Warcraft numbers plummet; 14% drop in Q1/13

In a recent earnings call press release [PDF], Activision Blizzard revealed that it has lost 1.3 million subscribers to its flagship game World of Warcraft in the first quarter of 2013, a 14% drop. Received games-business wisdom holds that only one "triple-A" game can thrive at a time, and WoW has been on top for years now. The Blizzard execs predict further declines as more players leave for free-to-play alternatives:

World of Warcraft has been in limelight on and off for both right as well as wrong reasons. Back in October 2012 entire cities in World of Warcraft were found dead – the reason for which was believed to be an in-game hack. Blizzard acknowledged that an in-game exploit was used by miscreants and fixed it before more users started using the exploit.

The gaming publisher isn’t optimistic though and believes that the numbers will decline as time passes. According to Activision executives the subscriber base of WoW is expected to dip further as more and more free-to-play games emerge on the internet.

WoW’s declining subscriber base won’t be leaving too deep a wound for Activision as it’s not the only franchise that is making money the gaming publisher. There are other franchises like the Diablo 3 and StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm alongside the bestselling Call of Duty series that Activision Blizzard will be counting on to recuperate the loss of subscribers.

World of Warcraft Loses 1.3 Million Subscribers in 2013 (via /.)


  1. Are we sure it just isn’t people finally getting tired of playing the game after so many years?  

    1. Of course it is. By definition, probably. But the “so many years” part is what raises the question “why now?”

      1. The game launched in late 2004.. so we’re coming up on 9 years. People who have been playing since launch probably signed in after work one night and went “holy cow I’ve been doing this for almost a decade!”

        They promptly logged out and went camping to try and find a more meaningful experience.

        1. I don’t think age has anything to do with it. EVE Online celebrated its 10-year-anniversary last month at Fanfest. The player base is smaller, but it’s still going strong and picking up new players.

        2. No they didn’t. They signed in after work one night and went “holy cow I’ve been doing this for almost a decade, and I still haven’t completed [name of some quest]! I’d better get busy! on that!”

      2. There are a lot of factors but I think Blizzard, for a long time, did a great job of keeping the game and story content compelling and fresh. Since Cataclysm though, that has declined. I feel like they’re now reaching at straws to give gamers something new.

        What’s most disappointing about the response from A/B on this story is that they don’t even care, because they’re making money elsewhere. Not even a hint that something better (and more lucrative) might be on the horizon for gamers. I wouldn’t be surprised if they stretch out WoW for another couple of increasingly-silly expansions.

      3.  As one of the millions who quit recently, i’ll say it’s because of a large amount of ignorance and defiance from the mouthpiece of the developers.   They claim to justify how people want to play and railroad them into doing it the way they say the numbers suggest.    I assume those same numbers say that 80% of the playerbase wants a thing a certain way and %20 don’t, and they’re fine sacrificing the 20, instead of trying to please the 100 by keeping open all avenues of progression and playstyle.

        Right now, you’re forced into very linear paths of progression with a lot of useless actions all around.    The once very open and free game has turned basically into a linear MMO at the endgame.   You have to do this in order to do this in order to do that and in a specific order or you don’t get to do the thing.   For me, they de-incentivized my playstyle in an effort to get me to play their way.   I declined and took my money elsewhere in the only way I can make point actually understood in the eyes of the people that actually matter.   Clearly a lot of other people did the same, and now perhaps their internal data will show closer to 100% acceptance of the direction of the game.   

      4. The subscription numbers hit their peak during Wrath of Lich King, and started to go down during the pre-expansion time and has been in decline ever since. So it’s not really a “why now?” situation. It has been going on for a long time.

    2. I think WoW has had pretty high player turn-over, and they relied on finding new players constantly to keep numbers up.  By this point I’d not be surprised if everyone who had any potential interest in playing an MMO has already tried WoW, so it’s just a matter of the downward spiral of dwindling player retention (magnified by a recent drop-off of players who only play through each new bit of expansion content and then take a hiatus until the new expansions comes out).

