World of Warcraft lost 100,000 subscribers in Q3 2015, bringing the total to an almost 10-year low of 5.5 million. The announcement of the next expansion, Legion, last August almost certainly helped to reduce losses. It was also probably no coincidence that flying in Warlords of Draenor was finally implemented in September, as Blizzard has a long history of releasing patches on the last month of a quarter. Still, many, including myself, were somewhat surprised by this low sub loss. I had been expecting a drop of a million or more. Blizzard fans cheered this news as an indication that the horrendous losses over the past 2 quarters had finally stabilized.
But there is a far bigger story than the sub numbers themselves. Blizzard announced that they will no longer be releasing those numbers after this quarter. You read that correctly. Blizzard announced that they are no longer going to tell us how many subs they have. Instead, they are going to use some as yet undisclosed metric to indicate the health of the game. This has 2 very important implications.
First, subs have almost certainly dropped a lot since the end of September, and Blizzard probably expects them to drop a lot more. It’s embarrassing for a company to lose “almost” half its user base in less than a year, but in terms of perception, losing “more than” half would be far worse, and that’s exactly what was likely to happen by the end of Q4. My guess is they’ve already dipped below the 5 million mark, although we’ll never know because they have decided to stop telling us. More than that, though, is the fact that they have Legion coming up, and they certainly don’t want the next expansion and the Warcraft movie to release in the face of embarrassingly low WoW sub numbers. Perception and hype often drive sales, and they don’t want the story to be about how people aren’t playing WoW any more.
The second implication is even bigger. This announcement marks the point where WoW officially became just one more MMO. More specifically, just one more cash-grabbing, milk-the-whales MMO. With this announcement, Blizzard makes it clear that they no longer care how many people play their game, as long as they can wring enough cash out of them. Blizzard has been accused of this ever since the acquisition by Activision. But the trend has become more and more apparent. The coolest mounts are all in the cash store. The in-game WoD mounts are lazy recolors of a few skins. The coolest pets are in the cash store. Blizzard entered the gold selling arena with WoW tokens. And WoD was the most expensive expansion to date, yet had arguably the least content. For crying out loud, there was only 1 content patch. (And no, selfie cameras and Twitter integration most certainly do not count as a content patch.)
Now, I’m an unapologetic capitalist, and I have no problem with a company making money. But that doesn’t mean I can’t call a company out for being money-grubbing and sleazy. And by refusing to report sub numbers in the future, Blizzard tells me loud and clear that they no longer view me as a valued player. They view me as a chump to be taken for as much cash as possible.