World of WarCraft, losing subscribers. Diablo III's economy, collapsing. StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, being stupid. What's the world (of WarCraft) coming to? The subscription-only MMORPG has lost 1.3 million subscribers in the last three months alone, barely six months after the release of its fourth expansion. WoW's swiftly declining numbers are sure to force Blizzard's hand, and they may even increase the game's free-to-play opportunities.

World of WarCraft losing subscribers on this scale is a new phenomenon; as reported in Activision Blizzard's Q1 2013 earnings report (yes, I read earnings reports), subscribers dropped from 9.6 million to 8.3 million in Q1 (a decrease of more than 14 percent). Even worse, as recently as October, subscribers topped 10 million in the wake of the release of Mists of Pandaria, so the total subscriber loss in the last six months is closer to 20 percent. Activision Blizzard notes that most of the declines came from East Asia, but numbers in the West have also declined. Even the post-Pandaria numbers were a good deal short of the game's peak at 12 million in 2010.

World of WarCraft losing subscribers in 2013 officially "raises concerns" with Blizzard, forcing the entire company to "remain cautious" with regard to its earnings numbers. But it's hardly the end of the world; World of WarCraft remains the #1 subscription MMORPG and ranks pretty high, even when compared to free-to-play. And it still generates massive revenue, month over month, even as Blizzard's other products -- notably StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm and Diablo III -- still top the charts in PC game sales. So Blizzard is far from being in trouble.

And World of WarCraft losing subscribers in 2013 is only natural. The game came out almost a decade ago, in 2004. If you started playing in middle school, you could have graduated college by now. It's a hugely long time, and the game is simply getting dated. The graphics are dated. The gameplay is dated. The entire subscription model is dated (cf Star Wars: The Old Republic), and doesn't really work for any MMORPGs anymore, except WoW and a few niche products like EvE Online. Simply being able to hold onto 8 million subscribers after so many years is impressive.

 

 

Still, World of WarCraft losing subscribers in 2013 will bring about changes. The game is already free-to-play up until level 20 for new subscribers (these players are not included in the overall subscription numbers). Blizzard may extend that window, or add in the first two expansions, as free-to-play content as well, hoping to convert more players and bring back the old faithful. Simply adding new content isn't enough anymore, because nobody outside of WoW pays attention, except when there are new expansions. And the introduction of a panda-based race that had been a Blizzard in-joke for years suggests that Blizzard has run out of ideas. WoW will keep on trucking along for years yet, but these numbers are going to keep dropping steadily.

All things must pass; sic transit gloria mundi warcrafti. In the meantime, gird yourself up for Project Titan.