Vague Patch Notes: The shell game of MMO subscriber numbers and player counts

And why you should be leery of sources claiming they have the answers

In an unbroken line.

Here is a very reasonable question: How many subscribers does Star Wars: The Old Republic have? Not how many players, but how many subscribers. How many people are paying a monthly fee for playing this game? Considering the game’s move to Broadsword and the fact that its development team will be larger than any other team at Broadsword, I’d say this feels relevant.

Here is a very bad answer: “Well, Steam Charts shows the game having around 5000 players at its 24-hour peak, so that’s probably indicative.”

The funny thing is that this is an industry in which a totally reasonable question that would be almost ridiculously normal in any other context becomes a shell game. Ask how many copies of a game Square-Enix sold, and the company will happily tell you; ask how many subscribers Final Fantasy XIV has, and suddenly the company’s only spokesman is a mechanical talking mannequin who speaks in riddles translated from Greek into Thai. And thus communities have been trying to figure it out from demonstrable data… and failing.

So how did we get here? The answer is that this is one of the rare cases where World of Warcraft actually kind of did ruin everything, rather than just being accused of it. But to take a step back, let’s talk about bragging.

Nobody likes it when people brag about their accomplishments, for reasons I should not need to explain to anyone because you’re all human, you live in the world, and you’ve been around people who are loudly bragging before. There’s a fine line between expressing pride in your achievements and coming off like a braggart, and no one wants to come across that way. This is important to note because on a very basic level, subscriber numbers being revealed is always bragging.

Investors don’t really care if your MMO made $15 million because it has a million subscribers paying $15 a month or because it has one subscriber, Player Georg, who pays a subscription price of $15 million dollars and is also an outlier adn should not have been counted. Same amount of money coming in either way. While the latter strategy is not a good one for the company, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, the net results are fine either way. But subscriber numbers are useful as a brag.

And Blizzard was super happy to brag about WoW for many years because honestly, why wouldn’t it? It directly supported the studio, and it also made everyone else look worse, because the thing about bragging is that you only do it when you’re confident someone else can’t out-brag you.

Are you for real, guy.

This is pretty obvious, and we all have been in at least one situation where someone is mid-brag before getting shut down perfectly. Someone claims that this boss in a game is really hard but it took him only four tries before his girlfriend sweeps in and beats it first time. The lady who is talking about solving a puzzle super quick and then you do it in half the time. You only start the brag if you’re pretty sure you are not going to end up being the punchline about being hoist by your own petard.

No one wanted to be bragging while Blizzard was sucking up all the oxygen in the room. If you didn’t have 10 million subscribers, you were not about to brag about your subscriber numbers. And by the time Blizzard stopped bragging because it finally realized it was embarrassing itself, the market had shifted. Free-to-play games had so thoroughly dominated the market that it was easy to massage player counts pretty significantly, and saying “we have X subscribers” may or may not even mean anything or be a meaningful metric.

Fun stuff. But people still want to know how many players MMOs have at any given time. And here we come to the much more difficult stage, when fans and industry observers try to figure out subscribers based on the data that are actually available.

This is in and of itself pretty normal. If I tell you that I have a right-angle triangle with one side measuring 8 inches and another measuring 15 inches, I don’t need to tell you the length of the hypotenuse. That’s not a difficult investigative process; it’s a 12-year-old’s math homework. But there are a lot of other cases – including, as you have probably gathered, this one – where available data do not translate particularly well into figuring out a derived value of “how many people are actually playing the game.”

Blizzard does share how many monthly active users it has, for example. But that doesn’t actually tell me a whole lot. I know that someone who accesses five Blizzard games can be counted as multiple MAUs by that principle, but that does not in and of itself tell me how many people access multiple Blizzard games. Some people really like WoW but not Hearthstone, some like both, and some like even more games in the same ecosystem. And I know that someone accessing Heroes of the Storm would get another mark up, but that doesn’t tell me how likely that theoretical person is to play other games.


Now, certainly I can make assumptions here. But that means that any and all conclusions I draw are valid only insofar as those assumptions are valid, when they could be wildly off. I could try to pull data from the Armory, but I have to assume how many characters I count as being actively played and owned by separate accounts, which may not be immediately obvious.

Steam Charts is often cited as being indicative, but I’ve discussed prior to this that unless a game is only available on Steam, those numbers are really irrelevant. FFXIV has an enormous presence off of that platform and did not initially launch on Steam. SWTOR is in the same boat. While the chart might offer me a useful trend line, the actual numbers don’t tell me anything without another piece of data, like if someone on SWTOR’s development team said, “Yeah, Steam is about 5% of our playerbase.”

The thing is that as fans and analysts, we want those numbers because they are a useful piece of data. If you see a game drop half its subscribers in response to a given update, that says something! If the same game doubles its subscribers? Same deal. And it’s tempting – because so many data are¬†available and there so many points that look indicative – to just kind of squint and assume that it must be broadly accurate or these numbers are conservative but indicative.

But they really aren’t. These numbers do not tell the story we want them to tell us, and it’s ultimately bad form to assume otherwise. I want to know how many people are actually reliably playing SWTOR because that’s on my mind right now, but it’s clear that the owners do not want to share that information. They are holding all the cards, and while there are means I can use to guess at the trend lines and interest over time, there is no point of reference or equation to pop together all the data available to me in order to spit out the number of players.

Unless your game costs $15 million to subscribe and it has Player Georg, anyhow.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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