Jacob McLaughlin, a regular at Black Wolf Gamers Club in Spokane Valley, Washington, has been playing "World of Warcraft" for 10 years. He's only 14. He says his cousin and my grandpa got him interested in the game.
For more than a decade, "World of Warcraft" has been the undeniable champion in its genre; an unrivaled juggernaut among massively-multiplayer online games. Players do battle and complete quests in a vast fantasy world. Yet, some news this month has led to speculation that maybe "Warcraft" is showing its age. The game — affectionately known as “World of Warcrack” for its addictive quality — lost three million subscribers in three months.
Video game industry consultant Wanda Meloni says that’s a big drop. Some ups and downs are normal, especially after a publisher releases new content. (Blizzard Entertainment just released the fifth expansion pack, "Warlords of Draenor," late last year.) But Meloni says there's a bigger trend here.
“[World of Warcraft] has been declining since 2010, when they were at their peak of about 12.5 million,” Meloni says. “And it is an interesting correlation that that was pretty much when mobile started to enter the market.”
As in, those addictive little games on your phone that are taking larger and larger bites out of the video game industry pie. Plus, how long can an 11-year-old game stay at the top of the heap? The world of gnomes, goblins, elves and orcs it inhabited was hardly new When World of Warcraft launched in 2004, but the level of immersion was.
“It really does draw you in,” says James Reuss, a player in Billings, Montana.
It had intuitive controls. It offered enough different character options and styles of playing to appeal to a wide array of gamers. And it immediately appealed to more than just stalwart fans of the fantasy genre.
The game is also incredibly social. Reuss, for example, has standing appointments on Wednesdays and Sundays to go on raids – huge team efforts that require players to virtually coordinate, yelling out instructions to each other over the web as they try to defeat enemies.
Since 2004, the game’s publisher, Blizzard Entertainment, has released five expansion packs, introducing increasingly visually stunning locations, new quests, bigger, tougher creatures, and at one point – in a shrewd nod to the significant Asian gaming market – pandas.
Other games have tried to knock "World of Warcraft" off its throne, including a "Star Wars" subscription game. And you'd think the "galaxy far, far away" would have a fighting chance.
“That’s what everyone was really excited about," Reuss says, that "Star Wars" would pull ahead of "Warcraft." “And that didn’t happen, obviously.”
But recently, a few words on a conference call made the gaming world sit up and take notice. "Warcraft" parent company Activision Blizzard held an investor call earlier this month. It was largely upbeat. But CFO Dennis Durkin noted: “We saw a decline in World of Warcraft subscribers. Subscribers ended the quarter at 7.1 million.” Down three million subscribers: World of Warcraft had seen drops before, but not that many that fast.
Some longtime "Warcraft" players say they're not surprised. The trick for any game is to keep players interested once they've reached the top level. And some "World of Warcraft" players say they say they’ve run out of challenges. The game requires too many tedious tasks. Plus, the gamers themselves are aging too, and moving on.
“I decided I was wasting my life away on this and I would rather be winning items and completing quests in real life,” says Colleen Graves, a former player in Los Angeles.
Still, Activision Blizzard says the game's revenue has remained steady, thanks in part to the strength of the Chinese market. Blizzard Entertainment plans to release more new content for World of Warcraft this year.
At the same time, Blizzard has “expanded their portfolio.” Part of that expansion: a "World of Warcraft" spin-off computer card game called "Hearthstone." Mobile versions of the spin-off came out last month. And its player count? More than 30 million. Also, it’s free. No subscription required.
The move to mobile is expected to grow even more in the coming years among other publishers. Nintendo recently announced that it too will start releasing games for mobile.
To be clear: World of Warcraft isn't going away anytime soon, with its seven million players.
But remember Jacob McLaughlin, who's been playing since he was four?
He just stopped his subscription, too. He says one of the things that made "World of Warcraft" so addictive was the group of friends he played with. And a lot of those friends have moved on to other games.