Like the Roman Empire, World of WarCraft's decline after a long reign at the top was inevitable. But don't cry for Blizzard. All it really means is that it's going from "historically successful" to merely "pretty successful."
There's been very little like World of WarCraft in gaming. Consider for a moment that it came out in 2004—the same year as Metal Gear Solid 3 and Halo 2. The PlayStation 2 was still the most dominant console. We were still three years from the first-generation iPhone. In tech terms, 2004 is beyond ancient history. It's borders on Jurassic.
But World of WarCraft's once-explosive growth has sustained it to the point that it has ignited and become a small star. An early trendsetter in the MMORPG space—World of WarCraft was the game that gave us factions, among other things—it has built up a truly enormous following. That fanbase has departed and returned many times over the years, occasionally dabbling in another flavor-of-the-month MMORPG, but almost always returning in time for the next expansion.
Right now, World of WarCraft is in one of its awkward trough periods between expansion packs. The hardcore fans that continue to populate WoW have long since played through all of the content and are now waiting for more. Hence, it's not surprising that World of WarCraft has shed nearly 1 million subscribers over the three months or so, bringing its count down to (the still huge) 6.8 million. Blizzard CEO Michael Morhaime alluded to as much in a recent Activision Blizzard earnings call.
"This pattern is right in line, percentage-wise, with the drops that we saw at Cataclysm's cycle in Q2 2012. That drop in 2012 was followed by an uptick in subscribers just ahead of Mists of Pandaria's launch," Morhaime said, as reported by Polygon. "So we're hoping to see players return once we draw closer to the release of Warlords of Draenor later this year."
Critics will rightly point out that World of WarCraft has seen diminishing returns on that front for years, going all the way back to 2010's Cataclysm. At that time, subscriptions hit a peak of around 12 million, but declined to pre-Cataclysm levels a few month later. World of WarCraft has been losing players ever since.
But even as it loses players, World of WarCraft remains in a unique position among MMORPGs. It's one of the few that can still get away with the old subscription model, which continues to be an incredible revenue generator of Activision Blizzard. Moreover, it enjoys a degree of cultural ubiquity that makes marketing almost redundant. At this point, everyone has heard of World of WarCraft, and it still has the power to pull in the odd curious newcomer who has yet to sample the delights of Azeroth.
Most importantly, it has a truly absurd amount of content. After ten years of existence, the World of WarCraft really does constitute its own world. There's so much to find and do that new players can remain occupied for hundreds of hours. No MMORPG can match World of WarCraft for sheer amount of things to do.
That tremendous amount of content should be enough to keep World of WarCraft alive and well for a few more years yet. At a guess, Blizzard still has one more expansion left in them, possibly even two. At that point, World of WarCraft will be well on its way to its 20th anniversary, which seems absurb, but long-standing online communities have a habit of sticking around well past their preferred game's expiration date.
As for the genre as a whole, it's fair to say that we'll never see an MMORPG quite like World of WarCraft again. MOBAs like League of Legends have long since risen to the top of the PC pecking order, limiting the MMORPG space to a much more hardcore audience. There will be other MMOs, but likely none that warrant their own South Park episode. Indeed, it's safe to say that Blizzard itself has moved on from the MMORPG space, opting to focus on efforts like Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone instead.
World of WarCraft will live on though, and Blizzard can be secure in the knowledge that it will continue generating absurb amounts of revenue for years to come. See you in Azeroth in 2024.