MMORPG companies are pretty notorious for never releasing statistics unless said numbers can be spun in a way that makes their product look good. As Mark Jacobs once put it, if the numbers are good, you release them.
For instance, Blizzard will happily mention that WoW has 11.5 million active players, but will never provide the breakdown of what portion of those players are located in Western markets that actually pay the full subscription fee. Funcom didn't release any subscriber retention figures for Age of Conan at all, they just yanked down more than half of their servers, suggesting that the numbers weren't all that good.
(Alternately, you can do what Turbine does, namely:
1. Release the number of characters created - yes, that number includes alts, characters on accounts that have since been canceled, and may or may not include characters from the FREE open beta
2. Hope some incompetent journalist thinks they can draw a line between that lone, misleading number and the number of unique accounts paying $15 a month
3. Sit back and whistle innocently about how you can't comment on the obviously inaccurate figures being posted in the press because you don't discuss numbers.)
Anyway, Mythic has chosen to release some numbers on faction population balance, a topic I discussed back in the days when the game wasn't out and us blog-types had nothing better to do then speculate on what would happen when it came out. What can we learn from the numbers?
The closest to a hard number we get is for the server Monolith, described as having "the most noticeable population Faction difference", which is an "accounts active per faction" ratio of 44% order to 56% destruction. (In all fairness, I don't recall Blizzard ever releasing anything even this detailed for Alliance/Horde splits.) A few brief caveats apply. Mythic is defining "active" as "players who are currently gaining Experience and/or Renown Points". Also, players more familiar with WoW server rules should be aware that ALL Warhammer servers are one faction per server, so it's completely unambiguous whether an account is Order, Destruction, or Neither for a given server.
In practical terms, a 44:56 ratio would mean that, if 100 players showed up to a battle, Destruction would outnumber Order by 12 players, or two full 6-player groups. That's not bad for the worst server on the block, though it might still be enough to leave Order on the defensive nigh continuously. Unfortunately, the crucial second piece of the puzzle is the average number of player hours per account.
Let's say that a large number of the Order players are actually alts of Destruction players from other servers, who picked Monolith because the server select screen desperately requested that they do so. Those players might not show up for our hypothetical battle because they're off on their mains. There's also an underlying assumption that player faction choice is independent of player dedication - if more competitive players are choosing Order to get away from the incompetent unwashed masses playing on the Destruction side, for example, the trend could be dead even, as a smaller proportion of the total players who play Destruction might be online at any given time.
If that number looks murky, don't even bother with the reported 49/51 split for "accounts active per server" averaged across all US servers. We don't even know what that number is measuring. Does an account with an Order main on one server and Destruction alts on two other servers get counted once for Order (most /played), once for Destruction (more servers with active characters), once for Order and twice for Destruction (one point for each active server - I'm guessing this is the answer based on the post) or by some other method?
The other half of the numbers are a bunch of figures showing that Mythic has managed to balance things so that - both for the average and for the worst case server - the rates of exp/time are dead even. (On Monolith, the average exp/rp per character is slightly higher for Order, which may suggest a smaller number of more dedicated players, but the rate of exp gain over time is still even.)
This is one issue that I was a bit worried about - in WoW PVP, you really don't get much in the way of rewards if your side loses - and it's good to see that Mythic has managed to keep it from becoming a problem. Perhaps the game's much-maligned open-RVR-killing scenarios are saving the day by providing the out-numbered faction a safe haven in which they can continue to level and get all of the various good progress-related things that players of MMORPG's expect to be able to get as they play. Perhaps there's something else at work - between open-RVR influence and other changes that have gone into the game during the time since it's launch, I'm not 100% qualified to say whether Mythic has come up with some other means of helping the out-numbered side keep up. Either way, it's a good number.
What numbers should we see?
In the end, companies don't like to release these numbers because they don't want to reinforce any negative perceptions in the community. In Mythic's case, I'm sure that the churn rates for the game's first two months were not pretty. Reinforcing the idea that the game was not yet ready for prime time with a number that said that a majority of its players had left might have been a bad idea. Likewise, some players won't want to play on low population servers/factions for fear of not being able to find people to play with. Then again, refusal to disclose numbers, be they subscriber numbers or population balance numbers, can paint the devs into a corner.
For example, by many accounts, it sounds like the game desperately needed server merges to get enough players onto the same server to have real RVR battles. Unfortunately, server merges generate bad press by implying to the outside world that the server populations are low. (The inside world already knows that the population is low because they have a battle and no one shows up.) Instead, Mythic had to roll out a system that said "we really should be merging your server, but we don't want to be seen as the ones pulling the trigger, so here's a transfer tool". As I've noted previously, they're allowing inactive accounts to take part in server non-merge transfers, and Stargrace recently resubscribed to Warhammer only to be encouraged to leave her server before she even zoned into the game, presumably because its population was so low that Mythic did not feel it could be saved by encouraging new players to roll on that server.
Likewise, there is much speculation within the Warhammer community that, with many players having finished much of the WoW expansion, and with Mythic's efforts to add much-needed improvements to various parts of the game over the four months since it came out, the time is ripe for players to return. If this improvement to subscriber numbers does materialize, though, no one will know about it, because we don't know what the numbers were before things improved. (Mark Jacobs may actually have come around to this view of thinking, as he implies that EA will be releasing some figures at their next earnings call.)
In the end, numbers are just measures of reality. You might think you're doing yourself a favor by conceling the fact that half your servers are underpopulated, but it comes back to bite you in the rear end when new players blunder into a server, not knowing that it's deserted, don't find the level of community they want, and quit (in the process, missing out on your game). If things are bad, your problem is that things are bad, not the crippling fear that people might FIND OUT that things are bad. In an online world, they probably already know.
P.S. If anyone is looking to release more usage statistics to flesh out a post like the one Mythic put in their Herald post, the number I'd love to see is median hours /played per account (per week or whatever time unit you use). That plus the percentage Mythic did release, would probably have cleared up all the questions I asked. Thanks! ;)