‘World Of Warcraft’ Lost 1.3 Million Subscribers, But Free-To-Play Is Already Winning The Future

World of WarcraftDiablo III, Starcraft II, Skylanders, and the Call of Duty franchise have all been enormously successful titles, propelling the publishing company to the top of the market time and time again. In fact, Skylanders and Call of Duty were the two top-selling franchises of 2012.

So it should come as no real surprise that Activision reported better-than-expected numbers for Q1 2013 in their First Quarter 2013 Results Conference Call Tuesday.

Total sales rose from $1.17 billion to $1.32 billion while earnings per share increased from $0.33 to $0.40.

Much of the good news stems from the release ofStarcraft II: Heart of the Swarm according to Activision Blizzard chief Bobby Kotick. The expansion sold 1.1 million (digital and retail) units in its first 48 hours.

But all is not well.

Activision Blizzard’s iconic MMORPG, World of Warcraft (WoW) has seen a massive subscriber decline in recent months, with a net loss of 1.3 million subscriptions in Q1 2013, or about 14% of the game’s user base.

That still leaves approximately 8.3 million subscribers—a healthy number, to be sure—but also points to a steady decline both in terms of net subscribers and the subscription model itself.

“Given the more competitive market, and the length of time since the last expansion, we do expect further volatility this year,” Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime said. Activision Blizzard promises to devote “substantial resources” to World of Warcraft, but offered no concrete plans to shore up the dwindling subscriber base outside of more frequent content updates, a promise that the company has made before and not always delivered on.

Titan, Blizzard’s mysterious next-gen MMO, remains a big question mark in this equation as well. When Titan hits shelves possibly some time in 2014 or 2015, it will face an industry more competitive than ever and won’t have the timing advantage WoW enjoyed. It may also represent possible cannibalization of World of Warcraft users, though of course all that remains to be seen.

“It’s important to note that the nature of online games has changed,” said Kotick, “and with the environment becoming far more competitive, especially with free-to-play games. To address this, we’re working to release new content more frequently to keep our players engaged longer and make it easier for lapsed players to come back into the game.”

As EA and BioWare learned quite painfully, a subscriber-based MMO is a tough sell in today’s market.

Star Wars: The Old Republic quickly moved to a free-to-play model months after the game was released, as rapidly dwindling subscriber numbers spelled doom for the game’s original subscirbe-to-play model.

Free-to-play is on the rise across the video game industry, but especially in multiplayer-based online games.

This includes MMORPGs like the recently soft-launched MMO, Neverwinter, from Cryptic Studios, as well as non-MMO competitive games such as indie mech title Hawken and upcoming Crytek shooter, Warface.

In fact, according to Crytek boss Cevat Yerli, all future Crytek games will be free-to-play.

I’ve spoken with developers from each of these games, and the growing consensus is clear: for a certain type of online gaming experience, free-to-play (F2P) is the way forward. But it won’t be easy.

The trick is balance, fairness, and maintaining a game’s user base when every alternative out there is just as free. Unlike a subscription model, F2P players have no initial buy-in to keep them playing, no nagging guilt over not making use of that monthly fee. On the other hand, F2P represents a much lower barrier to entry for new players.

King of the hill: Riot Games’ ‘League of Legends’ boasts 32 million active users.

League of Legends, Riot Games’ massive Multiplayer Online Battle Arena game (MOBA) has over 30 million active users.

Rather than rely on a subscription model, Riot monetizes its player base using a combination of cosmetic upgrades and purchasable hero packs.

Upcoming action-MMO Marvel Heroes will adhere to a very similar model.

Blizzard is starting to feel the pain of an increasingly legitimate suite of alternatives to World of Warcraft. More importantly, they’re facing an existential threat to a tried and true revenue model. While the game itself may be aging, it still represents one of the best, most content-rich MMOs on the market. The problem isn’t so much that the game is aging, but that the business model is.

F2P is still evolving, of course, and its implementation varies wildly from one game to the next.

A game that allows players in for free still needs a revenue stream, and how developers choose to monetize can spell the difference between an enjoyable, competitive experience and “pay-to-win.”

Games like Hawken, Tribes Ascend, League of Legends or Valve’s DOTA 2 tend to do free-to-play well; many others employ more questionable monetization practices, especially in Asian markets and mobile gaming.

