Who are the MMO Core Players?

brief exchange today between myself and Gazimoff on WoW’s fluctuating player base, got me thinking about the often referenced „core players“ in MMOs. Although there’s unfortunately no data on who today’s longtime WoW subscribers are and when they started playing, it’s reasonable to assume that WoW has a core of the faithful, made sticky by longtime relationships, memories and trophies accumulated over the years. Social ties and virtual property are an important glue for MMO retention and WoW hit the market like a blazing star in 2004.

But really all sarcasm aside (I’ll try!), who are the core players in WoW? Are they the ones who never unsub, never fluctuate? Are they the all-abiding, undemanding that Blizzard need never worry about? Are they the so-called fanboys and fangirls?

What constitutes core and how many core players are there in an MMO like WoW? Is it enough to remain subbed for a certain amount of time to qualify or invest a certain amount of money? Is it the current 5 million players or much less than that – 1 million, 500’000 players? More importantly, how long until we’d find out, how long until the last non-core player is ready to quit WoW and never look back?

What does it take to reveal an MMO’s core?

Questions, questions!


  1. You won’t live long enough to see the last core WoW player quit. No-one will.

    We might see Blizzard lose interest and shut the last official server, although even that is likely to happen after I’m no longer around to see it happen, but even then there will be Private servers up and running.

    The children of the children of people playing WoW now will play WoW. The inevitability of entertainment is that, once created, nothing ever goes away. I went to sleep last night listening to an episode of “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar”, a radio show made before I was even born. My step-daughter, when she was 8 or 9, used to watch black and white movies made before my mother was born.

    Online games do have a small disadvantage in that they require distant infrastructure to persist but in the technological future we expect to enjoy that is going to present less and less of a problem.

  2. Alright, I’ll bite 😉

    On the one hand, WoW’s subscriber base has halved. From a peak in the Burning Crusade/Wrath era, over five million fewer people are paying for Blizzard’s MMO. Not only that, but many times that number have played Warcraft and quit, than are currently playing. And yet Blizzard still feels that there are new subscribers to pursue. The ‘core audience’ that has stuck around since Warcraft’s launch is a fraction of the 5.5 million currently subscribed.

    Defining a core audience from that scenario is tricky – is it time-bound (subbed 3month+), demographic-bound (gamers aged 14-30), engagement-bound (5+ hours played per week), or something else? Also, with a multi-content game like an MMO, understanding what keeps players engaged is tricky – what appeals to one segment might not work for another. Are questers core? Raiders? Roleplayers? Arena junkes? Or all of them?

    Add to that, the core Warcraft experience hasn’t changed in over 10 years, and fundamental to it is the basic combat loop. Change these, and you upend how Warcraft feels on a fundamental level. And therein lies the problem – familiarity for existing players versus presenting something new and interesting that might alienate them.

    This is the end-state for an MMO – where changing core concepts would be too disruptive to the central feel, and so therefore it becomes about solidifying the experience for those that remain. Better social systems, more opportunities to play with others, and new places for them to have adventures. Innovate around the periphery where possible, but avoid seismic changes. Warcraft can’t avoid that fate, just as Everquest hasn’t. But it still has a core, loyal fanbase that are there for the world, the experience, and the people they play with. I think that’s the core audience Blizzard are hoping to keep on-board, and anyone else is just gravy.

    1. You’re a lot less cynical than me. 🙂 I see your point and it certainly makes sense that you wouldn’t want to disrupt the established model players have come to know and appreciate. I do question if expansions are really for that existing crowd though, given how low maintenance they’ve become. To me it seems Blizz can’t do much wrong with their core audience as long as they don’t disrupt the core gameplay, as you said. Expansions seem like that one opportunity to make some noise and still grab a couple of new players – Legion just sounds like one big stab at GW2 to me.

  3. Well sub numbers of wow have never dip below the million mark despite what the do with their patch cycle so it would on the surface appear that they have a very strong core of players for whom this game is their home.

    However the sub numbers are never broken down by region and we actually have no way of knowing how many of these are actual traditional subscriptions from the western payment model and how many are from Asia with its buy time to play (and any time played in the Quarter counts right?)

