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IMGDC 2008 - A Chat About MMOGChart

In her final report coming out of the Indie MMO Developers Conference, Laura Genender talks to Bruce Woodcock, better known as "Sir Bruce" of the interesting and sometimes controversial traffic-tracking site MMOGChart.com.

A Chat about MMOGChart

Last week at IMGDC I sat down with Bruce Woodcock, MMOG Analyst, and the man behind MMOGChart.com. For those of you who haven’t visited MMOGChart.com, Bruce’s idea and actions have become six years of tracking MMO populations.

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It all started in 2002, when Bruce was browsing a forum and a random, interesting post caught his eye. An Ultima (or perhaps ex-Ultima) player posted a story about UO numbers declining based on Ultima press release numbers vs. EverQuest press release numbers.

While Bruce knew very little about Excel, this thread inspired him to take these findings – and similar findings – to the visual realm. He gathered together numbers from press releases of more MMOs, and made the first MMOG Chart. He found the results interesting – though his chart ugly – he decided to post them on a website to share with fellow gamers. And then he was done, his project complete –

Or so he thought!

At the 2003 Game Developers Conference, Bruce found that his little MMOG Chart idea had made quite a large splash. He had gamers and developers alike asking him for another chart and who was he to deny them? Since then, MMOGChart.com has provided the most up to date, accurate information on MMOG populations.

The project evolved over time, with sources widening from press releases to inside sources and tips from developers. I asked Bruce where he got his numbers from, and oddly enough, most of them come from secondary sources like interviews, press releases, and financial releases. Some companies – Bruce used NCSoft as an example – release quarterly reports including subscription numbers. Others, such as CCP, Lindon Labs, and more send him numbers directly.

A number of his sources even came from under the table, so to speak. People who shouldn’t release the information, or PR “off the record” reports help fill in the chart when companies are “officially” close-lipped.

Sometimes, the press releases are more cryptic, but Bruce decodes them all the same - let’s say a LOTRO press release claims to have the 2nd largest subscription count of all US developed MMOGs; Bruce knows, then, to put them just below WoW and just above the next highest (when he guesses, he guesses conservatively).

With so many diverse sources, and many that would have a vested interest in fudging the numbers, I asked Bruce if he had ever caught a company adding some subscriptions on to the real total. According to Bruce, he’s only found one source so far that gave him the wrong information and it was removed immediately.

To help users gauge the believability of these numbers, Bruce gives every entry an “accuracy rating”.

Wondering what it takes to get on the MMOG list? For now, Bruce is only covering subscription based MMOGs as free or micropayment games will always have a different definition of “total subscribers.” For games like Second Life, where users can play for free or pay, Bruce only counts the paying subscriptions.

Even just covering these Pay to Play games, Bruce has a full plate of hard work with gathering and confirming information. Is it hard to keep up? Oh yeah, but Bruce finds that going to conferences and tradeshows helps him maintain and create relationships with developers to get numbers.

Bruce also uses his MMOG knowledge as a consultant for investors and developers. MMOGChart and private research helps to educate investors about the industry and the probability of success of a product. Bruce often does projections of likely subscriber numbers for games in the making, based on genre, IP, what percent of its target market it is likely to bring in, how alpha/beta testing was received, etc. These projections are, of course, based on the assumption that the game PROVIDES what it is promising. One example of projection-gone-wrong would be Vanguard, which Bruce projected at 240-320k users in the first year. This may have well been true if Vanguard had released with its full feature set!

Through doing these projections, Bruce has noticed a pattern in a game’s lifecycle. Most retail games follow the same pattern: they have a rapid rise for the first 1-2 years, level out for 2-4 years, then begin to decline. If the game has a poor launch (but a lot of hype), this “cycle” is often compressed into a single year or two. Some games are different, especially those that are digitally distributed such as EVE – these games seem to have a slow growth over time. Does that make digital distribution healthier for the long-term MMO? Too soon to know!

One of Bruce’s future predictions is that World of Warcraft will hit 12 million subscribers in the next two years – let’s see if it comes true!

MMOGChart has become a regular stop for MMO users and developers the world over. Averaging 1000 unique visitors on your average day and around on million hits when a new charts goes up, the site is running strong and filling a much needed niche. Check out the newest charts – uploaded just yesterday – here.