World of Warcraft turns 14 years old this year and just launched its seventh major expansion. Neither of these figures is too surprising if you know much about the MMO market. Because server costs aren’t that high and the marginal expense of an additional expansion pack can be relatively low, it’s not unusual for MMOs to quietly bump along, year after year with a small group of dedicated fans. WoW has followed a similar trajectory but at a much higher steady state population. With Battle for Azeroth, that population skyrocketed again.
Battle for Azeroth sold more than 3.4 million copies on its first day, according to VentureBeat. It’s comparatively rare for PC titles to have first-day sales that large, and it’s especially rare to see that kind of interest in a game that’s nearly old enough to drive. Blizzard hasn’t released subscription figures for World of Warcraft since the Warlords of Draenor expansion sent players scuttling for the hills, but we do know that Tom Chilton inadvertently told the press that WoW’s player base had boomed in that expansion, back up to 10.1 million players.
With 3.4 million copies of BfA sold within a day, Blizzard could be on track to return to those numbers. Based on my own experience running around in the game world, there are hundreds of thousands of people who’ve come back to the game to see the new storyline and plot but won’t stick around for all that long. I picked WoW back up for our review of Legion in 2016 and I’ve kept playing ever since when time has permitted. Server populations tend to surge at the beginning of an expansion, only to fall back over time as more players retire or move into occasional check-ins.
There’s one substantial difference between Battle for Azeroth and the trajectory previous expansions have followed, however. In the past, getting into World of Warcraft meant buying the base game and paying a monthly fee. The monthly fee is still in place — WoW hasn’t gone F2P — but the only expansion you need to pay for is the latest one. If you want to play through the base game, up to and through the Legion expansion, it’s just $ 15 per month.
One possible reason for the change is that Blizzard might be trying to woo players into coming back and trying content they missed without requiring them to pony up a lot of cash up front. Two players recently returned to my guild for this reason — once Battle for Azeroth went live and Legion became free, they signed up to play through the expansions they’d missed and experience the content. Granted, it’s not exactly the same content as it used to be — repeated “stat squishes” to keep player HP and damage under control, combined with repeated tweaks to accelerate the leveling experience, give areas a different feel than they had the first time around, even when you’re ostensibly playing through the same content. In some ways, it’s a much better game — World of Warcraft today is far more respectful of your time than it was 10 years ago — but now that I’m leveling an alt for the first time in many years, there are moments when I miss the older game and its slower but more dangerous pacing. The lack of difficulty spikes makes for fewer teeth-clenching rage spasms, but it also makes the game easier to predict.
The 3.4M sales that Blizzard is claiming set a launch record for BfA were impressive, but not much larger than previous cycles. Both Legion and Warlords of Draenor reportedly sold 3.3 million copies in their first 24 hours. This suggests initial launch sales don’t have much prediction power when it comes to how much of the player base will stick around and for how long — Legion, which was easily WoW’s strongest expansion in years, seemed to do a good job retaining players based on how many old friends I saw show back up and stick around for years, if not the entire expansion. We’ll see if the Battle for Azeroth holds players’ interest the same way.