The Economics of WoW
This section is completely optional. While I was doing the research when getting ready to write this, I came to the realization of just how big of a monetary vehicle World of Warcraft is. I found it surprising, but it's not pertinent to whether or not to let your child play this game. It does illustrate that Blizzard has every reason to make WoW an enjoyable experience for all the players it can draw in, and as a parent, you can take some comfort in that.
I mentioned the sheer number of people playing WoW to give a sense of the magnitude the game has on the real world. Besides the numbers that play, it's astonishing the amount of money generated by this game. This section was written when WoW was at it's peak of 12-13 million subscribers. It's now estimated to be around 7 million, so take about 60% of the numbers below. I left the original because that was the most impactful.
Not all of the 12-13 million subscribers pay $15/month. China subscribers, for example, pay with either a prepaid game card or something like prepaid gaming points at a rate of about 6 cents/hour. The players in China also don't have to buy the boxed copy of the game initially, which is a savings of $70 over US players who must buy the original game and expansion(s). The recently released Russian version of WoW costs 359 rubles/month according to an article from gamertell.com, which is about $12/month. If we assume the active player base at 12 million and that the percentage of players playing on US servers (who may or may not actually be in the US, but are paying US prices) is about 75% of the total and the other 25% pay 2/3 of what US players pay monthly (just a wild guess), we have (12m x .75 x $15/month) + (12m + .25 + (2/3 x 15/month)) = 9,000,000 x $15/month + 3,000,000 x $10/month = $165,000,000/month or $1,980,000,000/year. That's right. The game could well be making in the neighborhood of 2 billion dollars a year before expenses. It's not just a game; it's an industry.
There are some serious expenses to be sure. Blizzard, the owner and developer of the WoW franchise, is very serious about their commitment to WoW. This wow.com article covers a talk given by Frank Pearce and J. Allen Brack at the Austin Game Developers Conference (AGDC) in September 2009. Pearce is the Executive Vice President of Blizzard, and Brack is the Production Director. They mention that there are around 4,600 full time employees charged with making World of Warcraft run and for expanding the game. This number includes everything from game masters who handle player problems on a day-to-day basis to billing to game designers who write the new game content and mechanics as well as maintaining the existing 5.5 million lines of code.
Add to the expense, the hardware required to support 12+ million subscribers. Each player logs in to one of the World of Warcraft servers. (They may even have different characters on different servers.) Each server or "realm" as it is called in WoW is housed in one of Blizzard's (or Blizzard's partner's) data centers around the world. The wowwiki.com Realms List is an unofficial list of existing realms and the data centers they are housed in. While it's not official, I've found everything to be quite accurate at least for the US Realm Server List by Datacenter. I've tried to satisfy my curiosity about just what kind of hardware makes up a server, but I've never found the particulars. The closest thing I've found to date is a short list of numbers also from the above AGDC keynote. In total, there are 20,000 computer systems, 13,250 server blades, 75,000 CPU cores, 112 TB of RAM and 1.3 petabytes of storage. I'm certain that none of those computer systems are low-cost. In addition to the servers, every one of the 4600 employees needs at least one desktop PC with one or more monitors for their day-to-day work. With that number of PCs, there needs to be a group that manages the maintenance of them.
I find the reality, the substance, the extent of effort it takes to bring WoW to the community a staggering thing. The whole point of this section is just to impress upon you that World of Warcraft is more than just a game played by a lot of people. It has true economic weight that needs to be understood. This could be viewed as either a good or a bad thing. It's good because Blizzard will do all they can to insure WoW continues to provide the income they have come to depend on. Any factors that would upset that flow - people trying to scam or steal accounts (hackers) or make real money from the game (gold farmers) - are pursued very vigorously.