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A Look at World of Warcraft Subscription Numbers

As many of you have probably heard by now, when Activision-Blizzard announced it bought itself back from Vivendi they slipped in their latest subscriber numbers for World of Warcraft: 7.7 million subscribers at the end of Q2 2013.

I wasn’t initially going to weigh in on it, I mean it’s not exactly within my purview (though, to be fair, that’s never stopped me before), but reading Jim’s article on the matter piqued my interest again in the matter, and I decided to do some poking around myself (I’m also desperately avoiding studying for a Calculus final next week).

So, first stop was to check out Jim’s source data, which looked pretty legit (I’m really busting out the technical lingo here), so I decided to use it as well. Next, in a move that will surprise no one, I opened up a spreadsheet and started to plot the data. I then used Excel’s graphing tools to find a line of best fit for the historic data, and to predict a few quarters into the future. Here are the results of that:

Historic Subscribers

This model predicts a WoW death shortly after Q1 of 2015 (Q1 of 2015 has 652k subscribers in this model), which is three quarters earlier than Jim’s prediction.

However, including the rise in subscription numbers from WoW’s early days doesn’t help us much if we’re trying to predict World of Warcraft’s decline in subscription numbers. So next I took the data starting at Q3 of 2010 (when World of Warcraft peaked at 12 million subscribers), and plotted the subscription count decline from there. Again, I used Excel to find a line of best fit, and used that to predict the demise of World of Warcraft, here are those results:

Declining Prediction

This model is a bit more kind to World of Warcraft’s future, it predicts we drop down to roughly 1 million subscribers (1.08 million) in Q4 of 2016, with a total subscriber loss shortly after Q1 of 2017.

If our second model holds true, we have nearly 5 years left of World of Warcraft, and the game  will be over 13 years old when it eventually dies.

Don’t think Blizzard will let World of Warcraft die without a fight though, I’m sure they’ll use every trick in the book to keep World of Warcraft from leaking subscribers, and maybe even start an upward trend.

We can see that around the release of Mists of Pandaria (Q3 of 2012) subscriptions saw a noticeable uptick in subscriptions, but quickly lost them again. New expansions always breath some new life into the game, but the last couple of expansions haven’t seen the players stick around.

A lot of players like to point to to the fact that the game start losing subscribers with Cataclysm, when Blizzard supposedly started catering more to casual players (in an attempt to appeal to more people). Some say that there were other issues with Cataclysm that caused the decline, and Mists of Pandaria didn’t do enough to stem the tide (it came with it’s own “issues”).

Every new expansion will bring players back (I don’t think expansions bring new players to the game, though I could be wrong), and will throw a kink into my projections here, even if they are “worse” than the last. If the uptick for the release of Mists of Pandaria tells us anything though, is that these upticks in subscriber counts are temporary, they will eventually submit to the general trend.

You know what will change World of Warcraft subscriber trends? Free-to-Play.

I strongly believe that the only thing that could “save” World of Warcraft is a switch to a Free-to-Play model. I’m not saying it will save WoW, only that it could.

Honestly though, I really don’t think it’s any of the above “problems” are to blame, nor do I think WoW can be “saved” indefinitely. I just think World of Warcraft is a.) showing it’s age and b.) hit it’s market saturation.

That first one is a little hard to quantify with numbers, equations, or graphs, but World of Warcraft is showing its age. As the demographics change, so must the games that top the charts. Now, don’t get me wrong, World of Warcraft is still topping the charts (I’m pretty sure it’s every developers dream to make the next World of Warcraft), but as we’ve seen it’s becoming less and less popular. The world is changing, and it might just be changing to a place that no longer has a World of Warcraft as king of the MMOs.

