Is it possible for the Elder Scrolls Online to become the biggest current MMO in Western civilization?
Yes, I believe it is.
Gasp! How dare I!? What’s that burning sound in the distance? Oh, that’s just some random internet forum melting down at the mere thought of World of Warcraft being dethroned by any new MMO, let alone Elder Scrolls Online. Before you raise your torches and pitchforks, let me explain my reasoning.
We’ve heard it all before, [Insert MMO Title Here] the WoW killer, or at the very least, give it a run for it’s money. Yet in the end, none came close.
It’s important to note World of Warcraft is the game that brought the genre into mainstream gaming. When WoW cow-tipped EverQuest (EQ) to become the biggest MMO to date, not only was it unsuspected, it dawned a new era. In that time the largest MMO was EverQuest with 450k subscribers (source). Fast-forward to today and it’s hard to find an MMO that hasn’t crested over that number.
The truth is you can’t make an MMO in this day and era without being compared to World of Warcraft. It’s the gold standard by which all other MMOs today are judged. Success and failure seems to be largely measured by most by whether the MMO will surpass World of Warcraft’s subscription numbers or not. The only other MMO released to date on its scale with the in-depth background story, rabid fan base, and Triple-A pedigree is Star Wars: The Old Republic. I think most would agree that didn’t exactly turn out as planned. After launching with a player-base of 2 million subs, the game quickly lost ground. Players reached max level, had little to do, and began unsubscribing.
For those of you saying the Elder Scrolls doesn’t have the same sized fan base as Star Wars – just hold your horses! Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Star Wars fan. So is my dad who just turned 58 years old. The original Star Wars trilogy came out when he was in his early 20s. Now you may be asking yourself, “Keihndeth, what does that have to do with anything?” The fact of the matter is a large portion of the Star Wars fans are not gamers. My dad can barely work a keyboard and mouse. The man still panics when his screensaver pops up for heaven’s sake. The last time he played a video game with me was Madden 94’ if memory serves. Without any statistics to back me up, I would fashion a guess that the Elder Scrolls series has just as many gamers, if not more, than Star Wars. The entire franchise is built around gaming.
Now let’s look at the Elder Scrolls series. It all started with The Elder Scrolls: Arena, released in 1994. This year will be the 20th anniversary of the series. What other game was released in 1994? Warcraft: Orcs & Humans – the very first game of the Warcraft series. While this may seem like just a coincidence, I implore you to consider the fact that none of these other games outside TESO and WoW gives us the familiarity of characters, lore and story backdrop. The only thing even close is SWTOR. Its lineage to single player RPG Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), which came out in 2003, is half the lifespan of the Elder Scrolls and Warcraft. Most of these other MMOs are a completely new universe to us, including upcoming WildStar, which many consider to be a bigger threat to unseat WoW.
To further illustrate my point, let’s look at some numbers. When World of Warcraft launched in November 2004 it is estimated that the first month of subscribers reached roughly 400k. In February 2005 the game launched across Europe and by May of 2005 the game reached the 2 million subscriber mark. The game launched in China in June 2005 (source). A year after release subscriptions were at 4.5 million worldwide. The height of WoW was during its Wrath of the Lich King (WotLK) expansion, reaching a peak of just over 12 million subscribers during the winter of 2010 (source).
Blizzard announced on February 6th that the subscription total for World of Warcraft had rebounded by 200k this quarter, up to 7.8 million. Since the launch of World of Warcraft in China, just over half of the total subscriber numbers have been in Asia. So we’re looking at a figure of current users throughout North America, South America, and Europe totaling somewhere in the ballpark of 3.2-3.9 million.
One of the things rarely mentioned about TESO is the fact it is going to appeal to a much larger audience than WoW for one big reason; consoles. While I consider myself a member of the “PC Master Race” Club, I must concede the fact that most gamers are console users. In fact, approximately 86% of all sales generated from Skyrim were either purchased for Xbox 360 (59%) or PS3 (27%). Only a mere 14% of total sales were on PC (source). So of the 20.27 million total Skyrim units sold (not including used copies), that means only roughly 2.8 million of those sales were for PC. Even if we say only 1-in-5 people buy Elder Scrolls Online that bought Skyrim (which I would consider a low estimate), you’re looking at a 4 million subscriber base across all platforms. Keep in mind ESO is only initially launching in Europe and North America, and even that number would be higher than the current total for World of Warcraft in the West, which includes; Oceania (Australia/New Zealand), South America (Brazil), North America, and Europe. Should ZeniMax feel curious enough to venture into the Asian market, Activision Blizzard and its shareholders will definitely take notice.
With the launch of Elder Scrolls Online less than 2 months away, the game is in perfect position to take subscribers away from an aging World of Warcraft at the end of an expansion. Perhaps that’s why Blizzard is releasing Diablo III: Reaper of Souls a week before Elder Scrolls Online to help stem some of the bleeding.
What does this mean? It means that not only does Elder Scrolls Online have the potential to surpass World of Warcraft as the biggest MMO in the West, for the first time in the history of the genre there may be more people playing an MMO on console than on PC. We may be witnessing the dawning of the Third Era of MMOs, and with it a new emperor.