      1. Yea, I think it’s pretty much this. And that when we all started it was a totally new, bright, and shiny experience, but we got used to it. So the bar keeps getting raised, and it’s starting to be at a point where it’s really hard to make that same kind of experience for all been-there-done-that people.

        The newest expansion really is a good attempt at it, though. Although they added so much that I got really overwhelmed, and I know I’m not the only one saying it. It’s almost too much! Which is really strange… not playing as much because there is too much to do… but that’s what happened to me.

    3. That’s probably true for most people, but oddly enough it was the opposite for me. I was happy slowly puddling along, playing a couple of hours a week, and setting a world record for slowest level progression ever, and every time they brought out a new expansion I resented them for messing around with my game.

      Also, though I’m the world’s least hardcore gamer, I was starting to feel quests were being nerfed, and the game was becoming a paint-by-numbers exercise. So it was their attempts to keep the game popular which torpedoed it for me.

      I still feel affection for Warcraft though – not so much the creatures but the landscapes and architecture. I think my dream job would have been to be the art director for the whole thing.

  2. I figured with the pace of change nowadays, WoW would be cool for a year then fizzle.  They’ve done really well.  Or the entertainment industry hasn’t.

    I confess to never having played.  Now it’s too late to join the party.

    1. I’m not sure why you say it’s too late… but if you mean that the leveling up would be too long, then it’s way shorter (timewise) now than for instance during the original version (Vanilla WoW). You can play the first 20 levels for free, so do check it out!

  3. Casual raiding guilds got shafted by the tuning of normal mode raids in the latest expansion, and just about everyone is turned off by the overemphasis on daily quests as content.   Also, PvP was even more broken than usual.

    1. They’ve been relentlessly simplifying the mechanics ever since Cataclysm, to the point where gets less interesting with every patch. And they’re not picking up the kiddies and the casuals that way because those are all going to the free-to-plays. Combined with the bite taken by hackers — and the world shenanigans not even being nearly as big a deal as the constant account hacking — it was bound to go into decline at some point.

      That said, it’s the only MMO that has ever run so long before going into decline, and that has to mean something.

      1.  I’d say the simplification landslide started in late Crusade and picked up momentum in early to mid Wrath.  Cata was the point that the land slide spilled over the cliff .. but that’s my sentiment / perspective.

        1. The difference is that before Cata they were still adding other things at the same time. Since Cata it’s been nothing but decreasing depth, that I can recall. 

  4. I take a six month or so break every couple of years, this break has been a bit longer.  I’ve been playing Skyrim instead.  Probably there’s no larger reason other than time for me, but pandas didn’t help.  I’m round and furrier than I like IRL; ain’t gonna be that in a game.

    1. It’s too bad, since they put some rather nice level design into it. But seriously, pandas. Le sigh.

  5. “Tremble shareholder; and despair! Doom has come to this world.”

    Well, not really, yet.

    1. I bet Activision is getting nervous, though.  WoW income is pretty much keeping that whole company’s profits up.  It’s their one (very) bright spot when in comes to revenue.

        1. That’s their other big earner, but it really doesn’t even compare.  Call of Duty comes out every couple of years and WoW still out-earns it even in the years a new COD game comes out, not to mention in the in-between years.  Supposedly they’ve sold 100 million copies of CoD games.  If true, that amounts to something like $2.5 billion in total revenue for Activision off of the franchise. WoW, at its peak subscriber numbers, was bringing in almost that much every year.  (Many of the subscribers are Chinese, and thus not paying monthly subscriptions, though from what I’ve heard, are not necessarily ending up paying that much less, but also add in the cost of the game and expansion copies sold.  Quite possibly, on their best year, they made more than the entire CoD franchise over its entire history.)   Only 30% of Activision’s revenue comes from console games.  Of the remaining 70%, WoW clearly makes up the majority of the revenue.

          1. Your numbers are from an alternate universe.

            WoW at its peak subscriber numbers was something like 12 million (generously) in 2010. At, what, $120-ish a year, that’s like 1.4 billion, which it did for one year. Call of Duty franchise sales topped $3 billion at 55 million units sold in 2009. Black Ops 2 hit $1 billion in 15 days. I don’t know where the franchise total to date is now, but what do you want for 30 seconds on Google?Oh, and if you need a punchline, Call of Duty doesn’t have maintenance costs.