If I were a real economist, I’d probably be able to go into great detail about my second point, but I think I can still explain what I mean fairly well. World of Warcraft, the idea of World of Warcraft, is only ever going to appeal to certain people (for a variety of reasons), and many people can only play the same game for so long before they get bored, or have to quit for other reasons (can’t make the time commitment anymore is one example that comes up often), and must eventually leave the game. Basically everyone at this point who would be expose to World of Warcraft, has been exposed to World of Warcraft (or nearly everyone), and most of those who will try it, have. This means the rate of players entering the game is dwindling, while the rate of players leaving the game is, well, we’re not too sure, but clearly it’s outpacing the rate of incoming players. That’s basically my thought on that bit, I hope I explained it well.

Now, finally, let’s look at one last graph. This probably explains my two points about why WoW’s subscription count is dwindling better than I did in the preceding paragraphs (explanation of what you’re seeing below the graph):

Derivative

First, the green line is a graph of the line of best fit from our first graph, the one that includes all subscription counts since release. The red line however, is what’s telling, it’s the derivative of our first function. For those who have never taken math past what was mandatory in high school, or those who forget, the derivative, the red line, is basically the rate of change in the first graph (I apologize to any and all math majors that may be reading this). Essentially, what this second line is telling us it that even from the beginning, World of Warcraft was losing steam. It’s subscription growth was never sustainable, even at it’s prime its growth was slowing down.

In the end, all things must end, the question is what are we (and by we I mainly mean the developers) going to do about it? Are we (again, mostly the fine folks at Blizzard I’m talking about here) going to let World of Warcraft die gracefully, or is WoW going to go down kicking and screaming, fighting for it’s last breath? Time will tell.

About the author

Eric Dekker

Gamer. Student. Nerd. Author of The Golden Crusade. Find him on + and Twitter.

19 comments

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  1. Jim Younkin

    It’s nice to have someone who understands maths better then me weight in.

    All in all I think the gaming landscape is just much different than it was in 2005.

    1. Eric Dekker

      Agreed, the world if changing, and I don’t think the World of Warcraft is keeping up with the change (it might simply not be able too). Honestly, I don’t think these projections are going to mean much, I’m sure in a few years I will be proven just how wrong they are.

  2. Candlefly

    I think Blizz foresees this too and that’s the motivation behind the warcraft movie in 2015. I think it’s odd that you predict the end of WoW around the same time as the movie release. Coincidence?

    1. Eric Dekker

      Probably just a coincidence, I’m sure Blizz would be rolling that out ASAP anyways

  3. Hagu

    The info I read from ex-bliz people at Wildstar is that 10% of WoW customers leave every month and about half of those don’t return. (Note this means about a million people have been leaving WoW every month for the last several years; That’s one every three seconds! subscription businesses are treadmills. ) There was a GC quote a couple of months ago that WoW’s decline was not due to more people leaving, just not as many returning. Which makes sense; if you are playing/enjoying WoW, then $0.50 per day is a bargain. If you are going to start a MMO, then SWOTR or Rift or even Terra are $0 to start, $0 per month alternatives to get started. Plus TSW, GW2, Defiance, …

    The graph you would expect it to follow is referred to in business school as the “product life cycle” graph. q.v. A famous MMO designer once said that companies can not change the subscriber curve; all they can do is work to lengthen and make taller.

    Note also that marketing types might take into account expansions. E.g., most people compare Walmart’s Jan 2013 with Jan 2012 rather than the previous month. So WoW has a cycle and clearly 5.4 and 6.0 will show an increase.

    P.S., while I was getting my MBA, a marketing professor said that the first or perhaps even second derivative of market share was probably more indicative of health than the absolute share. Something that is lost in the “but still #1″ posts.

    1. Eric Dekker

      Off topic, but may I ask, what did you study before you got your MBA? I’m in Civil Engineering now and I’ve heard people recommend getting an MBA afterwards, so already debating what I’m going to do a few years down the road haha

      1. Hagu

        Math degree but did programming. I got an “executive MBA” (mostly weekends) so that it did not require giving up my job.

