WoW’s Subscriber Losses: Why Both the Haters and the Apologists Are Right

Well, here we are again. Blizzard has done their quarterly conference call and announced a massive drop in World of Warcraft’s subscription numbers. This time, it lost 800,000 subscribers, taking it down to 6.8 million subs globally.

Official logo for World of WarcraftWhenever this happens, everyone seems to divide themselves into one of two camps. One side does their best Chicken Little impressions, screaming “WoW is dying” from the rooftops. Others are quick to point out that this is still vastly more players than any other subscription MMO can boast, and they do their very best to make it seem as if everything is fine and dandy in Blizzard land.

They’re both right, and they’re both wrong.

The middle ground:

It is true that WoW is still one of the most successful MMOs on the market. It rakes in money hand over fist, and it has more subscribers than most MMO developers can dream of, even after recent losses.

WoW is only dying in the sense we all are. It’s in a state of slow decline that will eventually result in its demise. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon. The game is still very healthy, and we’re probably at least a decade away from it being at any serious risk of closure.

So in that sense, those who try to make these subscriber losses seem like no big deal are right. WoW is still an extremely successful game by absolutely any standard.

But that doesn’t mean losing so many subscriptions isn’t a big deal. They lost nearly a million players in three months. That’s a huge blow no matter how you choose to spin it.

A vision of Azeroth burning during the questline to acquire Dragonwrath, Tarecgosa's RestMore importantly, this is part of a trend that has been going on for years and shows no signs of letting up. WoW now has barely more than half the population it had at its peak. The last time it had this few subscribers, Burning Crusade hadn’t even been released yet.

It cannot be denied that these are major losses, and Blizzard would be incredibly foolish not to be concerned by them. So in that sense, the Chicken Littles do have a point. WoW may not be at any imminent risk of collapse, but it is taking a pretty brutal beating.

I hear a lot of people saying that WoW is still making “enough” money. And that’s quite true. It’s also completely irrelevant.

WoW continues to enjoy massive profits — they’re making more money than ever thanks to the ever-expanding cash shop and their account services. But imagine how much more they would be making with today’s cash shop and account services as well as the twelve million subscribers they had in Wrath of the Lich King.

There’s no such thing as “enough” money to a publicly traded corporation. That’s not how capitalism works. They always want to be making as much money as they possibly can. Even if they’re making up the profits in other ways, losing subscribers is still costing them money. That’s bad.

My rogue showing off her Fang of Oblivion transmog in World of WarcraftAs usual, the Internet fails to realize there’s a middle ground between the most extreme arguments. WoW is still popular, but it’s far less popular than it was.

So that brings us to the important question here: What is Blizzard going to do about these losses?

The consequences:

The discussion over subscriber losses would be largely academic, but inevitably, Blizzard must take action to combat these losses. And that’s why we should be concerned. Not because WoW is at any risk of imminent death, but because as the losses grow more severe, so too must their efforts to stem the tide of lost money.

We’ve already seen their solutions to the lost subscribers to date: They’ve simply tried to milk more money from the remaining players. It may be my imagination, but it seems the rate at which they’ve put out more mounts and pets for the cash shop has been increasing as of late. It’s sure not slowing down.

I don’t think anyone is particularly happy with this direction. At best, people tolerate it. I’m someone who prefers free to play and buy to play games, so I’m no stranger to cash shops, but I view micro-transactions as the lesser of two evils when compared with a mandatory subscription. I don’t actually enjoy them. I certainly don’t want a worst of both worlds game that requires a sub to play and pushes me towards the cash shop at every opportunity, which does seem to be where WoW is gradually heading.

A herd of macaroni dragonsThe need for continued revenue also impacts game design in a negative way. We’re all familiar with the ungodly daily grind during the first half of Mists of Pandaria, and I find it impossible to believe this was anything but a cash grab. Did anyone really think that spending a month grinding Golden Lotus reputation so you could spend a month grinding August Celestials reputation was good gameplay?

No, it was just an attempt to keep people subscribed longer.

I’m already hearing hints of similar things from Warlords of Draenor. Apparently a major feature of the endgame is story quests… that can only be completed once a week.

How much you want to bet none of the story arcs can be completed in less than a month?

Again, gating like this is nothing but a naked cash grab, at the expense of good gameplay. We can never know for sure why so many people are leaving the game, but for my part, I find forced tedium like this is one of the things driving me away from the game. It’s no less annoying and no less transparent than the way Neverwinter spams the entire server when someone gets a fancy mount from a lockbox.

WoW is now nearly as aggressive in its monetization as many of the greedier free to play games, but without the advantages of a low barrier to entry or being able to control how much you spend. At least in free to play games, you have the choice: pay, or grind. In WoW, you have to do both.

So we put some rep in your rep, so you can grind while you grind.On the other hand, as the hemorrhaging of subscribers continues, it becomes increasingly likely that Blizzard will take radical action to stem the bleeding. That could be very bad, but it could also be very good.

Of course, the possibility of WoW dropping the mandatory subscription is always on the table. This is what I hope for, and I do consider it an inevitability. The only question is when.

I could very well be wrong, but my prediction remains that WoW will become free to play or buy to play beginning with the expansion after Warlords of Draenor.

It’s important to remember that F2P/B2P isn’t necessarily the option of last resort any more. All that needs to happen is for someone at Blizzard to determine they’d make more by dropping the sub, which may not be that far off considering how the game is already leaning more and more on cash shop revenue.

Dropping the sub isn’t the only radical change they could make, though. They could also reexamine their model for delivering new content, because right now it seems like their current strategy isn’t working.

