MMO Baby Fat

Keen has a post up asking whether Guild Wars 2 will surpass his “3-month” rule-of-thumb. He uses it as a metric for MMO success. How much of the launch population stays around after three months? If “most” have left, then Keen chalks it up to a bad-egg MMO. Rift, Warhammer Online, and the like seem to fall under his rule. The problem with his rule is whether it is even a valid measurement. Has any recent MMO passed 3 months under Keen’s rule-of-thumb?

The rule appears based on the mass egress of players at around 90 days. The first month, like a good drug, is free for subscription-based games. The second month begins the actual monthly tithe, which is darn near automatic in the minds of many players. It’s the moment where I would guess players on the fence decide to throw just a little more money at it since it’s just a fraction of the money already spent. It’s at the third month that I think issues, boredom, or grass-is-greener syndromes overcome the value of continuing to play. Players are implicitly asked the question of whether it is worth staying.

The problem, I feel, has been one of an obese launch followed by a much leaner steady cycle. MMOs are now born with baby fat that will definitely go away. Many bloggers seem to be unaware of this and simply compare launch population to current population in order to announce “fail”. Yet, it appears that producers can be just as imprudent, the most recent being Star Wars The Old Republic. A good amount of MMO purchasers appear to be tourists with little intention of planting roots because there is so much else out there.

I don’t think the 3-month rule is a good way to measure success. I feel it is a givein that a large portion of the launch population will begin to dissipate at around that time especially in a subscription-based game. In my opinion, it’s the developer’s reaction to this give-in that I feels pulls more weight.

My least favorite moment in an MMO’s life is during layoff time. There is no stronger, public objective evidence that business is leaner than anticipated. This is my rule-of-thumb on success. How long after launch was there a big layoff? Or, how long after launch do marketing gimmicks begin to appear (this usually is a strong indicator of coming layoffs anyway)?

This is why I really like Trion. Sure they produced a fun product, but on their business end they have stayed very smart. As far as I can tell they did not have a layoff after the launch of Rift.  (They did have a small one beforehand, which did truthfully sound like a restructuring rather than book balancing.) Yet, Keen seems to call Rift a “three-monther” since only a fraction of the launch population has stayed. Heck, I left around 3-months, but I left as a happy customer with no intention of announcing “fail”. To me, this was just the natural course of things. Regardless, the sustaining population appears to have met or exceeded Trion’s expectations because they have not had layoffs. That is a really important factor.

Community and a sustained population are the lifeblood of MMOs. Launch population is a great way to help pay off years of development costs, but it is not the strongest indication of sustained success. Most people consider EVE Online a success, but it is a niche MMO with a sustained population (many of which have multiple subscriptions). EVE Online had a small launch, but it has grown. I feel that it is unlikely for an MMO to start small and grow in this way in comparison to having a large launch and downsizing. I definitely appreciate that this is a great way to make an MMO rather than shoot for the sun and burn out of money (see 38 Studios).

Another good indicator of success is the amount of content expansions. Expansions have a greater risk vs. reward than small updates. Lord of the Rings Online is about to come out with their fourth expansion, this one in to Rohan. While I think the third expansion (Rise of Isengard) may have been filler-like, the other three expansions have all introduced new mechanics (legendary items, skirmishes, and mounted combat), which introduce a huge risk and also a huge draw. Creating expansions of this magnitude requires much more in the way of developmental resources than small free content updates. It requires a sustained population as well as an expectation of returning player draw. Both indicate success.

Guild Wars 2 already appears to have exceeded internal expectations for launch, which further supports the idea that there will likely be baby-fat population on launch. I expect after the New Year when people have started to “beat” the game and after the big anticipated festivals is when the baby fat will start to melt off. This does not take in to account PvP or WvW, which are much harder to anticipate as far as a sustained population and support. This also does not take in to account late adopters buying accounts after launch. ArenaNet has said they will have a very aggressive post-launch support for the game, and they want it to be the industry best. If it is on tier with the MMOs I discussed above, I would consider it a sustained success.

