World of Warcraft had 10.2 million subscribers in February and now it has 9.1 million. Blizzard have been quick to point out that their ageing behemoth is still the most popular subscription MMO in existence and also to reiterate the cyclical nature of peak subscriptions. They fell before Cataclysm and the fall before Pandaria was expected. It makes sense that people would drop out when they've experienced all the content on offer but MMOData.net's tracking doesn't show sub levels below 10 million since 2008, at which point growth had been continuous. While subs will most likely recover with the release of the pandas on Sept 25, the returns may continue to diminish. During the earning call there were words about Diablo III as well.
As well as all the pre-expansion blues, Blizzard president Michael Morhaime provided another theory as to why subscription numbers might be suffering: "We’re also seeing that a number of players took a break from WoW to play Diablo III”. There are only two games.
With over 10 million copies of the loot and lag 'em up sold, it's almost certain that some people were indeed playing Diablo III instead of renewing their WOW subscription but then some of them were probably buying beer, fancy trousers or illicit substances as well and those things weren't mentioned. In fact, I'd warrant that out of a million lapsed subscribers a fair few haven't renewed because, with the economy in bits all over the floor, expendable income has become rarer than a panda with an active libido.
Activision has plenty of expendable income though, posting $1.075 billion in revenue for the quarter.
WOW is still an immensely popular game and it seems only natural for its population to decline as it ages. It'll be interesting to see how much those numbers actually bounce back with the release of Mists of Pandaria. My feeling is that there'll be a slight recovery, although not to the heights of a year ago, and then it really will be time for Blizzard to focus their attention on the next big thing.
I'm also keeping an eye on The Secret World and not just because I'm actually playing that one myself. Funcom's tactic of releasing new content every month, announced as comic book styled issues, not only serves to move the world and story forward, but is also a way of offering subscribers an immediate return for their monthly payments. Whether it'll work, whether it'll be enough, that's for time to tell.