Mass Exodus: A Post-Mortem on the Shrinking Playerbase in World of Warcraft

It’s no joke that people are currently unsubscribing from World of Warcraft. Why are they and does this mean anything for the game?

It’s no joke that people are currently unsubscribing from World of Warcraft and there is this general feeling within the community that some players may not be enjoying the game like they once were. Others believe that it’s only natural for those who returned for the expansion to quit, like they always do, in between patches. There is a lot of speculation as to what is happening and if anyone should worry and even more uncertainty when it comes to the reasons behind the loss in subscribers.

Let’s look at the facts. Blizzard has lost 600,000 subscribers since Cataclysm launched. If we use the North American pricing scheme that comes to almost 900,000 in lost subscription fees and potential revenue from their premium services. This is a pretty drastic loss in subscribers and has gotten a lot of arm chair professionals talking about why this is happening.

There is a lot of speculation out there. For instance, Rift is destroying WoW currently, that Cataclysm is too hard, that Cataclysm is boring, or some other obscure paranoid theories like Blizzard is lying about the numbers or people are leading some kind of mass exodus from WoW. I’m not big on the silly stuff so let’s take a look at some of the real reasons this is happening.

Normal Patterns

A lot of players who had quit the game came back for Cataclysm only to meet disappointment. They thought the game changed drastically and the reason that they quit playing was now gone. They bought the expansion, logged in, leveled up, and found the same reasons that they quit before still existing. Being unsatisfied, they unsubscribed until there is a new reason to play the game.

This is perfectly normal behavior in all games and WoW is no exception. As a matter of a fact, you can attribute a lot of those lost subscribers to this simple pattern. It happened with TBC and WoTLK and it’ll happen in all of the future expansions as well.

Cataclysm’s Difficulty

Cataclysm is hard and it started out gruelingly difficult and different. Healers were having mana problems because they were used to spamming heals to keep everyone up and heroics were (and still) remain difficult much like vanilla WoW’s content. Some heralded this as the start of a beautiful thing while others seen it as a huge bottleneck for them to chew through content.

So, of course, when you reach a point you can’t advance any further in the game you don’t see the reason to pay out the money for a subscription. While I don’t see this as being a big influence on the overall subscription loss, it’s still a part of it.

Burn-Out Syndrome

A lot of players have realized that the game is still the same thing that they’ve been playing for a long, long time. You level up, gear up, raid, and then sit within your respective capital showing off your loot to your friends. Wash, rinse, and repeat. This creates a bit of a drag on the playerbase when each expansion is the same song and dance. So it’s obvious that some people may quit playing just because the game isn’t exciting them like it used to.

There are also some players that have completed everything in the game and felt 4.1 was aimed more toward the casual audience. So without anything to do why log in?

What’s Isn’t Happening

First, and foremost, the weeks after the announcement have had some screaming about the fall of Blizzard. Yes, they’re bleeding subscribers, but it’s not the start of the end for Blizzard just yet. They have more updates and expansions coming out to keep the game going strong and it has way too many subscribers for it to end anytime soon.

Of course, Diablo 3 is going to cut heavy into the subscription base when it releases but you can bet that Blizzard is expecting that and will release D3 during a long downtime in the game.

Rift is now “winning” and no other game has hit WoW hard enough to put a dent into its subscription base. Yes, Rift did take some subscribers like every game has, but it’s not dominating WoW into the ground. Games like Guild Wars 2 or Star Wars: The Old Republic may actually do some damage to the subscription base, but no game so far has made a sustainable mark.


Many players are waiting on a solution to their burnout or general disappointment in the game. Blizzard is hoping that Firelands is the magic bullet. However, throwing more content at the problem isn’t the solution this far into the game. We need something to kind of jump start the populace and make WoW amazing again. Maybe some kind of new mechanic, solo dungeons, or a raid that just knocks the socks off of everyone.

Yes, we’re all a demanding bunch, but we’ve also been playing for a long time. So it only makes sense that Blizzard changes things up a bit and not just for everyone who is starting fresh. Let’s see a raid with some insane mechanics or some new feature no one has thought of yet. That’s when you’re going to see a new era of massive growth.

Have you unsubscribed? Come to our comments section and share your reasons why. Maybe you can help shed some light on where the playerbase is going currently in the game.

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Get in the bush with David "Xerin" Piner as he leverages his spectacular insanity to ask the serious questions such as is Master Yi and Illidan the same person? What's for dinner? What are ways to elevate your gaming experience? David's column, Respawn, is updated near daily with some of the coolest things you'll read online, while David tackles ways to improve the game experience across the board with various hype guides to cool games.

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