More than 1 billion people play online games in 2008

Someone asked me:

How many people play online games globally in 2008?

A simple answer

…and with a quick mental calculation I estimated 1 billion *unique registered accounts*. (I’ve been tracking and calculating this stuff a lot recently). That wasn’t good enough – they wanted something to put in a press release, so they wanted a methodology and verifiable data.

So, I went and did the calculations properly, and found:

There are approximately 1.5 billion unique registered accounts (virtual players) of online games around the world in 2008.

They still needed to see the methodology and the figures, of course … here goes!

Some … wrong … answers

Someone at Techcrunch claimed last year that “217 Million People Play Online Games”, by misusing the research that they were referring to. You only have to follow the link to the *press release* of the actual research to see how wrong that is.

The research merely claimed that 217 million people visit a selection of American and European websites that have content that talks about online games, and which *in some cases* actually have some web-games on their site.

The majority of online games were not included in the research. The figure isn’t particularly useful on its own.

A simple question?

The first thing to realise is that there’s no sensible way of answering the question literally. A couple of years ago, Raph Koster did an updated version of the explanation for this problem (it needs updating again by now to take account of how the industry has continued to evolve since he wrote that last version). If you haven’t read it, and want to understand the details of why people argue this stuff endlessly, go have a quick look at his post.

But there is a sensible way we can re-phrase the question to become one that we CAN answer:

How many unique virtual identities are there that are playing online games this month?

Virtual Identity … what? No, that’s not what I wanted to know about

Actually, maybe it *is* what you wanted to know about.

In the real world, we never actually count people for anything (except if we’re physically smuggling them past Border Control, I guess); instead, we count Identities: verifiably unique records that each correspond to no more than one person.

In the real world, one ID does not equal one physical person, even though it is “approximately” that way (bear in mind that even governments have so far proved incapable of legislating + enforcing that concept, despite having tried for the last few thousand years).

In the online world, the concept of Identity is abstracted. This is all the fault of “computers” and especially “programmers” and “database vendors”, who couldn’t cope with the amount of info required to fully represent a single Identity (and as time went on many realised that they did not want to). They cheated. And so, from the earliest days of the internet (and before – back in the days of BBS’s), everyone has had multiple ID’s.

On average, each of you reading this probably has something like 200-300 separate online identities. On average, each of you reading this probably BELIEVES you have something like 2-3 separate online identities. Factor of 100 difference (have fun counting them…).

Those virtual identities are the lifeblood of online services. They are countable, they are serviceable – and they are uniquely and individually chargeable (even when several of these identities may represent just one real-world human: if the identities are separate, then you can charge multiple times, and many people really do willingly pay several times over!)

Many of those identities are “inactive”, and unlike people, the corpses of Virtual Identities do not naturally rot and disappear, they live forever – and can be brought back to life at any moment by the owners. They’re all real – they are still verifiably there – so for now we’re going to count all of them.

(personally I prefer counting “active identities within the past month”, but more on that in a later post. Counting in billions is fun for now…)

How many virtual identities play online games?

Start with the big guns, going from their own official announcements.

Individual games: 400m

Kart Rider = 160 million
Habbo Hotel = 100 million
Neopets = 65 million
Maple Story = 57 million
Club Penguin = 20 million
Runescape = 10 million

+ others I didn’t bother looking up

Subtotal: 412m

Publishers who declare registered directly: 1200m (or 800m)

Then add in the big publishers, going from their official announcements

9You = 120m
Acclaim = 3m
Bigpoint = 30m
CDC Games = 140m
CJ Internet = 23m
Disney = 12m
Gameforge = 60m
Gamania = 10m
GigaMedia = 9m
Gpotato = 2m
HanbitSoft = 8m
K2 Network = 16m
Mattel = 11m
Moliyo = 7m
NCsoft = 2m
NeoWiz = 7.5m
Shanda = 700m (*)

(*) (note: using the active and paying ratios below, this would be approx 150m or 300m, which is such a huge difference (and stands out as massively anomalous compared to industry standard – even for other Chinese operators) that I’m going to treat it with extreme suspicion and go with 300m instead)

