With the recent 5.4 patch notes and the discovery of an in-game store via a new item, the Enduring Elixir of Wisdom, I’ve had the itch to visit the World of Warcraft once more. Rumors are now flying that free to play (F2P) is the future of the World of Warcraft so I’m just going to throw out the old “told ya so”.
Why has Blizzard taken strides towards a F2P World of Warcraft? Let’s brainstorm some possible influences…
- The World of Warcraft is old. World of Warcraft is nearing nine years old and is hailed as the best MMORPG of all-time and has clearly been the most successful in terms of revenue and concurrent subscribers. Its certainly had a good run, but the WoW player base was last reported at 7.7 million in a recent Activision Blizzard quarterly earnings report on July 25, 2013. This news equates to a 35% decline from their peak of 12 million during the Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm expansion launches. For a graphic depiction of concurrent World of Warcraft subscribers (and other prominent MMORPGs), visit mmodata.net.
- The “freemium” model is flourishing. As mobile gaming continues to gain momentum, the freemium model is the current model to replicate. What once began as a peddler’s way into the industry, AAA studios are now taking a long, hard look at where consumers’ dollars are flowing. Games like League of Legends, Clash of Clans, and Planetside 2, in addition to frequent downloadable content (DLC), are opening up consumers’ wallets just a few dollars at a time, but over and over and over again.
- Micro-transactions are commonplace. Temporary buffs, access to new characters, downloadable maps, pets and other vanity items… gamers are now well-accustomed to paying small amounts for incremental content and rewards. Blizzard has adopted micro-transactions as a solid revenue stream in both World of WarCraft and Diablo III. Items such as mounts, vanity pets, weapons and armor, in addition to services such as server transfers, long-term storage, and faction changes are drawing additional dollars out of players’ pockets.
- New consoles arriving. With the arrival of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, PC gaming will be hit as a whole. Consoles will again be (temporarily) lauded as the strongest platform for gaming and the new hardware and AAA titles will be enough for many players to ditch World of Warcraft. These factors could reduce World of Warcraft subscribers to below 6 million by the holiday season, at which time Blizzard will make final preparations to shift to a free to play model.
- More of the same. In terms of gameplay, World of Warcraft and its expansions/patches are simply more of the same. Gathering quests, kill quests, quest lines, PvP, battlegrounds, collecting goodies, farming gear, holiday festivities, running instances and raiding… Most of which has been around since vanilla WoW. Each expansion lauds higher levels, new zones, new dungeons, new gear, but the gameplay and in-game activities remain the same. What once was a fresh new face to a budding genre is now the grandfather of an aging genre.
None of this is not to say that World of Warcraft has become a bad game. Hell, it still manages nine years later to pull in more monthly paying subscribers than all other MMORPGs. Players have simply experienced the genre, traveled the world of Azeroth, maxed out a character or two or three or ten, don’t want to continue paying a monthly fee, and are ready to explore something new. However, with each subsequent expansion Blizzard has an opportunity to “wow” players back into the world that first drew them in. But if Blizzard continues delivering more of the same (and charging the same monthly rate), they won’t be successful in retaining subscribers.
Meanwhile, BlizzCon 2013 draws near and will likely provide additional hints that World of WarCraft will soon shift to a free to play model. Will Blizzard confirm World of Warcraft turning free to play at BlizzCon? Not likely. I will go on record by predicting BlizzCon 2013 will reveal a new expansion to World of WarCraft that introduces a new zone, increased level cap, new dungeons, yadda yadda yadda… BUT, also announce the integration with Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, POSSIBLY a new race/class, LIKELY the consolidation of servers, and the decision to implement the in-game store into all World of Warcraft regions. Once the expansion launches early 2014, they’ll experience a brief revenue spike for expansion sales and a final month or two of their subscription model before breaking the news that World of Warcraft will become free to play sometime during summer 2014.
What will happen to pre-paid subscriptions? Paying subscribers with remaining time on their accounts will be granted credit in the new in-game store so that they’re not out any coin. Additionally, we’ll see new items appear more frequently in the in-game store such as vanity pets (confirmed), mounts (confirmed), apparel (confirmed), persistent buffs (confirmed), transmogrification items (confirmed), Hearthstone card packs, and expanded Void Storage options.
Blizzard Entertainment is a business that reports to shareholders. They’re in the business of making money. So whether you favor a F2P model with an in-game store or not, it will come to pass because a game the size of World of Warcraft requires maintenance and support. Will it save World of Warcraft from completely dying? No. That end is inevitable for all MMORPGs. Will it extend the life of the game several years? Likely. And this is what a F2P model and in-game store allows. Longevity.
Now let me ask you this. Would you go back to the World of Warcraft if it were free to play? I definitely will. Let me know your plans and thoughts in the comments below. Meanwhile, good luck and have fun in Azeroth!