The numbers game...part I

Numbers...people like numbers, many people simply love numbers, numbers fulfill a deep rooted need in many of us to quantify, categorize and define things. We like to define things.

In the MMO space people often yearn for numbers and don't get them, and don't believe the numbers that they do receive. Then throw in the fact that in this marketing driven age many of the numbers thrown around are themselves quite often a touch ambiguous.

It is one of the questions people ask me the most - 'Why don't all MMO companies talk about their numbers?'

Personally I would much rather we could all just talk openly about numbers. There is nothing to fear from sales figures or subscription numbers...but...and it is a very significant but...only if it is exactly that, and we all talk about numbers, everyone, and we all used the same definitions. If it isn't something everyone does, then any given set of numbers lack context...and any lack of context allows for some very subjective analysis of what makes 'good' numbers. That is where people, in particular marketing people and such, start to get skittish.

...and I don't blame them...

Unless the context is defined, and clearly defined, there will always be a reluctance to discuss numbers.

You see, the main reason that people generally want to avoid giving numbers, is that more often than not they are taken woefully out of context, or used to attack or detract from a developer, or judged against a different set of numbers, that might themselves have been presented with a completely different set of definitions or in a different context.

That makes giving numbers scary, and in general that is not a good thing for your project unless the number is so undeniably good that it is unlikely to come back to haunt you.

Without standard definitions everything ends up in that vague, murky and entirely subjective middle ground...and a middle ground that very few could reasonably be expected to accept as being worthwhile exploring in a business sense.

Take for example an easy one...and the number you most often hear mentioned in press releases, the number of users who have played a game in any give period...

What is a 'player' exactly? is it just the users that are actually paying you, or does it include all the ones of trials and free play options as well? How many played for more than an hour? What percentage returned more than once? What if they have cancelled but are still in active subscription period? (and what does that mean for those on the various 'lifetime subscriptions' out there on the market?) What about people on time-cards who subscribe month to month but don't have saved credit card info, are they recurring? What does one company include in the definition that another one doesn't? What about the difference between public companies, who have to reveal more about their income, compared to those who are private and don't have to? Does it include multiple accounts rather than unique subscribers?

lots of questions...

...and many different definitions depending on the context.

It is safe to presume that people naturally use the most open number, after all that is the number of the people that have tried your game. It is also vital when we get to discussing the context of success later on...

What we lack in the genre is that standard set of definitions, a set of rules, or even just guidelines, by which consumers could at least get a decent impression of the big picture.

Ratings systems are far from perfect, I don't think anyone honestly believe they are. However most other mediums have a reasonably reliable ones, that at the very least give you a good indication of performance. TV has it's own ratings system (although that is struggling to keep pace with the times too, but it is still somewhat indicative of performance). Cinema has box-office figures, with DVD and Blu-ray sales figures combining to give the complete picture over the commercial lifespan of a movie (although again, the budgets for movies often being at least slightly secretive, muddies the water a little, but again, as long as you know that up front it can accounted for when considering things). Books have bestseller lists. Newspapers and magazines have circulation figures...and non-subscription games have sales figures and a pretty decent count of what shifts boxes.

If a developer makes a single player boxed game, or an online download title, there are generally two decent standards by which they can judge the merit of their work in reviews scores (which of course can be subjective and don't guarantee success) and box sales, the number of units shifted...the issue with MMOs is that the number of units sold only marks the beginning of a very long term lifespan.

So what we lack are a set of standards by which we could all be judged. There is a lack of transparency that means that even if any one company wanted to give numbers, it would probably do itself a disservice (unless it was the market leader) as without context you have little way of knowing whether that makes it a success or not...

You can't really argue you were a success if your XX million dollar single player game only sells 10,000 units, and you also can't be denied if it ships several million...but with an MMO there is a vacuum of standards as to how the games are judged after release.

Personally I would love to see some kind of industry body established to monitor and agree on standards for online subscription or user levels.

So a ratings system of some kind would be a great first step to establishing that all important context so that we can be sure we are comparing the same things. I don't think an MMO needs to have ten million, one million, half a million, a hundred thousand, ten thousand, or less, in order to be a success as different games can have different budgets, goals and ambitions, but until we have some agreed way of assessing that it makes judging success or failure a very difficult proposition.

Alas, I don't think it will happen, at least not in the short term. Right now there doesn't seem to be a significant desire amongst developers to be judged in a formal or official capacity...it is a natural reluctance, but personally I believe that in the long term some kind of ratings or subscription definitions that are official enough to be meaningful (there will always be some 'shades of grey' hidden away in any such system as discussed above) would be beneficial for the genre.

Addendum: Of course it is important to remember that numbers in and of themselves aren't the only part of defining a success (although they do of course define the viability of your projects, in particular in an online space), in so far as there are quite a few games down the years that are not massive bestsellers, but are critically acclaimed and beloved by many. Likewise an MMO title can succeed with a limited or small audience...depending on how you define 'success'. I have talked about that before in terms of scale of ambition, but this touches more on that all important definition...

...the definitions of 'success' for games in this genre vary so widely that it is another matter entirely...and the subject for the next post. I started writing more as part of this post, but I think this one is long enough as it is...so next up I'll be musing on the different definitions of 'success' being thrown around for MMOs and the impact, good and bad, that has on the genre...

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