World of Warcraft’s Declining Subscription Numbers

Back in 2004 when World of Warcraft was initially released, I really wasn’t paying much attention to PC gaming. I don’t think I even heard about World of Warcraft until some students who worked for me started talking obsessively about it. I bought a copy in May 2005 largely to satisfy my curiosity, and have spent about 3,000 hours since then playing a couple of characters.

Like a lot of people, however, my interest in World of Warcraft at the moment is pretty much non-existent. Every time a new expansion has come out I’ve bought it, leveled my main character to the new level cap, and then quickly gotten bored and unsubscribed. World of Warcraft subscription numbers have declined to the point where–after announcing that in Q3 2015 WoW subscribers stood at 5.5 million (down from 10 million in Q4 2014)–Blizzard added that it would no longer release WoW subscription numbers.

There are a lot of reasons for the decline in WoW subscriptions, but ultimately the game just isn’t as fun anymore. I came to realize the game was likely no longer fun for a lot of people when I started talking to my 13-year-old son about the game. He’s the resident WoW fanatic in our house now, and he can (and will) go on and on about WoW mechanics, optimized builds and gear for various class/race combinations, etc., to the point where my eyes glaze over.

But here’s the thing–although he has a subscription to World of Warcraft, that’s not typically where he spends most of his time playing the game. Instead, he spends more time playing vanilla private servers such as Nostalrius Begins.

A private server is an instance of World of Warcraft that is not run by Blizzard. Blizzard tends to tolerate such private servers as long as they’re not exploitative and aren’t charging large sums of money to players. For the most part, people who play on private servers tend to be hardcore fans of the game who probably also play the official version, so I assume Blizzard sees benign neglect as the best approach. It probably helps that private servers attract relatively few players (Nostalrius is one of the most popular private servers, for example, but appears to attract less than 10,000 players).

The vanilla designation means that is designed to be identical to some official previous version of World of Warcraft. In the case of Nostalrius, for example, the server represents the game as it was before Blizzard released the first expansion to the game, The Burning Crusade. So my son and thousands of other people spend a lot of time playing World of Warcaft as it was almost 10 years ago.

The weird thing is that with the Mists of Pandaria and Warlords of Draenor expansions, Blizzard specifically implemented features and systems that were apparently designed to appeal to more casual or younger players like my son. I imagine the thinking was that this would expand the potential audience of the game (features like the battle pet system were clearly designed with this in mind). And yet it is precisely those changes which have led my son to spend more time on private servers, such as Nostalrius, rather than log into to Blizzard’s official offering.

My main takeaway after playing through Mists of Pandaria and Warlords of Draenor was that Blizzard went way too far in its efforts to simplify the game and its mechanics. I especially detest the new character “customization” system which has pretty much gutted customization to the point where they might as well just ditch it altogether. The game has gotten to the point where it offers as little challenge as something like the original Dungeon Siege.

On the other hand, there aren’t many games I’ve played 3,000 hours in only to say “yeah, after playing for 10 years this game finally feels kind of stale.” WoW is still one of the top 5 video games I’ve ever played, and Blizzard is to be commended for letting the private server system thrive for people who want to experience the game as it was before all of the recent changes.

World of Warcraft Subscription Numbers, 2005-2015

Per Blizzard, "World of Warcraft subscribers include individuals who have paid a subscription fee or have an active prepaid card to play World of Warcraft, as well as those who have purchased the game and are within their free month of access. Internet Game Room players who have accessed the game over the last thirty days are also counted as subscribers. The above definition excludes all players under free promotional subscriptions, expired or cancelled subscriptions, and expired prepaid cards. Subscribers in licensees’ territories are defined along the same rules." 
YearSubscribers (Millions)
2005 (Q1)1.5
2005 (Q2)3.5
2005 (Q3)4
2005 (Q4)5.5
2006 (Q1)6
2006 (Q2)6.5
2006 (Q3)7
2006 (Q4)8
2007 (Q1)8.5
2007 (Q2)9
2007 (Q3)9.3
2007 (Q4)10
2008 (Q1)10.7
2008 (Q2)10.9
2008 (Q3)11
2008 (Q4)11.5
2009 (Q4)11.5
2010 (Q3)12
2010 (Q3)12
2010 (Q4)12
2011 (Q1)11.4
2011 (Q2)11.1
2011 (Q3)10.3
2011 (Q4)10.2
2012 (Q1)10.2
2012 (Q2)9.1
2012 (Q3)10
2012 (Q4)9.6
2013 (Q1)8.3
2013 (Q2)7.7
2013 (Q3)7.6
2013 (Q4)7.8
2014 (Q1)7.6
2014 (Q2)6.8
2014 (Q3)7.4
2014 (Q4)10
2015 (Q1)7.1
2015 (Q2)5.6
2015 (Q3)5.5

