Having amassed over $10 billion as of July 2012, World of Warcraft is the highest grossing video game of all time. Over the course of the game’s 10+ year lifespan, players have created more than 100 million World of Warcraft accounts, and in November 2014, the MMORPG boasted more than 10 million subscribers. For years, WoW has been the bar by which all other MMOs are measured. But now, more than a decade on, World of Warcraft is starting to show its age… at least a little.
For one, World of Warcraft’s business model is a relic of a different time and a very different gaming marketplace. For most MMOs, the monthly subscription fee has gone the way of the dodo, but World of Warcraft persists as one of the few major MMOs that still hasn’t made the transition to free-to-play, buy-to-play, or freemium. While developer Blizzard may never entirely abandon World of Warcraft’s subscription-based revenue stream, the company’s monetization scheme is starting to show its flaws. Quite simply, World of Warcraft subscription numbers are dropping, and they’re dropping quickly.
Activision Blizzard updated shareholders on the state of its finances during an earnings call on Wednesday, and chief among the revelations was the news that World of Warcraft has lost nearly three million subscribers in the past three months. As mentioned above, Blizzard had10 million World of Warcraft subscribers near the end of 2014, but for the quarter that ended on March 31, that number dropped to 7.1 million. A loss of 2.9 million subscribers would be a red flag in any situation, but it’s even more alarming given that the drop occurred over such a short span of time.
Activision Blizzard was quick to point out that, in spite of the losses, World of Warcraft remains the world’s top subscription-based MMO. While acknowledging that subscription-based MMOs are an increasingly rare beast, that’s still no small thing. Blizzard also suggested that the losses could be offset by increasing subscription costs in some regions, including the U.K.
The drop in subcriptions follows the release of Warcraft‘s latest expansion, Warlords of Draenor, which hit in November 2014, and which is credited for helping drive the subscriber base from 7.4 million to the aforementioned 10 million later that month. Draenor earned solid reviews and sold 3.3 million copies within its first 24 hours. However, MMO players have a tendency to grind through content quickly, so the vanishing 3 million subscribers could represent players who returned for the expansion, burned through the new stuff, and moved on to greener pastures.
Even with a smaller subscriber base, World of Warcraft remains the undisputed king of its genre, and its dominance doesn’t look like it’ll be threatened anytime soon. Still, the drop should remind gamers that, eventually, something will come along and capture World of Warcraft’s throne. It should be interesting to see how the MMO space evolves in the years to come. Other high-profile MMOs such as Star Wars: The Old Republic and The Elder Scrolls Online launched with monthly subscription fees, only to shift to other business models (freemium and buy-to-play, respectively). Will World of Warcraft eventually follow suit? Only time will tell.