News of the day is from a Activision Blizzard investor conference, where it was revealed that only 30% of players in World of Warcraft make it beyond level 10. Or, in other words, 70% of players don't get past the free trial. Elder Game points out that losing only 70% of players in the free trial for a 5-year old game is actually amazing, because in most games with downloadable trials those 70% of players don't even get to level 2. Nevertheless, and I guess that was why the number was mentioned in the investors conference, this means that there is some untapped potential for World of Warcraft to attract even more players.
Subscription numbers can be highly deceptive. Look at the following bit of news from the same source: "Current subscription numbers for World of Warcraft are holding steady at 11.5 million." What does that suggest to you? You probably think of stagnation, this being the same number than half a year ago. But actually that number is higly dynamic. The only thing it tells us is that the number of new players starting World of Warcraft is exactly as high as the number of old players leaving WoW. We also know from WoW regularly popping up every week in top 10 PC games sales charts that the number of new players is quite high. More players *started* playing WoW in 2009 than most other MMORPGs have overall subscribers. We just don't know how many exactly.
Now presumably Blizzard wants even more World of Warcraft subscribers. So what could they do? They could either stop the outflow, or increase the inflow. The traditional method is to try to stop the outflow, by adding an expansion with content at the high end of the game, keeping existing players busy. But, as remarks about Cataclysm and the investors conference news above reveal, Blizzard will deviate from that model in the next expansion. They will try to go for BOTH less outflow and more inflow, by not adding content at the top, but also redesigning the new player experience. After all, if you start a level 1 human character in WoW today, your experience of the first 10 levels is still fundamentally the same as it was 5 years ago. All the expansions and patches and changes of the game had only minimal effect on the game below level 10 up to now. But the "cataclysm" could change all those newbie zones. And the streamlining of the stats system could help as well. It is totally possible that Blizzard completely reworks the new player tutorial at the same time.
The potential of making changes to the new player experience, as compared to the current discussion of whether maybe the top guilds killed Arthas too fast and Icecrown is too easy, is staggering. You're not going to gain another million subscribers by fiddling with the difficulty level of Icecrown. But you could well get that million if you manage to capture the 70% of players who never make it past level 10.