Expansions, cycles, and player interest in WoW

There are players out there right now who are done playing Legion. There are people who will be done with it in less than a month. And there are people who stopped playing World of Warcraft because of it. They took a look at the changes coming, said “This expansion isn’t for me,” and unsubscribed either before the expansion launched or shortly after it did.

The churn

We’ve seen the reports that Blizzard saw a subscriber bump to 10.1 million subs — reports Blizzard won’t confirm — but we have to always remember the evidence of WoW’s history. An expansion comes out, sells between 3 and 4 million units, and sees a subscriber bump — the last two expansions both sold 3.3 million units apiece when they first launched. But not all of those players stay. They haven’t since the decline in subscriber numbers started back in the middle of Wrath of the Lich King. What we’ve seen since Cataclysm has been essentially the same. Players come back for the expansion, and stay as long as they feel like there’s stuff for them to do. Then we start to see the decline when they no longer feel like there’s content for them.

And there are other factors as well.

First off, let’s discuss expansion churn. Every expansion has changed the game significantly. Those of us who played when Burning Crusade dropped can remember the significant changes to tanking, to class mechanics with extra talent points and new abilities. In addition, each faction got a new class — Alliance got Shamans, Horde got Paladins. And the changes to raid sizes caused a lot of issues. Going from 40 man raids to a 10 man gateway that led to 25 man raids killed dozens of guilds. These changes caused many players to leave the game, but since WoW was in its greatest period of player expansion, it was easy to ignore this churn.

Even Wrath drove out players who were used to the game as it had been. Because this is the greatest problem with an expansion to a game like WoW — if you make no changes, you risk stagnation and the loss of bored players. If you make too many changes, you risk alienating the players you already have. Sometimes these players simply switch up what they’re playing. If Paladins change radically between Wrath and Cataclysm, then perhaps the players who enjoyed the old Paladin playstyle will pick another class.

But they may just leave. And some always do.

Galleon glitch

The new expansion smell

The introduction of the new talent system in Mists of Pandaria radically changed how the classes played. Some adapted, some did not. The item squish and ability pruning in Warlords did something similar. Some people continued to play their classes, some rerolled, and some just left — this doesn’t reflect other issues with Warlords that affected players, as those were outside the usual expansion cycle churn.

So we’ve seen that some players leave because a new expansion changes too much for them. Other players, however, never intended to stay. They resubbed, bought the new expansion, played for a while and then left. This was always what they were going to do, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s no reason an MMO has to be something you never stop playing or paying for.

To use a non-MMO example, I very much enjoyed Fallout 4. I played it quite a lot, bought a season pass, got a bunch of the DLC and played that. I’m not currently playing it. I got my entertainment value out of the game and moved on. And for some people, that’s how they play World of Warcraft. They’re not interested in playing it more than that. They want to come in, see the new zones, explore the new content at their own pace, and when they feel like they’ve gotten as far as they can within their comfort zone, they stop playing.

I think it’s time we recognize that this playstyle exists, that it’s common, and that it’s nothing to be surprised by. It’s perfectly valid and it contributes to the health of the game. To put it bluntly, their money spends as well as anyone else’s — they buy the expansions, they sub for as long as they feel like playing, they help keep the game afloat during the content droughts by doing so. But they are by definition fair weather players, and it’s no surprise that Blizzard no longer wants to talk sub numbers in a market where any decline in them is seen as a bad omen. Blizzard already recognizes the existence of this kind of play and is more than willing to cater to them.

thrall and garrosh

Tides of interest

So we have players who leave because of expansions, and players who only return because of expansions, inevitably to leave once the new expansion smell is no longer present for them. But other players will leave because, once they get to a certain place, they feel like the expansion is closed off to them.


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Another thing that drives players to unsub are content droughts. Once people have done all the available content — whatever available means to them — there’s nothing that really compels them to stay. People will endure for a while to keep playing with friends or if they’re enjoying what they’re doing. There’s no way to predict when people will say “Man, I’ve done this enough times,” and unsub. But it definitely has an impact, and “just long enough” for one player is often “way too long” for the next. Both Mists and Warlords had very long periods of time where nothing new — no new dungeons, quests, anything — happened. If Legion has anything like that, it will lose players.

The ultimate point of all of this is that it’s short sighted and naive to expect an expansion to retain all the subs it receives at its highest point of interest. At this point, I think it’s fair to say that World of Warcraft crests at the launch of each new expansion, and then loses and gains people if and when patches come out to create interest in players. Patch 7.1 coming out when it does will likely keep people playing for a while longer. Unless Blizzard can combine that kind of content delivery with a sustained schedule of patches, we’ll see player interest decline — but that decline isn’t a disaster. Players buying the expansions and subbing for a few months isn’t a disaster, and we need to move away from that mindset. It’s part of the game’s life cycle at this point.

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