I recently read, on a mailing list populated by astonishingly clever people, an assertion that will no doubt strike a lot of you as astonishingly misinformed: "Almost 100 percent" of online worlds, the writer claimed, are created in the United States. To which, you might think, a hearty "Not!" would have been sufficient reply, but being the inveterate statistics geek I am, I felt compelled to offer a more numerically precise rejoinder, and after an hour or two of data sifting I had my answer:
It's more like 61.5 percent, actually. At most.
Like all the best statistics, of course, this is a highly debatable number, contingent on data that are themselves a morass of contingencies. But in this case I've drawn my figures from the most reliable source we have (alas): Bruce Sterling Woodcock's in-depth but incomplete MMOGCHART.COM, an informal industry survey whose roster of commercial MMO titles, though last updated in mid 2006, is about as comprehensive as it gets. And though Sir Bruce doesn't break the list down by nation of origin, a little follow-up research on Wikipedia et al. was enough to do the job: Of the 39 titles on the list (not counting sequels), 24 -- or 61.538% -- were developed by U.S. companies.
There are other ways to slice it of course. If you leave out U.S. games with non-U.S. publishers (France's Vivendi and Ubisoft, for instance, market several U.S.-made MMOs, as does Korea's NCSoft), the number of red-white-and-blue titles goes down to 17, or less than 45%.
And none of these numbers tell us anything about the relative market presence of U.S.-made games. If you look at the market-share chart for subscription-based MMOs, you see World of Warcraft (a Franco-U.S. production) with a crushing 52.9%. But even with WoW pulling that much weight, U.S.-made games get only 61.3% of the market. Games developed in Korea, the U.K., Japan, Iceland, and France get 34.3% (with the remaining 3.3% swept into an unalyzable "All others" category).
And remember that this is only subscription-based games. There is a hugely popular class of Asian MMOs that get their revenues from item sales and so forth, and Sir Bruce lists them separately, since it's hard to compare 'active subscribers' to the 'average concurrent users' figure typically used to measure these games. But back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that adding these games in to the mix would create a picture in which U.S. MMOs' market share is considerably less than 50%.
Keep in mind, too, that Sir Bruce, for whatever reason, doesn't even mention several very popular online game worlds aimed at children or teens, such as Neopets, Club Penguin, and Habbo Hotel. These three come off the top of my head, and their creators are, respectively, British, Canadian, and Finnish.
But finally, lest all you non-quants out there think I've gone irrevocably over to the dark side, let me add that I'm aware there are other ways of thinking about American dominance of the MMO space. Made by Americans or not, it might be argued, the vast majority of online games are modeled on games of American origin, shot through with U.S.-inflected cultural types and tropes.
To which I can only say: Whatever. Even ignoring the heavily Asian mythoi of a lot of the new Korean and Chinese games, and even granting that the "mainstream" of MMO history may be dominated by American games like Ultima Online and EverQuest, that history passes inevitably through the primeval choke points of MUD1 and Dungeons and Dragons, the one a British product to the bone, the other created by American wargamers obsessed with the works of the most vigorous literary avatar of Englishness since Kipling -- J.R.R. Tolkien.
But I digress, and sometimes it really is better to let the numbers speak for themselves.