Activision Blizzard's World of Warcraft is the largest massively-multiplayer game in the world, holding a Guinness world record and earning over $10 billion for Blizzard in its lifetime. This year's Blizzcon event had several exciting announcements concerning WoW and the Warcraft franchise in general, which is good because the game has been struggling with an increasingly important problem: Subscriber loss.
In August 2015 it was revealed that World of Warcraft was down to 5.6 million subscribers, the lowest number since 2006. During the previous quarter the MMORPG had 7.1 million subscribers, meaning that it lost 44% of its subscriptions in the space of just six months. Fortunately for fans who want to see the game thrive, Blizzard is fighting back.
Polygon spoke with J Allen Brack, World of Warcraft's executive producer, during Blizzcon about this very issue. Brack admitted that subscriber issues were "a difficult problem," but insisted that the development team wasn't letting changes in subscriber rates affect the way that it worked on the game. He emphasized the problems that would occur if the team tried to focus on merely developing content to draw in subscribers, saying "For us, the team can't focus on how to make a quest that adds 100,000 more subscribers... You're going to drive yourself crazy as a developer doing that." Instead, the WoW team is focused on developing enjoyable content that will give players a positive experience. "The only thing we can do is focus on good experiences, focus on learning everything that we can and trying to put it into what we're working on and make World of Warcraft the best thing that it can be."
Instead of trying to drive subscriber retention through subscription-minded content, the team is focusing on making new content accessible to both existing players and those who are new to the game. One way that they're trying to accomplish this is through the Level Boost option that was introduced in the most recent expansion, "Warlords of Draenar." The Level Boost, which gives new characters the option of instantly increasing to level 90, will also return in next summer's "Legion" expansion. Other ways that they're trying to improve the gameplay experience for both new and existing players is to tweak the game's "timewalking" feature so that players can more easily replay old content, and to make adjustments to the game's expansion release schedule to get new content out faster than it's been available in the past.
These adjustments will likely help with player retention, even if World of Warcraft is unlikely to ever reclaim the popularity it once enjoyed. Providing enjoyable content will help draw in new players at the free-to-play level, and may encourage them to subscribe eventually to take full advantage of all of the subscription benefits. Former players may also stick around for a bit if they return when the new expansion comes out, replaying old levels that they enjoyed with new characters and avoiding the grind required to reach level 90 with a brand new character.
None of this will do much to stop the claims that WoW is dying, however. The game has been around for 11 years, and there's only so much that the development team can do to grow its subscriber base after that much time. New content will keep the core player base interested, the upcoming Warcraft movie may give the game a boost, and some free-to-play players may go on to subscribe. Still, few games are still adding new expansion content after 11 years, and it's obvious that World of Warcraft seems to have the right attitude toward content to keep itself going for several more years.
World of Warcraft: Legion is expected in summer 2016.