Is World of Warcraft really the most popular MMO?

Probably not, as it turns out; certainly not in the Western hemisphere, anyway. Working with publicly-known figures, veteran MMO developer Raph Koster recently made this observation on his blog:

[I]t may be possible that World of Warcraft is actually sitting around #4 or #5 in the top MMOs in North America and Europe.

This is because while Blizzard claims 8.5 million subscribers (as of January 2007) only 3.5 million are based in the West. Let’s be generous and assume the game’s recent expansion pack boosted that to 4 million– even then, WoW would be trailing far behind the top Western MMO. [digg=]

So which virtual world rules this region? The name will surprise you – but here is a clue: it is based in Finland, and doesn’t involve bashing Orcs in the head.
Habbo.comHabbo Hotel from Sulake boasts 7.5 million unique active users a month, according to a spokeswoman. Primarily for teens, the web-based social game is extraordinarily popular in Europe, and is beginning to promote a US version in earnest.

But that means WoW is still the most popular worldwide, right? Even that’s not certain. Blizzard’s own definition of subscriber [bottom of the link] includes everybody who “purchased the game and are within their free month of access.” However, if you assume a churn rate of folks who try the game but give up before the month ends, and others who stop playing but don’t get around to canceling their monthly subscription, that would put WoW neck-and-neck with Habbo.

None of this is meant to take anything away from WoW’s success, of course; it indisputably remains the most popular subscriber-based, traditional fantasy MMORPG that runs on a non-Web client. The thing is, that just means Warcraft rules but a small segment of the virtual world space.

It’s important to make these distinctions, because for too long, the game industry has been defining what counts as an MMO. As I recently argued, it only includes the fairly narrow conception of fantasy RPG games that its Lost Boy constituency are personally interested in.

It also confuses matters to count WoW’s Asian subscribers with their Western counterparts, because in Asia, Warcraft is primarily played in Internet cafes on a by-the-hour basis; in China, some 4 million players pay about 4 cents an hour. (People often assume all 8.5 million are paying a monthly subscription.) In the end, investors and analysts come away with a mistaken perspective on a virtual world market that is, when you take a broader view, forecast to claim 80% of active Internet users by 2011. But most of them won’t be acting like elves.

So what are the other MMOs giving WoW a run for its gold coins? Stay tuned, we are working on compiling a top ten, set to run next week. The results, as they say, may surprise you.

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