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Welcome to the Plateau: World of Warcraft, Subscribers and Cataclysm

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Activision BlizzardÂ’s latest earning call revealed a substantial drop in World of WarcraftÂ’s subscriber numbers, from the officially announced figure of 12 million (though the actual figure is likely much higher than that) down to 11.4 million. ThatÂ’s quite a drop, but is this simply indicative of a mid-season slump, or are we witnessing the birth of a more pronounced downward trend?

To many players Cataclysm felt somewhat rushed, despite the longer development cycle, and seemed to be incomplete at launch. Aspects of the endgame were too easy while the level of the five man content is just too hard. Yes, to some extent, this is down to being mollycoddled during Wrath with dailies that could be sleepwalked in ten minutes with even the most basic of gear, yet we all knew going into Cataclysm that Blizzard intended to up the ante in terms of general endgame difficulty.

However, after the initial honeymoon period wore off, sometime between January and the release of Rift, many subscribers became unhappy. The lure of the new is always strong, especially if youÂ’re already burned out on your game of choice. Blizzard may have garnered more sympathy from those disenchanted subscribers had they conceded that yes, certain aspects of Cataclysm's launch were rushed. Instead, they may have dug an even deeper hole when they announced that 4.1 would not be the Firelands but a mish-mash of revamped older content peppered with a few sorely needed tweaks to game mechanics.

Depending on which end of the hardcore to casual spectrum you fall under, 4.1 has not been well received and all eyes have turned to Rage of the Firelands. As a result, 4.1 wasnÂ’t even a blip on many a radar and even the promise of Ragnaros is secondary to the loot and gear heÂ’ll drop. WeÂ’ve beaten him back twice now and these confrontations are getting old. In Molten Core, Ragnaros was awesome. In Hyjal, it was a fitting end to an epic quest line. But in Rage of the Firelands, many have already begun to wonder if itÂ’s really going to be that epic or just another pit stop on the road to Deathwing.

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Deathwing has destroyed Azeroth but has Cataclysm destroyed World of Warcraft?

ThereÂ’s epic, you see, and then thereÂ’s legendary. Deathwing definitely falls into the latter but is it possible to hype this final encounter so much that all else becomes just another cobblestone on the road? In Wrath we knew we were going to face the Lich King and it was an epic journey, one Cataclysm is struggling to match Â… Deathwing might be bigger and badder but even he canÂ’t match ArthasÂ’ infamy amongst the mortal races of Azeroth.

Blizzard has a lot of work to do in the coming months if it hopes to continue the longstanding upward trend of seeing new players in its flagship title. Subscriber numbers have fallen and itÂ’s likely to be a shock, hopefully enough of one to make the developers realize they canÂ’t just coast along, assuming their subscribers will continue to give them money whatever happens. Consumers are picky creatures, we want worth for our loyaity and if we donÂ’t get it, that small vocal minority will quickly become a very loud majority.

With a little effort and the right people on board, it's certainly not too late for Blizzard to make Soon™ mean something again. That's one of the key components of how the developer built up such a massive, loyal fanbase over the years. Unfortunately, many players have decided that mantra has warped into TooSoon™ since the launch of Cataclysm, so it will be interesting to see if Rage of the Firelands can help pull WoW's slowly sinking subscriber numbers back out of the proverbial fire.

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