          2. Actually, you’re comparing apples and oranges, so I see why you’d think that.

            WoW’s standard subscription is $15 a month, i.e. $180 a year, making peak subscriber revenue (theoretically up to) $2.2 billion, plus sales of the game and expansions for that year, plus virtual item sales.  (Keep in mind that total game sales are substantially more than 12 million copies of just the base game, as there’s turn-over in subscribers, each of whom needs a copy of the game and expansions.)  Subscription and virtual items sales money is going straight to Blizzard, as is that portion of the game and expansion sales done digitally through their store.  Activision, on the other hand, are NOT getting 100% of the retail cost of the games they’re selling.  (How much money the game made for retailers isn’t relevant to Activision’s revenue.)  Wikipedia claims 100 million total sales of the CoD franchise as of the end of 2011.  Those are primarily boxed copies of console games sold at retail, of which Activision’s take is about $25 revenue per copy sold, and likely less for handheld games.  (I.e. total potential Activision CoD revenue: $2.5 billion on those 100M copies.)
            Costs are another issue entirely.  CoD games do have substantial multi-player server costs, for example, and the marketing costs for the CoD games are enormous, even compared to WoW’s (they spent over $200 million just on marketing CoD4, on top of $50 million development costs).  Also keep in mind that those 100M sales are for dozens of different titles on many different platforms, each of which has its own separate development costs.
            Kotick himself said that only 30% of the company’s revenue came from console game sales (and the vast majority of CoD sales are on console).  Console games really aren’t that profitable, even with record-breaking sales.  Frequently a publisher is happy to do little more than break even on the game itself, making the real profit on the DLC sales.

            Which is to say: there’s an obvious reason why the recent CoD Elite is an online, subscription-based game.

    2.  I dunno, you lose almost %20 of your customers over 6 months, yeah it’s kinda time to figure out what you did wrong and make significant adjustments to either maintain or grow instead of shrink.    Any industry starts to think it’s more than a seasonal flow problem at 20%, guaranteed.   Even if that leftover number still leads the industry.   

  6. “ZOMG PLUMMET” is kind of strong for this, after all, they still are head and shoulders in subscriber numbers than any other game out there. the new expac has been a lot of fun (even if there’s an overwhelming amount of daily quests and factions to get rep with). the dungeons and raids are challenging and quite fun, and the new zones and music is gorgeous. i think the reason for the drop is that we are in the middle of the expansion — numbers always drop then. we’ll see what happens as we get closer to and past Blizzcon.

  7. “Received games-business wisdom holds that only one “triple-A” game can thrive at a time”
    Working in the game industry, I can’t say I’ve ever heard anything like this sentiment.  Now perhaps you mean “AAA MMOs,” which are quite a different dynamic from AAA single player games, where that’s actually true in many ways (but still not entirely acknowledged).  MMOs are huge time-sinks, so you generally don’t have time to play more than one.  So they’re not like movies, TV shows, books or even AAA games.  Also, World of Warcraft has had a much greater number of players than the entire MMO audience size before WoW existed – in some sense they created the modern MMO market.  They have orders of magnitude more paying customers than other MMOs.  So the industry has, to a large degree, defined “AAA MMOs” as being “like World of Warcraft” and “thriving” as “having WoW-level subscriber numbers.”  Which means they’ve tried to make games that would steal those players (“WoW-killers”).  But when you try to fill your game by making something kind of like WoW (but made with fewer resources) in order to steal away WoW players, it is, unsurprisingly, difficult to do so, because those players are already invested in playing WoW.  (And thus the industry is littered with the corpses of studios that had that very business plan.)  To some degree the industry still hasn’t figure this out, so I’d not call it “received wisdom.”

