World of Warcraft Still Pulls A Crowd

Received wisdom tends to be that World of Warcraft is a game in slow decline, still very much a going concern but nonetheless the last great dinosaur of the subscription MMO. Turns out that’s not quite the case – while its 12 million+ subscriber glory days might be behind it, its global population is ever so slightly on the rise. That didn’t stop owner Activision losing a wee bit of money over the last year, though.

The current subscriber figure stands at 7.8 million, up some 200,000 from last November, revealed Activision in an investor call yesterday. That is not bad going at all. I wonder why – was it people coming back in for the annual Christmas shennanigans? Was it an advertising campaign? Was it peopel feeling the need to plunge fully into another world to escape winter doldrums? Was it zombies? Maybe zombies quietly rose from the grave sometime in December, but instead of eating people’s brains they all started playing World of Warcraft. It’s got to be that.

In other news, Activision made a shit-ton of money again, but Call of Duty: Ghost sales were down from the series’ escalating usual. This partially contributed to the publisher’s revenues for the most recent year slipping to $4.58 billion from last year’s $4.86 billion. Profits were down to $1.01 billion from the previous year’s $1.15 billion. 0.14 sounds kinda tiny, but 0.14 billion dollars is an awful lot of money.

However they’d anticipated some decline, and in fact beat expectations somewhat. Projections for this year look pretty much along the same lines, suggesting that for now the company’s period of explosive COD/WOW/Skylanders growth may be behind it. But who knows? Videogames! Yes, I am available for work as an expert analyst.

“2013 was a transformational year for Activision Blizzard and for our industry,” Activision CEO Bobby Kotick said whilst trying to make things sound better. “Our transaction with Vivendi returned us to independence and eliminated the challenges and constraints of being a controlled company.”

Another statement had plenty of chest-thumping about the year ahead: “As we look to 2014 and beyond, we have the strongest and most diverse pipeline of games in our history. We expect Bungie’s Destiny, an innovative shared-world, first-person action game to be Activision Publishing’s next billion dollar franchise. Activision Publishing also has terrific new games planned for the Call of Duty and Skylanders franchises, and Blizzard Entertainment has an expansion to the top-selling PC and console game Diablo III and another major new release.

“Also in our pipeline for 2014 and the next few years are at least three potentially groundbreaking new free-to-play franchises—Blizzard’s Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft and Heroes of the Storm, and Activision Publishing’s Call of Duty Online. We believe these games have great global potential. Free-to-play as a business model has now achieved scale, both in the West and in China. Hearthstone, which released in open beta on PC last month and which Blizzard Entertainment plans to expand this year to tablets and smartphones, is already attracting millions of players with strong engagement and monetization in the West and China, putting it on track to join World of Warcraft, Diablo, and StarCraft as their fourth mega franchise.”


They think Destiny’s gonna be huge
+ Call of Duty will be F2P
+ Hearthstone’s going to phones too and is being seen as its own franchise rather than a Warcraft spin-off.

= Money. And 200k rise or not, WoW may well be yesterday’s golden goose compared to this stuff.


  1. Llewyn says:

    For the sake of clarity, is that 7.8m actually the number of subscribers or the number of active accounts? I assume it’s more likely to be the global number, including non-subscription markets in Asia, and that the number of subscribers in the sense we immediately think of is closer to the number of US+EU active accounts (which Blizzard used to reveal separately.)

    • derbefrier says:

      does it really matter? thats a huge number no matter how you try and spin it.

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      “Subscriber Definition: World of Warcraft subscribers include individuals who have paid a subscription fee or have an active prepaid card to play World of Warcraft, as well as those who have purchased the game and are within their free month of access. Internet Game Room players who have accessed the game over the last thirty days are also counted as subscribers. The above definition excludes all players under free promotional subscriptions, expired or cancelled subscriptions, and expired prepaid cards. Subscribers in licensees’ territories are defined along the same rules” (source)

    • FenixNoT says:

      It’s the actual number of current active subscribers. So 7.8 million people still shelling £8.99 or $15 or whatever out to Blizz every month to play WoW. They used to have over 12 or 13 million active subs. Still with that many subscribers they’re pulling over £70 million a month, not including other purchases like mounts, character transfers, faction changes, etc which are all £10+ each. Blizzard still top any other MMO dev out there as far as consistently high sub numbers & general good business strategy goes.

    • ludde says:

      It’s actually getting to the point where comment threads are hard to read because the amount of spam is higher than legitimate comments.