For three expansions in a row now, they have gone roughly a year without new content. Each time, they’ve sworn to do better next time. Each time, they’ve failed. Assuming rumours of an October release are true (and I certainly don’t think it will come any sooner), Warlords of Draenor will arrive after the longest content drought in WoW’s history. That’s despite the fact WoD is a very conservative expansion that has far less to offer than those before it.

A player garrison in World of Warcraft: Warlords of DraenorMost would agree that this most recent loss of subscribers is probably due to the months upon months without new content. Everyone would agree that there is no excuse to go that long without an update in a game that charges a monthly subscription just to play, especially considering that most other MMOs on the market do not charge a mandatory subscription and offer new content at a higher rate.

The Secret World, for instance, has a fraction of a fraction of WoW’s money and resources, but its longest content drought to date was only six months — and that’s if we don’t count an all new holiday event in the interim.

Hell, Guild Wars 2 updates every two weeks.

I don’t what’s going on behind the scenes at Blizzard, but it’s clear their current strategy for expansion releases is broken. I think it’s time to ask whether they should just stop releasing full expansion packs altogether.

Instead, they could just keep releasing more and more content patches. Smaller updates more often. Similar to the strategy used for Mists of Pandaria’s content patches, but on a larger scale.

* * *

Those are just some ideas for how Blizzard can stop the bleeding. I’m sure there are others I haven’t thought of. But we know they have to do something, and whatever they decide could make or break the game.

My warlock showing off her legendary cloak in World of WarcraftThat’s what we should be worried about. That’s why these subscriber losses are a relevant concern. WoW isn’t dying, but it does need a course correction, and what direction Blizzard chooses will have a dramatic impact on all of us who enjoy World of Warcraft.

4 thoughts on “WoW’s Subscriber Losses: Why Both the Haters and the Apologists Are Right

  1. The appearance of the cash shop button in-game was a huge turn-off for me. Like you say, they are trying to have it both ways. Mandatory sub plus in-your-face cash shop. I’m fine with $15 a month so long as part of the agreement is shielding me from the cash shop’s existence.

    It’s a decade-old game. Even with improvements to their programs, I can’t help but wonder if they simply cannot provide quicker content updates like its newer competitors. It’s safe to say they were not thinking about content update frequencies measured by weeks in 2004.

    • Not that I know jack about the technical side of game development, but I don’t think the age of the game is likely to be a major contributor to the slow rate of content release. For one thing, their fastest cadence of content release was in vanilla. It’s been getting slower since then.

      Plus, after ten years, you’d think all that practice and accrued experience would speed things along.

  2. Hehehe…you do know that the F2P psychology tricks are much more blatant and severe than the techniques implemented in WoW and a few other MMOs, right?
    Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, I give you Candy Crush.

    Other than that, I think you’re right although no one outside of Blizzard really knows what’s going on from the business end. We can only speculate and make guesses based on what happens with other current games.

    Would they really have to go there with WoW? Time will tell I suppose. They’ve already got the extremely popular F2P Hearthstone and that Heroes game. I wouldn’t exactly call Heroes F2P although I’m not sure what it would be called. I’m sure those games will make a ton of money – maybe even more than WoW brings in with the subscription loss. Hearthstone was reported to have over 10 million registered players in March 2014. Of course, we don’t know how many of them spent real money.

    Even with F2P you’re going to need X number of whales to make a profit and continue development. Ya still need someone to pay to support the game for all the “free” loaders (pun intended.) 😀

    Since I’ve only spent $2.99 on a Hearthstone deck during Beta to get the “special” card, I have to put myself in category of “free” loader. Thank you whales!

    I suppose it’s possible that one day people will realize that F2P isn’t free at all. Rumors are starting to circulate about a F2P backlash mostly attributed to the game developers shooting themselves in the foot.

    • Candy Crush isn’t an MMO. Apples and oranges.

      I think this may be why you and I can never seem to see eye to eye on this issue. You seem to be basing your opinion on the F2P model on mobile games and their ilk, and that’s just a completely different field from MMOs. They have a totally different take on the model.

      When I’m talking about free to play/buy to play, I’m only referring to MMOs and quasi-MMOs like MOBAs. There are bad apples in that field — like SW:TOR, and to a lesser extent Neverwinter — but there are a lot that are pretty decent to players.

      Everyone has a different idea of what is and isn’t acceptable to be charged for. I don’t think any business model can be evaluated 100% objectively. But I definitely don’t think one can reasonably say that being limited to three bag slots unless you make a one-time purchase is worse than being locked out of the characters you’ve sunk thousands of hours and hundreds of dollars into if you haven’t paid in the last thirty days.

      I’ve said it before, but I wish I could convince you to spend a week or two in one of the better non-sub titles, like Rift or TSW. I think you’d find it illuminating.

      “I suppose it’s possible that one day people will realize that F2P isn’t free at all.”

      Pretty much everyone already understands that. Anyone I’ve talked to who is a fan of non-subscription models recognizes that nothing is truly free, and you should still expect to pay. It’s not so much about what you pay as it is about how you pay.

      A lot of it just comes down to people disliking the time limit on subscriptions. You feel obligated to play to justify the expense. I’ve seen people saying they’re happy to spend $15 a month or more on a game, but they still won’t touch a subscription title because they don’t like the psychological stress it applies.

      In my experience, most people are going into free to play with open eyes, fully understanding that it’s just a marketing buzzword. They still prefer it.

      “Rumors are starting to circulate about a F2P backlash mostly attributed to the game developers shooting themselves in the foot.”

      From what I’ve seen, most of that talk is surrounding — again — mobile games. And we’ve also still got plenty of people proclaiming F2P is the wave of the future, so there’s not exactly a consensus on the matter.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw the F2P market contract a bit, but at least as far as MMOs are concerned, I don’t expect to see a major collapse any time soon.

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