Wednesday, May 09, 2012

MMO Decline Caused By Move To Small Guilds

First, let's start with a caveat. The following theory is most likely not true. I doubt its validity, mostly because I would like it to be true, and that is always a dangerous sign. But I present it as a hypothetical for your delectation.

The modern MMO decline in subscriptions, as evidenced by World of Warcraft and The Old Republic, is being caused by the shift in the extended endgame to smaller groups and smaller guilds.

Let's look at at World of Warcraft. The decline in subscriptions starts in mid-to-late Wrath, when 10-man raiding starts coming into vogue. In Cataclysm, when 10-man raiding moved up to first-class citizen standing, the decline accelerated.

In The Old Republic, the primary endgame group size is 8-man. It is clear that the SWTOR has real trouble holding on to people at max level. Small guilds, built for a small group endgame, are just not sticky enough for significant player retention.

The one MMO which has shown continuous growth, even over the same time period, is Eve Online. And Eve bucks this trend in group size. Endgame in Eve trends toward larger and larger groups, with hundred-person fleets flying around.

If this idea is true, why would large raids, and the corresponding large guilds, be stickier than small raids?

First, and most importantly, there's a lot more room for "grunts" in a large guild. Grunts are average players who like playing the game, but don't really want to take on extra responsibility like the officers. If you take a 30-man raid size, and break it into 10-mans, I think you end up losing the bottom 10 players, just because there really isn't room for them in the subsequent guilds that form. I think a lot of people just want to play the game, and are perfectly willing to follow orders from someone more dedicated.

Second, larger guilds and sub-communities are more likely to have people playing during off-hours. They can feel less lonely, which contributes to people sticking around.

Third, turnover is more easily managed by larger groups. People leaving and joining is not as much of a big change to the group. A larger guild is also more likely to be able to absorb a smaller group of players. This is also true when a guild breaks up. It is easier for three or four 30-man guilds to each absorb a faction of players from the dead guild. In contrast, asking a 10-man guild to absorb 5 players strains the resources of that guild.

Fourth, the intra-guild bonds don't have to be as strong in larger guild, as they are in a smaller more tightly-knit group. They don't require the large effort to create, to maintain, and don't cause as much damage when they break. I think this is actually an advantage for a lot of players. They just want a casual, light relationship with their guild, not an intense one. I think this also makes it easier to apply to a new guild, and form bonds which are "strong enough".

Fifth, large group endgame requires a greater focus on technical performance by the developers. Does anyone believe that the SWTOR engine could handle 40-man raids? Whereas WoW could handle that 8 years ago. If 40-man raids had been a development requirement, SWTOR would have had to optimize earlier and harder. And that would have a lot of trickle-down performance improvements, especially for low-end machines and the performance of the levelling experience.

For these reasons, I think larger groups are just stickier and better for the extended game than smaller groups. Smaller groups are easier on the officers and the devoted, definitely. However, I think they cause a lot of the grunts to be unable to find a home at endgame, and thus they unsubscribe and fade away.


  1. That's a lot to think on, and I guess I'll get started in reverse.

    I think that last statement is a very big assumption, and much of what you say is predicated on it. I don't think it's false, but surely not the only reason people unsubscribe.

    I think there's also the constant class redesigns, the technical difficulty of modern raiding, the imbalances in PvP, and the reduced amount of content compared to previous expansions to consider. That's just what I can think of off the top of my head.

  2. Nah, WoW's decline was the dev's ill-conceived pivot toward catering to an audience they wanted, but no longer existed in appreciable amounts, e.g. high-difficulty endgame raiders.

    In a way, you're still right though. Smaller guilds aren't equipped to handle lack of progression well, as a single ragequit can sever entire guild social bonds. Plus, just like with 40m raiding, the game used to tolerate groups of varying skill levels - you could bring your friends with you to a raid, even if they weren't as good. There is LFR now, and WoW's figures are stabilizing, but we'll see if it was enough.

  3. Truly it is something to think about. I daresay it's actually a lack of focus on content? Past MMOs like Lineage 2 or DOAC had an emphasis on group co-operation. You needed to chip in or it would fail miserably. Examples would be Castle sieges in both games, everybody had a common goal to work towards and even little grunts can help contribute by providing mats. In most of Today's MMO, we don't really see that.

    Possibly Tera Online might be able to reverse the trend with it's large scale political system but it's a bit too early to tell for the US/EU release so far.

  4. My point is, are they even in decline? Especially after the news that WoWs population has stabilised.

    SWOTR subs is hardly surprising... Of course when cold hard cash comes into play people will leave. 1.3 million is still a lot of people. WoWs subs of 10.2 million is hardly an example of a decline per se. There is more choice these days so companies will get less slice of the cake each. If you took MMOs subs as a whole, I think you will find it very healthy indeed.


