Blizzard is becoming something else.
The loss of Project Titan and the coming of Hearthstone marked a change in Blizzard Entertainment's future. The company has been evolving into something else; a company more willing to work on smaller projects and experiment with multiple business models like free-to-play.
Yesterday, Activision announced its financial results for the first quarter of 2015 ending on March 31, 2015. The company's revenues were up to $1.28 billion, but the important thing is the announcement of user numbers for World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, Destiny, and Heroes of the Storm.
World of Warcraft is a few months out from of the November 2014 release of its Warlords of Draenor expansion and according to Activision, the current subscriber count is sitting around 7.1 million. Back during this same time last year, I surmised that 7.6 million was around World of Warcraft's "new normal" and it looks like I was was right. Warlords of Draenor did push WoW over 10 million subscribers by the end of 2014, but it seems those users left once they had gotten what they wanted out of the game. Alternatively, there may have been players like our own Jaz Rignall who checked out Warlords and simply decided it wasn't for them.
Activision says that World of Warcraft's dip was within expectations and revenue performance has remained stable. World of Warcraft has changed as the subscriber numbers have settled into their new average. The game added a level boosting service for $60 last year, and earlier this year added the WoW Token system, which lets players trade in-game gold for game time. Blizzard is being forced to try new things after being so high for so long. World of Warcraft still retain subscriber numbers that make other MMOs envious - competitor Final Fantasy XIV has 4 million registered accounts, but only reaches 1 million paying subscribers even when you throw in Dragon Quest X and Final Fantasy XI - but things have clearly declined from its all-time high of 12 million.
In contrast, Hearthstone has crossed 30 million registered players. Unlike a subscription MMO, free-to-play titles like Hearthstone are about increasing the available pool of players who could potentially pay. According to Activision, Hearthstone and Bungie's Destiny have brought in nearly $1 billion in revenue to-date out of a total combined number of 50 million registered players. In Hearthstone's case, that's pretty good for a game originally created by a team of 15 developers. The company released the game's first full expansion, Gnomes vs. Goblins, in December of last year and the second adventure expansion, Blackrock Mountain, at the beginning of April.
Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard's free-to-play shot at the MOBA genre, has already reached 11 million closed beta sign-ups. That game is going live on June 2, 2015; Blizzard has been pushing its profile upward with a televised tournament on ESPN 2 and Heroes of the Storm gear on boxer Manny Pacquiao's entourage for his recent fight with Floyd Mayweather. The company even took assets from Project Titan and forged Overwatch, a team-based shooter that will probably also be free-to-play.
That's not to say World of Warcraft, Diablo III, and Starcraft II aren't still a big part of Blizzard, but a major company building smaller games in a different manner is always pretty exciting. Major publishers generally stick to the "Go big, or go home" style of development, but as we've said before, that's really not sustainable forever. It leads to a shrinking pool of games and developers and we're already feeling the crunch. So whenever a big developer tries more manageable experiments - like Ubisoft's digital-only titles - it makes me more hopeful for the future. And it helps that Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm are really good.