  2. P-Dazzle says:

    “That didn’t stop owner Activision losing a wee bit of money over the last year, though.”
    I don’t get that. They made $1.01 billion in profits. So they didn’t lose anything.
    Business talk eh?

    • soulblur says:

      The wording is a little ambiguous. What he means is that they made less money than before – “losing money on last year”, but not losing money in an absolute sense. Their trajectory is down (for the moment), but they are still profitable.

      I suspect, from what I’ve been reading, that they are going to hammer it with Hearthstone. A lot of potential to make money there. Not as much as WoW though. What could make that much money? You buy the game, then pay ongoing subs regardless of how much you use it? Not a particularly fair business model, but one that has definitely served them well.

      • trajan says:

        I agree. This is the wording the hospital I work in uses to tell all their employees why they aren’t getting raises each year. “Oh, we only netted $90 million. Our goal was $100 million. So we lost profit and you don’t get a raise.”

        Do I come across as bitter? :)

        • TWChristine says:

          I work at a grocery store and the year before last the manager came around and gave me a $15 gift card to use there and said “Here’s your Christmas present.” Thinking the way he said it was hinting at how we were being given a gift which we then were going to use in the store; so they really weren’t losing any money on it, I let out a loud and sudden “HA!” which got an odd look in return. I didn’t get anything this last year. Not that I honestly care, I’m so bitter at this company for other (bigger) reasons that a gift card is the least of my worries.

          • bill says:

            but… if you use the gift to get something for free then they are losing money on it, aren’t they?

            Maybe not $15, but the cost price of the items that you take.

          • TWChristine says:

            Right, and I understand’s just me being unclear between writing/editing before posting :) Either way I know it makes me come off probably like a self-entitled ass who can’t accept something graciously that they were under no obligation to give. It just comes off as one more little prick at you when you see how people at other stores are treated, in addition to like I said all the other issues I’m dealing with them about results in me just being a curmudgeon!

          • Captchist says:


            Unless the expectation was already there that you would get a christmas gift/bonus.

            If I work at Store X and I’m expecting $500 for a christmas bonus and they give me $ 500 of Store X vouchers then even if it cost them $100 for cost of the things I buy with it they are effectively saving $400 on expected bonuses.

            So did they spend $100 or save $400.

          • SeismicRend says:

            You’re completely justified at being offended by it. They’re giving you a gift card for a tiny amount with expectations they will make a much larger sale and likely profiting from it. A $15 gift card is practically a coupon.

    • vivlo says:

      that’s the problem with the capitalist system of now : if you don’t grow, if you don’t improve over your last scores, you’re on the decline. Status quo is not an option. If you have a serious success once, which was relative to a “genius strike” of the kind you can’t have twice, you can’t consider that once its success dries up, you’ll be back to your previous results. Actually it does fully make sense because to take care of that success you will have hired a lot more of people, you will have attracted investers, you will have grown ; and all those people need money. The problem is that the biggest hits are related to creativity bursts, related to specific creative people and the like of which can not really happen in classical bigger structure, because every work is encapsulated within a hierarchy decisional process, which is the best way to obliterate individual initiatives. (and no, sorry, I am not available for work as an expert analyst.)

  3. Shooop says:

    Some people like watching the “Insert Adjective” Movie series too. They, like WoW fans are beyond help.

    • xao says:

      I know, right? Don’t you just hate it when people like different things than you?

      I even heard that Karen, from homeroom, likes to eat food for which I have a mild distaste! Burn the witch!

      • Shooop says:

        Having a distaste for some kind of food and not suffering from coprophilia are two very different things.

      • Smoky_the_Bear says:

        Yeah exactly, liking something that someone else dislikes clearly means they need help, what an absolute twat. Enjoying WoW as a videogame ofc means I must be a massive Blizzard fanboy and walk around wearing nothing but Blizzard emblazoned clothing all the time.

  4. chiablo says:

    I miss World of Warcraft, until I play it and realize that I don’t like what it’s become and don’t like the clunky legacy stuff that has remained.

    Do I really need 100 skills, of which only 10 are useful? Why are they giving out high-tier items to people for doing daily missions, doesn’t this nullify the point of doing raids?

    • ucfalumknight says:

      I was a subscriber since vanilla, but when Cata came out it became SO grindy and not even a fun kind of grindy. WotLK was a bit grindy, but it was fun and the writing was excellent. The couple of phased quest series weren’t too bad. Cata had too much phasing and the dailies were boring and poorly written. So, I quit. And not even Kung Fu Pandas could bring me back.

    • melnificent says:

      I quit when they changed the chat system to a subset of the area you were in. Barrens chat died that day, maybe an MMO one day will recreate it’s simple brilliance.