Blizzard Wins Default Judgement Against WoW Private Server

Back in October 2009, Blizzard sued Alyson Reeves over the private World of Warcraft servers she offered through her company, Scapegaming. On August 10, Blizzard won a default judgement against Reeves/Scapegaming and was awarded $88.5 million.

Now World of Warcraft private servers are fairly common, and some are fairly interesting variants that do things Blizzard would never be able to do and remain commercially viable (for example, running servers that replicate what the game was like before the Burning Crusade/Wrath of the Lich King expansions). For the most part, Blizzard doesn’t appear to have gone after private servers in general, presumably because they serve an extremely small niche market.

But unlike most private servers, Reeves/Scapegaming was run as a for-profit business that made (apparently a lot of) money off of microtransactions for its private servers. That’s just asking to be sued into oblivion.

Hopefully this won’t lead to a wholesale backlash by Blizzard going after every private server out there, but given Activision’s pressure to monetize, monetize, monetize across all of their products, it seems more likely that the days of openly running WoW private servers are numbered.

Update: here is a 1.3mb PDF version of the original complaint filed by Blizzard against Reeves. In it, Blizzard alleges that Reeves/Scapegaming collected approximately $1.5 million in donations from players accessing its private servers

Upper Deck Loses World of Warcraft TCG License

In February, Blizzard and Upper Deck both issued statements surrounding the World of Warcraft: Trading Card Game which Upper Deck had published since its release in 2006.

Coincidentally, the announcement came shortly after Upper Deck reached a settlement with Konami over the Yu-Gi-Oh! trading card game. Until December 2008, Upper Deck had been the distributor of that game outside of Asia. But Upper Deck got caught printing hundreds of thousands of counterfeit cards.

Konami pulled no punches in its press release announcing the settlement,

“This entire situation came as a huge shock to us. As a company that has based their entire business model on producing authentic entertainment and sports licensed products, Upper Deck went against their very core beliefs by counterfeiting Yu-Gi-Oh! TCG Cards,” commented KDE’s Vice President of Card Business Yumi Hoashi.  “It was very disheartening to learn that a trusted business partner would take these actions to dupe us and the Yu-Gi-Oh! TCG community.”

The litigation began in October 2008, when KDE discovered that counterfeit cards from the Yu-Gi-Oh! TCG were being sold in Toys “R” Us stores by a sub-distributor for Upper Deck.  KDE filed suit, and the sub-distributor told KDE that the counterfeit cards were supplied by Upper Deck.

“As a leading company in this card industry, Upper Deck should have known more than well that counterfeit activities would irreparably harm the trust of Duelists and the integrity of the Yu-Gi-Oh! brand,” said KDE’s Hoashi. Upper Deck initially denied those charges and issued press releases announcing that any suggestion that Upper Deck would be involved in counterfeiting activity is “absurd.”

Failing to own up to its actions, Upper Deck sent out a press release on January 29, 2010 stating its satisfaction with the settlement and how the judge ruled against KDE in several areas.  The ruling that United States District Judge Valerie Baker Fairbank made on December 23, 2009 was simple. She ruled that Upper Deck violated trademark, copyright and unfair competition laws by counterfeiting Yu-Gi-Oh! TCG cards.