        I recall a number of the “why is Japan(1980) China(2013) winning” articles have some stat that about half of US (and I presume Canadian) engineers are not in their primary field after idk ? years from graduation. If the company does not have separate technical and management career paths, then a MBA may be useful if you want to move into management.

  4. Hagu

    WTB edit
    *returning was not correct term; IIRC new/replacement was closer to my memory.

  5. Yukitaro

    All in all, a good extrapolation from the historical data to the future. The problem is that, in general, you can’t extrapolate from historical data to the future, unless you already know the what the future holds. I don’t know what the future will bring for WoW, and any trendline that I would propose would be on even weaker footing than the one/two presented above. However if you imagine that we only had the first third of the data presented, our trendline would predict the entire world will be playing WoW in only a few years.

    1. Eric Dekker

      If you look at my third graph, even from the beginning we saw that the population growth wasn’t sustainable :) But yes, this is mostly musing, we can’t really predict with any certainty what the future holds, even for World of Warcraft.

  6. zen

    Nice article, agree with most comments here regarding extrapolation of data – it’s not predicative of the future given so many unknown variables.

    To that note… your last section about the first derivative…

    Any negative parabolic function (ie. -x^2) will always have a negative slope. In software engineering, all programs (games should fall under this category as well), will reach an “end of life” and thus have the exact negative growth in terms of usage.

    With that said, I don’t believe the comment of “Essentially, what this second line is telling us it that even from the beginning, World of Warcraft was losing steam” is valid.

    1. Eric Dekker

      Yea, it was kind of a weak ending. If I were to redo this topic, I’d probably omit that last part. I guess I just had calculus on the brain haha.

  7. Attila

    Blizz has delayed Titan project until 2016. Somewhere around your prediction of wow’s end…
    That could explain many things in game.

    These last years ahead can be there for testing the behavior of the playerbase and some technical features.
    How many bots can players tolerate in battlegrounds and how long?
    How many class redesign is too much in a short period? (e.g. talent tree+ability changes between expansions followed by hunter class design chaos in this expansion etc.)
    How much overbuff/overnerf is too much to tolerate? (e.g. cata rogue demi-gods vs the mop ones)
    What difficulty level is optimal for this or that in-game activity? (lfr free epics and faceroll heroics vs oldschool difficulty level)
    Things like that.

    Also the server based system was like a pilot game, it worked as long as more players came in. Since the decline started the servers can not be shot down and it led to many dead servers. Blizz has put a lot of effort into preparing for the decline in player numbers with cross server zones, battle.tags, upcoming virtual servers with merged battleground queues and auction houses etc. These methods seem to be optimized for a much lower player number. It can help on dead servers while can piss of some guys on medium pop ones (like cross server zones did with its free griefing and ganking opportunities).
    All in all these methods to blanket the subscription loss for players in-game (they’ll see more players and activity around, but more concurrence and more faceless internet community griefers in zones designed for single servers) is still worse than the atmosphere of the original servers with their own flourishing community which was able to boycott players with bad behavior. These methods can not fix the wounds Blizz did to the social aspect of the game through the last years.

    So they have 3 years to find out what can be a better system for Titan:
    - which can handle the decline in player numbers better than this server based system.
    - which can save itself from the worst mentality of faceless internet community.

    1. Eric Dekker

      Oh no doubt, Blizzard will be taking the lessons learned from World of Warcraft and apply them from the beginning to Titan. I just hope WoW isn’t so much of a guinea pig (purposely manipulated to see what happens) and more of a case study (Blizzard tries to maintain the game for as long as possible).

