Blizzard subs fall, and voting with your feet

News at the Activision investor call yesterday (yes it’s that time of the year) was that WoW subscriptions have dropped by around 600,000 since Cataclysm launched.

Kotaku comment that this means numbers are dropping towards pre-Wrath levels, which is an odd way of putting things since they still have a fair way to go before that. The Ancient Gaming Noob puts it better, as a 5% drop since Cataclysm launched.

This will not surprise any player who has been paying attention – I think the playerbase is well aware that many players have been getting bored with the new expansion relatively quickly. And although it’s tempting to say “yes but 11.4 million players are still there”, that’s probably not a constant population so much as a churn anyway.

But it’s interesting to imagine that the vast bulk of WoW subs are stable, with a swing population of 4-600k (easily enough to populate another successful MMO or two when they get bored of WoW). I wonder if they still count as WoW tourists if WoW is the game they’re getting bored with?

Activision’s response is that they will bring more frequent content updates to WoW, so both people who left because they ran out of content and current players who find they’ve run out of things to do should be pleased with that. It’s interesting to wonder how far this is a response to Rift’s frequent updates also but I’m sure that paying players voting with their feet is a larger influence.

In any case, expect subs to drop further over the summer because .. well … it’s warm out (at least in the northern hemisphere).

Changing patterns of MMO playing

I think the patterns in which people play MMOs are changing. With a larger choice of F2P games, as well as older AAA games offering new updates and content, there’s an increasing slice of the playerbase who will be more game-nomadic and less likely to set down roots in a single game for long periods of time.

This probably won’t affect WoW for a long time, they’re enough of their own thing to be in a different category altogether. And the majority of their player base has little interest in other MMOs. But people who do want to drift in and out and try different things will be wondering what they get for their sub.

And once you have a tooled up character in any game, it’s much easier to hop back in when a new and interesting content update comes along. (eg. I hadn’t played LOTRO for awhile but went back for Enedwaith.) So Activision’s comments about more frequent content updates show that they’re recognising this direct link between new content patches and players returning to the game. I’m sure they knew this anyway but this time they’ve explicitly stated it.

It’ll be interesting to see how they try to balance up attracting ex-players to return with keeping existing players from getting bored and leaving.

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31 thoughts on “Blizzard subs fall, and voting with your feet

  1. In all fairness, any MMO number is churn. There’s no such thing as “static” sub numbers. I’ve heard at various GDC’s that the only way to really judge how well your subs are doing is to judge the speed of the churn, not the number of subs.

    I’d expect to see some of the Rift babies getting bored. My friends who are playing are, and they will either find something new or go back to WoW to try 4.1 and 4.2 out. So churn continues.

  2. Oh, and Mike Morhaime announced today that Diablo III is going into beta this year. I bet they will sell a few of those as well. Think D3 will sell better than SC2?

      • Incidentally, it looks increasingly as though they’ll be releasing D3 against SW:TOR. I think that’ll be rather interesting. (I still quite look forwards to the D3 open beta though, even just so that I can chat to my WoW friends via battle.net if they’re still playing while I kick butt on my cool monk.)

  3. This news is worse than people imagine.

    For one thing, the 600k sub loss was in the West, not overall. If you look at the charts at http://www.mmodata.net/, you will see that WoW West is a bit above ~5 million subs. Ergo, this 600k drop is closer to 12% assuming 5.15 million. Considering that the 12 million was achieved before Cataclysm, I have a hard time attributing the drop to “tourism.”

    The other thing is that “more frequent updates” will do nothing to support returning players, and will ironically continue driving people out. Why? More frequent updates = more frequent tiers = more frequently spending hours grinding out new gear with a 4-month shelf life. Just look at the new ZA/ZG instances: if you left after hitting 85 and don’t even have 329 average ilevel, that new content is actually unavailable to you until you grind out dungeons you probably already seen before.

    In any case, I’m having a little Schadenfreude moment here because this feels like vindication for what I have thought was bad design on Day 1 of Cataclysm with their “heroic dungeons as 5m raid” philosophy. Heroics were (are) too long and too hard for LFD groups, and Blizzard waited too long to fix it. ZA/ZG is a doubling down on a bad bet, and I have little faith the rest of the expansion can even go differently.

    • I would assume that it’s even worse than that.