  5. Wow's subscription stabilized because of one reason.

    Scroll of Rez.

    We've seen a metric-ton of old players back thanks to this. Not to new content. But to free mounts!

    I agree. Small just doesn't cut the muster.

  6. Personally I think the most note worthy thing here is that when given the choice between 10man and 25 man they choose 10man. There is more loot per person in 25man so you must assume that 10man raiding is simply more fun. This isn't just an accessibility thing either. Guilds able to foster 25 man teams choose to break them into 10mans more frequently in my experience then combining into 25man raids.

    My opinion is that 10 man raiding is more fun. This is not to say that it isn't incredibly harsh on the social aspect of guilds that would otherwise support the more fun 10 mans.

    What I would like to see is 10 man raiding in normal modes to have low skill jobs designed into them for 2 players. Allow the raid leader to give their low skilled people simple jobs like aoeing down mobs or clicking siwtches. I'd like Blizzard to assume that in the average social guild that might clear a normal mode, that they are going to be bringing 2 fire dancers and to adjust their design accordingly so everyone can have fun without trivializing the game for the other 8 players.

  7. Out of idle curiosity about EVE numbers: is it active subscriptions or active players. Since it seems that multi-accounting is the norm, the two values could be quite a bit different....

  8. Interesting post but the question here is wheter raids really form the core of the MMO audience. Some people claim the raiders are less than 20% minority.

    I think we should not underestimate the fact WoW has less content outside of raids in Cata than it had in WotLK or TBC. Even if it was just a slower leveling.

  9. "Personally I think the most note worthy thing here is that when given the choice between 10man and 25 man they choose 10man. "

    And if you gave them the choice between 10 man and 5 man raids, they'd probably pick 5 man. And if you gave them the choice of raiding solo with some NPC raid companions, most of them would pick that.

    It's about convenience as much as anything. Plus easier to organise suitable schedules.

  10. One other thing to ponder, and one of the main reasons I think the raiding population is declining is the how much more complex the characters are to play at a reasonably high level than they were in the past.

    Since when I level up the monsters I face level up as well, the only thing that really changes is the number of cooldowns and such I need to weave together to do my job.

    Now, don't get me wrong, there is a level of skill there. I was one of those that still wove his own shots even as a Hunter back in TBC.

    That doesn't change my thought that many people are turned off by what could be called complexity for the sake of complexity.

  11. I think you are on to something here. I would put myself in the semi-casual boat. I just could not commit to a raiding schedule. But, if 40 man raids were still viable, I am sure I could cycle in and out of the last 10-15 spots with others, and not be stuck on the sidelines as often, making me less likely to quit. Definitely one of the factors.

  12. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc?

  13. Considering the relatively low number of progression raiders in WoW, or in any MMO for that matter, I really don't agree with your hypothesis. I'd guess that the largest group of players that are unsubscribing are casual players that are just bored and they weren't in an active guild to begin with.

    Blizzard probably stopped the bleeding with their scroll of resurrection and the free Diablo 3 deal.

  14. Maybe my information is wrong, but I understood that there was quite a population boom during Wrath? That the current 10.2 million subscribers is larger than (or at least similar to) the subscriber base at the height of BC? If that's the case then it undermines the claim that subscriber fall-off increased along with the implementation of smaller raid sizes and suggests that there was some other element of WotLK that attracted subscribers in numbers different than any other expansion.

  15. Orv, the high point in Wrath (and all of WoW) occurs around Ulduar. That's the point when net subscriptions start going downward. The decrease in Wrath is not that large, at least compared to Cata. But it is noticeably the point with the trend switches from growth to decline.

  16. I'm not sure if comparing Eve's stable population is really a good metric.

    They are sitting around what, 400k-500k? Which compared to WOW's current pop is well, pretty small.

    Finding and keeping a small group that are looking for a specific niche game is going to be easier then trying to maintain over 10 million active world wide subscriptions. Especially because Blizzard is holding tight to the effort to try and give play options for so many styles. (how successful they are at it is obviously questionable.)

    I doubt any single MMO will balloon to the size WOW had at it's peek, but I'd wager you could maintain small, solid core of small group oriented player with the right world. That seems to be the likely fate of SWTOR, a bit more shrink until it hits a size the game will coast on for years.

  17. I think it is time commitment. The number of people willing to schedule 3 hours 4 nights a week is dropping. The appeal of solo > 5 > 10 > 25 is not [just] in game content but all the OOG scheduling and conflict. I think the goal of MoP scenarios is to get over needing a fixed number of the appropriate classes to do content.

    It is true that 2000 hours of hard leveling to max level cap in EQ made for a much better community. It is also true that today a game like that would fail or be a very niche game.

    I.e., it might be that going to 5s & 10s contributed to the decline. But trying to stay at 25s might have caused a much larger decline. The market has moved on. Certainly EVE is a niche game. They had layoffs after monaclegate so I am not sure it is even profitable (although the losses could just be due to investing in DUST.)

