My subscriber e-peen is bigger than yours…

No, really, it is. Because my MMO just released a vague number that’s bigger than the vague number that YOUR MMO released, so clearly, I’m superior to you. Right. RIGHT?
If that sounds a little silly to you, it’s probably no wonder. It seems almost weekly now, one MMO or other releases player numbers, which often appear vague. Inevitably, I’ll see in my Twitter feed a multitude of MMO experts exclaiming “See, I TOLD you the game was dead/not dead/on life support/THE BEST GAME EVAR.” Except – no one seems to be releasing the same numbers as anyone else. Active players? Registered users? What do any of these numbers actually MEAN?

WoW Numbers by The Daily Blink

WoW Numbers by The Daily Blink

Truthfully? We have no idea. FFXIV puts out a press release touting “registered users” without defining what “registered users” is comprised of (We know it doesn’t include trial accounts, but does it include everyone who at least subbed once? We don’t know). World of Warcraft sub numbers include Chinese users playing on “game time.”
Star Wars: The Old Republic gets even trickier, because you genuinely do need to include non-subscribers in that particular mix, given that it’s entirely possible to play the game without subscribing at all. I think you get the idea; while each of these MMOs might be a fruit in the same basket, if we’re not comparing the same metrics, we’re really just comparing apples and oranges.

Which leads me to the question; do we really NEED these numbers? How do they help us? To be completely honest, mostly when I see them quoted, it’s to back up something someone already believes. “I TOLD YOU WILDSTAR WAS GOING TO HAVE TO GO F2P!” (Congrats, a WHOLE bunch of other people on the internet said the exact same thing; you’re not special.) “WoW is dead/dying/will be dead in a year” (as people have said since, 2004.) “SWTOR? Lol tortanic.” (I’m actually not going to touch this one. It’s dumb.)
So, what do we, as non company shareholders get out of these numbers, besides a way to measure our “favorite” games e-peen/apple against its competitors e-peen/orange? I’m not convinced we get much at all.
Is your game healthy? You can see that if you log in. Is your server populated? Does your game’s version of group finder pop regularly? Do your friends still play? These are all things that are readily apparent with or without “subscriber” numbers. If your game is not healthy, you already KNOW. You don’t need a number to tell you if your game needs server merges, or if your game is doing just fine.

SWTOR - Dromund Kaas approach

SWTOR – Dromund Kaas approach

Does this mean that companies should stop releasing these numbers? Not necessarily. Information is good, and when the number seems to be going in the right direction, that can be comforting for fans of the game. But maybe, just maybe, we should all stop trying to be armchair MMO experts, especially based on numbers that were released to inform investors, and not gamers in the first place. Because as long as we keep trying to compare apples and oranges? All we’re going to get are hurt feelings and fruit salad.

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