DC Universe Online: A Massive Opportunity

DCUO LogoThe highly anticipated DC Universe Online game finally has a formal release date. The discs will be available in stores for PC and PS3 platforms on January 11, 2011. The announcement of this date comes just a few weeks after Sony Online (the developer) delayed release from its initial November 2010 timetable.

IGN featured an interview yesterday with Chris Cao — DC Universe Online Games Director. In the interview, Chris answers a number of hotly contested questions including:
  • The decision to offer a $199 lifetime subscription option (in addition to the $15/month rate)
  • What's going to happen to the characters created during the beta test phase
  • Plans for the types of downloadable content players should expect to see offered
The Economics of MMORPGs
Jim Lee pic
I'm not someone that has much experience playing MMOs, but as an investor I have plenty of experience investing in gaming companies (I've at times been a shareholder in most of the well-known publicly-traded video game publishers) and find the economic power of the MMO model compelling. Obviously DC Entertainment does, too, which is why they've invested considerable time and manpower on the development of DCUO for the last three years. Let's remember that this project is so strategic to the future of DC Entertainment, that Jim Lee was assigned to oversee its development, and that served as a springboard into his being named Co-Publisher earlier this year.
According to Newzoo.com, the United States spent nearly $2.3 billion in 2010 on MMOs, and more than 47 million people play some kind of MMO. 
Newzoo.com MMO table from their publicly avaliable market data
That's to say nothing of the opportunities in other parts of the world, most notably Asia, where MMOs are vastly more popular and commonplace.
Let's take a quick look at the numbers behind Activision Blizzard, who runs World of Warcraft — the 800-pound gorilla of the subscription-based MMO market.
  • 12 million + subscribers worldwide for WoW
  • Over $1 billion in revenue (in the last nine months)
  • 3.3 million copies sold of the newest expansion pack in the first 24 hours
Putting it simply, MMOs are ENORMOUS business. 
In one fell swoop, if Sony Online and DC get this game right, they can match the economic value of the entire publishing business for years to come. Let's be conservative and assume DCUO gains 500,000 users in its first year. Based on the success of the beta reviews, and the anticipation, I suspect that number will be conservative. (Keep in mind that Batman: Arkham Asylum sold more than 2 million copies in its first month on shelves.) But let's go with it. On a gross basis:
  • 500,000 users x $59 upfront cost = $29.5 million
  • 500,000 users x $15/month x 11 months (they get the first month for free) = $82.5 million
  • Total potential Year One gross sales = $112.0 million
Compare that number with the North American direct market for comics. According to analysis by John Jackson Miller (based on the data provided by Diamond):
  • 2009 Overall sales for comics, trades and magazines = $429.5 million
  • DC dollar market share (29.28%) = $125.8 million
Now those numbers look comparable, but consider for a second the economic power of a successful MMO. MMO users are, like comic book readers, known to be fiercely loyal to games that they get invested in. Many of those 12 million WoW users have been paying subscriptions for a decade. Then layer in the potential portability of the DCUO game to other countries. Then consider the potential revenue opportunities from in-game advertising, microtransactions, virtual currency, downloadable content, expansion packs. In a few years, if things go well, the DCUO could be several times as large as the entire publishing business. And based on what we know of the margin profile for other successful subscription MMOs, it stands to be more profitable, too.
Is the success of DCUO guaranteed? Certainly not. We'll have to see the game in action, and track the uptake rates before we get a real handle on the economic value. But understand that Sony and DC aren't expecting this to be a "nice to have" addition to their portfolio, they're expecting this game to become one of the centerpiece engines of their creative empire. Yet another way to leverage the value of all those characters they own lock, stock and barrel. 
So the next time you're lamenting when we'll see the next issue of All-Star Batman & Robin, rest assured that Jim Lee's bosses are more than happy to see him spend time on "other matters."

Jason is a mutant with the ability to squeeze 36 hours into every 24-hour day, which is why he was able to convince his wife he had time to join the iFanboy team on top of running his business, raising his three sons, and most importantly, co-hosting the 11 O'Clock Comics podcast with his buddies Vince B, Chris Neseman and David Price. If you are one of the twelve people on Earth who want to read about comics, the stock market and football in rapid fire succession, you can follow him on Twitter.


  1. Finally a release date! I’ll be getting this for the PC becasue I don’t own a PS3.

  2. It makes me wish I had the spare time a game like this needs you to invest in it.  I would buy just based on my nerd factor for comic book stuff in other mediums.

  3. Although it looks interesting getting time to read comics is hard enough, let alone playing a time-sink MMOG. I’ve learned my lesson on WOW and Championship Manager. I just can’t devote the time required to get value from these games.

  4. Looks cool..but have not time for this.

  5. awesome…but i have no time to play. sucks.

  6. I really like DCUO and MMO in general and I WILL play DCUO when it comes out (I’m currently in the Beta). But the numbers are way off.

