Blizzard has proudly reported a larger number of subscribers every year since World of Warcraft's release, except last year. Is the mess with Chinese regulatory agencies to blame?
Since its launch in 2004, World of Warcraft has dominated the gaming industry, regarded as the most-successful and popular MMO in history. Throughout the past five years, Blizzard continued pouring its blood, sweat and tears into WoW, ensuring its legacy by retaining a multi-million-player subscriber base. And with each passing year, as Blizzard reported, the MMO's subscribers continued to grow. Players grew from 5 million to 8 million, followed by a staggering 10 million. Around this time last year, Blizzard boasted more than 11.5 million subscribers worldwide after Wrath of the Lich King's release.
For the first time since its inception, WoW's seemingly-boundless momentum might be leveling off, according to Activision-Blizzard's recent end-of-fiscal-year conference call with its investors. As we reported last week, Blizzard president Mike Morhaime confirmed that the company's upcoming expansion, Cataclysm, will launch in 2010. In addition, Morhaime revealed that WoW's current subscriber base is 11.5 million; the same figure announced in November 2008. Has the MMO finally reached the pinnacle of its success, or is there another reason behind the stalled numbers?
According to VG247.com, during the call Morhaime said that he remains "optimistic about the game's future," especially because of Cataclysm's upcoming release. Historically, both of World of Warcraft's previous expansions helped fuel an influx of new and returning subscribers, and provided incentive for existing players to remain in-game.
According to the same article Morhaime also mentioned that Blizzard attributes half of its worldwide subscriber base to the Chinese market. That’s almost 6 million players; many of whom had only intermittent access to WoW throughout 2009, when the Chinese government pulled the plug on Wrath of the Lich King before it even hit store shelves. Last October, we published a news-editorial summarizing the plight, after Blizzard ended its contract with longtime Chinese WoW publisher The9.
In April, Blizzard announced a partnership with a new publisher, NetEase, in the hope of getting WoW back online and running. But unfortunately for our fellow Chinese players, this was only an early chapter of long and grueling story that's still unfolding today.
Two agencies of the Chinese government—the Ministry of Culture and the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP)—disputed each others' regulatory claims regarding the MMO, leaving gamers helplessly caught in the middle of a bureaucratic power struggle. The GAPP accused Blizzard of allegedly entering an "illegal business venture" with NetEase in July, ordering an investigation to determine the legality of the partnership. (In October, the GAPP banned foreign companies from investing in China's online gaming industry.)
In November, the GAPP gave Wrath of the Lich King a "non-approval" and ordered NetEase to stop accepting new player subscriptions for WoW. According to an article at Reuters, the GAPP's decision exemplified the ongoing regulatory battle between the two government agencies, in addition to censorship issues. Last year, the PRC stepped up its efforts to crack down on online gaming in a series of "virtual raids," mostly targeting Web-based games.