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The MMO launch subscriber bubble


It feels like a new MMO is being released every month these days and the market for persistent online games is certainly expanding. At the head of this market is a set of games commonly referred to "triple A" titles. These are popular games from big name studios or games using popular intellectual properties. New games that are considered "triple A" have a unique ability to build unparalleled levels of anticipation and hype around themselves prior to release. In order to draw in as many players as possible, an obscene amount of cash is often spent on advertising to hype these games up for release. But is this appropriate and cost-effective or does it show a fundamental misunderstanding of of the MMO market?

In this article, we look at what can go wrong with over-hyped MMO launches and what happens when the subscriber bubble bursts.

Building hype:
The word "hype" is often used in a negative context, but it's a necessary part of an MMO launch. Developers have to advertise their upcoming games to raise awareness of it and build a user-base that will buy the game at launch. As the advertising budgets for new MMOs gets bigger, we're seeing much greater efforts to hype up a game for release. Sneak previews and trailers are pushed out regularly, wild promises are made and terms like "next gen" and "gaming experience" are tossed around. Even beta tests are now used to generate hype. Participants in closed betas are almost expected to leak information and open betas are almost exclusively used just to show the game off.

When a game is successfully hyped up, it draws in a lot of players for launch who will buy the game and try it for at least the initial month that comes with a standard MMO purchase. Unfortunately, over-hyping an MMO before launch has an important side-effect that some game developers have clearly misunderstood. While advertising and clever marketing will draw extra players in for launch, a large portion of those extra players are those that would not have ordinarily chosen the game. These players are more likely to be disappointed at launch than natural followers of the title.

Unsustainable numbers:
The result of over-hyping an MMO is a large number of players buying the game and a large playerbase at launch. This may be seen as a good thing but for MMOs, long-term subscriptions should be the primary goal of the business rather than making one-time sales. Because the largest growth is seen in players that wouldn't have chosen the game on its own merits, a portion of the playerbase have been set up for disappointment. As a result, these players are much more likely to feel let down if the game doesn't absolutely live up to the hype.

CEO Mark Jacob made this mistake, making some brash comments in a 2008 interview which have since come back to haunt him. He urged people to judge Warhammer Online's performance on the number of servers six weeks or six months after launch, saying "If we're not adding servers, we're not doing well.". He went on to add that "if you've seen a game consolidate servers, you know it's in deep, deep trouble - that's not a healthy sign for an MMO". These unfortunate comments show a deep misunderstanding of MMO launches. A well-advertised MMO will have its sharpest growth phase just after launch and it can't be expected to retain all or even most of its launch subscribers.

Read on to part 2 to find out what happens when the subscriber bubble bursts.

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