    To quibble, EVE certainly has not shown "continuous growth". IIRC, the monocle gate decline was 11% in a short period. The numbers from CCP were over 400k in April fanfest and recent was "361k subs, so they can celebrate their 9th anniversary knowing they are back on the rise." EVE has done a good job of being a stable niche player with some extremely loyal fans. I am not sure it is a business success.

  18. "mostly because I would like it to be true, and that is always a dangerous sign."

    Is very wise of you. It is dangerous, indeed.

    I notice you done completely skipped over the change from 40-man raiding ta 10/25 what came in TBC. If'n yer arguements was correct, should there not have been a drop in subscriptions then? Afters all, it hit a lotta raidin' guilds hard, and hardest hit were the 15-or-so grunts what (accordin' ta conventional wisdom) was bein' carried. Leaders, not so much. So how's come the subscription numbers went up?

    I also notice what you says 10-man raidin' came "into vogue" in mid/late-Rash. What does this mean? It started showin' up on magazine covers? I mean, 10-mans was more popular in terms of numbers of buggers startin' in Kara, and this never changed. 25-mans had better rewards all through the end of Rash of the Itch King, an' still offer a greater quantity. So is yer "in vogue" claim fer that point in time based on anythin' objective, or did ya fall inta a trap of "well, that's when subscriptions done peaked, so that musta been when 10-mans became more stylin'."?

  19. I don't think that the drop from 40 to 25 really changed the "nature" of guilds. To put it another way, a 40-man guild is closer in structure to a 25-guild than a 25-man is to 10-man. A 25-man guild will maintain sub-groups like healers and tanks and ranged dps. But a 10-man generally only has the main group, with no subgroups. A 25 is far more likely to have formal loot structures, where a 10 will be mostly ad hoc.

    Qualitatively, I would say that their is a point where a guild flips from "large" to "small" and that point is somewhere between 10 and 25. An interesting question might be 15-mans. Would they feel more like 10s or 25s?

    Keep in mind that the guild needs more than the bare minimum. A 25-man guild is really more like 35 people, and a 40-man is closer to 50 or 60.

    As for the timing, I don't think that Karazhan changed the nature of guilds. Everyone knew that future raids in TBC would be 25 man, so they temporarily bent their structure to accomodate Kara.

    But I definitely think that around Ulduar, guilds started to internalize the idea that 10s were viable. Structure started shifting to accommodating 10s. Large guilds started forming subgroups, almost subguilds, that ran the 10s together.

    In my view, it all comes down to structure. The structure of 40s is very similar to the structure of 25s. But that is different than the structure of 10s. Ulduar-ish was the time that guild structure started changing permanently.

    I just think the 40/25 structure was more conducive to retention than the 10 structure is.

  20. I was reading something just the other day that said the subscription started declining during ToC, spiked again at the launch of ICC, declined over that year, then reached its all time high right before the launch of Cata. But I didn't look for links to the hard numbers so it could have been completely wrong.

  21. I imagine 10man is more fun because having 24 other people coordinate is invariably harder and takes fun away. Smaller guilds equate to less social connections.

    I'm mystified as to why MMOs insist on restricting social connections when the lesson of social networking/facebook is stickiness comes from maximizing social connections through multiple grouping. Part of the reason why ffxi still survives is because people know lots of people and inhabit multiple groups for different purposes.

  22. "I'm mystified as to why MMOs insist on restricting social connections when the lesson of social networking/facebook is stickiness comes from maximizing social connections through multiple grouping. "

    I've never understood why they don't experiment more with this.

    One example is when WoW imposed the same raid locks on 10 and 25 man raids at the start of Cataclysm. It's like they didn't realise that a lot of people raided those places with different groups, and it kept a lot of more casual 25 man raids going because their more hardcore members could do hard modes in 10 mans on off days.

  23. In my own opinion, I'd personally prefer raiding in a 25 man or 40 man raid if I could with the type of people in my guild. However, I think the big problem is wow has become more casual friendly, and so many players now are casual as opposed to the "Hardcore 40 man raiding" days (which I was never a part of myself)

    Most of the time it isn't an issue of what's more fun 10, 25 or 40 because I know many of us in my guild always say "the more the merrier!" there's just too many people not willing to make room in their lives for a raid in WoW that doesn't go along with their real life schedule. Aligning so many people into a certain timeslot can be very hard, so 10 mans come into play more often because there's less people, therefore less colliding time schedules.

  24. Someone mentioned 15-mans - I always thought that 15-18 that might really be the 'sweet spot' for raiding in WoW. I always found that when we did Sartharion or easy parts of Naxx with that amount that it just seemed like the right amount: a bit larger and more flexible than 10, but not as complicated and with more individual input than 25.