World Of Warcraft Loses Millions Of Subscribers; How Few Can It Survive On?

World Of Warcraft
A screenshot from the "World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor" expansion pack. Blizzard

World of Warcraft subscriber numbers just keep on dropping, and I’ve gotten to wondering: How low can the game go? How long can Blizzard keep hemorrhaging millions of subscribers before the game hits a breaking point and either has to go free-to-play or down under all together? Mind you, this is totally rhetorical for now: There is such a point, but it’s around 5 million subscribers from here. Blizzard currently has 5.6 million subscribers for World of Warcraft.



World Of Warcraft Subscribers: How Few Can It Live On?


World of Warcraft has lost 44 percent of its subscribers since the beginning of 2015. For the mathematically challenged, that’s almost half. According to Fortune, those 5.6 million subscribers represent the smallest subscriber base for the MMO since 2006. And that’s not surprising: The game has been on a long, slow decline for years, and that’s finally reflecting in the subscriber base.

World of Warcraft is more than ten years old, and it shows. Can you really imagine new players getting into WoW now? High-schoolers, middle-schoolers? No, I don’t think so: It’s an aging game with a player base firmly in the millennial territory. The millions playing now are mostly the same millions who were playing five years ago… minus a few million who got bored of it, ran out of free time, or simply moved on to other interests (Notice I’m not saying they “grew out of it,” since games aren’t really age-based anymore. But people change and move on).

There’s no way World of Warcraft can ever return to sustained growth. Sure, its subscriber base will leap by a few million whenever a new expansion comes out. Sure, if it ever goes free-to-play, tons and tons of people will give it a try or come back—although, of course, you can play parts of the game for free now anyway. The number of subscribers will continue to decrease.

But the truth is, World of Warcraft isn’t in any imminent trouble. It’s the largest traditional MMO by a huge margin. When The Old Republic launched, Bioware crowed about hitting one million subscribers so quickly… and the game didn’t stay above that number for long. Elder Scrolls Online had around 1.2 million before going free-to-play. So WoW still has dramatically more subscribers than its competitors, and it’s hugely profitable—although not as lucrative as League of Legends or some of its ilk.

Soon enough, Blizzard’s other games—Hearthstone, but mostly Heroes of the Storm—will surpass World of Warcraft on the balance sheet, and maybe on the priority list. But WoW is classic legacy software. It’s the Windows XP of games—you don’t just stop supporting it because much of the world has moved on. You can’t. Too many people still use it. WoW is going to be around for years, and it’ll probably, possibly, go partially free-to-play eventually. But as long as it’s got at least a million subscribers, Blizzard’s darling should be just fine.

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