    • Edawan says:

      “Why are they giving out high-tier items to people for doing daily missions, doesn’t this nullify the point of doing raids?”

      That’s if gear is your only motivation for raiding, and raid gear is still vastly superior anyway.

      • Smoky_the_Bear says:

        It’s superior but it’s lost its uniqueness. Jump in easy mode LFR and you get practically the same gear with slightly less stats on it. Putting the effort into raiding used to mean your character had a different look to your average player, you had items with cool names that weren’t obtainable to people not willing to put in the effort. This uniqueness of character has been completely lost with MoP, now everybody walks around wearing the same crap and generally being identikit copies of each other.

        • SeismicRend says:

          I don’t understand your sentiment behind a plea for uniqueness for a few reasons. First off there’s an immediate visual and statistical distinction in the gear obtained from the different raid difficulties. Secondly, you can swap gear looks through transmog so there’s always a unique look you can give your character. And finally, WoW isn’t a game driven by graphics. You spend far more time looking at your UI and the information displayed on it than whatever is going on in the 3D world in the background. Although maybe that’s the raid healer in me talking. ;-)

    • Faxanadu says:

      There’s too much stuff, and it’s too easy to get.

      Logging on to World of WarCraft nowdays I sometimes see people with a Huge Shiny Flying Pot or maybe they’re wielding a World Destroying Super Polearm that I’ve never seen before or maybe there’s a level 1 with Lich King mask or Tyriels wings on his back.

      Point is – NOTHING is amazing anymore. There’s just so much stuff and it’s not hard to get. NOBODY looks cool anymore, because there are no tiers, there’s just LOADS of STUFF for everyone.

      I only log as a trial by the way. I quit WoW before Pandaria came out, because I knew it was gonna flop like it did (2 million subs lost after panda launch in record time) and because they STILL hadn’t done a thing about the massive PvP potential they had. Could not bear watching that kind of waste. It was like watching Valve decide to make CS 1.3 into a singleplayer against NPC’s.

  5. Carra says:

    Wow, spent too many hours in that game. Still, fun to go back and play for two months after every expansion.

    • jrodman says:

      I find it fun to go back and play again once in a while, for a single day.

      If I could pay 25 cents to play for a day i probably would now and then.

  6. Maxheadroom says:

    Not been a subscriber for years but after playing a bit of Hearthstone I had a nostalgic hankering to run a couple of battlegrounds for old times sake.

    So I used my free 10 day ‘please come back’ pass and jumped into the nearest battleground and…hated every minute of it.

    Didnt have a clue what I was doing any more, The screen was just a-wash with exploding numbers and I was dying seconds after spawning.

    I imagine this is down to me forgetting how to play rather than a criticism of what the game has become, but with 9+ days still on my pass I’ve no desire to load it up again.

    Nostalgic itch well and truly scratched

    • jrodman says:

      Warcraft is largely about becoming slowly knowledgable about a huge pile of facts, skills, interactions, items, locations, etc. You absorb knowledge steadily as you encounter the game from the start and it’s captivating for the right personalities.

      Coming back to the game after a hiatus is extremely disconnecting. “What is all this shit in my bags? What do all these skills do??” It’s a problem for Blizzard long term and they know it. They’ve blogged about this sort of thing and tried to look for ways to reduce the disconnect, but to some extent I think it’s unavoidable.

      • Stephen Roberts says:

        Really annoys me that they don’t have older patch servers. They seem to be so staunchly unwilling to put them on that the player base defensively attacks any request of it. I think it would help with old timers… they could play… the old game.

        Sorta like how I might play Warcraft 3 or Thief 2. Bit of massaging here and there and ‘lo, I can step back into the past. Unlike WoW.

        • Harvey says:

          Until Blizzard offers their own version, I don’t feel at all guilty playing on (and pointing you toward) a private server. My personal favorite is Rebirth. True old-fashioned vanilla take-forever-to-60 World of Warcraft that I remember playing back in 2003.

          I love it. Google it and have a look, My guild could use some help taking down Rag.

        • jrodman says:

          There is a real problem here.

          A fully functional vanilla server requires a fully functional vanilla client. That means either re-creating functionality with their current code and tech, or bringing the old code out of the mothballs and maintaining it.

          It’s potentially a lot of work.

          Yes, you can run the old client but no bugs get fixed and there could potentially be ones that really need fixing, and you’d have to swap around with multiple clients and it would be at the very least ugly and awkward.

          But yes I have played third party servers to experience vanilla again. It’s hard to find one that isn’t 5x the levelling rate or whatever though.

