The art of public relations is to make things appear better than they are, without outright lying about them. One prime example of this is the recent announcement by Blizzard that they now have 12 million subscribers to World of Warcraft, with a narrow definition basically defining “subscriber” as anyone who actually paid something during the last month. For various reasons having to do with SEC rules and similar legal requirements, we can be certain that this statement is true. But most people are likely to consider the series of similar press releases announcing 11 million and 11.5 million players in 2008, and conclude that World of Warcraft is a game with a very steady subscription base, growing rather slowly nowadays. And that couldn’t be any further from the truth.
During the 2 years where we were playing Wrath of the Lich King on American and US servers, World of Warcraft underwent some major seismic events in China. Blizzard changed their distributor from The9 to NetEase, which caused lawsuits, and subsequently major trouble with the Chinese authorities. During this time the servers were shut down repeatedly, for an overall duration of several months. At other times the servers were up, but Blizzard was forbidden to sign up new players. And during all this time the Chinese servers were still running the Burning Crusade expansion, with the authorities objecting against graphical display of bones in WotLK (not a trivial problem for an expansion about undead). All those problems finally got resolved, and Wrath of the Lich King was released in China late this summer, on August 31st.
Blizzard never released any subscription number data during these troubled times. Obviously if one counts only players who paid for a subscription last month and servers were down for over a month, subscription numbers for mainland China were 0 at certain times. But even if you skip that period, it is obvious that subscription numbers in China weren’t stable during that time. While some players switched from mainland Chinese servers to Taiwanese servers, a large number of players did what everybody would do when there is no new expansion in view and the servers are down: They quit. With China supplying just over half of the World of Warcraft players, it is pretty certain that the number of people who quit WoW in China went into the millions. We just don’t know how many exactly, because public relations wisely didn’t tell us.
When Wrath of the Lich King finally was released in China, and the problems with the authorities resolved, Chinese players again reacted as everybody else would: They resubscribed. The 12 million player press release is in reality a statement from Blizzard saying that they got all the Chinese players who quit back, and then some, by releasing WotLK there.
So what is the best guess about the subscription numbers of World of Warcraft in the near future? Well, Cataclysm is released on December 7th in America and Europe, and the American and European players will do exactly what the Chinese did: They will resubscribe. There will be some press release about some incredibly high number of sales in the first week. And somewhere in early 2011 there will be a press release about World of Warcraft having reached 13+ million players.
So, is World of Warcraft steadily growing? Far from that! It is best to think of the subscription numbers of World of Warcraft as being some sort of wave, with the press releases only announcing the high points, while the valleys between them are kept secret. Even if there are no future major events in China, the WoW subscription number curve will remain wavy. Because as much as Blizzard public relations would like to suggest to players and investors that interest in WoW remains steadily growing, the truth is that interest in WoW peaks with every expansion release, and drops between those releases, with minor variations due to content patches and external circumstances like summer holidays. And because expansions for World of Warcraft are still spaced 2 years apart from each other, the valleys between expansions are deeper than for other games. Speed of content creation is one of the fundamental problems of this game.
If this summer you had the impression that player activity on your server was rather subdued, and there were various problems e.g. getting raids together, you were most certainly right. Some people played alts, other played a lot less, and again others unsubscribed while waiting for Cataclysm. Blizzard never tells us the true numbers, but that must have some financial impact. Part of the player drain due to slow expansions is balanced by new players still flocking towards World of Warcraft in large numbers: WoW has been in the top 20 of PC games sales every month for years now. And it is that which explains why every expansion when it finally comes out results in a new subscription number record, due to ex-players resubscribing.
It isn’t clear how this could be sustainable indefinitely. It is notoriously harder to get an ex-player to resubscribe or a new player to sign up, than to keep existing customers playing. If people get into the habit of playing every expansion for a few months after it comes out, and then cancelling until the next expansion, one day they won’t be back. That might be from having learned the lesson of repeated burnouts, or from there being other games that hold the players interest more strongly than the umpteenth expansion. Continuous slow growth is not only a completely wrong picture of the recent past, it also is unlikely to be the long-term future of World of Warcraft. Press releases on subscription number records are just the tip of the icebergs of a far more complicated picture.