Subtotal: 1158m (or approx 800m if we downgrade Shanda by 400m)

Publishers who declare active or paying: 100m

Then add in the big publishers who declare “active” or “paying” accounts instead of “registered”:

As well as just general industry knowledge on this stuff, I have official figures from half a dozen publishers that let me calculate Registered:active or Registered:Paying ratios, so from averaging those I get conservative multipliers of approx:

Registered / Active = 4
Registered / Paying = 40

Gaia = 24m (6m active)
Giant Interactive = 68m (1.7m paying)
NetDragon = 14m (3.5m active)

Subtotal: 106m

Facebook + Web gaming = 200m

Then look at the big Facebook games-publishers, and the online gaming sites from the comScore study:

Yahoo Games = 53m
MSN Games = 40m
Miniclip = 30m
EA Online (inc. POGO ?) = 21m
SGN = 40m
Zynga = 55m

Others (from comScore report) = 78m

Subtotal: 173m

Final tally

There are approximately 1.5 billion registered identities in online games in 2008

How many “real people” is that? Well, as noted above, the percent of registered accounts that are active is around 25%, so I would guesstimate (really really rough figures now!):

There are approximately 375 million people in the world who play online games.

The theoretical current maximum playerbase for a subscription MMO would be somewhere in between those two figures (plenty of people pay for 2, 3 – or as many as 10 – accounts, as Raph noted).

The theoretical current maximum playerbase for an F2P game would be the bigger of the two figures, obviously.

WoW (World of Warcraft) still has a long way to go, people…

Exclusions – what did I miss?

There are plenty of operators that are not counted in the above which run games in countries not often associated with online gaming (e.g. Vietnam, Russia, etc) – and yet their figures are significant (I’ve been tracking them for a while and they’re growing very fast).

I didn’t bother including them because even in aggregate right now they probably wouldn’t be able to shift that 1.5b figure any higher.

There are also some who are using a combined service only part of which is games, e.g.

Tencent = 350m users of the IM client which integrates many online games

…which I haven’t included at all. Feel free to take my headline figure and add that on! (and add back in the 400m accounts from Shanda that I discounted / didn’t believe)

11 thoughts on “More than 1 billion people play online games in 2008

  1. Thom

    Impressive and interesting stuff—but, while the number is undoubtedly huge, isn’t there a rather hazy gulf between the hard data on active registered identities (375m), and the number of individual people behind these (???m)—because we have little information on how many people have several active accounts with several games. For FTP games, it’s fairly likely that the kind of people who are consistently active on one game are playing at least one other, perhaps more. In this sense, paid-for games are a more reliable model: barriers to entry are higher, but far fewer people have multiple active accounts.

    Nevertheless—fascinating stuff.

  2. adam Post author

    Well, my point is that this doesn’t matter – you never monetize a person, you only ever monetize a virtual identity.

    Frankly, why should we care how many real people are involved? Whether one identity is more or less likely to also play other games is something we should be establishing independently as part of our demographic modelling in our own game – it varies hugely from genre to genre and game to game anyway, so why worry about the difference between humans doing this and virtual identities doing this?

  3. mattb

    Well, we may not care as developers or entrepreneurs about the numbers of actual people….. but it sure would make for some good armchair social science.

  4. Ted Howard

    I’m really just putting in a plug here for Kim Cameron, one of Microsoft’s identity gurus. Until I met Kim, I didn’t understand the intricacies of identity systems. Simply counting people and identities is the tip of the iceberg in understanding the full topic. For anyone interested in learning more about “identity” as it relates to computers, I recommend starting with Kim’s proposed Laws of Identity (

    Loving the posts, Adam.

    Ted Howard

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  8. Jussi Laakkonen

    Great stuff Adam (as always ;-)). It’s superb to see how you arrived at the conclusion, which pretty much the same figure the European Network and Information Security Agency’s task group on Virtual Worlds also came up:

    — clip —

    The European agency counts 1 billion registered users for MMOGs and virtual worlds, racking up real-money transactions for virtual goods at $2 billion by the end of 2007. A 1,500-person survey in the report, though, found that 30% of users had lost virtual property due to some form of fraud.

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