Active Subscriptions Revisited - Part 1

Posted by Daeity On Monday, February 14, 2011

I already have an old entry that explains Active Subscriptions, and multiple blog posts covering many facets of this topic. However, I decided to make a new entry to help further explain that there is a difference between real players versus Active Subscribers™. But, I'll be taking a different approach.

Blizzard Has 12 Million Subscribers

In the older post (August 2010), I examined real player numbers during a time when World of Warcraft's Subscriber count was officially 11.5 million.

However, this became a major problem for many readers (here and on other forums). The biggest excuse used was, "Well.. these numbers must be totally wrong because Blizzard's last announcement stated 12 million players for a fact! This is really old now too, so none of these numbers apply to today."

Just to clear things up, the same concept of real players vs Subscriber counts apply no matter what Blizzard's Subscribers presently are.

For example,
Blizzard announces 9 million Subscribers, but there are 5 million real players.
Blizzard announces 10 million Subscribers, but there are 6 million real players.
Blizzard announces 11 million Subscribers, but there are 7 million real players.
Blizzard announces 12 million Subscribers, but there are 8 million real players.

Based on those trends, I think it's safe to assume that if Blizzard announces 13 million Subscribers (and absolutely no variables change), there are probably about 9 million real players.

So, if this post is read towards of the end of this year, when Blizzard reaches 13 million players for example, the same concept applies. This should be a no-brainer.

Blizzard Only Makes Announcements When They Peak

When Blizzard reaches a certain Subscriber milestone, they make an announcement. There might be an announcement if they reach 12.5 or 13 million Subscribers for example.

On Oct 28, 2008 Blizzard "surpassed 11 million subscribers". On Nov 21, 2008 Blizzard "reached 11.5 million subscribers."

In February 2010, Mike Morhaime stated that "there are currently 11.5 million World of Warcraft subscribers, the same number of users the game had in December 2008." That's from Dec 2008 to Feb 2010! There was no growth during that time, but they didn't make any announcements of Subscriber decay.

In fact, there was quite a substantial amount of Subscriber decay during this time.

From June 2009 to October 2009, The9 was transitioning ownership of WoW to Blizzard's new partner NetEase. During this time, all servers were offline and there was no WoW in China.

When servers were brought back online in October 2009, NetEase was ordered during the following month (Nov) to stop charging current players and stop new registrations until the Chinese government could approve the game. From November 2009 to March 2010, NetEase was not allowed to collect subscription fees or register new players.

Ignoring this fact, let's just examine the 4 months when servers were offline and there were no subscriptions or players.

That was a loss of approximately 5-6 million players world wide. There were no announcements made, e.g. "Blizzard announces World of Warcraft is down to 5 million worldwide!" After all, why would they?

However, during this entire time news websites around the world continued to promote 11 or 11.5 million Subscribers, even though the number was closer to half.

On August 5, 2009, Activision Blizzard held their quarterly earnings call for the quarter ending June 30, 2009. Now, keep in mind that there was no WoW in China during June of 2009.

Activision Blizzard stated in their SEC filing that World of Warcraft "is played by more than 11 million subscribers worldwide."

In that same Form 10-Q, they also stated: "Our new licensee for World of Warcraft in China will not be able to begin offering the game in China on a paid basis until we obtain all required regulatory approvals, and we do not know when that will happen. World of Warcraft was unavailable to players in mainland China from June 7, 2009 (local), the date on which our prior license arrangements expired, until July 30, 2009 (local), when our new licensee began making the game available to our previous players in China in a test format without charge."

(Note: They still didn't have all approvals, so the date was extended beyond July 30, 2009 - but that was the limit of the information that they knew at the time.)

So, even though they were around 5-6 million official Subscribers during June - Blizzard still stated in an SEC Filing that WoW is played by more than 11 million subscribers worldwide.

This is completely honest and true, no matter what you might believe. It's all about wording, and that's one of the points I'm trying to make.

1. They only make announcements when they peak Subscribers.
2. When they say "20 million Subscribers", that doesn't necessarily mean that they actually have "20 million subscribers" (or anywhere close to that number) at that time.
3. When they say "20 million Subscribers", that doesn't necessarily mean real players.

It's all based on wording and their last official census announcement.

Right now, for example, they have "12 million Subscribers". Even if something bad were to happen, Blizzard can still tell news outlets "At last count, we are at 12 million Subscribers" or they can say:

We're currently at 12 million Subscribers worldwide!

