For the first time since it launched, World of Warcraft's 11.5-million subscriber base leveled off in 2009. But Blizzard says the MMO hasn't reached its peak yet.
When Blizzard announced that World of Warcraft's subscriber base reached a whopping 11.5 million people in 2008, it didn't come as a surprise to most players, fan communities and media. It is, after all, the most-successful MMO in video game history. World of Warcraft continued to prove its market dominance by gaining millions of players each year, despite a strained economy and outdated game technology. It wasn't until last year that WoW's record-breaking success finally come to a halt; for the first time since its launch, the MMO's subscriber base leveled off, as we reported in February.
WoW took a substantial hit in 2009 when the Chinese government suspended its license to operate; Blizzard attributes half of its worldwide subscriber base to the Chinese market, according to president Mike Morhaime (reported during an Activision Blizzard full-year financial call, via VG247.com). One month later, in an annual report for investors, Activision recognized WoW's sluggish performance and several "risk factors" the MMO faces this year, which we detailed in our news report, "Activision Worried That WoW May Become Obsolete?" Despite all this, Blizzard executive vice president Frank Pearce recently said WoW's subscriber base hasn't peaked yet, and will continue to grow.
In an interview with VG247.com last week, Pearce said that the launch of Cataclysm this year—coupled with Wrath of the Lich King's eventual release in China—will reinvigorate WoW's subscriber base. According to VG247, when asked if the MMO had already hit its peak in terms of player numbers, Pearce replied: "No, I don’t think that at all." As the majority of the WoW community surmised, last year's problems with China's regulatory agencies was a huge setback for Blizzard, as Pearce explained in the interview:
"I mean, you can look at that number and if you look at some of the details around it… In China, for example, we haven't even launched Wrath of the Lich King yet, and that expansion is already 18-plus months old.
"They're still playing The Burning Crusade there, because we're waiting for approval for Wrath from the appropriate agencies. And once we get that approval and launch Wrath in China then I think we will see growth."
But will Blizzard really be able to exceed its previous record of 11.5 million players, as opposed to merely winning back its former players? As successful as it is, WoW is a six-year-old game, swimming in a sea filled with new and upcoming MMOs (many of which benefit from game technology that didn't exist back in the early 2000's, when WoW was being developed). According to Pearce, Blizzard has a lot of faith that Cataclysm will energize would-be subscribers, based on previous experience:
"Whenever we launch an expansion we usually see some win-back from players who have set WoW aside temporarily," he said.
"Hopefully we will get some people back from Cataclysm as well. I don't think 11.5 million is a peak, necessarily, but there are certain things that we need to do and need to do well in order to see it go further."
What's interesting is that Pearce doesn't fully attribute the possibility that "11.5 million is a peak" to Cataclysm's release and the return of Chinese players. Instead, he seems to insinuate that the key to WoW's future growth goes beyond Cataclysm. And if that's the case, it's fair to assume that Blizzard isn't planning to slow down WoW's continued development any time soon, even with its top secret "next-gen" MMO in-the-works.
Many of ZAM's readers seem to agree, based on reactions to the aforementioned "Activision Worried That WoW May Become Obsolete?" news report. Quick to point out the longevity of MMOs like EverQuest and Ultima Online—which are more than a decade old and still played today—many players believe WoW is "middle-age" or younger. If 10-year-old MMOs are still played (and in some cases, still moderately-supported) today, then doesn't it stand to reason that the biggest-selling MMO of all time will still be alive-and-kicking throughout the next decade?