Blizzard didn’t cite the Konami dispute as its reason for dropping Upper Deck, but certainly any company interested in maintaining its brand would want to think twice (or three or four times) before doing business with Upper Deck after its behavior with the Yu-Gi-Oh! game.

The loss of the license also extends to the World of Warcraft collectible miniatures game.

Briefly Banned By Blizzard

So on February 3, 2010, I checked my email on my way to work to find this lovely message,

From: WoWAccountAdmin@blizzard.com

To: brian@carnell.com

Subject: World of Warcraft — Account Closure Notification — Exploitative Activity Found

English speaking customers: Please refer to the start of this mail
Para los clientes españoles: Por favor vayan hasta el fin de este correo electrónico

***Notice of Account Closure***

Account Name: BRIANCARNELL

Reason for Closure: Terms of Use Violation — Exploitative Activity: Abuse of the Economy

This account was closed because one or more characters were identified exchanging, or contributing to the exchange of, in-game property (items or gold) for “real-world” currency. This exchange process negatively impacts the World of Warcraft game environment by detracting from the value of the in-game economy.

Even if this behavior is the result of a third party accessing the account instead of the registered user (for example, a friend, family member, or leveling service) then the account can still be held responsible for the penalty because of the impact it had on the game environment.

We’ve found the above behavior is many times directly related to groups responsible for compromising World of Warcraft accounts; we take these issues very seriously. To better understand our position against exploitative activity and the risks involved, please review this article: http://www.worldofwarcraft.com/info/basics/antigold.html

The exploitative activity that took place on this account violates the World of Warcraft Terms of Use. We ask you take a moment to review these terms at http://www.worldofwarcraft.com/legal/termsofuse.html. Any recurring subscriptions on this account have been suspended to prevent further monetary charges.

For any disputes of this action, please visit the Exploitative Activity FAQ and Contact page here: http://us.blizzard.com/support/article/exploitfaq

Regards,

Blizzard Entertainment
www.worldofwarcraft.com

My first thought was that this email was itself some sort of phishing attack, so I logged into my Battle.net account. Well, I tried to log into my Battle.net account, but was told that it had been shut down for exploitative activity.

Now I’m a very casual World of Warcraft player who pretty much sticks to soloing (I’ve been in one instance in 5 years of playing). Especially since the last two expansions, obtaining gold is trivial so I’m not even sure who the market is anymore for gold selling.

Anyway, since I hadn’t actually bought or sold any gold, the obvious conclusion was that someone had hacked my account. I always run anti-virus software, firewalls, etc., but someone probably managed to keylog me on a machine where I checked in to show someone the Armory.

My next reaction was a bunch of expletives. I’ve got more than 3,000 hours invested in the characters on that account and to some extent playing World of Warcraft is almost part of my lifestyle, not just another game. I simply can’t imagine not playing WoW or some successor to it at this point.

So I hit the link to appeal and explain that I’ve been playing for 5 years, never bought or sold gold, and as they can tell if they look at my account am a fairly casual player who just wants his account back. To Blizzard’s credit it took less than 24 hours for me to get the following reply:

From: wowaccountadmin@blizzard.com

To: brian@carnell.com

Subject: World of Warcraft – Account Recovery Instructions

Greetings,

We have determined that the World of Warcraft account BRIANCARNELL has been accessed by someone not authorized to do so by the World of Warcraft Terms of Use (http://www.worldofwarcraft.com/legal/termsofuse.html).

To protect your privacy and security, we have temporarily disabled this account. Any recurring subscriptions have been suspended to prevent further monetary charges. In order to regain access to the account, you must complete the steps below to secure the account and your computer.

Please keep this email for your reference until the account recovery process has been completed.

STEP 1: SECURE THE ACCOUNT, YOUR COMPUTER AND YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS
Account compromises most often occur when a player shares login information with an unauthorized third party or plays on a computer that has a virus, Trojan, or key-logger. We recommend you read and apply the following tips to protect yourself and the account.

