What would a funeral for World of Warcraft look like? Millions of pastel-coloured creatures lining the ramparts of an impossible castle, weeping into their vanity pets. It would be surreal and beautiful, but surely incredibly unlikely. After all, WoW is the most successful MMO in history. Just look at the figures: it currently boasts over 10 million subscribers, and a new expansion pack is on the way. Azeroth is booming!
Fair point, but put those facts into context and the numbers don’t look so flattering. In October 2010 WoW boasted an incredible 12 million subscribers. Since then, the trend has only been negative, with Blizzard revealing another drop of 100,000 players from September to December 2011. After eight years at the pinnacle of online gaming, has WoW finally begun the slow journey towards destruction?
Blizzard is very unlikely to explicitly announce that its halcyon days are over, but it's doing a pretty good job implicitly suggesting it. Take the recently unveiled Scroll of Resurrection promo. By activating the spell, players are able to breath new life into their friend’s abandoned characters. The caster gets a shiny new mount and the returning hero is rewarded with £30 of free content. A massive bribe to win back mothballed accounts.
Even the often trumpeted 10 million players may be misleading, thanks to the difference between Subscribers and Active Players. Press releases almost always use the former, as it tends to be much bigger. The number includes anyone who has paid money for WoW in the past few months. What it doesn’t reflect is the number of users who actually play the game on a regular basis.
These sorts of figures are hard to come by, but independent research suggests that the number of concurrent users on all of WoW’s servers has never exceeded 2 million. Even with incomplete data, it’s worth nothing that we have no way of knowing which of those 10 million subscribers are regular players, and which are lapsed accounts soon to be deleted.
World Of Warcraft: is its reign on the wane?
Back To 2004
That’s enough huge numbers, lets concentrate on a figure that’s much easier to grasp. In November, World of Warcraft will be eight years old. To put that in context, that means the game was released in the same month as Half Life II and Halo 2. Of course, WoW has enjoyed numerous updates, graphical overhauls, and expansion packs since then, but in the fast paced world of video games, eight years is an entire generation.
Despite a deluge of new content, long time players have displayed dissatisfaction with a lack of innovation. High level characters have no choice to but to endlessly grind raids. A WoW veteran told me that, “even at the top of raiding, the challenge is really not all that challenging – it’s basically like learning a new dance – once you know the steps and where to put your feet, it can become routine.”
Blizzard has often relied on big expansions to reel in players old and new, but the upcoming Mists Of Pandaria has provoked more than a little scepticism. Azeroth has never been a land of dark fantasy, but the addition is kung-fu pandas may be a little too far down the cutesy rabbit hole for their dedicated players.