This week, Activision Blizzard (I refuse to call them just Blizzard) announced that they would no longer be publishing their subscriber numbers. Naturally, this has been seen by many in the video games community as the equivalent to the announcement of a terminal diagnosis. Cries of “WoW is dying” have gotten much louder over the last few days, and that may seem like the logical next step. After all, the numbers that they’ve been giving us have been on a mostly downward trajectory ever since the beginning of 2011.
The fact is that World of Warcraft, unquestionably the biggest MMORPG ever, isn’t in any more danger of dying than are any of the other MMOs on the market today. Here are the reasons why:
5.6 Million Subscribers
As of the second quarter of 2015, Activision Blizzard was still reporting a subscriber base of 5.6 million. I’m not 100% sure, but I’d say that still makes it the most successful MMO currently on the market. Even at 5.6 Million subscribers, World of Warcraft still has more subscribers than it did at the end of its first year.
I know what you’re thinking: “Jon, you fool, the game has lost over half of its subscribers. It’s dying!”
You’re only part right. WoW is slowing down, for sure: The business model it uses is outdated, the graphics were old even when the game first launched (in order to make it accessible for more people), the design is based on a ten year old foundation and fewer people are coming back after they leave.
The thing is that Activision Blizzard can, and I believe will, make use of this 5.6 million person subscriber base and millions of former players to keep WoW relevant in today’s MMO landscape.
They Bought King (Candy Crush)
Activision Blizzard didn’t acquire one of the most successful mobile developers in the world just to expand their brand and get a better return on Hearthstone (and their other mobile titles). Most of the media is focusing on the idea that this was done with this sole purpose of improving the company’s portfolio of mobile games. I’m sure that was a huge motivator, but there’s another obvious benefit that very few people are talking about. King is a company that is absolutely full of experts in microtransactions and microtransaction design.
Don’t believe me? These folks managed to make games that got us to spend over $400 million dollars on their games in small-dollar microtransactions. That’s expertise that any F2P developer would pay through the nose for. Knowing how to get the most out of F2P games is an incredibly valuable commodity in the games industry these days and it’s almost impossible to find people en masse with experience better than the staff at King.
Like it or not, Free to Play has become the business model du jour and right now, that’s where the money is. Remember, while these games are hobbies for us, the people controlling the money (usually) just see it as a business. They’re going to go with what makes money, almost every time. If they’re publicly traded, like Activision Blizzard, they are legally obligated to maximize profit.
I assume WoW is going F2P
You’ve read it before. Heck, I’ve read it before. For years now, in fact. Actually, I think I’ve been hearing this rumor ever since September 2009 when Turbine moved its flagging Dungeons and Dragons Online to a F2P model and turned its fortunes around almost overnight. Ever since then, going F2P has been the last ditch effort of every other flagging P2P MMO title in the last six years. In a much less flashy way than WoW did in 2005, Turbine changed the industry with that move.
I suspect that this weekend, we’re going to learn that Activision Blizzard is just the next in a long line of companies to decide that it’s time to switch their game’s model. Because why on Earth wouldn’t they? They have the know-how, and they have a built-in player base that any MMO team would envy as a starting point. They know that, no matter what else they do under the current model, people are leaving their game and eventually, probably over the next few years, it’s going to die. From a business standpoint, they have nothing to lose.
Why Should They?
Activision Blizzard has a LOT of stuff on tap, including a brand new FPS/MOBA coming in Overwatch. I’m certain the suits that be have their eyes on the eSports crowd as well as their usual players, and they are going to want to do everything they can to keep World of Warcraft as profitable as possible. They want WoW to be as vibrant as it can be while they put their focus on a new golden goose. The best way (ok, not necessarily best, but cheapest) way that I can see for them to do that is to go F2P. That way you’re going to bring in a ton of your old players who want to check out what it’s like, and maybe explore content that they didn’t before they stopped their subscriptions. They’re also going to bring in anyone who thought it looked cool, or wanted to see what the fuss is about, but didn’t want to pony up $15 a month to do it. F2P games make their real money in two ways:
First, they bring in as many people as possible. They put as many eyes as possible on the game so that a small percentage of them will become paying customers.
Second, and this is where the real money is, F2P games are designed to attract whales. That’s a traditional gambling term for big spenders. They are hoping to take a small percentage of the small percentage of people who pay for in game items and get them so personally invested in the game that they are happy (and feel happy afterwards) spending small amounts frequently or large amounts all at once.
World of Warcraft has both of those elements already baked into their game.
How Should They?
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t something that these folks can half-ass. A ton of thought is going to have to be put into everything from what will be for sale (Will it be items, or time?), to how much it costs (everything less than a dollar? $5 average?) , to how the new economy will blend with the old one (Gold and… I assume some kind of gem) and how it all changes the game that so many people still know and love.
I have faith that the old Blizzard wouldn’t release anything until it was done and done well. I have slightly less faith in the newer Activision Blizzard’s ability to work on a game “until it’s done” after my early experiences with Diablo III were less than stellar. Still, World of Warcraft is a serious product for the company overall. Especially with a movie coming out
When Will They?
Again, I have no inside information, and I’m basing this solely on my personal knowledge of the business. I think though, if you’re going to see WoW go F2P, it will be timed to come at the same time that the PR Blitz really takes off for the movie some time in 2016. That gives them 5-6 months to work on the transition (assuming that they haven’t been quietly doing that anyway… which would shock me) before the big hype starts. If there’s one thing that brand managers and owners like, it’s synergy between products. Bringing doubtless missions of people back into Azeroth or into it for the first time might just help to boost those domestic and overseas box office numbers, don’tcha think? Run that hype train as fast as it’ll go (Insert Back to the Future III joke here).
World of Warcraft was destined to go F2P since 2009. When the game was already four years old. Now, in its tenth year of operation, I think WoW is going to get some serious life-saving surgery that’ll help it live another 10.
Hedging My Bets
I’m giving long odds on the idea that maybe, with the recent news that they are hiring people to restore the company’s classic catalogue, they’re thinking of starting some kind of service similar to EA’s that gives you access to their games for a monthly fee. This could be happening, but I think F2P is a much better bet… I could also just be wrong. I remember that happening once or twice in the past…
Food for Thought
EverQuest, which was WoW before WoW was WoW, launched its sequel while it was running, and both titles still run today… As F2P games.Related: Blizzard Entertainment, Blizzcon, BlizzCon 2015, World of Warcraft