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What Does 1.3 Million Subscribers Mean To Blizzard?

In video games, you haven’t really “made it” until you can attract a stigma.  Once people start juding your fan base with sweeping generalizations, that’s when you know that you’ve really created something special.  So often, people are judged by the games they play; but occasionally a game gathers such a passionate fan base that it is defined by the people that play it.  Such assumptions are made about people who play Call of Duty (bro), Halo (Xbox fan boy), Farmville (casual gamer), Bethesda games (nerd), JPRGs (bigger nerd), and EVE Online (biggest nerd, with friends).  However, World of Warcraft garnered some of the of most  vicious predispositions about the people that subscribed to the its sprawling, involved world. Recently, Activision Blizzard announced that World of Warcraft lost 1.3 million subscribers over the last year.  As the MMO market continues to become more and more bloated, World of Warcraft has always maintained, and continues to maintain, dominance in its sheer number of subscribers.  However, even with consistent updates to fight the games ever-growing age, Blizzard must have been aware that a drop in subscribers was always inevitable.

Aside from its world changing expansions that consistently keep the universe new, Activision Blizzard has always maintained a, “stay the course” method with the behemoth of an MMO.  Things have been added and altered constantly, but the idea of subscription model has always been the way to pay.  Even with a tenth of its fan base seeking new experiences, it is difficult to imagine the subscription model of payment ever changing.

I have always had a rocky relationship with World of Warcraft.  I have been a fan of Warcraft since the first conflict between the Horde and Azeroth.  I played all three iterations of the real-time strategy game and the Tides of Darkness expansion chest.  However, when the game took to an MMO world, I started to lose touch.  My PC days were coming to an end, replaced by a PS2, and even when my friends gave me a chance to tap into their accounts and get a taste of the free-roaming world, I was still left slightly unsatisfied.

Then came the stigma.  A wave of backlash against one of the most addicting experiences in video game history.  People treated WoW players like they were heroin addicts, sociopaths with a lack of perspective on reality.  This stigma hit close to home as rumors circulated about a close high school friend who had graduated Salutatorian, but “dropped out of college because of a WoW addiction.”  However, the community remained strong, the fan base remained rabid, and people began to come back down to Earth from their belief that the digital world of Azeroth and Kalimdor would bring about an apocalypse.

Through it all, I remained interested in the culture, but uninterested in the game.  It seemed like something that should appeal to me, I was a RPG nerd, from “J” to tabletop, I loved progressing characters and exploring worlds.  However, there was something that I struggled to put my finger on about World of Warcraft, something that just didn’t grab me.  The questing, the stoic combat gnawed at my interest, I was lacking an intrigue in character development, not just in stats but in actual story.  Why did I care about this pixilated troll who was regulated to killing the local pests for his tribe?

Through the cultural backlash, the flooded MMO market, the evolution of PCs, and the growing age of the fan base, World of Warcraft has endured.  Not only endured, but maintained its throne atop of the MMO ladder.  Why has World of Warcraft continued to dominate?  For the same reason that many games continue to succeed in today’s industry.  World of Warcraft is more than just a game, it is social structure, a shared interest amongst friends.  World of Warcraft connects players together in a natural way that is difficult for most games to replicate.  This is something eternal, something that World of Warcraft will always be able to boast.

It is also something it took me awhile to learn about the game.  Upon my building of a new PC recently, a friend requested that I try World of Warcraft with him again, just for one month.  I hesitantly agreed.  I felt I had already given World of Warcraft a fair shake, but still felt a tug at my heart to understand what is was that so many people enjoyed.  I have always considered myself more of a lone-wolf player.  Solitary experiences have always been my preferred way to play games, as I battle with the notion that having another player can “ruin” my game experience.  I like to play things a certain way and it often doesn’t meld well with others.    However, I found that playing with a friend made World of Warcraft an exponentially more interesting experience.  I had someone to share adventures with, to talk about the things I was seeing and experiencing.  More than anything, I had someone who could help guide me through the world.  Who knew where the Horde would troll newbies, who could help me understand how to level up my professions, who could advise me on what areas to explore next.  That questing experience, the comprehension of WoW and the shared camaraderie is something that set my time with World of Warcraft apart from other experiences.

However, that is part of a new problem World of Warcraft faces.  The game has evolved in so many ways to sate the desires of its fan base, that it is no longer very newb-friendly.  It is also a commitment, something that requires players to invest hours and hours of time to really make significant progress.  There is nothing wrong with a game like that, but in a world that moves at the speed of the mobile internet, the type of focus that WoW requires can only be offset by having someone guide you through the world.

Losing 1.3 million users isn’t the end of the world for Warcraft (no pun intended).  But a continued slide would definitely communicate a message to Activision Blizzard.  Almost all recently released MMOs, have started as–or gone to– a free-to-play model.  World of Warcraft has never been threatened due to its long-standing history, but maybe things are turning against the game.  This slide may continue, and for the first time, World of Warcraft may be forced to adapt to survive.

Josh Hinke is a part time centaur trainer in Hollywood, while going to school full time to be a professional Goomba. In between those two commitments I write about video games and cool things, like pirates and dragons and dragon pirates.