    • Jenks says:

      You should have kept playing until you knew exactly what was going on, and could definitively say the game is bad now.

  7. huldu says:

    They had an offer during December, vanilla plus expansion for only $15 incl. one month of subscription. That was dirt cheap. I’ve encountered a lot of new players in world of warcraft which is very nice to see. I stopped playing a couple of years ago and it feels quite fun to be back on the horse after all this time. I still consider wow to be one of the best mmo’s out there and the fact that it isn’t f2p really brings it up a few more notches. I’d rather pay a measly $15 a month to get rid of feeps. However to have a subscription in a mmo these days you really need to bring an excellent game and I just don’t see any “no-name” mmo doing that.

    ESO will most likely fail and turn into a f2p in time just to try grab as much money as possible, in time it’ll fade away. Wildstar is a tricky one, I can’t really put my finger on it. Can’t say I have much faith in ncsoft doing anything right tho.

    • Stephen Roberts says:

      I too prefer monthly payments to F2P. Without going into it too much, F2P games are hamstrung in some way by needing to monetize some part of the game experience. Your get your game and make part of it suck until cash is spent. Unfortunately, the arbitrary pricing of monthly subscription models seems to have settled at a number that doesn’t really mean it’s easy to have a few subs running simultaneously. Cut that down to £3 per month and watch as people just don’t bother to cancel their subscription. They can run a few monthly game subs concurrently without feeling fussed about not playing for a month or so.

      Of course, now it’s where it is, you can’t ever imagine WoW saying ‘let’s ditch 60% of WoW subscription earnings”.

      • malkav11 says:

        Yes, F2P games need to monetize somehow, but it doesn’t inherently mean making the experience suck until you pay to make it not suck. There are plenty of games out there with an entirely reasonable F2P approach, like Path of Exile or DOTA2 (where everything is free except cosmetics), Marvel Heroes (where the only gameplay relevant purchases are the heroes and stash tabs, and you can earn the heroes through regular drops of an in-game currency), League of Legends (where you can play with a rotating roster of free heroes and earn in-game currency to purchase them), Rift, where virtually everything except cosmetics is free, etc.

        Not to mention various other MMOs where it’s basically a-la-carte purchasing instead of monthly renting. And most of those still have the regular subscription offer but with bonus cash store points.

        • Smoky_the_Bear says:

          This is true, I do not understand games that use such restrictive F2P models, SWTOR is a perfect example, they try and make you pay for everything. When I went back to it recently I quickly tired of the F2P restrictions (paying for the “hide head slot” option? Really?) and went back to Rift instead due to the game being much more accessible.

          Restrictive F2P models just turn people away, LoL and DOTA are great examples of a model that encourages people to play without forcing them to pay anything, people are more likely to stick with the game when you don’t lock things behind a pay wall, once they are invested in the game they will spend money.

        • SeismicRend says:

          It cannot be understated how unique DOTA 2 and Path of Exile are to the industry. F2P games are not without cost. Those games place barriers that encourage you to spend money to unlock more game content once they have you hooked. However, DOTA 2 and Path of Exile give you the full game experience for no charge. Full stop. They’re only monetized by selling cosmetic items that have zero effect on how the game plays. I think it’s an insult to Valve and Grinding Gear Games by grouping their titles with F2P.

  8. samsharp99 says:

    I hated how they kept calling everything a ‘franchise’. Why can’t they just make ‘games’ and if the ‘games’ sell well and are popular, make a (good) sequel. It’s a real shame that rather than creating great games, they’re creating great business opportunities and I thought that was the whole point of them re-taking control.

    I know it was an investor call and all…but seriously people. IT’S ALL ABOUT THE GAMES!

    • MykulJaxin says:

      I agree. I feel like this mentality is hurting the entertainment industry as a whole. I realize that money is the motivator, but when that’s the sole reason for doing anything creativity and ingenuity seems to take a back seat in favor of cranking out more and more and milking the franchise dry. Did we need a new generation of consoles? I’m not sure we did. We need Resident Evil 4’s and Dead Spaces and Dark Souls: pushing videogames forward and doing new things. Better graphics don’t change the empty recycled husk of a game lying underneath. Again, not everyone cares about playing good games and are content playing CoD every year and it is to these people that triple A publishers seem to cater towards as it makes ’em bucketloads of cash. Now I’m ranting, so I’ll go away now.

      • jrodman says:

        Consoles are useful for console makers, and if console maker A doesn’t make a new one, console maker B will *eventually* trump them. So the generations are hard to avoid.

