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The Free Zone: Closing the Gap on WoW

Column By Richard Aihoshi on January 03, 2012

There’s no denying that World of Warcraft is a huge global success, so much so that the large majority of gamers here in North America probably take it for granted that Blizzard’s landmark game completely dwarfs everything else in the online category, both in number of players and revenue.  However, while this was certainly true for a number of years, as we enter 2012, its lead does appear to have eroded considerably.

In mid-December, leading Korean game publication This Is Game reported that the online shooter Crossfire led the burgeoning Chinese market in revenue during 2011.  According to a source only identified as a Chinese statistics company, the title raked in the very impressive total of $860 million.  This far surpassed the runner-up, Dungeon & Fighter (aka Dungeon Fighter Online), which pulled in a mere $464 million despite having a slight lead in terms of peak concurrent users.  In this regard, both had huge numbers, each topping the three million mark.

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In addition, the next three developed elsewhere were listed.  While no monetary figures were stated for any of them, Legend of Mir apparently ranked fifth, one spot ahead of Dragon Nest.  WoW followed in seventh.  As such, it seems pretty safe to assume it brought in a lot less than $464 million.

Since I haven’t seen a reliable global revenue figure for WoW recently, I’ll ballpark it.  Using rounded numbers of five million subscribers paying $15 per month works out to $900 million per year.  I’ll guess to add $250 million for China plus any other markets that don’t charge set monthly fees.  This gives us $1.15 billion.

I admit to having no real idea how much Crossfire generated in the rest of the world.  For the purposes of this little guess-timation exercise, I’ll plug in five percent more.  The resulting total of $903 million is still over $200 less.  But even if the difference is somewhat more, the main thing I’m getting at is only predicated on ballparking.

My point is that just a couple of years or even twelve months ago, who would have thought any other game would be anywhere close to WoW’s level of revenue?  Few if any would have questioned that Blizzard’s offering was in a class of its own, standing like a behemoth with no semblance of a truly worthy challenger in sight.

In this hemisphere, some might have donned their rose-colored glasses to put forward The Old Republic even though I don’t believe anyone associated with it ever publically aspired to such lofty status.  Since BioWare’s highly anticipated entry has only been live for a matter of days, it’s still far too early to see whether such a scenario will actually come to pass.  While I don’t know how eager I’d be to bet on it, I do hope it will be such a huge success that it brings a sharp growth spike to the entire MMOG category.

That said, if we went back a couple of years and asked ourselves which game would be the second to reach $1 billion in annual revenue, what would we have picked?  At the time, I didn’t think TOR had the potential; indeed, despite its very favorable reception so far, I’m a ways from feeling highly confident it does.  And frankly, I don’t know if I’d even have brought up any other titles.  Crossfire?  No way.  I knew it was already popular and growing rapidly in China, but could not have imagined, never mind predicted it would become such a cash machine.

Of course, it’s possible that Crossfire will plateau or decline without ever reaching the $1 billion level.  My guess, however, is that it will, with at least a fair possibility it will happen in 2012.  The main reason is that the Chinese online games market, although already the world’s largest, is projected to grow substantially, primarily due to the government continuing its push to build out infrastructure in a country where the Internet’s reach is still well below half the population.

If we estimate the market in China will grow 15% and that the game will keep pace, the players in that country will spend $989 million.  So, it’s optimistic but not unimaginable that Crossfire will pull in $1 billion just there.  But that’s only looking at this year.  By the end of 2013, we may well see something that was nearly unthinkable not so long ago – WoW being toppled from its pinnacle.

And by a free to play game, albeit not a conventional MMOG.  Hmmm… interesting.

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The Free Zone
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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