Has World of Warcraft (Finally) Hit a Plateau?

After 32 months of continual growth, the largest MMO in the world may, at long last, be peaking.

Sad ElfThat’s my conclusion, at least, looking at the latest stats from WarcraftRealms.com, a large fansite which tracks and analyzes population statistics and demographics for Warcraft. The site publishes concurrency data that WoW’s developer, Blizzard, doesn’t actively provide, through a system called Census+. [digg=http://digg.com/gaming_news/World_of_Warcraft_finally_hits_a_plateau]
“[I]t works by utilizing the in-game ‘/who’ functionality to take a snapshot of every character currently logged into the game for your server and faction,” administrator “Rollie” explains to me. “These shapshots can then be uploaded to WarcraftRealms.com, which are then aggregated with other people’s snapshots … During the month of May there were over 180,000 snapshots uploaded and processed.”

With that, they were able to compile pretty solid data on players during WoW’s peak hours, and the numbers for the last few months are very interesting.

Data from www.warcraftrealms.com
Chart courtesy of www.warcraftrealms.com— forgive me if the formatting looks out of whack. As you might guess, the first month of 2007 is when Blizzard released The Burning Crusade expansion pack/sequel, which spiked prime time players from the US and EU to near 900,000 in February. Since then, however, activity has been dropping at a steeper rate than it increased through 2006. (While Warcraft boasts 4 million monthly subscribers in the West, by the way, it’s more meaningful to look at concurrency levels. Subscription-based MMOs are like gym memberships: even if you have one, that doesn’t mean you use it—and the less you do, the more likely you’ll finally say “Who am I kidding?” and cancel it.)

Rollie notes that WoW’s active player counts are still higher than they were before TBC’s release. “As for why numbers are dropping now,” he speculates, “it is only natural. There is a very noticeable spike when The Burning Crusade came out… As more and more people have gotten over the euphoria of the new content, they are settling back into their normal play routines, and thus the nightly averages are really correcting back to the norm.”

That might be. But with so much fresh content to explore, why would the spike last only two months, then begin dropping sharply? It’s too early to conclude WoW is actually losing players. (Though Amanda Rivera of the WoW Insider, the blog where I first spotted Rollie’s chart, thinks that’s the case.) I’m checking with Blizzard for their take, but assuming the chart is a reliable extrapolation, it’s pretty safe to say two things:

– The Burning Crusade added few if any new subscribers to WoW.
– The Burning Crusade’s appeal to existing subscribers was short-lived at best.

“This is how Open Big MMOs all go,” veteran MMO developer Raph Koster observes on his blog. “A big rush, peaking a little bit after the launch. Then a plateau for a while, then a tailing off.”

Blizzard’s much-anticipated expansion pack arrived more than two years after their game’s November 2004 debut. The studio is notorious for its slow development schedules, but to keep their hardcore fans happy, they’ll need to get their next expansion out a lot faster than two more years from now. This is one fundamental problem with traditional MMOs: their most passionate players quickly churn through any new content the company creates, then share its secrets with less regular players. (Who either decline to follow in the power players’ footsteps, or now that they have the inside scoop, do so at a much faster pace than they otherwise would.) It’s one fundamental reason why MMOs which foster user-created content are generating so much interest: without a regular stream of new material, a popular MMO just breeds its own downfall.

Image credit: World of Warcraft.