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:
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:
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):
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.