    Recent hughly successfull MMO’s like AoC, Warhammer or Aion started with about 1.000.000 sold boxes and not much less created accounts but the decline came pretty fast. AoC had about 200.000 subscriptions after 1 year and with Warhammer and Aion the loss of subscribers was faster.

    Besides that DCUO lacks the international appeal. Heros like Superman or Batman are known around the World but all those others are primary know in the US. If DCUO can hold about 200.000 after a year I would call it a success. 

  7. This could turn out to be a great game, but right now it’s pretty lacking.  The content has been scaled down for the beta, but not drastically and I was able to see and do everything this game currently has to offer in about 2 weeks.

    This really isn’t that good of a game for PC.  Other than your hack & slash combinations you only have 6 action slots available, which leads to very repetitive game play.  The chat/communication system is terrible and interacting with other characters is difficult because they had to make all actions menu based for the console gamers.

    There is a good base for a game there but it’s not worth paying 50-60 dollars plus a monthly fee with it’s current content. 

  8. Definitely have to try before I buy!!

  9. @Starocotes Interesting analysis, I guess I’m looking at it from the perspective of the WoW and Asian phenomenons, but you bring up a compelling counterpoint. Certainly a 200K active user group would be a profitable endeavor for DC, but hardly the game changer they’re hoping for.

  10. ive been out of gaming for so long, i forgot to assume that there would be a monthly fee.  Kind of bummed it is so high, i could handle a $5 fee (on top of the fact id have to buy a PS3 or a PC), but i dont know about 15.

  11. The big issue with MMOs is that they HAVE to do free betas to test it right. But if the betas don’t grab the hardcore players who evangelize it to others, the product is often dead in the water. Even if it’s good, most just tend to eat the cherry on top and go back to WoW. So many of these things end up being giant money pits for the publishers. Lord of the Rings is now free to play! Lord of the Rings!

  12. @Cormac, WoW remains king because nobody else has been able to develop an MMO as deep.  I haven’t seen or played a game with even close to that much content.

  13. Great news! It was supposed to come out in Feb or March 2011, but looks like we’re getting it earlier than that!

  14. The pricepoint seems way too high.

    I don’t see a comparison with Batman Arkham Asylum because that game came out while post-Dark Knight Bat-mania was still high, and “DCU” is a much less popular branding than “Batman”. People want to be Batman way way way more than they want to design their own hero, because generic DCU-modeled superheroes look corny to the general population.

    I would love to be proven wrong, but I doubt this is going to get the “conservative” estimate of half a million users. Maybe if there’s some sort of trial deal, then many will try it out, but not go for the $200 + subscription fee deal.

    It IS an awesome opportunity for DC, though. There’s no doubt about that, and this article does a great job of laying out the potential plus side. In terms of revenue, though, you forget that Sony takes a chunk of the profits from this, so comparing the profit from this to the publishing industry is kind of flawed unless we know what Sony’s percentage take is.

    The game just looks corny, though. Especially when I look at it thru the eyes of the general audience. Again, I’d love to be proven wrong, but I bet in a few years will be looking back on this game as much ado about nothing. We’ll be reading the latest Jim Lee comics project, and people will make jokes about how they’re looking forward to the next issue “unless DC does something stupid again and puts him on a dead-end video game project for the next three years”.

  15. I suppose I should add that this is a race that you can’t afford not to have a horse in if you have a marketable IP, because the potential returns (as Mr. Woooood expertly points out) are so great. It’s just that Blizzard has pretty much cornered the market. In addition to LOTR, Star Wars Galaxies failed. Think about that for a second. STAR WARS. It’s just really really tough to pull people away from WoW, especially as they keep piling on more and more content.

  16. @Jason: The point is that DCUO is different and that could be a hugh plus in this market. I’m also in Rift Beta (now I can talk about it) and Rift just feels like another of those umpteen MMO’s out there. Absolutly no innovation whatsoever and so I’m very sure it will fail after the start. DCUO offers an action oriented approach and an ease of playing that certainly does NOT appeal to the hardcore WoW Raid member but that COULD mean a whole kind of different success. 

  17. Personally, I’ve been in beta and unless there is a more stable version we aren’t aware of, this game is far from being ready for release.

  18. The current version (Update from 12/22) worked pretty well for me. No crashes so far for me. 

  19. sadly no game that charges a monthly fee no matter how small could be good enough for me to buy.
    I wonder how many more copies they would sell if it was free to play. This is one of the first MMOs to be released on a console and i’m sure alot of the casual gamers interested in this game aren’t even aware of a pay to play system (until a few months ago i wasn’t). This is bound to put people like me off.
    Although sadly it is all about money rather than getting this game to the most DC fans as possible and i’m sure enough people will pay to keep the money rolling in.
    I’m just sorry that it has to be that way.

