WoW Factor: Blizzard didn’t reveal World of Warcraft sub numbers – it drew a Mystery Line

It's on a chart, it can't be lying if it's on a chart


It will not surprise anyone reading this to learn that there are things which upset me. This is just part of being a human being; there’s no greater moral architecture to it than that. The vast majority of you do not interact with me on a daily basis and thus do not really see it beyond when I write a column about it, but most of those things upset me with more of a laugh and a shake of the head. I’m not mad about most of this.

But then World of Warcraft goes and unveils a pretend graph and everyone oohs and ahhs and reports it as hard numbers, and I actually get angry.

Saying that my background is in the harder sciences would be a lie, but it is a field that I have always been fascinated by and hold a great deal of respect for. Math and solid data are important, and it very nearly was the field I went into in college. So yes, this does actually make me legitimately I-wish-to-utter-numerous-curses angry. The title to this article could be just a series of curses. This makes me angry because people are treating a damn Mystery Line like it’s anything approaching data. It is not. It is a Mystery Line.

Let’s start with something very, very basic. When you are displaying a graph, you have two axes to label, X and Y. These both represent distinct points of overlap. In this particular imitation graph, the X axis is clearly labeled. We know that it represents time. Now, it’s not labeled very well, but that’s not even a sin. The point of a graph is to provide a visual representation of data, not to actually provide all of those data. And the Y axis is labeled… nothing.

Here’s the problem: Without that Y axis labeled, this graph is useless as a visual expression of data.

Oh, sure, you can lay a single known data point onto a place and then make estimations because you can tell that, say, this peak is exactly 400 pixels higher than the starting point. But you don’t know what those mean. You cannot infer anything from those points. Like, you can see that the WoW Classic launch peak is higher than the Legion launch peak. But what units are you measuring? Is that 10,000 subscribers per pixel? 100,000? A million.

The Y axis could just as easily be a log scale, which is not uncommon, which would mean each full step up is an entire order of magnitude higher. We have no basis of comparison whatsoever. There are no data here.

Dad's not mad, he's disappointed. Also, he's mad.

And you know for a fact that this is intentional because there’s nothing forcing this graph not to label its Y axis or provide some firm data points or any of that. You can insert numbers in here real easily even without labeling the Y axis properly! The reason that isn’t here is not because of some accident or whatever; it’s because the people in charge want to obfuscate that number.

That makes this not a graph. It is, at best, a trend line. But in the absence of anything to check facts against, it’s not even really that. It’s a squiggly line drawn over a bunch of words to create a narrative, a device that in and of itself doesn’t actually bother me in the slightest… if you admit that’s what you’re doing ahead of time.

It’s pretty clear from the actual text of that presentation, for example, that what’s being shared here is not meant to be about the numbers but about the narratives. And there are, in fact, loads of narratives you can tease out of this line. For example, if I clip the line to show only the period of time while WoW Classic has been active, I could tell you a narrative about how mismanagement has squandered that audience. Or I could tell you a narrative about how that version of the game always had a limited buy-in past early curiosity. I could also tell you a narrative about how splitting the playerbase into modes reduces spikes and creates a smoother experience.

Which of these narratives is true? All of them. Also, none of them. These are just stories I want to tell backed up by a nonsense squiggly line that I can insist bolsters my story with hard data without ever actually sharing that data. And why would you do that? Why would you refuse to share your actual data?

The answer is because those data either tell a story you don’t want told or make the story you do want told less compelling. It is something very commonly done with junk science, but it’s hardly absent in other fields. And when you’re in an environment where you are not actually legally obligated to share accurate data – like, say, a GDC panel – you can really just make things up and nobody can do anything about it.

Here, look at this chart I made.

yeah I'm not even fixing this

What does that chart tell you? Well, nothing. Because I lied right on the premise: This is not a chart. It’s a sequence of lines that looks like a chart. It’s The Treachery of Images, but it’s wearing a chart like a skinsuit. It conveys no information; I just formatted it as if it conveyed some information and put words about your intended takeaway. With no firm points, all this tells you is I drew a red line going up, and that’s probably good, right?

Am I saying, “Oh the estimation of WoW subscribers here is too high, so it must be lower”? No. Being as I am not a stockholder, I don’t actually have a reason to care about the number of subscribers a video game I like has beyond what influence that has upon game design going forward. If The War Within launches and the designers have the game pop up a message saying that I’m way too basic if I’m not raiding all the time on a Goblin but the subscription numbers show it’s a runaway success, well, the fact that I’m going to be seeing these messages a lot more probably means more than the numbers do.

The part of this that bothers me is that this trend line tells a lie, and a whole lot of people starved for information – a whole lot of people who should absolutely know better than to be manipulated – fell for it. It does so in a way that is very insidious and subtle by acting like it isn’t a lie but a puzzle you can figure out, which certain figures in our industry were happy to do on video for attention. But it’s not actually a puzzle; it’s a lie that looks sufficiently puzzle-like that you can trick yourself into thinking that you can figure it out. It pissed me off when Nexon did the same thing a few years back, and it pisses me off when Activision the Blizzard Engine does it right the hell now.

The people running the game do not have to present something sufficiently chart-like to pretend as if they’re revealing subscriber numbers in the form of a riddles, as if El Chupacabre will shiv them in the parking lot if they just say the number. You create an ecosystem treating these half-facts as observed information, trying to reverse triangle jump to fit actual numbers over the top, and if you do that, maybe you can objectively find when the game is the best or good again or whatever?

Blizzard knew exactly what the community would do with this chart, knew exactly how hungry we were for info, knew exactly the narrative fans and press would conjure up, knew exactly how much marketing budget they’d save planting the seed and letting MMO players themselves nurture the rumors tree. But if WoW‘s developers want to reveal actual subscriber numbers and let the numbers tell their own story, they will. I will be happy to look at the data when they do so. But this ain’t it, chief. This is worse than nothing.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with almost two decades of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
Activision-Blizzard is considered a controversial gaming company owing to a long string of scandals going back to 2019, including the Blitzchung boycott, mass layoffs, labor disputes, pay disparities, sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuits, federal settlements, executive misconduct, botched Chinese partnership, unionbusting, disastrous management, brain drain, and bungled games. As of 2023, the company was finally acquired by Microsoft; just this year, it’s laid off 800 workers and misled gamers about WoW subs.
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