The Uncertain Future of World of Warcraft

With Blizzard's MMORPG shedding subscribers, competition heating up, and data showing historically low levels of interest in Mists of Pandaria, where is Azeroth headed in the days ahead?


World of Warcraft is an industry-defining game. It is the king of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game genre. And it has a problem. No, it has a handful of problems, and if Blizzard can't find solutions, the MMORPG may soon abdicate the throne.

In 2010, World of Warcraft hit 12 million subscribers, the highest figure ever for the game, or any other subscription-based MMO game in history. But the game's subscriber base has dropped steadily ever since. Since that peak, World of Warcraft has shed nearly 2 million subscribers. As reported by Activision in February, the game's current subscriber base stands at 10.2 million.

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Where is the buzz surrounding Mists of Pandaria?

Blizzard no doubt hopes gamers will flock back to Azeroth to play the upcoming Mists of Pandaria expansion. After all, previous expansions The Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King, and Cataclysm all won warm reviews, each outpacing the sales of its predecessor. Blizzard may be wishing for Mists of Pandaria to spike subscriptions, but signs are pointing to no such thing happening.

A GameSpot Trax study found that interest in Mists of Pandaria is seriously low compared to previous expansions. It took The Burning Crusade about three months to reach 1,000 GameSpot followers; Wrath of the Lich King five days; and Cataclysm just four days. Mists of Pandaria, on the other hand, was announced in October 2011 and stood at only 587 followers as of March 21.

Not only are GameSpot users showing less interest in Mists of Pandaria, but those who are following it are not speaking very highly of the add-on. GameSpot Trax runs a monthly survey measuring purchase intent and perception of quality for upcoming titles, and for the most recent survey, Mists of Pandaria ranked second to last of 67 titles of all genres with a perceived quality score of 6.0. It's nestled in between Kinect Star Wars (65th) and Elveon (67th), in case you were wondering.

World of Warcraft may be losing subscribers, but rumors of its immediately impending death are greatly exaggerated. The game still has more than 10 million paying members, and Blizzard has already laid out plans for future expansions. However, the game is entering uncharted territory with Mists of Pandaria. If the GameSpot Trax data is representative of the greater World of Warcraft community, then Blizzard is in danger of shipping a poorly received, underselling expansion in Mists of Pandaria.

Compounding the trouble for Blizzard and World of Warcraft is competition, namely BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic. Launched in December 2011, the game quickly sold 2 million copies and tallied 1.7 million subscribers. It has a lot of work to do to catch up to World of Warcraft, but it's already affecting Azeroth. In February, Blizzard acknowledged that The Old Republic was drawing some players from Azeroth to outer space.

"Not only are GameSpot users showing less interest in Mists of Pandaria, but those who are following it are not speaking very highly of the add-on."

The Old Republic is just one major game having an impact on World of Warcraft. NCsoft's Guild Wars 2--the long-awaited pay-once MMORPG--arrives later this year (more on that later). And on top of that, if a rumor proves accurate, Bethesda and Zenimax are working on an MMO game set in the very popular Elder Scrolls franchise. If that game is real, it would doubtless contribute to the subscriber-poaching threats World of Warcraft currently faces.

World of Warcraft could also be hurt by the $15/month subscription plan it commands. Subscription-based games are a dying breed (or rapidly mutating to microtransaction models), with The Old Republic being the last of the virtual dinosaurs. (Try to act surprised when BioWare announces a free-to-play business model in the next year or two.) Guild Wars 2--an MMORPG more than 1 million users signed up to beta test in just 48 hours--will cost a fee up front (probably $50 to $60), but will not ask gamers to reach into their pockets to continue playing.

Further, games that have switched to a free-to-play business model have enjoyed revenue and usership boosts as a result. After dropping its subscription requirement in 2010, Lord of the Rings Online tripled its monthly revenue, and its recent expansion, Rise of Isengard, broke records for developer Turbine. You can also look to online shooter APB as evidence of increased engagement in a post-subscription setting. A flop as a paid game, online shooter APB relaunched as APB Reloaded, and more than 3 million flocked to the title in just one week. For reference, the original APB managed to log only 130,000 users during its lifetime as a paid game.

Despite these facts, Blizzard is holding firm to its subscription plan. The company insisted recently that in the face of World of Warcraft shedding users, its subscription model for the game was optimal, and it has no immediate plans to switch to free-to-play. Blizzard has been trying out a free-to-play version of World of Warcraft since June 2011 (the Starter Edition), but in this version, players can level only to 20, and they face a string of serious limitations. This is hardly an earnest attempt at gauging players' interest in a bona fide free-to-play World of Warcraft. What's more, Blizzard already sells premium a la carte content in the form of $10 pets and $25 mounts to great effect, so why not move entirely to free-to-play?

World of Warcraft is the first of its kind; a trail-blazing, industry-defining MMORPG. And for this reason, we have no previous games to reference to see how a game this big will age or…die. Does it get bloated and become a prisoner of its own success, acquiescing to all user requests in an attempt to hold on to its user base? Will it follow Lord of the Rings Online and go free-to-play? Will Blizzard's next MMO game Titan turn Azeroth into a ghost town as soon as it launches? Regardless of how long Blizzard can stave off World of Warcraft's inevitable decline (and it could be long indeed), it seems likely the game's brightest and most relevant days are behind it. Now we're just watching to see if it burns out or fades away.

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