World of Warcraft subscriptions keep dropping

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Publisher: FilePlaza

Date added: 17 Nov 2011

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The game that took the MMORPG genre to unseen levels of popularity is starting to show some cracks. It seems that, after almost 7 years, some players have had enough ofthe world of Azeroth

All that goes up, has to come down (unless it’s a gravity-defying entity or Tom Jones career), so nobody can say it’s a shocker to learn that World of Warcraft has been suffering a significant decline in its number of subscribers for about a year. Once (and still) the king of all MMORPG, WoW subscriptions appear to have peaked last year and, in spite of all Blizzard’s efforts, they are diving steadily.

Not-so-happy birthday

Just a few weeks away from WoW’s seventh year since its release, news from players abandoning the game continue to put Blizzard’s developers on alert. Past August, the company had announced that the number of subscriptions had dropped to 11.1 million from the 12 million peak it had reached in October 2010.

Already an important plunge, the fall didn’t stop there and, as of today, the game totals 10.3 million members, which means that Wow has lost almost 800,000 subscribers in the last quarter alone. It’s not hard to read between the lines here: WoW’s fate is written on the wall and it isn’t pretty.

Why? Chronicle of a doom foretold

Even the biggest games in history are eventually replaced by newer, fresher and more challenging titles. And it’s quite unlikely that WoW will become the first and only exception. After a good 6-year run, Blizzard is witnessing the beginning of the end for one of its flagship products. But, why?

According to Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime (via Gamasutra) the majority of the cancelled subs comes from the East, where the players are supposedly jumping to other free-to-play titles. However, the decline doesn’t seem to upset him in the very least, since he stressed the fact that the game “remains by far the most popular subscription-based MMO in the world.”

But reasons for this dive go far beyond players from the East leaving the game. The drop has more to do with the lack of novelties and, most importantly, the subscription-based model that helped turn the game into the behemoth it is today.

Strategies for the comeback


“We know there are improvements that we can make in game content” said Morhaime and they surely can. What he doesn’t say but it’s implied all over the place is that doing so won’t guarantee an increase in the number of subscriptions.

Let’s take a closer look to what happened when the last major update for the game was released. Cataclysm meant the return of many veteran gamers who re-upped their accounts but quickly left after they got bored with the new features. And there’s no evidence to predict that this won’t happen again. In fact, there’s no evidence to support the theory that veteran players will return to the game at all, since many of them might have moved on to other titles by now.

Anyway, Blizzard is choosing to ignore this and keeps choosing the optimistic point of view. That’s why they’re releasing a new patch labeled “4.3 Transmogrification, which will bring some of the “new content” Morhaime talks about. This upgrade is expected to keep the current member base hooked on the game while the next major release, Mists of Pandaria, is developed and finally launched.

But that isn’t the only strategy designed by Blizzard to engage new and/or returning subscribers. The main one is far more attractive, although its appeal has more to do with another smash hit from the company: the player that decided to sign up for WoW’s Annual pass will get a free digital copy of Diablo III. It’s not a bad offer but I’m sure that people that are attracted by it are more interested in the upcoming installment of the action/RPG.

The problem with the business model

Why do I think that all of Blizzard efforts to save WoW will go down the drain? There are several factors at stake here: a repetitive formula, new contents that are less and less surprising and almost ridiculous (a panda race, really?) but, above all, a business model that is dying, leaving room for another ways to make money off of MMORPGs.

I’m talking about the free-to-play model, which has been successfully incorporated in excellent titles like The Lord of the Rings Online, DC Universe Online, City of Heroes and Dungeons & Dragons Online, to name a few. Players are definitely going to use games with the F2P model and those engaged enough will buy the in-game items or will eat up the ads that will provide the necessary revenue to keep everyone happy.

The trend to integrate F2P models into the genre is resulting in players getting used to not paying for playing online games, which is a perfect explanation for WoW’s decrease in its members.

Surely Blizzard is aware of this and the reasons for the company refusing to incorporate such business model may be various, although the most solid one seems to be that the game still has 10 million people paying for a subscription. Until that number drops almost catastrophically, the company won’t even think about a major change like that in one of its biggest titles.

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