      They’ve lost people in the west. On the other side they’ve just released WotLK in china. WotLK was probably the best expansion from a subscription number point of view because it was very accessible. We can assume that they’ve probably won subscribers (new or returning) in china.

      That means that they’ve lost 600’000 more subscribers in the west then they won new subscribers in china with WotLK.

      I’m quite sure that it’s even more than your 12% of the western customers.

  4. Pingback: Quickie: Blizzard Targeting a Q3 Diablo III Beta, Q4 Release « Procrastination Amplification

  5. While I haven’t gone into the Schadenfreude moment yet, what I DO hope is that maybe they see that they are doing something-or some things-wrong and attempt to fix them. It’s not doom or anything, but that I can remember, blizzard had only gone up since the release of Vanilla. Sure, summertime sucks a few away no matter what the game but they’ve always stayed either incredibly stable or gone up.

    I don’t have an answer for this, though, since I don’t know exactly why this 600,000 left. Too little content? To fast content? Too long heroics? Not easy enough? Not hard enough? They liked it the old way? Some/All of the above? Other unspecified reasons? I can’t say. I know these are some of the things I’ve heard a few friends of mine give as leaving reasons but I can’t lump them in with all the 600k. So there really isn’t one answer. Like-as much as I’d like to see a couple Classic servers that won’t solve the problem for everyone. I’m sure while those servers would find themselves nicely populated I don’t see more than a few thousand resubbing and maybe a few more being convinced not to leave just for that(and I’m being pretty generous there.)

    Of course, there are still millions subscribed. It’s safe, it’s more than safe. But what WOULD be nice is if they just take this and take a good, hard look at it and maybe see what they could do to fix it. Summer will take more, yes, and maybe Firelands will bring them all back, maybe it will be that great. Who knows.

  6. I don’t think throwing more new content at the consumer is going to solve their drop in numbers. But an entire paradime shift in how they approach their game may. By making less exclusionary for one and instead more dynamic and personable for the others. They where on the right track with Wrath, but somehow fell off the rails towards it’s end and on into Cat. Where they seem to be hand holding when hands don’t need to be held and gating content where it doesn’t need to be gated. It’s a fine balance to make, but in their paternalistic hubris they have seem to have lost touch with. Just saying.

    • I think the goal is going to be set at getting more frequent expansions out. After all, expansions effectively reset the endgame so make it easier for people to catch up.

      • Unless the frequent resetting is part of the problem. Vanilla and TBC didn’t have resetting.

      • Making it easy to catch up is a double edged sword. Sure, it may lure people back (if they think the game hasn’t become inherently unattractive), but it also allows people to slip away if the game is temporarily not entertaining them. There’s little penalty to leaving if you can catch up quickly when you return.

  7. Honestly? A lot of the response to this seems to come across as people seeing any change in WoW’s numbers as a vindication of what they feel is wrong with the game.

    ‘LFD/Hard Content/Content Not Being Hard Enough/Recycled Dungeons/Dungeons Not being enough like old dungeons/ People Being Mean/Linear Questing are clearly killing the game that’s 10 to 20 times the size of it’s nearest competitors!’

    Given that the numbers are still in excess of the numbers that existed before all these changes took place it leads me to wonder if people mostly just want the evidence to mean what they want them to mean.

  8. I remember in the runup to Cataclysm and certainly on release the server queues for EU Argent Dawn were horrific. I’d get in from work, slap myself in the queue and wait till after dinner and then after 1-2hrs I may actually be able to get in. The queueing stopped really quickly, whether that was Blizz expanding server capacity (I doubt it) or people left the game again (more likely) I cannot confirm. What I do know is that I only lasted a few months, the game had just changed and all I was doing was logging in for a few hours, doing TB dailies and trying to run Heroics (unsuccessfully) both in guild and with LFD. I abandoned that grind and went over to Rift where I am having a blast. The soul system is dynamic and fun with a lot of depth and the dungeons are not too long either. I’m not max level but am enjoying the journey again. With Cata I know of only 1 person from our BC guild that is still playing permanently but they are just behind the crest of the wave in terms of consuming content. I think if you’re one of those more casual players then WoW is less and less the game for you.

    • If you’re more casual, pretty much *any* subscription game isn’t going to be a good idea.

