Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Numbers and interpretations

Blizzard announced that they sold 3.3 million copies of Cataclysm in the first 24 hours. That is a number. Numbers are easy, because they are either fact or false, so beyond "I don't believe this number is correct", there isn't much room for discussion.

Where it gets complicated is when you try to interpret the number, and put a judgement on it, saying whether this number is "high" or "low". So about the Cataclysm sales you'll read every possible interpretation from this being very high, compared to the 2.4 million copies Burning Crusade sold in its first 24 hours, or this being low compared to the 12 million subscribers they say they have.

Interpretations are often only half supported by facts, with the other half being made up by some assumption. In some cases the assumption is clearly wrong, for example the comparison between the 3.3 million Cataclysm buyers and the 12 million subscribers isn't valid, because we know that around half of the subscribers could not possibly have bought Cataclysm, because it wasn't released yet in China (and won't be for some time, they only just got WotLK). On the other hand Cataclysm certainly led people who *weren't* subscribers in October, when Blizzard released the 12 million subscribers number, to buy the expansion and resubscribe.

Whether 3.3 million first-day buyers are high or low thus depends on other assumptions, and a lot of missing data: How many people were subscribed to World of Warcraft in the countries where Cataclysm was for sale the day before the expansion? How many people resubscribed? And even if we had numbers here, it would still be hard to interpret: If we assume 6.6 million subscribers in Europe and America, and half of them bought Cataclysm on the first day, what does that tell us? I'd assume a lot of people simply weren't too keen on playing on the overcrowded first day, but bought the expansion in time for the weekend. I'd also guess that some people will find a copy of Cataclysm under the Christmas tree. And while I'm watching my wife playing a level 75 rogue in Northrend (in spite of me having bought the expansion for her), I'll also have to assume that some people simply decided they can play World of Warcraft without the expansion.

So in the end this number, 3.3 million first day buyers, isn't all that meaningful. Accountants might be interested by the over $100 million of gross revenue the number implies for Blizzard. But for an evaluation of the "success" of the expansion we'd better wait for the next press release from Blizzard announcing some new subscriber number record.

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