The strongest indicator of Guild Wars 2 not being a 3-monther comes from commentator Fergor who discusses spending 50 hours in Queensdale alone. Queensdale is the level 1-15 human starting zone. He says those hours were spent on fun, not progression. At GameSpy, Leif Johnson was surprised to find that he was enjoying replaying beta content. This is unusual for “AAA” MMO launches. Most of the time I hear groans of “I’ve already played the starting zones all beta, can’t we just keep our characters”. For Guild Wars 2, I’ve been hearing a lot of “starting zone X was the most fun, I’m going to start with that race”.

Most MMOs have been so based on progression that having one built on fun gameplay so strongly is making many magic 8-balls extremely hazy.  It gets even hazier since there is no subscription decision for players to make each month in Guild Wars 2. I am not worried about the Guild Wars 2 being a 3-monther in any form, but I am interested to see how it performs against my indicators of sustained success. In less than 10 days, we’ll being that process of that review.



32 thoughts on “MMO Baby Fat”

  1. Excellent analysis.

    I don’t buy the basic “three-monther” premise in the first place. It seems to be predicated on the idea that a “good” MMO is one that consumes all your available MMO-playing time for an indefinite period. It supposes a desire to return to the Goldan Age of UO/AC/EQ/DAOC when people picked an MMO and stuck to it come hell or high water. I don’t want to play that way.

    Indeed, I never played that way even back then. I generally played at least two MMOs at any given time, even back in 2000. I tried to buy and try every new one that launched and get into every beta I could. I considered it time and money well-spent just to see new ways that virtual worlds could be made, even when, as usually was the case, they turned out not to be worlds I wanted to live in for long.

    Nowadays, with all the free trials, f2p options and a new beta starting seemingly every week, I really don’t see the prospect of any MMO getting a psychological lock on me to the degree that I want to play it to the exclusion of all else as a positive in any way. I relish the freedom to pick and choose according to mood and whim from dozens of excellent MMOs. In fact I confess to being slightly apprehensive that GW2 may be compulsive enough to hold all my attention for an extended period, which is something I’d prefer it not to do.

    In the end, all that matters to me as a hobbyist is that each MMO is able to attract and hold sufficient attention in the market to maintain commercial viability. In other words, to earn enough revenue to make it worth the developer’s while to keep some servers up and continue to develop the game.

    If GW2 doesn’t manage at least that, we may as well all give up right now.

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head regarding the question of MMO success: Expectations. This is important both on the developer financial side, but also on the customer engagement side.

    For developers, managing their financial expectations as the climate seems to be less ‘I intend to play this MMO forever’ and more ‘Ill enjoy this MMO until something better comes along’ is essential. This is something that I find interesting about the GW2 developer ArenaNet – they have repeatedly stated they don’t expect this to be the one game you play, and they should ‘earn’ your re-engagement with each expansion and live update. This seems to be the developer coming to where demand lies, rather than hoping players will play their game for a long period of time and performing layoffs when those unrealistic expectations aren’t met.

    On the player’s side, managing expectations means a bit of self-reflection in what you look for in your games. Do you want one you play forever, or are you comfortable investing and letting go? It encourages the fundamental recognition that you play to enjoy yourself rather than to ascend the grind. It also means changing your expectations for games coming out: Someone can be very excited about the pending GW2 release, but also realized that if they decide to move on in a month or few that is okay.

  3. I don’t know if the three month rule can even be applied to a game that’s B2P. The business model allows players to come and go at their leisure more easily. The success of the game is more easily measured by how many players keep coming back for more. Even where sub-fee games are concerned, part of why WoW has remained such a big success isn’t just because they maintained such a large number of players but because so many of the players that left to play the newest game on the market ultimately came back to WoW.

    I haven’t really followed Keen but my impression is he’s very much a hardcore gamer with a veiled distaste for casuals so I don’t think his measurement of success will sync up with that of many players or even the developers, who themselves have a very different philosophy on gaming.