Free-to-play represents enormous potential for revenue if implemented properly.

At the Game Developers Conference in Taipei in 2012, Epic Games chief Tim Sweeney revealed that the ”most profitable game we’ve ever made, in terms of man years invested versus revenue, is actually Infinity Blade. It’s more profitable than Gears of War,” he said, adding that he was “very, very surprised to see how fast smartphone and tablet devices are improving.”

Not just devices, but revenues. In fact, 90% of all iOS game revenue comes from games offering In-App Purchases. And certainly console manufacturers and developers are taking note.

Epic’s iOS game ‘Infinity Blade’ is more profitable than ‘Gears of War’

“The next-gen consoles are going to be fully embracing the free-to-play and these IAP-type business models,” Epic Vice President Mark Rein said recently, “So in case you don’t know that I’m putting that out there. Sony and Microsoft are both going heavily in that area.”

As a critic of many implementations of free-to-play games, I admit to both some trepidation over this market shift as well as a growing acknowledgment that F2P content outside of much of the mobile space and the Asian market has improved drastically in recent years.

In my conversations with developers on multiple titles, ranging from Warface to Hawken, the one common thread I encountered over and over again was how fiercely these developers were tackling the problems with “pay to win” and game balance issues.

Adhesive Games, the developer behind Hawken, has focused on building a fun game first and foremost.

Game producer Jason Hughes told me that free-to-play wasn’t really a viable option until investors had come on board and hype had built momentum for the title. With cash on hand, F2P became a “viable choice.”

“Going with that business model allows us to treat the game as a service,” said Hughes. It allows Adhesive to focus on a constantly evolving game rather than simply get a “final” build out and then walk away.

It also means Adhesive needs to focus on balance and community, and on creating a space where players want to stick around.

Adhesive Games says non-paying players are just as critical as paying customers to ‘Hawken’s’ success.

“Balance is probably one of the big pieces,” said Hughes. “We also rely so much on everyone being a part of the community and everyone being involved in the game. It doesn’t matter if you spend any money or not, ultimately that doesn’t matter. People need to have fun no matter what. Part of it is making sure that people are always having a good time regardless of whether or not they’re winning.”

And regardless of whether or not they’re paying money. In fact, Hughes says the goal is to give as much content away for free as possible.

“Part of our goal and part of what’s important with the game in order for us to succeed is to have as many people playing as possible,” he said. “So the more we can make available to people upfront, the better.”

Mechs will always have a price attached, Hughes says, but maps and all “core-functionality” are available for free to everyone.

Players get one mech to start, and can unlock new mechs with in-game currency or real money. In fact, the only items that can be purchased with real money only in the game are cosmetic enhancements for mechs. Everything else can be earned by playing the game.

“We want to make sure that anything that has an impact on gameplay can be unlocked by those who prefer to just play for free,” Hughes noted. “Anyone who plays for free is still contributing to the success of the game.”

After all, the more active players the more fun paying players will have and the faster word-of-mouth will travel.

Warface is Crytek’s first crack at free-to-play.

Crytek, meanwhile, has implemented an interesting “crown” currency for its F2P online shooter, Warface.

The game’s in-game shop allows players to use regular in-game money or real money to purchase weapons and items. Crowns represent a third currency that can only be earned by playing the game.

The top 50% of players on the game’s leaderboards earn a number of crowns based on their rank.

The twist here is that the best weapons in the game can only be purchased with crowns. This, Crytek hopes, will help alleviate concerns about “pay-to-win” by giving the most dedicated players a competitive way to earn better loot.

One way or another, free-to-play is here to stay, at least in the online gaming space. As the next generation of consoles approaches, we’ll see F2P in console gaming become a reality as well. Already shooters like DUST 514 have found their way to current generation consoles.

Will World of Warcraft survive the market shift?

I suspect it will, though the game won’t enjoy the same kind of market dominance it’s had over the years. Then again, I suspect market trends are pushing the entire industry toward more niche-based and less costly MMOs and online games. There may never be another World of Warcraft, and maybe that’s all for the best.

Activision Blizzard says it will devote substantial resources to keeping WoW on top, and so they should, but ultimately the F2P sea change will carve away even at the gold standard of online games. As the first quarter of 2013 has shown us, that process has already begun. It shows no signs of slowing down.

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