All is not well in Azeroth.
Approximately 1.3 million subscribers have left World of Warcraft’s fantasy universe in the past three months, Activision-Blizzard reported in an earnings call Wednesday.
According to the company, most of those departures were players in the East, though a significant number of Western players left as well. All told, the game now has about 8.3 million paying customers -- down from 9.6 million in February -- and Activision CEO Bobby Kotick admits that number is bound to drop even further.
“While we do believe further declines are likely, and we expect to have fewer subscribers in a year then we do today, World of Warcraft remains one of the most successful franchises in the history of entertainment,” he said.
Once far and away the largest online role-playing game, World of Warcraft’s numbers have dwindled as competition from free-to-play alternatives has gained steam. In 2010, the game peaked at over 12 million paying customers, but that number dropped to about 9 million prior to the launch of the Mists of Pandaria expansion last September. Though the game enjoyed a small bump thanks to that expansion’s solid sales, it couldn’t maintain it.
That's not entirely shocking considering Warcraft's advanced age. First launched back in 2004, it's one of the longest-running massively-multiplayer games still vying for a slice of the online gaming pie. While the game's quartet of official expansions have done a good job keeping gamers coming back, increased pressure from a wealth of free-to-play online competitors -- not to mention a shaky economy -- have made the game's subscription-based pricing model harder and harder to swallow.
That's not lost on the game's creators, either, who are currently toiling away on a free-to-play, collectible card game spin-off, Hearthstone, due out this summer.
Investors aren't interested in waiting, however, and responded to the grim player exodus by backing away from Activision’s stock, which dropped 5 percent in after-hours trading.
And it’s not likely to get much better for the company. Kotick painted a pretty rough picture for the remainder of 2013.
"While we have had a solid start to the year, we now believe that the risks and uncertainties in the back half of 2013 are more challenging than our earlier view, especially in the holiday quarter," he told investors. "The shift in release dates of competing products, the disappointing launch of the Wii U, uncertainties regarding next-generation hardware, and subscriber declines in our World of Warcraft business all raise concerns, as do continued challenges in the global economy."
Though he didn’t name names, it’s clear Kotick is concerned with EA’s Battlefield 4, expected to be one of the year’s biggest sellers and a direct competitor to Activision’s Call of Duty: Ghosts. The company's lucrative Skylanders franchise is also expecting a test later this year in the form of Disney Infinity, a toy/game hybrid based on Disney's myriad potent properties.