    While I suspect GW2 has a lot more to offer hardcore gamers than people realize, ANet’s business model and post-launch plans take casual gamers into account in a way that prior models do not. I’m in it for the long hall (only MMOs I played outside of free trials were WoW and the original GW) but that doesn’t mean I won’t log off to spend time with friends and family or enjoy some fresh air and maybe even take a vacation from time to time.

    In fact, three months after launch is Thanksgiving.

  4. I will be honest and say that I personally do believe the three month rule is a useful metric when used as part of an analysis, though it certainly is not by itself sufficient – nor do I believe it will be at all appropriate for games without a subscription cost.

    I think something Guild Wars 2 offers that games such as World of Warcraft do not, is the ability to play less per week and still feel you get value for money. I have to decide each month if my subscription for WoW will be worthwhile – with GW2 I pay for it once, then I play for it forever. I never look back and think I should have saved myself the money, or feel bored and regret letting my subscription lapse.

    While this is obvious and has been discussed to death, I still think it is not considered to be the huge factor which it is. I can continue to buy MMORPGs and experiment with them, all the while playing Guild Wars 2 in tandem with them. Sinking a handful of euroes on gems for sunglasses or whatever else isn’t the commitment that a subscription represents. Although, being a lowly student, perhaps this is not as true for all as it is for me.

    Really, I think the best metric for Guild Wars 2 is one which ArenaNet oft-used for the original. How many people have logged in within the last 30 days? The figures for the first six months would definitely make for an interesting read. Unfortunately I’m not convinced that we’ll get this information from ArenaNet, but I do hope they’ll surprise me.

    Overall I did really enjoy reading this article, so thanks for taking the time! I agree that the response expansion packs get met with are all significant – however this is naturally not in the near future for GW2. That said, I personally can’t wait for the Elona-based expansion, and hopefully with it once again creating a Dervish.

    1. I think their original plan was adding more races but not more professions in future expansions, but that was also from an interview a long long time ago.

      1. Well, there are a lot of NPC races, as skritt and tengu, ready for be player races at future expansions.

  5. as stated above, gw2 doesnt really fit the mold of the generic p2p game where a successful launch requires X copies sold and a successful 3 months requires X – (y*X) active subscriptions, where ‘y’ is the percent ‘babyfat’. sure you can judge its success but not when it’s designed to cater to the pick-up players and hardcore alike.

    some other factors i think you can judge anet on in addition to the ones you listed are the quality & number of items in the shop, the gem:gold market & history, expansions, and, most importantly, the health/state of pvp including tournaments, ladders(?), esports scene. if any 1 of those 4 is subpar anet has room for improvement.

  6. Good MMOs grow over time.

    Bad WoW clones die right out of the gate.

    Its a fair way to judge.

    1. By that metric, Rift has been one of the rare successes since the dominance of WoW. It’s alive and continuing to add new things every month, which by any reasonable standard is a sign of success.

  7. I absolutely agree with your last two paragraphs Ravious. The research I’ve been doing for my thesis suggests to me that part of the problem with most MMOs is the focus on endgame, combined with a willingness to let players get there quickly. A majority of people I’ve encountered push through levelling as quickly as possible – but this means that having a very robust endgame, one which will hold people’s attention for months right from the start, becomes imperative. When a game lets players get to endgame in two weeks, it needs to be ready for them.

    The irony of it in my eyes is that people seem willing to accept dull levelling because ‘the game starts at endgame’, but when they quickly get bored they just move onto a new game which gives them clearer objectives…usually more dull levelling.

    GW2 has a lot going for it. The “endgame starts at level 1” mentality, less incentive to rush to max level, the lack of subscription fee, and ideally the stated position of not competing with WoW and its ilk (which offer different things and already do them well) but rather existing alongside them.

    Incidentally, I imagine Cyndre’s enthusiasm for EVE might owe a lot to joining a group which allowed instant access to the endgame, if in a sort of apprentice position. It helps when you can see where you’re going in the game, rather than finding, around that three months, that there isn’t anything left worth doing.

