some versions of this theory even claim that WAR is a far better game than WoW, and that the hundreds of thousands of players who quit WAR for WotLK were stupid lemmings who simply couldn't tell a good game from a bad game, and just went with the flow.

As I strongly believe in the impact of game design, I naturally tend towards believing the first theory. Which, of course, is just a personal belief, and doesn't prove anything. And I really don't know how we could possibly find out. I'd love to hear from people like Paul Barnett about what they think (although there is a risk that people who worked on WAR favor the second theory, which makes them look less bad), but while last year you couldn't open any video on the internet without Paul popping up and promoting WAR, he has been rather silent this year.

So instead I'm asking you for your opinion: Do you believe that subscription numbers are based on customers making rational decisions, influenced by what economics tells us should influence them, like personal preferences and price? Or are MMORPG players completely irrational and just go for whatever everybody else is playing? It is easy to see that the answer to that question might have important implications for the future of MMORPGs. So what killed WAR? Wrath of the disappointed players, or Wrath of the Lich King?

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