– Unauthorized Account Access Policy: http://us.blizzard.com/support/article/20460
– World of Warcraft Account Security: http://us.blizzard.com/support/article/20572
– Computer Security: http://us.blizzard.com/support/article/21118
– Email Address Security: http://us.blizzard.com/support/article/28585

STEP 2: RECOVER THE ACCOUNT
We now provide a secure website for you to verify that you have taken the appropriate steps to secure the account, your computer, and your email address. Please go to this site and follow the instructions:
http://us.blizzard.com/support/article/securitywebform

STEP 3: VERIFY YOUR SUBMISSION WAS RECEIVED
We will contact you with further instructions once we have received and processed your submission. If you do not receive a reply within 5 business days of submitting this form, please resend it from the address listed above.

Please be aware that if unauthorized access to this account continues after the recovery process is complete, it may lead to further action against the account.

Sincerely,

Vaenixia
Account Administration
Blizzard Entertainment
www.blizzard.com

Whew. I took a couple weeks to get my account back, however. Even though I was fairly sure my personal laptop (the only machine I actually play World of Warcraft from) wasn’t compromised, I wasn’t about to take any chances. I wiped the hard drive and reinstalled Windows. Then along with the anti-virus/firewall package, I also added Secunia to help with keeping track of problems like unpatched versions of Adobe crapware.

Once I was certain my machine was exploit-free, I recovered my Battle.net account and then added a Mobile Authenticator to the account. Fortunately for me, a few weeks ago Blizzard added a Mobile Authenticator app for Android, so I could have that on my Nexus One (I’ve actually got several of the standalone authenticators, but worried before that I would lose them).

Now I was finally ready to log into my WoW account…where I found myself suspended in mid-air and watch while I fell to my death.

Whoever hacked the account must have been seriously disappointed. They took about 800 gold and cashed in about 20,000 honor points for some gems (which were still in my  inventory). The only thing I was really annoyed at was  they sold off all my Gigantique Bags and Portable Holes. I thought about petitioning to have that gear restored, but decided not to since, again, gold is so easy to come by in the game these days.

WoW Add-On Developers Go All John Galt

World of Warcraft LogoSome developers of add-ons for World of Warcraft were so angered by Blizzard’s new policy essentially forbidding the creation of add-ons that are commercial or feature in-game donation buttons that they have pulled their add-ons from public distribution. This includes some very popular add-ons, such as Outfitter, QuestHelper, and Group Calendar.

John Stephen, the developer of Outfitter, posted at WoWInsider on why he ended public distribution of Outfitter,

1) I’ve never charged for or advertised in my addons and I don’t want donations. I don’t care if this “must be free” policy has been around for years in the gaming community, it’s still wrong and it’s abusive of the time and energy it takes to develop and support a major addon. Even the open source community has accepted the “pay for support” model as a viable way to provide free software, but even that is forbidden by the new policies (can’t charge for addon-related services).

2) I’m not asking anybody to stop using their existing copies of my addons. Also, I’ve been on the PTR prior to this and Group Calendar and Outfitter both seemed to work just fine with 3.1 so far.

3) I’m not stopping development, I’m stopping public distribution. I still have my addons available on my site and I don’t mind if you want to re-distribute them to your friends and guildies via email or a private download section on your guild’s site.

4) I’m waiting to hear Blizzard’s response to all of this. If the developers who need or desire compensation for their time are happy with the outcome, then I’m happy. None of this policy change directly affects my work, but it does affect my sense of right and wrong.

Just more Blizzard heavy handedness toward the WoW community. In general, Blizzard has not had to pay any price for its past mistakes and errors because the game is so damn popular no single blunder has ever cost it any revenue. Only when game related policies — such as the brief ban on GLBT guilds — have percolated beyond the gaming press and into mainstream media has Blizzard had to reverse itself.

But in the case of add-on developers Blizzard has, to a large extent, relied on people essentially donating their time in non-commercial projects to create UIs for WoW that work for a wide variety of people. And now, Blizzard is turning around and giving the finger to those same folks who have been providing third party support and enhancements for WoW.

As usual, when Blizzard strays from actual game development its policies and pronouncements tend to be beyond stupid.