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For any MMO game to be successful it has to capture a good sized subscriber base. If the community is to take hold and the servers are to be busy enough to give the illusion of a bustling world then plenty of people are essential. There are a few sources for subscriber information and more importantly there are places where you can compare the active user base.
Developers and publishers are always keen to paint the rosiest picture possible and they will tend to quote their subscriber base as the total number of people who have played the game. This gives you no indication of how many people actually play the game on a regular basis. There is always a massive difference between these numbers. Here we will take a look at some of the most popular MMO games in terms of population and point you towards some useful sources that track these trends.
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Cooking the Stats
It is worth pointing out that there is no way to obtain irrefutable accurate information on subscribers. Only the companies responsible for the games have access to the statistics and their interpretation of an active account may be different from yours. The majority count anyone who is paying for a subscription, anyone in a free trial period or anyone who has been active on an account within the last month. They make no distinction for users with multiple accounts so they will be counted separately. Clearly the figures will not be representative of the number of users you can expect to find online within a game world at any given time – that number will be much lower.
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Top MMO Subscriber Populations
NOTE: These numbers were updated as of February, 2011 but the last reliable data for some was a while ago (I'll put an estimate of the date next to each one).
Let’s take a look at the top MMO subscriber populations. Remember that these figures come from the developers or publishers and they all apply slightly different criteria to count active subscribers. Some of the figures are based on revenue and subscriber estimates. This article is only examining games so social MMOs like Second Life are not counted. These are rounded figures.
- World of Warcraft – 12,000,000 (2011)
- Aion - 3,400,000 (mid 2010)
- Runescape – 1,300,000 (2009)
- Lineage – 750,000 (2009)
- Lineage II – 750,000 (2009)
- Dofus – 520,000 (mid 2010)
- Final Fantasy XI – 350,000 (mid 2010)
- Eve Online – 325,000 (2011)
- Lord of the Rings Online – 210,000 (mid 2010)
- City of Heroes/Villains - 125,000 (2009)
- Age of Conan – 120,000 (mid 2010)
- Ultima Online - 100,000 (2009)
- Everquest - 100,000 (mid 2010)
- Warhammer Online – 80,000 (2010)
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These numbers are all estimates based on limited information. The fact is they have all been reluctant to release figures or they have released grossly inaccurate figures in the past. Although WoW is very popular I think their figure is grossly inaccurate too. Many MMO games are prone to very changeable subscriber figures and often a huge base is captured on release which soon melts away. Eve Online is one of the most stable games on the list and they have been growing modestly for years.
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If you are interested in examining some data then check out mmodata.net for more. It is disappointing that developers and publishers are not more transparent when it comes to numbers but then they only stand to gain from an announcement if the numbers are good and everyone seems to pale into insignificance next to the ridiculous popularity of WoW. This leads to us to an interesting conclusion. That the success of an MMO game can be made or broken by consumer confidence much like the success of a company in terms of share price. If numbers are perceived as low that will actively discourage new players and vice versa. WoW is benefiting from a positive feedback loop while other MMO games are dying a slow death due to actual or perceived low numbers. It is somewhat unfair because the quality of the game is what should really be getting judged. People should play things and decide for themselves but when you think about it consumer society in general suffers from a herd mentality. Not to denigrate WoW fans but there is no way that the quality of the game is reflected proportionally in the numbers when compared with other MMO games.
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Don't Follow the Herd
The nature of MMO games means that people who subscribe to one for a few months will invest a great deal of time and energy in that game. They will then be very reluctant to throw away their hard work and will often become fiercely loyal to their game of choice. This means MMO games can be made or broken in the first few months of release, if they don’t retain that initial wave of players then the momentum is seemingly lost forever. The herd is not always right. Although they are interesting MMO subscriber populations are not a good way to measure which game is best. If a game sounds good to you don't check the number of subscribers, just give it a go and see what you think.
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MMO Data, http://www.mmodata.net/
Developer and publisher websites and forums for each title.