  20. I was one of those hardcore WoW players.  It is one of the most amazing games i have ever played.  Considering the DCU online is NOT on a Mac OS platform, I consider myself very lucky.  😉

     the Tiki

  21. Another thing you only lightly touch on is the return on investment. After the initial outlay of capital for creation the of game the company will then reduce the staff or move them to new projects. They pay upkeep on the servers and a small develoment staff to create steady, but small, amounts of new content. So the longer the project runs successfully the more money it will generally make.

  22. I’m in the DCUO Beta right now and I’m questioning whether or not I’ll still be playing the game come January. It’s fun, but hasn’t lived up to my expectations. A lifetime pricing plan for the PS3, I’d be more likely to dive in completely.

  23. Playing the beta myself and as of a few days ago pre-ordered the game. There are things that are not up to standard yet but there are also some that are way above standards. I think they are doing something right here, and couldn’t be more excited to be playing in the DCU instead of Champions, Warcraft, Warhammer etc etc. Bottom line, it’s a fun game that reminds you more of Arkham Asylum than anything else. 🙂

  24. All the hype you expressed about the prospects of success for this game were said 3-fold for Star Trek Online. Look how that turned out. DCU’s highest subscriber base will be 250K and plummet from there, like 90% of non-WoW MMOs. Sorry, that’s the market.

  25. The difference between STO and DCUO is that STO was done horribly wrong and DCUO is done at least somehow right. It could be that hardcore MMO’s gamers will shun DCUO because of the “missing depth” of the game mechanics and the more action oriented playing style and action gamers will shun DCUO because of the monthly fee. 

    But perhaps it will pull in a whole lot of new gamers that like a more casual playstyle. 

  26. I’m in the beta & even though I was worried about this game at first.  I can say its the best MMO & best Superhero game in general I’ve played.

  27. no xbox 360 ever?  no mac- only pc?

    i am 0 for 2 

  28. The one thing that I question WB in regards to DCUo is putting it on a gaming console. I understand the mass appeal of being on the Playstations but if you have played these mmorpg games in the past, anyone on a computer will have a distinct advantage over players who are not.

    The Tiki

  29. I hear good stuff about it, but if it turns out to be another WOW I’m going to be seriously disappointed, and walk right back to Mutants and Masterminds.

  30. What strikes me is the potential for cross advertising. There’s already a bi-weekly comic solicited, and it ought to have virtual do-dad redemption codes for in-game stuff.

  31. @Tiki: It is not a MMORPG in a more traditional sense, it hase MMORPG elements but playes like an action game. It fits very well on the PS3. Besides, you cannot play PS3 against PC, the servers are different for each client.

    @Mangaman: It is not another WoW, it’s much more action oriented and the quests and storys are presented to you with voiceovers as you play. You are much more imersed in the world.  

  32. Having worked in he MMO field, I would say that DCUO has an uphill battle. It went into development in 2005, when the traditional subscription MMO outlook looked extremely bright after the success of WoW. However, MMOs live by the function of churn. In most cases, more than half of subscribers drop off after the free month. However, recently the numbers have been less promising. Star Trek Online, Warhammer Online and Age of Conan all sold between 750K and a million boxes, but their subscriptions all dropped to 10-20 percent of that within the first year. None of these were particularly bad games, but clearly the value proposition didn’t match the subscription fee for most players.

    The $199 lifetime subscription is interesting because the lifespan for the average MMO player is under 10 months. The $199 price point squeezes some extra dollars out of a percentage of them, while also increasing their likelihood to buy future expansions and keeping them a part of the potential buying pool for virtual goods.

    I’d predict that DCUO will sell a million copies in two months and be at around 300K subscribers inside of six months, with fifty thousand of them having purchased the lifeime package. If 300K matches the expectations of Sony/DC management, there will be an expansion within a year at $40 (which 80 percent of subscribers typically purchase. Expansions also bring in a small shot of new subscribers).

    Not to make this a competition, but I’d actually expect Marvel Super Hero Squad Online to do a bit better (and I say that as a DC fan). It is a more casual, all ages game. While all ages and casual might not be good things in the comics market, they are excellent in games. I expect MSSO to cost less to develop and launch at a lower price and subscription point, buoyed by virtual goods. In business terms, it will resemble Farmville more than it does WoW.

  33. I have played (Heavily), Ultima Online, Guild Wars, and WoW. All in the past. End game content just does not hold me. What I will do with DC is to play 6 months, and then if I think I will be playing it a long time, I will get the lifetime deal.

  34. @Moonie: Your numbers in regard to DCUO are to high. AoC and WAR sold so well because both are well known IP’s in europe, besides beeing knon in NA. DC Comics are not really known over here (Except for Superman and Batman). I’m guessing more around 600.000 to 700.000 initial sales and a slower but deeper drop. The only thing that could keep DCUO running more smoothly would be something like bi-monthly “episodes” where you can do some new quests with a storyline.