      I think we’re seeing the maturation of the market. More frequent content additions isn’t a bad idea, but neither does it really recognize the changing demographics of gamers (early WoW adopters may well be having babies now, and *that* changes play patterns) or the changing financial market.

      With fun games like RIFT in the mix, yes, I expect WoW numbers to change.

      It’s about time. Keep ‘em on their toes, I say.

  9. Activision’s response is that they will bring more frequent content updates to WoW,

    That response actually bothers me, because it’s a response that seems to come from management and not from the dev team. I’ve worked at software companies who tried to push stuff out the door before it was ready, and the quickest way to decimate your user base is to release buggy code in the interest of quicker release times.

    A new MMO like Rift is able to release new content quickly because it doesn’t have the weight of six years of released content to deal with, so Rift’s dev team doesn’t have as much code to integrate.

    I suspect the real problem here is that the emphasis on Cata wasn’t strictly the top level content as in previous expansions. If Blizz wants to counter this by working in more frequent patches, they have to be careful that they don’t push the devs too hard or release poorly testing work.

    • I’ve never understood why WoW wasn’t able to bring out expansions faster than one per 6 months. If it takes 6 hours to bake a cake and you want more than one cake per 6 hours you can achieve this by having multiple ovens. Can they not have a team designing 4.4’s dungeons and zones while the usual team designs 4.3?

      Just seems cheap to me.

      Of course this may not be the solution they implement. It is rather against most corporation’s philosophies to counter this issue of suddenly losing money by deciding to spend more.

      • Expansion packs aren’t cakes:) I’ve got some experience of change controlling a live service with multiple releases in a pipeline and it’s one of the reasons my hair is prematurely grey. Any change in x-pack A has to rippled down into x-packs B, C and D and then everything in them tested again… Given how much is in flux right up to release with an MMO expansion, the ones in the pipeline would spend all of their time regression testing.

        That’s not to say Blizzard couldn’t do expansions faster. they take a lot longer than other companies, the volume of content in each one isn’t that much more than anEQ or DAoC expansion and they can certainly afford to throw more developers at it. Right now, Blizzard are the George R R Martin of games and Trion are starting to look like the Terry Ratchett games company – also quality and much more output :)

      • Sure I appreciate that but, for example, when pressed on this in the past Blizzard have cited art as one of the things that takes time.

        What will change in 4.2 that would make it impossible to draw a dungeon for 4.3?

        And if you do need to change the engine at a fundamental level every patch have you perhaps built your engine wrong? Rift has an engine that is designed around patching in new content, it’s very clear they could give us dozens of new rifts by the end of the week if they wanted to.

      • A lot of it is the sort of money that Activision is willing to spend for development. Quality developers cost money, quality QA too. Now, you could argue that paying those developers would be worth it in hindsight given the subscription losses, but typically companies like to err on the cheap side if at all possible.

        Contract programmers could be used for certain aspects of code work, but if a company wants someone good for the long term, that company will need to train a code jockey in their processes and philosophy. It takes time to do this, no matter how skilled the new programmer is.

        Like Kiantremayne said, trying to keep a handle on multiple releases is a royal pain in the ass. Even if the code doesn’t directly overlap, you need to make sure that the code you’re working on isn’t broken by the stuff farther up the release chain. You’d be surprised at how often things will break when at first blush they don’t seem connected at all.

        In the end, however, it all comes down to money, and whether Activision is willing to pay for a larger quality Blizzard development staff.

  10. I think the problem is simply Cata isnt as good as Wrath was.

    The end game seems to be pretty hard but then NAX apart so was Wrath. I think there’s an issue with learnind curve this expansion. The wrath heroics were pretty hard (Loken anyone?) and Nax pretty easy. The first few bosses of Ulduar were likewise doable untill you hit the keepers. So people had a chance to learn before they hit the wall. Now they dont.

    However I think the real kicker is the background of the expansion. I loved questing through Wrath to level. It was my third or fourth alt before I got sick of it. This time I was sick of it on my main and despite it being quicker than ever before I still have less alts at cap than I did at this point in Wrath. Big Dead Dragon was never going to be as cool as Arthas but I think the main issue is Blizz have bled a lot of writing talent into SC2, DIII and the un-named MMO. There were a lot of fun quests and nice zones this expansion but it just felt like a re-hash.

    I know Spinks and I have both said this before:- DIII might be the nail in the coffin for a LOT of people. Ironic as I think its the biggest danger to WoW out there and its inhouse!