    1.  Very good points. There’s also the problem that MMOs are social. If you’re looking for a MMO to play, chances are you’ll pick the one all of your friends are already playing because that’s more fun. So being an established MMO, where lots of players are already engaged, is a huge advantage. It’s the same reason it’s so hard to create a successful competitor to Facebook or Ebay.

      1. Also the experience you get after having invested time and effort into it is different from the initial experience, so once you’re there, you really tend to stay there, even if something “better” comes along.  People have to become disenchanted with the thing before they move on, rather than being lured away by the competition.

      2. Every problem is an opportunity, if you’re a smart marketer. Next time your MMO is coming out with a new expansion, get the e-mails of a pile of WoW guild leaders and hit ’em with an Offer: move a few members over to our game, and we’ll give you all Decent Stuffs and some help with the initial levelling up, move a LOT of members over, and we’ll give you Stuff and Territory and skill up your leadership on Day 1, so that they can help the other members get rolling.

        1. Assuming you could get those emails (which is unlikely), you still run into a problem.  Either the game is like WoW, in which case why would these player go to all the effort of migrating to a new game, setting up new accounts and working on leveling up and learning the new game (its strategies, minor systemic differences, geography etc.) just to have an identical (or very similar) experience OR the game isn’t like WoW, in which case why would players leave a game they know they like for a game they don’t know they like?
          The only way I’ve seen this work is if you’re luring former players of an MMO that has already declined to a new MMO that’s a spiritual (if not actual) sequel.

  8. It’d be interesting to chart the social lifecycle of top MMO games against the rise and fall of social media phenomena (Myspace, Pinterest, G+)

    Because Facebook and Twitter – just like WOW – everyone is already asking “What’s next?”

  9. It doesn’t help that Blizzard keeps ramping up the anti-DRM element.  At some point, people will get tired of having to go through all the bullshit steps just to start a game.

  10. So, what’s that leave?  11 million or so subscribers, paying 10 dollars per month.  I don’t think they’ll be closing down their servers any time soon.  But yeah–to keep the cash cow going, they should see if they can determine the cause. But realistically, they can’t keep those numbers forever, especially with all the free to play games out there.

    My favorite MMO–Lord of the Rings online (a stunning game btw) probably has one 50th at best of WoW’s numbers and its still seems to be going strong with major expansions every year though it is a free to play/subscriber hybrid kind of thing.

    1. 8.3 million, which is about the same as during the launch of Burning Crusade. But yea, still head and shoulders above all others.

  11. I told people long ago that “game companies need to quit fixating on being a WoW Killer” and just shoot for a solid game that hold down a  moderate fan base, and wait for WoW to choke it’s self to death.  Back in Crusade I called that they would try to milk the hell out of things amongst several other issues and ultimately drive people away rather than attract them with their efforts to attract more people. It’s sort of like adding hot sauce to chili.  A dash gives it some tangy bite, a bit more makes it nice and spicy, then you hit a point where not much of anyone likes how it tastes at that point.

    1. They’re the first franchise I know of to make a fatal flaw out of listening to their fan community too much, and not being able to stop tinkering with the mechanics as a result. Don’t like the game? Wait a week or two. Also, like the game… ?

       Every patch (at least for PvP) seems to be based on which class was complaining the loudest on the forums that week. Except for druids, once they started screwing them they never went back. Time was I used to fantasize that they would do an expansion about the Emerald Dream, or something like that. Instead we got pandas. *shrug*

      Most successful MMO ever, to be sure. But everything contains the seeds of its own destruction, according to somebody.

      1. yeah. Druids got smashed and despite full outcry from the community, remain smashed forever… 

  12. WoW isn’t just beset by Free2Play alternatives.  People are also just getting plain tired of clicky-clicky-clicky for 10 hours a day to slay cartoon orcs and crap.  The natural OCD nature of many gamers that WoW lends itself to has caused many of them to burn themselves out.  Also, sometimes, you just wanna blow doods up.  The mobile market is taking over gamers’ time too, especially with Ipad and other tablet devices that are turning casual gaming into SERIOUS casual gaming that you can take with you anywhere instead of having to hunch over a computer desk for hours on end, wrecking havoc on your back and making your already fat ass fatter.

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