Funny how things work.
I was sitting around on Friday, wondering what to write about this week, when the Activision earnings call dropped the bomb that WoW's subscriber base had dropped to 9.1 million, down 1 million from the previous quarter. Couple that with TOR having dropped to below 1 million subs, and you've got an interesting week's worth of MMO data.
My first reaction was that the numbers would have looked even worse were it not for the annual pass subs, because the WoW base remained flat for the previous two quarters while I noticed a distinct dropoff in the number of people logged into a server. As I've said before on several occasions, there are days when I think that 90% of the people logged into WoW are gold farmers, because I see very few people in the capital cities on an average evening* and what people I do see are out farming mats or working the auction house. Actually seeing a leveling toon out in the wild is a rarity.
However, when I turned things over in my head for a while, I began to wonder just how many subs WoW has that are actual players versus gold farmers. The reason why I bring that up is because, unlike some other MMOs, I keep turning over how gold farming will work in TOR outside of actual account stealing.
Most people buy gold to get a leg up on the competition or to help themselves in other fashions, but with TOR designed the way it is, I don't see the need to buy credits to assist you in the leveling game. Sure, manipulating the AH can be done, but I haven't seen the TOR AH to be quite as cutthroat as WoW's AH is. Perhaps I'm missing something obvious, but it seems to me that TOR doesn't really need the gold farmer industry very much.
If that's the case, then perhaps that 9.1 million figure that Activision put out in their earnings call is actually lower --a lot lower-- when you remove the gold farmer accounts**.
WoW is the big dog of the MMO world, and the gold farmers will flock to it like bees to honey. Their numbers will only decline when their demand declines, and given the amount of announcements you get in the big cities, I doubt that's going to happen anytime soon. TOR, by comparison, is conspicuous in its lack of gold farmer spam. Other MMOs that don't have a large population, such as Age of Conan, still have plenty of gold spammers, but TOR doesn't. Part of that is due to no major city-spanning communication system like WoW's Trade Chat, but other than that I don't really know why TOR has less gold farmer spam.
The scenario that TOR has fewer proportional gold farmers than WoW is significant, because that means that the actual number of true, playing WoW subs is a lot lower than people realize. Which also means that if it's the actual WoW players who unsubbed, then WoW is in a bit more of a world of hurt than we believe.
Still, this is all water under the bridge since the definition of "true, playing WoW subs" probably is defined by Blizz as "a paying subscription." They can't afford to discriminate, unless the behavior of the sub is deemed malicious in intent. I'd argue that acts that participate in gold farming are "malicious in intent", but where you draw that line is kind of hazy. Merely farming mats like mad isn't enough for malicious intent, because anyone farming for a rare item would be guilty. Stealing accounts is malicious intent, but Blizz has to either be alerted to the theft or notice a pattern that tips them off that the account was stolen.
What all that means is that WoW needs gold farmers to keep their numbers up. Other MMOs do too, but none more than WoW. We can only conjecture as to how many accounts are gold farmer accounts, because Blizz itself probably doesn't know. You can bet that if they did know, they'd point that out in an earnings call, particularly if it was the gold farmers leaving the game.
Investors, however, aren't interested in gold farmers***; they only care about subscriptions. If subs go down, they want to know why. If they stay down, they want to know what Activision is going to do to bring them back up. People are slamming EA over TOR's subscription loss, and EA announced some major changes to the game in response. Blizzard's response to its sub loss is "Mists will fix this."
But will it?
Blizz hasn't had subscription loss like this before. At this time last release, Blizz was still riding high from the success of Wrath, and subs were either relatively flat or trending upward heading into Cataclysm. Whether you played or took a break is irrelevant, because the subs themselves only changed by a couple hundred thousand. Right now, things are going in the wrong direction for WoW, and if Mists only halts the bleeding, the investors will still be up in arms and demand a better response to the problem.
Higher sub prices? Maybe.
More gimmicks? Maybe.
More gold farmer friendly changes? Maybe they will. Subs are subs, no matter where they come from.
The saying goes to not bet against Blizzard, but Blizzard is now fighting its reputation as always being a 'safe haven'. These are uncharted waters, and even Blizzard can't see what's ahead in the fog. Maybe they'll find salvation in Pandaria, but maybe they'll just strike some rocks.
*Averaging about 45-55 a night on the two capital cities on Ysera, and about 100 in Org on A-52, which is 8:1 Horde dominated. I have poked into Stormwind on A-52, but it'd make you cry at how empty it is.
**That's both toons created for the purpose of gold farming as well as stolen accounts.
***As long as the farmers aren't engaged in illegal activity, that is.