    It also doesnt tell us those people too lazy to unsub or wont resub just because they plant to be back – i had a mate subbed for 5 months on the chance he wanted to play some wow, the sub costs was nothing to him for the convenience of leaping in and out.

    What I think you need to measure somehow with mmos is the community engagement – the people who are always there, promoting and supporting your game on social media, forums and in game with events, newbie helping and general zone chatter. These people are actively participating in your world and make up the core group of players that a new player will encounter (for good and for worse).

    1. That’s a very good point about the Asian market where they don’t even run subs, I didn’t even think of that. And I paid about 6 months of sub this year without noticing….shame on me. -_-°

  4. The core players are those on whom any marketing efforts are wasted because they love your game anyway, so that you’re better off focusing on the non-core that don’t actually like your stuff all that much. Kind of sad, isn’t it…

  5. That is sort of an unknowable question, at least until Blizz puts the game in maintenance mode and just lets it ride. And even then, what is “core” in any case? I’ve purchased every expansion thus far and don’t see that ending. I have spent a couple thousand hours in Azeroth and see more in the future. I pay attention to the game. Am I core or not? Do I have to stay subscribed? Do I have to play no other MMO? I know people in both categories. But I know people who still play TorilMUD every day too.

    That said, the fact that the game stabilized at over 5 million suggests that, at the moment, WoW has a pretty solid core following. Those are numbers that would make any other MMO a run-away success.

    1. Well again it depends on what % of those are actual sub players – if you want to go with non sub from Asia etc then wow is tiny. I think our perception of the market is skewed somewhat.

      As blizzard said there are better metric to measure engagement – what % of their player is actively engaged I wonder and how does that compare to the 45 million players something like lineage has?

    2. Yeah it’s always funny to read about the death of WoW etc. when it’s still got a ton of subscribers…..it still operates in its very own galaxy where players don’t compare it to what really is.

  6. I play my characters daily most weeks and have no thought of unsubscribing.
    I am disappointed that Blizzard seems to enjoy the game much less than I do. There seems to be a current “failure of imagination” and I’d like to see them bring in some people who can imagine so much more.

    1. For existing players that is frustrating, although naturally a company like Blizzard at some point re-allocates resources to newer products. They’ve been open about wanting to be known for more than just WoW and be successful with different IPs. And well, they can still count on their faithful to play WoW anyway, right? 😉 I think that’s part of the problem, WoW is still ‘good enough’.

  7. I suspect that the “stabilized” subscription numbers are a bit of a mirage, as Blizz announced Legion at Gamescom back in August. The timing surrounding this announcement was very unusual for Blizzard, given that they have historically announced the new expac at BlizzCon, and the speculation was rampant that Legion would actually be ready by BlizzCon or by Christmas.

    As it turned out, they’re looking at a Summer 2016 release (likely late Summer is my guess).

    That, coupled with the decision to remove sub numbers from quarterly financial results, implies that Activision Blizzard expects to see a big drop in subs during the long wait.

    My guess as to the core WoW players is about 1-2 million. We bloggers and website authors are a very small subset of the (potential) WoW core player base, which can skew our perceptions that 5 million is an acceptable core.

    I believe that Activision Blizzard’s corporate decision to hide subscriber numbers is the long awaited signal showing that the decline in the WoW population is real. I doubt it means the end for WoW, but I do expect that WoW won’t get as much developer love going forward, not with other potential cash cows in Blizzard’s stable.

    1. My uncorroborated feelings also suggest the core is smaller than 5 million. It will be an interesting few months until Legion, late summer is August/September so still a long haul….plenty more will unsub until then. As you say, it’s no coincidence they stopped reporting sub numbers. Blizzard always seemed ahead of the game, including their own. They know where the game is now, where they want it and how to make the most of that.

      1. Yes indeed.

        I don’t read Blizzard Watch much, but I have poked around this past week, and the core players are busy talking about the upcoming expac –and all of the changes that it’s bringing. There’s some people who drop in to say they’re going to unsub during the long wait, but the core is still focused on the changes to the game itself.

        Kind of reminds me of fiddling while Rome burns.

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