Why 'World of Warcraft' Is Dying

Downward trend

After losing 700,000 players in just three months, "World of Warcraft" is firmly on the decline. Since peaking at 12 million subscribers in 2011, Blizzard's venerable old warhorse has been unable to hold onto its considerable player base. With 7.7 million paid subscribers, however, it is still the reigning champion of the paid massively multiplayer online (MMO) game world.

"World of Warcraft" may not be going anywhere soon, but it is dying as much as any other aging MMO, and at a faster rate, to boot. The game's 9-year-old engine and gameplay mechanics have started to exhibit cracks, and its experienced players have seen just about everything there is to see.

While the game's decline merits a bit of analysis, its meteoric rise was no surprise. "Warcraft" was already an established real-time strategy franchise when "World of Warcraft" launched in 2004. The game provided a much more user-friendly experience than competing MMOs such as "Ultima Online" or "Everquest," with a strong story, streamlined gameplay and colorful, cartoonish graphics.

"World of Warcraft" could run on just about any computer, and with broadband connections more widespread and affordable than ever, the game flew off of store shelves for months after its initial release. As the story and gameplay deepened in the "Burning Crusade" and "Wrath of the Lich King" expansion packs in 2007 and 2008, respectively, the game's player base grew with the franchise.

The game reached its highest number of subscribers shortly after the release of the "Cataclysm" expansion pack in 2010. "World of Warcraft" began to hemorrhage subscribers after that. Even with the release of the "Mists of Pandaria" expansion in 2012, which wooed some of its wayward players back, the game has lost paying customers at a rate of approximately 2 million per year.

Ask any two gamers about what sparked the game's downward spiral, and you'll get three opinions. The aging game engine is one aspect. Although the game has seen minor graphical upgrades and a cavalcade of gameplay tweaks, it's still functionally the same game now as it was in 2004.

Player fatigue is the most mundane explanation, but potentially the most accurate one as well. "World of Warcraft" is vast, but nine years is enough time for experienced players have done everything there is to do. Many players keep their subscriptions active because of their in-game friendships or their determination to acquire high-level gear, but more and more of them seem to be putting the game aside in favor of newer offerings.

Even "World of Warcraft" itself may have worked against its own best interests. Although "World of Warcraft" is a stand-alone title, it is actually the fourth installment in the "Warcraft" series, which began in 1994. The story of each game has built upon the last, and 2002's "Warcraft III" left many questions unanswered. "Wrath of the Lich King" in 2008 brought the arc to a suitably epic conclusion, making the next two expansions feel more like dressing than anything equally substantial. [See also: 20 Great Games for Android]