Welcome to the Wrath of the Burning Panda Cataclysm.
Well, it hasn’t been a good week for news if you are a fan of subscription only MMOs. Star Wars: The Old Republic threw in the towel and declared for free to play while other games that already converted continued to dig themselves further into the cash shop morass, whose depths I am sure we have yet to plumb.
And now it has come out that World of Warcraft has shed another million or so users, bringing the game from 10.2 million subscribers at the end of Q1 2012 to 9.1 million subscribers at the end of Q2 2012. More people picked up a copy of Diablo III in Q2 (10+ million) than remained subscribed to WoW.
Which leads me to some thoughts.
The stability of Q1 must have been partially because of subscription overhang. People cancelled but their subscriptions hadn’t run out. Then again, WoW only shed 100K subscribers in Q4 2011. How much overhang could there be?
Oddly, there was a report towards the end of Q1 that SWTOR was having an impact on WoW. I wonder how that idea works in retrospect? In Q1 WoW was stable and SWTOR shed 400K subscribers.
While WoW hasn’t taken the short term dive in subscribers that SWTOR has, at least as a percentage of total, it is still down from a post-Cataclysm peak of “more than 12 million” at the end of 2010 to 9.1 million midway through 2012. That is a 25% drop in 18 months.
There is still no breakout of the subscription numbers between Western and Asian subscribers, who pay very different rates to play the game. Losing a million Western subscribers would probably be a much bigger hit to the bottom line than a million Asian subscribers.
It is probably no accident that Mists of Pandaria is set to launch about a month before the first of the million players (around 20% of the Western subscriber base) who signed up for the Annual Pass plan, which got you a free copy of Diablo III, wrap up their one year commitment. I am free to cancel come Halloween.
My gut says that we are past the point where a new expansion can boost subscriptions significantly. If nothing else, there is the curse of the level based game with which to contend. 90 levels and four expansions start to look daunting to new players. You cannot just join up and play with your friends who are at level cap. Think EverQuest’s long, graceful decline into old age. (For a game at least.)
Unlike early MMOs, no one game seems to have replaced WoW. EQ siphoned off PvE players from Ultima Online. WoW became the new EQ. But WoW’s decline is not due to one game… there is no “WoW Killer”… but to a profusion of games in the market. And many of those games came about because WoW was so profitable that other players wanted in.
And, of course, all that crowding pushed alternate payment models, and so “free” became the operative word. Not only do you have a lot more choices now, but for a lot of them you no longer need to buy a box and sign up for a monthly subscription. It is hard to compete with free… at least for specific definitions of free.
WoW still remains an outlier in the subscription MMO world, with a huge subscriber base and an insane profit margin, and still seems likely remain so for some time to come.
So what is it going to be? Will Pandas give Azeroth a decent surge in subscriptions? Or will things remain flat tapering into the long, slow decline?