  8. Success is such a difficult term to define. On one hand, it can be defined for a business as “earns a reasonable return on investment”. For a game, it is at a minimum “they keep at least some of the servers up and running after the initial rush”. I’d agree that a history of proper expansion packs is a good indicator a game that’s in more than just maintainance mode… but where does that leave WoW, which has released expansions at a glacial pace compared to EQ or DAoC, or EVE that has only had free “expansions” that mostly look more like big content patches to an outsider?

    On the other hand, gamer culture seems to define “success” as “are the cool kids playing the game?” So EVE is a success, whilst SWTOR is not despite still having three times as many subscribers and being above the minimum level set by its publishers for profitability. By that yardstick, no game is ever going to be a success unless it carves out a rabidly loyal niche fanbase of some sort, and since Dominus folded I don’t see any upcoming candidates for seizing a niche.

    As for GW2, I’m expecting to get a lot more hours of fun from it than I would the equivalent spend on a single player game, so as long as the servers up it’s a success for me :)

    1. I think many people are apprehensive of calling SWTOR a success by any reasonable measure *yet*. IMHO, it is still bleeding in part and changing too much in model… and so quickly from the gates.

      It is above the water mark at the moment, but those waters are murky and filled with unhappy stakeholders.

      EVE on the other hand has been around for years and years at a very sustainable, steady pace. Quite a difference.

      1. Very fair points :) I think I’m just frustrated by seeing people claim that games are failures based on ‘only’ having X subscriptions (where X is any number less than WoW has) and then see EVE praised for having 300K subs, which is less than X in many of the cases above. That smacks of double standards.

        However, in business terms EVE is undeniably a success, it has undoubtedly paid off its costs and produced a healthy return for investors. SWTOR, I would guess is somewhere around the point where it’s paid off all or most of its development costs by now but hasn’t returned much gravy yet. Going F2P may or may not result in more gravy than they would have had otherwise, but whatever happens it’s not a John Carter style flop that will drag EA into profit warnings and possible bankruptcy (oh, and for the record I LIKED John Carter).

      2. I think with SWTOR, we’re seeing now how a big change in direction/ payment model can disturb a population that might otherwise have reached equilibrium. Bioware will be hoping that after the F2P transition, it’ll settle at an equilibrium high enough to support their cash shop model.

        3 months is long enough for you to enjoy the game and be left saying “Guys, guys …” when all your friends leave to try the new hotness.

    2. Actually, in my experience, very often companies release big patches when they think they need to keep or rejuvenate players’ interest.

  9. The first problem I see at that metric is: as GW2 don’t have subscriptions, how someone will know how many player are playing it after the 3 month mark? Basically, it is a metric no one can measure, except Anet. My guess is that they will say only the number of game copies sold, if someone ask how many subscriptions they have they will just say “zero”.

    However, with no subscription, everyone can quit and return to play GW2 when it wants. The population will flutuate, but it will need more than 3 month for any decline (or population expansion) pattern appear, because it will have a lot of data noise: players will not decide stay or quit or return at a month basis, but on a dailly basis.

    I too want enphatise the psychological factor. You wrote:
    “The first month, like a good drug, is free for subscription-based games. The second month begins the actual monthly tithe, which is darn near automatic in the minds of many players. It’s the moment where I would guess players on the fence decide to throw just a little more money at it since it’s just a fraction of the money already spent. It’s at the third month that I think issues, boredom, or grass-is-greener syndromes overcome the value of continuing to play. Players are implicitly asked the question of whether it is worth staying.”

    We need re-write the last phrase: Players are asked the question of wether it is worth PAY ONE MORE MONTH.

    That will not work with a B2P game. And it is possible that the opposite psychological effect happens: if a player payed $60 for buy the game, it will want maximize the utility of that money, playing the game for more time possible before quit it.

    And while GW2 have strong hardcore elements, it is a game ideal for casuals. You can log for only 30 minutes and get any activity you want try (DE, hearts, crafting, sPvP, WvW). I don’t see any other MMO at market so casual friend.

    Finally, I think Keen is underestimating the effects of some “carrots” GW2 have for level 80 toons: the legendary weapons and cosmetic items (dungeons armor sets). That cosmetic rewards worked very well for mantain players at GW1, because that was a matter of prestige for players to have them.

