Talk is cheap

Just over a week ago the maker of the popular Weak Auras addon posted a tweet about the current number of subscribers for World of Warcraft. The tweet was suggesting that after a new API had been made available, that it was possible to derive current subscribers to the game. Current subscribers for the game have dropped by around 2 million only two months after the release, for the western North American and Europe realms (servers).

Because the tweet was based on a soon to be deleted post elsewhere, there was no verification or way to validate the numbers. However this didn’t stop the news spreading and quickly people repeating it as fact. In addition many were quick to shut down conversations in their space (i.e. ResetEra or Reddit) because the claims couldn’t be substantiated. In addition Activision Blizzard responded to say the data was false.

So whilst there is nothing wrong with regarding the original leaked numbers as dubious i.e. anyone can claim anything on the internet. The response from Activision Blizzard should also be treated with cynicism. Many were quick to claim that Activision Blizzard wouldn’t lie because they have a legal responsibility not to mislead their shareholders. However the claim that the numbers are false can be made on so many levels, i.e. the number is only 99.99% accurate, or the data doesn’t include the Asia region subscribers etc. The fact is Activision Blizzard hasn’t published World of Warcraft subscribers numbers since 2015 when the game had 5.5 million subscribers.

Like many other companies Activision Blizzard has moved away from factual and meaningful data such as unit sales and subscribers to ‘player engagement’ and monthly active users (MAU) for the purposes of reporting financial information. However this is less useful data, very easy to hide behind and doesn’t really provide enough detail to analyse. Activision Blizzard MAU data is all players across all of its games and purchases grouped up into one big number. With free-to-play games included it is very difficult to see how World of Warcraft is performing. And since 2015 Activision Blizzard has only ever released ‘positive’ PR data- i.e. sold 3.4 million copies of Battle for Azeroth on day one. It will never release active subscribers unless it a. decided to, and b. the numbers were extremely healthy.

And it isn’t alone in this. Microsoft, for example, since 2015 has stopped reporting on the number of Xbox One units sold, or the number of Xbox Live Gold subscribers (i.e. paying). This is very likely as it was selling less Xbox Ones than Sony’s PlayStation 4 and the fact Gold subscribers was probably declining as a result. In fact we know from other data (i.e EA etc.) that Xbox One has sold less units that the Xbox 360 had at the same time in its lifetime. Microsoft is generating more revenue from digital sales but from less console players. We don’t even know what constitutes a Microsoft MAU. It could simply be someone logging into the Windows 10 Xbox App. In other words pretty garbage information.

However one thing was interesting and that is how people simply discounted that there might only be 3.2 million subscribers (in NA/EU, so excluding Asia servers). I’ve seen people state this couldn’t be true because why would anyone not buy gametime for an expansion they had already purchased (the 3.4m day one sales as noted earlier). Well I know this can be true because I was one of those players. Despite preordering the expansion for Allied Races during Legion I simply didn’t subscribe to World of Warcraft again until after the release of Battle for Azeroth. Also with the ability to buy gametime with in-game gold it’s quite possible the numbers for day one sales could have exceeded the subscribers at release.

In addition if we look at realm data, we can see there are around 5.9 million characters in EU and NA realms at level 111+. With alts and multiple characters it means it ‘could’ have been possible that there were somewhere in the region of 3.2 million subscribers for NA and EU regions at launch. As BellularGaming said in his YouTube video the lack of historic data makes this hard to look at previous trends. That said as with any MMO there is likely to be drop off in players after the release. Certainly there appears to more negativity around for Battle for Azeroth than the previous expansion at this point in its lifetime.

Either way the numbers are certainly not beyond the realms of possibility, and Blizzard quickly logging everyone out of the forums (possibly as a result of shutting down the API) may be an indicator that API had given out more data than ever intended. But unless there was more transparency from Activision Blizzard, we simply won’t know.

The more difficult to answer question might be, if the numbers are close to the truth, then what are the implications for World of Warcraft. Any MMO has a more defined ceiling when selling expansions but there might come a point when Activision Blizzard decides it can make more money from another business model. However it certainly isn’t going to increase any budget or resources for future releases and may explain why World of Warcraft Classic has taken so long to release.

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