With the upcoming release of the first ever Warcraft film this June and the release of Legion, the next World of Warcraft (WOW) expansion, shortly afterwards in September, fans of Blizzard’s flagship series have a lot to look forward to this year.
After its inception in 2004, WOW became almost synonymous with the term “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game” (MMORPG). The game had over 12 million subscribers at its peak in 2010 (the year of its third expansion, Cataclysm), and became almost definitive of the genre and online gaming in general.
However, since that peak in 2010, WOW’s popularity has steadily declined. Gamespot reports that, in November, Blizzard said that they had 5.5 million subscribers. This was a loss of 100,000 since the previous report three months prior, and Gamespot reports that the company now stands at a nine-year low for subscribers.
5.5 million is definitely not a bad number, but it is a substantial drop from the 12 million of WOW’s prime, and suggests a substantial shift in the current MMORPG market. Blizzard also claims that this will be the last time they provide subscriber numbers, and that this information will no longer be divulged in the future, as they look to other forms of data to understand their success.
One of the major changes introduced in response to this drop in subscribers was the company’s decision to increase the number of expansions they release. Gamerant reports that Blizzard has announced intentions to release one expansion per year, which is a substantially more frequent rate than their previous expansions (the game currently has six expansions, and has been out for 12 years, for an average rate of one game every two years).
However, in addition to an increase in WOW expansions, Blizzard’s release of a major film title into the Warcraft franchise could be a major step towards the revival of the brand. While the series currently has an elaborate extended universe of novels, comics and other media, this will be the first time that a major film release has been planned for the series. With WOW struggling with falling subscription numbers, the film has the potential to introduce the brand to a new audience (and reintroduce it to old fans), which could stir up interest in the online game.
Both the film and Legion are characterized by a sort of “look backwards.” Rather than being a new development in the events of the Warcraft universe, or a story that takes place in the universe as it currently stands, the film instead looks back to the franchise’s origins. The film will detail the events of the “First War,” or the first contact between the Orcs of Draenor and the humans of Azeroth, which took place during the very first Warcraft game released in 1994.
Similar to the film, the new expansion also deals with more “classic” Warcraft content. After a series of expansions that dealt with introducing new concepts (2010’s Cataclysm had a dragon literally reshape the entire world and change the landscape of Azeroth, and 2012’s Mists of Pandaria focused largely on developing the new continent of Pandaria), Blizzard has recently shown an interest in reviving the roots of its series.
This interest in the origins of the series began with the 2013 expansion Warlords of Draenor, in which a character travels back in time, creates an alternate timeline and interacts with classic characters. Legion, the upcoming expansion, will see the return of the Burning Legion as the major antagonist of the series.
The Burning Legion was the primary cause of the events of the classic Warcraft games, as well as the main focus of the first ever WOW expansion (The Burning Crusade), so bringing them back as the main antagonist of this new expansion is a reach to the past that is likely to prove nostalgic for old fans.
Between a film and an expansion both focused on revisiting classic content, it appears as if Blizzard’s current strategy for stirring up new interest in their Warcraft franchise is focused around nostalgia and a desire to look back to the series’ roots. 2016 will tell whether or not this strategy ends up proving profitable for Blizzard Entertainment.