When Blizzard released World of Warcraft in 2004, the MMO world didn't know what was about to hit it. At the time of the game's release, I played two different MMOs, and post-WoW launch, I was amazed at the number of people who abandoned those games in favor of Blizzard's new hotness. In fact, in many ways, WoW caused the death of many an MMO. It's not just the fact that WoW was a good MMO; it was seriously accessible, and once most of your MMO-playing friends are in there, it's hard to break free.
Well, it appears that free-to-play MMOs have been having the same effect on WoW that it had on other MMOs. Over the course of the game's lifetime, it's topped the charts of most subscription-based MMOs, peaking at 12 million in 2010. In 2011, the game experienced its first big drop, which brought it down to 11.1 million. Since then, it's continued to decline very rapidly: The game lost a staggering 800,000 subscribers in the last quarter alone, and currently sits at 6.8 million.
From 12 million to 6.8 million in the span of four years is striking for an MMO that seemed untouchable. As many MMOs do as their playbases begin to decline, Blizzard opened up a cash shop late last year, and so far, it seems to be working out quite well for it. Last month, GamesIndustry.biz showed that WoW was still the biggest revenue earner in 2013, being the only MMO to break through the $1 billion barrier. To put things into perspective, Lineage 1, an MMO only available in South Korea, placed second with $253 million. On account of the fact that that revenue comes from a single country, and not the world over like WoW's, that's even more impressive in some ways. Well, there's also the fact that Lineage 1 came out in 1998.
While WoW's subscription numbers continue to decline, it might get a little boost again when its fourth expansion, Warlords of Draenor, gets released this fall. However, as free-to-play MMOs have exploded in popularity since Mists of Pandaria's release in 2012, Blizzard's going to have to work some serious magic to manage to pull people away from their current MMOs and go buy it.
It's going to be very interesting to see where the subscription numbers stand - and the revenue numbers for that matter - in one year's time. For many years, WoW truly did seem unstoppable, and while it still has enormous revenue and a huge playerbase, the effect free-to-play games has had on the game is very obvious. That doesn't only go for WoW, of course, but when an MMO is this large, its effects are very easily seen.