    1. You can use PCU (peak concurrent users) as metric such as uses or total hours played a “Nosy gamer” blogger uses in his Digital Dozen series. They don’t directly measure the money earned by the companies but I think it’s more important for the average player – unless the profit is so low the game gets closed.

  10. Ravious, I think you’re spot on here but I would love to hear your thoughts on some of the questions being raised on the long term sustainability. Namely:

    – Without meaningful power progression, what returning motivator is there for level capped players to stay and engage in pve content? Players have proven that they need progression based reasons to stay after “beating” the game. Calling it all end-game content doesn’t do anything to change the public perception that low level events, offering very little if anything meaningful to the l80 player, are leveling content and probably not worth repeating. Is the running thought that cosmetics and skill points will be enough motivation to fill group spots for “raid” leaders?

    – We must also accept that every major MMO since UO has trained players that these games ARE about power advancementment in some form. Economic, combat, skill points, etc. Genre history has also shown us that what is “most fun” is also largely dependent on other game releases. GW2 wants to turn this all on its head. This answer may well be the same as before, but how are they planning on answering this decade-plus of training nearly all of their audience will have experienced?

    I am pre-ordered and excited. These concerns don’t really apply to me. From the wider outlook, however, I can certainly see why there is concern. It’s also a bit iffy that ArenaNet hasn’t been able to squash these questions in all the months they’ve been discussed.

    1. @Chris

      Before Ravious answer you, I will give my answer: prestige.

      Cosmetic gear is tottally about prestige, be a full dungeon set (that everyone can trasmorph to level 80 stats), be a legendary weapon.

      There is only one reason players farm for hours or days for get gear to go to raids and raid for days, weeks or months, for gain gear: prestige. Be real, next expansion that stats that gear gives will be weak, people raid only because that gives them prestige.

      MMO are social games and humans are social apes. I remember the day when I was playing SWG and Lord Vader made a global all servers announcement that a jedi had appeared. Players were doing crazy things that initial age of SWG trying unlock jedi, when the only thing they needed to do was max all classes. But the player that unlocked the first jedi had an interview at a game magazine and 5 minutes of fame.

      Humans can make crazy things for gain prestige and fame.

    2. I agree with Joao Carlos that prestige is a big motivator, and it’s why cosmetic gear is such an incentive despite not providing any benefit in game terms.

      The other major motivator is social factors. I don’t play WoW, but I would venture there are probably a lot of people who raid when they don’t strictly need the gear simply because they have a good group of people who they enjoy raiding with. Some time ago someone said “it’s not the games that are addictive, it’s the people.” If GW2 can build a community and a social atmosphere that encourages guild and server loyalty, identity and friendship, I think those things will get a lot of people to stay, and possibly stay more reliably than those who stay for game features.

      Plus, there’s the idea that GW2 is supposed to be FUN to play. If it’s still fun to go and catch some events you missed in starter areas, or play them through again with a friend you convinced to buy the game, that will go a long way – especially when you can come back to it after a few months off, as many do with the original Guild Wars. But fun is subjective, and we’ll need the long term view from a few months from now to know if ANet succeed there.

      1. I want add my opinion about the social aspects of GW2. The betas I saw a strange game, because GW2 incentives the players to help one another (no kill stealing, everyone gain full loot and xp, you gain xp rezzing players), it is alike everyone is grouped to everyone else. But at betas I saw few chat.

        I think that will change after launch, because players will look for guilds for enter. Guilds give perks to players, higher level the guild higher the perks. But players can be members of any number of guild (however they represent only one each tiem and can use only the guild chat from that guild they represent). For guilds, it is important to have more players, because the players that represent taht guild (that have that guild active) help to guild gain reputation while playing.

        With this system, IMHO we will see a lot of diverse guilds, mostly the PvP guilds that want go to WvW, but too crafter guilds and rp guilds. But the most important aspect is: guilds will be the social media, where players will socialize.