*based on internal figures and calculations.
Even if Subscribers (or real players) are actually closer to 4 million. It's still a completely true statement.. based on their own findings or methods.

Why Do You Keep Capitalizing "Subscribers"??

I want to ensure that there's a distinction between Blizzard's definition of "Subscribers" and what you might consider a subscriber.

Yes, Blizzard has a special internal definition of what a "Subscriber" actually means. If that's not proof alone that there are big differences between real players and Blizzard Subscribers - I don't know what is.

Subject Lines and Header Titles might say one thing, but please read the fine print. All MMO companies do this with their numbers, it's not just limited to Blizzard and this shouldn't be a big secret (apparently, though, most gamers are just in complete denial about this distinction).

Here is Blizzard's official definition of a Subscriber™:
World of Warcraft’s Subscriber Definition

World of Warcraft® subscribers include individuals who have paid a subscription fee or have an active prepaid card to play World of Warcraft, as well as those who have purchased the game and are within their free month of access. Internet Game Room players who have accessed the game over the last thirty days are also counted as subscribers. The above definition excludes all players under free promotional subscriptions, expired or cancelled subscriptions, and expired prepaid cards. Subscribers in licensees’ territories are defined along the same rules.
So basically,

- a Subscriber is not one single player.
- a Subscriber is any account that has a paid subscription fee (if you haven't logged in, but still have an active subcription - then yes it counts).
- a Subscriber is ALSO any account with a first month's subscription.
- a Subscriber is ALSO any person who has an active prepaid card.
- a Subscriber is ALSO any "Internet Game Room" players who have accessed the game over the past 30 days.

What this means:

- If an account gets banned and a new account is purchased during the same month, that counts as two active subscriptions for one user.
- You pay for the month at the start of the month. When you get banned, you still paid for that entire month and Blizzard won't be refunding your money. The banned/cancelled account will no longer apply once you reach the end of the month.
- A "first month's subscription" is very common especially for gold farmers and gold sellers/traders who need to create new accounts frequently.
- Even though "expired prepaid cards" are mentioned, the cards in fact never expire. You can purchase one in NA/EU, but wait several months/years to activate it for example. When you purchase a prepaid card in China, you can keep adding time to it for as long as you want.
- Blizzard does not provide a definition of an "active prepaid card", so it's possible but highly unlikely, that prepaid cards mean any card that have time on them (whether that time has been used or not.) Since Blizzard does not have immediate access to Point of Sale data, they would base "active prepaid cards" on restocking quantities. If a retailer requires 50 new cards, for example, it's assumed that there are now 50 "active prepaid cards" in the hands of Subscribers, and those would therefore count as a Subscriber.
- Since the game is free in China and it's inexpensive to play, many users have multiple accounts and multiple pre-paid cards. 1 player might represent 2-4 Subscribers for example. These are all considered active pre-paid cards as long as there are still minutes on it.
- Pre-paid cards in China hold minutes (2000 minutes or 4000 minutes for example). If the cards still have 5 minutes left on them, and they are thrown out, that still counts as an Active Subscription. Until the card is completely expired (used up), then it counts as an active prepaid card as per Blizzard's definition.
- There are players worldwide who have multiple accounts (multi-boxing), not a large amount but it exists. One player might represent 8 Subscribers for example.
- "Internet Game Room" players are an interesting scenario. In China for example, players can goto "Game Rooms" (e.g. gaming caf├ęs instead of playing from home) where they can pay for 1-2 hours of gameplay for example. Any user who plays within the 30 day period is counted as an official subscriber. So, you could login to WoW from a Game Room, play for 1 hour to check mail or guild activities and then not sign-in again for an entire month - that still counts as an Active Subscription. Imagine the sheer number of unique logins from Game Rooms? "Game Rooms" as Blizzard calls them are extremely popular in China.

Not Done Yet

Since this entire thing is going to get pretty big, I'm going to divide it up into parts.

From what you've seen so far though, you can probably guess that there is indeed a big difference between what you view as a subscriber (real player? one account?) and what Blizzard defines as a Subscriber.

Next up, I'll show you what Blizzard has said about Subscribers around the world, how many real players are in China, and how many are estimated to be in North America and Europe.

In NA/EU, Blizzard does not publish actual player counts (versus Subscribers). However, in China the WoW Servers are run by NetEase and they do publish actual player counts. I think you'll be surprised by the results.