  11. Personally, neither D3 nor Titan will have any effect on my connection to WoW. After Cataclysm, I’ll buy any Blizzard product only after hell freezes over.

    • Yeah, man, stick it to ‘em, way to go with the intelligent and well thought-out consumer buying decision.

      I’ll see you in WoW’s next expac, then?

      • Only if I read certain developers are “pursuing personal opportunities elsewhere”.

        And yes, if enough people act like vindictive bastards, it will indeed show them. If not, at least I will have the satisfaction of not contributing to their livelihoods.

  12. My general theory is…. if they have fessed up to 600,000 gone, that means likely more have. People always prune the numbers for addresses like this. They wanted to show that yes the numbers were down, but they were on top of it.

    In the last week I got messages on both of my cancelled accounts asking me to come back for 7 days. I used to think these were always timed events, but I cancelled the two accounts a couple months apart. I scaled back, before quitting the game altogether.

    Everyone I have asked that is no longer playing apparently got one of these emails. I think they are worried, and are trying to inject another dose of crack in as many folks as they can.

  13. A numbers drop like that is more telling based on the time it came. Losing 600K after a year of doing ICC over and over would be one thing, losing 600K as you launched a new expansion means a lot more when you consider that they are losing them before many of these people even attempted all the new content.

    That number does not reflect the large amount of people like myself that still play out of habit. I have no intention of quitting but many that are in the same boat as me might quit at any given minute so to speak.

    That number also does not reflect the large amount of players that have already quit but had a year left in game time.

    That number also does not reflect the large amount of people that just do not spend much time in game any more that used to. The more time away the more likely they are to lose their addiction to the game or find another addiction, meaning they are opening the door to losing even more people.

    That number, 5% over all or 12% western, is enough for a business to stand up and take notice. That number is also very low compared to what the actual number would be if they where capable of including the other variables that I mentioned.

    Do not think in game play terms. In game play terms 5% or even 12% means nothing. You will either be a doomsayer screaming this is the end or a fanboy screaming this means nothing. In game play terms all this is irrelevant.

    In business terms if you lose 12% or even 5% in one quarter there will be shake ups, that is absolute.

    No business is going to shake off a loss like that in only one quarter, more so one quarter after their huge release they where counting on to make money.

    Things will change in game. One way or another and it will have nothing to do with what is good for the game, it will be what is good for business.

    Expect a return to wrath gameplay, that was good for business. The money men will see more money was made then and tell the designers to return to the money making method. It has nothing to do with anything but the bottom line.

  14. A lot of the comments here are hitting on a point that I mentioned in responding to the Bioware post. Activision-Blizzard, like EA, is a publicly traded company, and has an obligation to return a profit to their investors. Just as Bioware may be forced to make design decisions that satisfy EA, Blizzard may be forced to make design decisions that satisfy their overall corporate entity. The difference is, Blizzard IS the driving force in the overall corporate entity, where as Bioware is one small part of EA’s pie. And while they did report a loss in subscribers, they also reported their usual huge profits. So there is no financial pressure on Blizzard… yet.

    I think Blizzard is counting on “Project Titan” to pick up what WoW is losing, but I’m not sure that is a realistic expectation. WoW was an anomaly, always has been, always will be. I don’t think anything will duplicate its success, even another game from Blizzard.

    • Blizzard is only half of ATVI, and while ATVI is publicly traded, 51% of its stock is owned by Vivendi. Blizzard is NOT the overall driving force of ATVI; console revenues are more than twice as large as PC game revenues.

      The two people above Morhaime in the management chain are from Activision.

      Blizzard has been successful and has been given a long leash, but that lasts only as long as they don’t screw up. They have just screwed up.

      I too have serious doubts Titan is going to be anywhere near as successful as WoW has been.

  15. Myself, bought Cataclysm when it came out and then took a pause immediately, just resubscribed last week.

    I must partly agree with uzbek: “I think the problem is simply Cata isnt as good as Wrath was.” :)

    If Blizzard’s target audience are casual players, there’s simply not much for them to do in Cata. Hardcore raiders and PvPers will have months and months of fun, but your random player who does a heroic a day (and now fails it), or a random battleground (and now cannot get epics) could feel a bit bored.

    But the future looks bright!

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