        Now, just look at the quantity of guilds will join GW2 at launch at

        Can you have an idea what kind of community that guilds will create? Just remember there is no competition between guilds from same server, all them gain when their server win WvW.

        1. I saw a reasonable amount of map chat on my server during the betas, and especially when someone asked a question or raised an opinion there were plenty of people answering (and politely for the most part, shock horror!). How guilds will work will be interesting, and I’ll also be interested to see how public chat looks once we have more people who are less committed to the game. I think we’ve had an unfair sampling of gamers so far ;)

    3. I’ll try and answer a little differently from João Carlos and Curuniel, who I do agree with:

      Players are trained for progression because the games teach them that. In WoW, I am taught that it is a waste of time, apart from achievements I may have missed, to go back. I have to keep pressing forward. GW2 changes that in two meaningful ways: (a) you are balanced down to an effective level for that area making the it worthwhile in gameplay, but (b) you are still rewarded for your level. Yes, it might take you killing 5 level 60 things to get 1 level 80 drop, but you won’t be getting “worthless” level 60 drops.

      Train the players that they are rewarded SIMPLY for playing instead of forcing them to treadmill. You cannot underestimate the effect of this.

      There still is plenty of progression. Legendary weapons, racial armor, dungeon armor, achievements, and guild levels. Unlocking the map 100% on one character is a huge undertaking, but still reasonable for casuals. You can go through the game again and get a widely different personal story. Once you get to a point where the content has all be “experienced” you can start progressing economically to garner gems to purchase account upgrades or possibly content expansions. I think power progression is not going to be as necessary when you have trained your players to have fun first and progress second.

      Plus, who knows what else they could add. I still think adding progression is multitudes easier than fixing gameplay. I think ArenaNet is ready to respond and add carrots where people will want them added, but I think they need to watch people for a month or so first.

      1. The above deserves to be a full-on article. Using post-release metrics to add carrots, rather than game play.

      2. “you can start progressing economically to garner gems to purchase account upgrades or possibly content expansions.”

        Fascinating thought. Could we maybe see a chance to buy, say, an instance as DLC with gems? Feasibly earned in-game rather than paid for in cash? That would be very interesting.

        Adding carrots is fine, good even. Responsive game design is important for MMOs. I just have to trust ArenaNet not to compromise what they’re trying out in order to cater to convention, though. Luckily I do trust them!

      3. “I think power progression is not going to be as necessary when you have trained your players to have fun first and progress second.”

        Let’s see how well that one works in practice. My experience of betas is that players are generally all about the fun, but when a game goes live, it’s all about progression.

        1. I’d have to agree with Spinks on that. It’s one of the key reasons I try to play lots of betas. There’s much more of a “we’re all in it together” vibe than you tend to get once the game goes Live and the competitive edge starts to show.

          That said, I think there are a lot more not-very-competitive players around than you might think. They tend to be quieter, keep themselves to themselves, stay in their own social circles and definitely don’t talk much in global chat, post on forums or comment on blogs. If you play MMOs like EQ2 where there’s a lot to do that isn’t end-game gear grind, you’ll see plenty of people who play for 6 months or a year and never get anywhere near max level, yet they still log in most days. GW2 would seem to be built to appeal to players like that.

  11. For gamers, fun can take many different forms. Some apparently like to stand around and chat, others to craft and trade or get “rich”, while others like to explore, vanquish, fight and loot. Gw2 looks fully able to meet all of those criteria so it should have what the movie industry calls “legs” to run for a while.

    There is little doubt there will be expansions. The real question will be “is it more fun than gw1 and D3 etc.” Secondary question is: will it take another 5 years to get that or will they run on a 12-18 month plan more like Factions and Nightfall?

    1. IMHO, we will see next expansion at one year, maybe one year and half. No more than that. The expansions will be horizontal like GW1 expansions. That is my opinion, I have no facts or information for prove it.

      But I can note there is a forbiden zone behind a massive wall where the tengu live, it is the perfect place for a new start city at an expansion.

  12. I think GW2 wants to leave players happy enough that they buy the expansions whether or not they log on much six months from now.

    I’m pretty sure they will succeed at that.

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