Daily Archives: February 15, 2016

WoW and the Case for Subscription Numbers

There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.

-Oscar Wilde

Late last week Activision-Blizzard had their quarterly results conference call and presentation.

ActiBlizz450

This has always been a must-attend for WoW watchers because along with the dry financials and vague statements there were those subscription numbers.  That was always the real “health of the game” indicator, a number of substance, some hard data we could track and chart and argue about.

Then, of course, as part of the Q3 2015 results last year, at which point WoW seemed to be stable at 5.5 million subscribers, it was announced that they would no longer be providing subscription numbers.  Instead all we would get were revenue numbers, hand waving, and their completely fatuous “Monthly Average Users” or “MAUs” metric.

So I was curious as to how the earning call would go this time around, whether there would be some WoW news to go with things or not.  Because, if nothing else, Blizzard seemed to feel compelled to give us some news with every dip in the subscriber count.   I am pretty sure, for example, that we got the WoW Legion announcement early in order to counteract the big drop in subscribers announced that same week.

The whole thing was quite dull, at least if you were looking for any news about World of Warcraft.  There was a general statement about people buying lots of the current charity pet, granting the company a nice tax deduction I am sure.  There was some unsubstantiated statement about growth, but it was so vague that some fan sites put the word in apologetic quotes.  And there was some non-news said in a way to make it sound like news about the WoW Legion expansion.  We knew all of this already.

Blizzard Q4 2015 slide

Blizzard Q4 2015 slide

Seriously, telling people that the expansion was going to release this summer, after the Warcraft movie barely even qualified as a rehash of what we already knew.  It couldn’t release before the movie and be during the summer, since the movie releases on June 10th, ten days before the calendar declares the start of summer in North America.  And the data set contained by the parameters “after the movie release” and “Summer 2016” still extends out until September 21, 2016.  They could launch on that last date and still have told the straight up truth.

I even held off on this post through the weekend, just in case there was something else that Blizzard might want to throw out there.  But there was nothing further about WoW.

And so the earnings call was barely a blip on the WoW news front.  Many sites posted the obligatory “something was said” stories, but when you’re given nothing of substance, the story cannot be sustained.  One mention and sites moved on to other things.

However, if Blizz had given us a subscription number, up, down, or stable, I am sure we would have been bouncing that around for a week or more, discussing what it really means and whether or not this unprecedented for Blizzard alpha access to the expansion was helping to hold things together or not.

But maybe that is the way Blizzard wants things.

For the first five years after World of Warcraft launched, Blizzard was the company that made WoW and used to make some other games.  Then for a few years it was the company that made WoW and was remaking those games it used to make.  And then, finally, in the last couple of years, Blizzard has become the company that made WoW and a couple remakes AND a couple of new games.  Yes, World of Warcraft still brings in most of the revenue.  Without WoW I suspect the name of the company would just be “Activision” at this point.

The company clearly wants to talk about Hearthstone and Overwatch, which was reflected in the questions from the investment analysts on the call.  When question time came, nobody asked about WoW or StarCraft II or Diablo III or even Heroes of the Storm… which on could argue is something of a DOTA legacy remake in any case.  No, the questions, when it came to Blizzard products, were all about Hearthstone and Overwatch, the mobile game… and mobile is the current hawtness still, which even Blizzard seems to recognize… and the cartoon copy of Call of Duty… which is no doubt seen as part of the ongoing effort by Activision to cash in on its first person shooter dominance.

So the lack of WoW emphasis suits their needs.  It wasn’t quite that moment when john Riccitiello said that SWTOR wasn’t their most interesting property as a dodge when asked during an EA earnings call about subscription numbers, but it was clearly a step away from WoW.  The subscription number metric always overshadowed everything else, in part because WoW pretty much pays all the bills and then some, but also because of the assumed direct correlation between number of subscribers and total revenue for the game. (Though, as we can see, revenue is still pretty stable even with the big subscriber drop, so Blizz clearly has its ways of coping on that front.)

I do wonder though if, when the time comes to actually ship WoW Legion and the company actually wants us to focus on WoW again, if anything short of announcing a big jump in subscribers… which will be tough to do when you’ve banished that metric… will suffice.  Because if they think MEUs are something of substance, they are kidding themselves.

Basically, to get back around to the quote at the top, Blizzard has successfully gotten WoW to not be talked about… or at least talked about less outside of some very narrowly focused media outlets.  I wonder if they will end up regretting that some day.