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Five Pointed Questions About World of Warcraft

Richard Aihoshi Posted:
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It would be difficult if not impossible to build any kind of reasonable case that World of Warcraft isn't the most influential MMORPG ever. As it approaches it eleventh anniversary this November, it can lay claim to some truly enormous numbers. For example, in 2012, it reportedly surpassed $10 billion in total gross revenue. Last year, it reached 100 million accounts created. That said, despite having aged pretty gracefully, it's no longer the dominant force it once was in the category.

Earlier this summer, Activision Blizzard revealed that in Q2, the title's global “subscriber” count fell to 5.6 million. This is still a lot of people, but perhaps not as many as some might think since it uses the company's generous definition, one that includes not just users who have paid a monthly fee but also game room players who have logged in during the past 30 days as well as holders of active time cards. It's also the lowest figure since late 2005, and less than half of the 12 million all-time peak that WoW reached in 2010. Not that in the rest of this column, I will use quotation marks (i.e. “subscriber”) to refer to the company's definition of the term, while not using them will refer to paying by the month.

To put this in a more recent perspective, it's also down 44 percent since Q4 of last year when the player numbers spiked up from about 7.4 million to 10 million due to the release of Warlords of Draenor. This can be explained, but it should be noted that none of the prior expansions had exhibited a similar rapid rise or decline. In any case, since these figures came to light, I've been wondering about a number of things.

How many monthly-fee subscribers does WoW still have?

The Chinese version of game launched in the summer of 2005. According to then regional operator The9, it was a hit right away, accumulating well over a million players within its first month. Basically, none of them paid by the month, and rather than differentiate, Blizzard opted to create and use its own definition of “subscriber” so as to be able to state a single, higher figure. And who's to say it was a poor decision? It allowed people who didn't read the fine print to think the game was even more monstrous than it actually was.

Over the years, some information has come to light as to how many WoW players were paying the monthly fee. Since I've not seen anything particularly current, I'll guess that the split is still in the same ballpark. If so, it seems likely that, as a best guess, between 40 and 45 percent of the above-noted 5.6 million users pay by the month. That would be in the range of 2.24 to 2.52 million. Any such total is clearly more than high enough for Blizzard's offering to remain the unchallenged leader in the monthly-pay segment. However, especially considering how its numbers have fallen off since 2011 and in the short time since WoD, there is room to wonder if we might see a new leader before too many more years have passed.

How well will WoW's “subscriber” count hold up?

As noted, WoW's “subscriber” numbers behaved very differently for WoD than for any of the other expansions.

  • Burning Crusade: 8 million before release, 8.5 million right after then continued to climb, peaked at 11 million
  • Wrath of the Lich King: 11 million before, 11.5 million right after then grew slowly, peaked at 12 million
  • Cataclysm: 12 million before, 12 million right after, dropped to 9.1 million
  • Mists of Pandaria: 9.1 million before, 10 million right after, dropped to 6.8 million then rose to 7.4 million
  • Warlords of Draenor: 7.4 million before, 10 million right after dropped to 7.1 million then 5.6 million in just six months

It's clear that although WoD brought back a huge number of players soon before and upon release, their interest was quite short-lived. If you graph Blizzard's reported figures for the past few years, you can easily see that the Q2 one of 5.6 million puts WoW right back on the downward curve it has been following since Cataclysm went live. We all know, of course that Legion was announced a few weeks ago. At the time, it was projected to enter beta by the end of this year. However, based on the studio's record in this area, the likelihood of meeting this date can be questioned.

There's also the matter of when the expansion will launch. Assuming Blizzard's brain trust doesn't go to a smaller format, my guess would be no earlier than the middle of next year, and if I had to bet, I'd put my money on later than that. Even if it does enter service in the summer, we're looking at the best part of a year. If the game's “subscriber” count stays on its curve from the past four years, it will be in the neighborhood of “only” four million by then. That could potentially mean well under 2 million paying by the month.

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Richard Aihoshi

Richard Aihoshi / Richard Aihoshi has been writing about the MMOG industry since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. He has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.