      1. Attila

        Well, I guess both can be true. My experience was that they always solve a problem with an another problem. And I was never sure if the side effects were part of their secret concept or they just forgot to think of the consequences before implementing the changes and than they were too proud to admit that they have beheaded a hydra without a torch.
        e.g. Class imbalance? Let’s homogenize all.
        or
        Among a,b,c,d,e abilities e is bugged and overpowered. Everyone says that e is op. Let’s nerf a,b, than remove c and turn d into something useless. Than, after nerfing and changing all other options, find the bug in e and fix it. Than realize that the damage output of the class is too low. Oh no… We need to buff something. Let’s overbuff to make it sure that it’ll compensate for the inaccurate nerfs:)
        or
        Long bg queues on working days? Let bots flood the bgs while we find on an alternate solution. For more than a year. But stricktly ban everyone from the forums for naming and shaming who does not anonymize forum topics about bots. Mmm.
        or
        People are bored to hell and sitting in capitals and complaining about nothing to do? Let’s hide recipes behind a huge wall of dailies behind some more curtains and parapets… of dailies. (I loved doing dailies, but it felt they have overdone it a bit.)
        Things like that.
        As I’ve said, sometimes the option that they’ve messed things up intentionally looked simply “better”. For example with the bot plague in bgs, cause the other option was only incompetence and ignorance on their side.
        Or the overbuff-overnerf cycle and repeated class redesigns. People craft theories that it is intentional to “keep things interesting” and save players from boredom through rerolling. Ergo solving a problem for group A with a problem for group B.

        Too many words. Your diagram and prediction is still amazing.

  8. Aldred Eckles

    No Erik,
    Quadratic? Really? I assume you think the world is going to have an infinite population in 2025 too, lol. But really, f you don’t replot this again to a bell curve or something hyperbolic with some resistance in it, I’m gonna lose my cool. Saying 2015 with a Quadratic extrapolation is actually unethical with anything that actively resists change. This whole post is the equivalent to taking a sprinter’s 100m dash time, multiplying it out, and saying “that’s how fast you can run a marathon in.” No, you couldn’t run it that fast, because you would die, and anyone who says so, while well meaning, is simply using incorrect mathematical assumptions and formulas for the situation.

    In other news finally have my blogroll up. :)

    1. Eric Dekker

      Hey, I’m an Engineering major, not a math major, as we like to say, close enough ;)

      But yes it is all rather futile, way too many variable to predict it properly.

      1. Aldred Eckles

        No, but that’s the thing, not close enough. Way way off. Three things:

        1. The entertainment industry has been shifting from TV/films to video games for years and recently the largest share being captured in that growth is computers. i.e. business analysts expect MMOs market share to grow over the next few years. While this doesn’t say anything about WoW it does talk about WoW’s potential come next expansion. In other words, we as bloggers should look at this less in terms of “shucks, the game is dying” and instead promote vigorously “guess they messed something up with the marketing of MoP; that was a bad year but the rebound with 6.0 is going to be AMAZING.” Look back at your data and in your head, draw an imaginary 8 million subscriber bar following the 7.7 one. Then another at 9 then a whole bunch at 10 after that. Now doesn’t the graph seem to make just as much sense? With a seemingly level capacity of 10 million subscribers but some weird Blizz goof in the spring/summer of 2013?

        2. Going with you and assuming the world is ending and the game is dying, there would be an inflection point is all I’m saying. The rate of change of subscriber loss would slow as people leave. Sure, mass exodus at first but after a while, only raiders are left. A little while later, casual raiders leave. Even later, WoW is still full of you me Nev, Blood Legion, and all the die-hard players who won’t leave without a fight. Thus, not having a tail in your graph is very misleading to people who read your blog and would repost/retweet it to their followers. No one can run a marathon in 1 hour.

        3. I’m an econ major. Population Dynamics spirals is just Calc 2 stuff. Pshhhhh.

        As someone with influence, you’ve got an obligation to represent numbers ethically. Don’t give a specific date if you use inappropriate means.

        P.S. Sorry for misspelling your name. lol

        1. Eric Dekker

          You make some fair points, this analysis is pretty simple, and I don’t know much about populations or subscriptions. It would make sense to have an inflection point assuming the game is dying, I just wouldn’t know how to go about plotting it.

          (An no worries about the name, my first name is Americanized, but the last name isn’t, it throws a lot of people lol (Another common one is Eric Decker))

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