The Inexorable Decline of World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft's precipitous subscriber declines continue.

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Blizzard

Blizzard’s turning heads that probably shouldn’t be turning today off news that World of Warcraft — the most successful online roleplaying game in history — lost 14% of its subscriber base over the past three months. Make that 1.3 million players.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Even with that sharp drop, the not-so-little fantasy MMO that could still has over eight million subscribers worldwide; most MMOs these days, say Star Wars: The Old Republic, are lucky to swing a million. With the next expansion possibly coming later this year (and surely by the next), it’ll surely make its historic 10-year anniversary (November 2014) intact.

Still, at its peak, WoW could lay claim to stratospheric subscriber numbers: 12 million back in October 2010 (oh heady days). By August 2011, however, that figure had fallen back to just over 11 million, and in November 2011, it fell again to just over 10 million. At roughly 8 million after this latest plunge, we’re talking a 25% slide down from the mountaintop, and — this is important — one that’s occurred despite Blizzard’s attempts to rally players with WoW‘s third and fourth expansions, released in December 2010 and September 2012 respectively.

Blizzard hasn’t announced what comes next, though Activision CEO Bobby Kotick said the game still had “long-term value” during an earnings call this week (via Seeking Alpha):

It’s important to note that the nature of online games has changed, and with the environment becoming far more competitive, especially with free-to-play games. To address this, we’re working to release new content more frequently to keep our players engaged longer and make it easier for lapsed players to come back into the game. We believe in the long-term value of this franchise and will continue to commit substantial resources to World of Warcraft.

Noting that any game has a shelf life is a little like trend-watching seasons or sunspot cycles, so let’s focus on the less obvious stuff, like that a significant portion of WoW‘s subscriber base has been in the East, and that a substantial portion (“a majority,” says Blizzard) of the 1.3 million subscribers just lost are of that demographic (the BBC reads this as a failure on Blizzard’s part to appeal to that market with recent game upgrades). Activision’s also saying to expect “further volatility” (read: subscriber base erosion) because of market competition and the time between expansions. Kotick noted the next content update, though not an expansion, arrives later this month.

Part of Kotick’s strategy to reinvigorate WoW involves somehow wooing lapsed subscribers, who, like me, tend to come and go, signing up to play for a bit when something new comes along, then hopping off the wagon for months or years at a time. To remedy this, says Kotick

…we’re examining ways we can ease the transition back into the game for returning players. We’ve always seen players come and go from World of Warcraft. Smoothing out that transitional period is something we’re studying, as we adjust our approach to player behavior and preferences.

Three words: seeing is believing, or these four: easier said than done. You don’t often encounter the analogy, but sometimes I wonder if Blizzard hoped WoW might become a kind of online Disneyworld, an exemplar fantasy-verse players could sign up to ride the rides and see the sights indefinitely. And yet the game lives on a platform in slow decline, one that faces increasingly stiff competition from tablets and other mobile devices. It’s practically impossible to know how much of this rapid platform shift accounts for WoW‘s subscription declines, here or elsewhere, but whatever the company’s next MMO (codenamed “Project Titan”) — “World of Warcraft 2″ or “World of StarCraft” or something completely new — it almost certainly won’t be PC-only.