As of June this year, World of Warcraft had 11.1 million subscribers.Speak to any other MMO creator and they would bite your hand off for even a slice of that success.
But to Blizzard, that number marks the game’s first decline in users since the title launched in 2005. Last year the game had peaked at 12m gamers, And with the firm announcing it’s working on a new MMO – the mysterious Project Titan – could it be that World of Warcraft’s days at the top is coming to an end?
“There are a lot of great things happening with World of Warcraft,” explains Blizzard’s international operations VP Michael Ryder. “We have launched in Brazil, and we have great expectations on how that is going to go.
“And the numbers that you’re looking at are from the end of the last quarter, which was before we launched [expansion pack] Cataclysm in China. We are enthusiastic about how we are doing there.”
To Ryder, World of Warcraft is just getting started. Whereas subscribers in its core Western markets are in decline, it is finding swathes of new gamers in emerging territories.
“We still see a lot of growth potential in China, especially in two or three cities. We are working with our partner Netease to grow our share there,” he adds. “We opened an office in Singapore last year. So we are making some strides towards developing that market for our games. We have a lot of players in South East Asia that are interested in our games, so we think there is an opportunity there. And beyond that we are always looking at opportunities in other markets, looking at broadband penetration and the number of people playing games and the economics. Generally we would like to see as many people as possible play our games.”
That’s not all, Blizzard has also updated its trial mechanism to encourage new gamers in giving the title a crack.
“People who are trying the game can now play in an unlimited way up to level 20,” added Ryder.
“In the past it was time based, so now it gives people the chance, at their own leisure, to take as much time as they want to get to Level 20. We have seen by past data that when people get to that point they are more likely to stay with it, as they have got over that initial learning curve.”
The latest trend in the MMO space is free-to-play. Would Blizzard ever consider that as a means to draw in new players Ryder continues: “We think about business models after we have made a great game. The subscription model for World of Warcraft has worked out pretty well for us. We are aware of the free-to-play model and we do think that's appropriate for some of the other games on the market, and when the time comes if we had a game that leant itself to that, we would think about it.”
But there’s no denying that much of Blizzard’s development focus has switched from its now seven year-old MMO to its new project. Project Titan is a step into the unknown for Blizzard. It is that difficult second MMO. Although the firm’s prestigious name should go someway to ensure a level of fan attention.
“We don't take anything for granted,” adds Ryder. “We know if we want people to feel like it is a great game, then we need to make a great game. Our titles must stand on their own two feet, so to speak.”
The idea that World of Warcraft has reached its peak is one that would excite Blizzard’s rivals. But even in its more mature territories, the publisher is not standing idly by as its numbers decline. And for the rest of the world, Warcraft is only just getting started.