        I certainly think the Playstation 5 will provide gaming opportunities not offered by the Atari VCS, but yes the transition from 3 to 4 is a bit meh.

    • jrodman says:

      I hate terms like this far more when used by reviewers and players. Do they like the image of games as McDonalds copies?

      If you’re talking about the business side of things, it seems more comprehensible.

    • ucfalumknight says:

      The problem is, these investors are not game players. I would wager 99% of said investors are investment organizations that see a profitable company, and invest their clients money in it. So, AAA titles will always be inverstor funded, and if their returns are healthy (ie. EA and Activision/Blizzard) they will continue to make game franchises that are known moneymakers, not new IPs that scare away investors.
      This is why Indie’s are so important. Even when using Kickstarter (or other crowdfunding) the investors are indeed game players. But, as we have seen, “gamers” can be very vicious business partners. Once Kickstarter users understand that the money they INVEST in a game pitch may or may not be successful, then crowdfunding will be better for it.

    • mouton says:

      Ech, I hate the word “content” even more. Fucking marketingospeak.

    • Smoky_the_Bear says:

      I think mainly due to the success of CoD every games publisher now seems obsessed with creating a brand. It’s understandable to a certain degree but as an enthusiast gamer it generally sucks, removing creative control from game developers.
      Gaming has become more populist in the last console generation, this has bought a lot of customers into the industry who play an hour of games every 2 weeks and are happy to buy CoD, Fifa and nothing else.

      Make the exact same game as CoD or even make a better game and these people will still just buy CoD like a reflex action because they are sheeple and don’t really care about games. This has made creating a brand more important than producing something ground-breaking because an ever increasing % of their customer base aren’t doing any research on games, reading sites like this and watching stuff on youtube. They just go into the shop and buy whatever new game has the flashiest display because “This must be the best game ever, right?”

  9. Deano2099 says:

    WoW was huge on release day. Then had meteoric growth. Even if it declines at the same speed as which it grew (ie. crazy fast) it’s still got a good seven years left in it, until it falls back to launch numbers. You know, launch, when it was instantly the biggest selling MMO ever and surpassed all expectations.

  10. HisDivineOrder says:

    I wonder if Activision’s subscriptions toward WoW include all those free subscription cards Gamestop was giving away when you bought one of their deals on Black Friday. It was a fairly big deal at the time, but those guys’ll hang around about as long as TOR players did…

    If subscribers dip in a huge way the next time you hear subscriber totals, you’ll know this is what happened. It didn’t hurt that Blizzard was firesaling Kung Fu Panda Expansion for $10 and the rest of WoW for free compared to the heady days when they’d charge you full game price for WoW, plus $40 for EACH expansion, right?

    I almost bought Kung Fu Panda: A Warcraft Adventure, but decided I’d wait until they make THAT one free with the release of the next expansion. That’s precisely what they did with Cataclysm after Kung Fu Panda came out.

    So… yeah, I’ll wait and get Kung Fu Panda free and consider WoW: Back to the Burning Crusades (OR Jump The Shark Edition) once it hits that same $10 price point because $25 to go through Cata, Kung Fu Panda, and Back to the Burning Crusades seems like a fair price and will be the first time in a long time I can say that about ANYTHING Warcraft-related.

  11. Dux Ducis Hodiernus says:

    The spamming in the comment section on this site is really getting out of hand.

    Also I don’t get the logic about ‘spamming a ton of comments of dubious legitemacy over and over’ = somehow more believable. If anything it’d make people more suspicious.

    • Smoky_the_Bear says:

      I’d guess its just bot spamming.
      My now pretty much defunct unused WoW guilds website (there are only a handful of people playing now since we stopped raiding and we don’t use the website for anything) gets repeatedly spammed by someone advertising “cheap kitchens”, there;s no way its anything but a bot because otherwise they would realise they are wasting their time.

  12. Nate says:

    I appreciate this little business brief. Adds to the context.

    Just for a little global perspective, it might be worth mentioning that Blade & Soul recently put out a press release claiming 1.8 million concurrent users, 18 million active accounts. That is without any European or American presence. The money, of course, doesn’t beat WoW, because you just can’t charge Western rates to Chinese players.

    F2P means concurrent users is increasingly going to be the metric to go by. I believe WoW is still at second place globally– at least, shows it head and shoulders above everybody else (but then, doesn’t include Blade and Soul on there).

    EDIT: Little more research, looks like Fantasy Westward Journey and Zheng Tu Online are the global leaders?

  13. Cortes says:

    WoW the best MMO game when i’ve even seen. Never stop play.