In high school, I was mostly a console gamer. My parents weren’t going to buy a new PC with a nice graphics card and high-quality processing speed. PCs are very expensive to build. Plus, don’t you have enough video games on the Nintendo, son? Essentially all my friends in high school started playing World of Warcraft. I desperately wanted to play with them, but I couldn’t afford a decent computer or the monthly subscription fee. And that’s how they all socialized. You want to hang out? I’ll see you in the raid tonight at 9:00! But obviously I couldn’t join in.
In 2010, I finally got enough money together to build a PC that could run the games I wanted. And I played World of Warcraft with my friends (a little too much, honestly). That was when the game saw its peak in subscribers at about 12 million.
Since then, WoW subscribers have dwindled significantly. Like many of my friends and myself, gamers have unsubscribed their accounts and their characters are dormant. In the chart above, there are a couple of positive spikes in subscribers, particularly near the release of the Mists of Pandaria expansion. But that other spike in 2014 before Warlords of Draenor was released…what happened there?
It makes perfect sense! Blizzard combined all of their games (Diablo III, World of Warcraft, Starcraft II) into one launcher with a new free-to-play online card game called Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. If you’ve ever played Magic: The Gathering, it’s a much simpler version and insanely fun. You could spend hours and hours building decks, battling your friends and strangers alike. But the worst part is…the game makes you thirst for World of Warcraft. I am firmly under the belief that the only reason Hearthstone was created was to get suckers like me to re-subscribe their WoW accounts. And that’s exactly what I did, but only for a couple months.
In a press release from developer Blizzard back in November of last year, they say the game is up to ten million subscribers. That is pretty substantial growth since the game was at about 7.5 million subscribers earlier in 2014. Over three million copies of the expansion were sold upon release, which adds up to about 10 million subscribers overall. But don’t you essentially have to sell 10 million copies of the expansion to hold 10 million subscribers? Hearthstone.
What is most mind-blowing about any of this is how World of Warcraft has performed compared to other MMORPG games. I wanted to play Star Wars: The Old Republic, but after playing a little while, I realized I’d rather just be playing WoW instead. There are many other MMO games that have tried the subscription model that have failed and gone free-to-play because of a lack of subscribers. Games like Star Trek Online and Elder Scrolls Online have gone free-to-play, which when that happens, the developers are basically saying, “we give up.”
WoW is now a 10 year old game. It is The Simpsons of the gaming world. Blizzard has found the formula to game addiction and infused it into an entirely different game that you can play for free. That way, you can get a little taste of what you’ve “kicked” before and decide that you want back on the real stuff. It’s genius, really. I can’t help but admire it. Stay in school, kids.