On one level, the most interesting thing that came out of the most recent earnings call for Activision-Blizzard was how much stuff the company stayed silent about. It’s perhaps not surprising when you consider that by the report’s own admission the studios are happy to keep things kind of low-key while hoping that the Microsoft buyout goes through, but there are some weird omissions and things that just aren’t being talked about, and their absence stands out.
But the reality is that WoW Factor is not a column about the company as a whole, and I am happy to not be reporting on that rampaging trash fire as a main thing; instead, this is instead a column about World of Warcraft specifically. And on that note, this report was… well, what we know was definitely about WoW was generally not great, there are some ambiguous points in there, and there’s also just the obvious stuff hanging over the report like the sword of Damocles. So let’s get unpacking.
First things first, let’s look at the biggest and most positive number in the entire report: that huge MAU jump. According to the tally buried at literally the end of the report, the Blizzard segment saw 45M monthly active users in Q4. Obviously, this is not the most the company has ever seen, but it is 8M more than it saw five years ago when it first began reporting MAUs this way, it’s 23M more than its low point exactly one year ago, and it’s 14M more than just a quarter ago, which ought to have been the height of Diablo Immortal frenzy.
I have questions.
What makes me ask questions first and foremost is that the segment report itself does not specifically call out any of Blizzard’s titles as having gained MAUs. A lot of other positive-sounding words were thrown around, but none of them points to MAUs and says, “Look, we gained right here.” When you’re talking about a count that rose by 14 million compared to the prior quarter, that’s the sort of thing that usually merits some attention, and indeed, the company usually does note that.
It seems obvious that those extra players didn’t come from WoW itself, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment. So we would assume that the highlight would thus be Overwatch 2, but that game also gets the same vague gladhanding of “engagement” and bookings rather than praise for a jump in users. I’m not inherently suspicious of a rise in users, but I am suspicious of a 150% increase over a three-month period that doesn’t actually attempt to justify anything as the reason for that increase.
Maybe a lot of it was driven by existing MAUs checking out Overwatch 2. Maybe it was a lot of little things. Maybe it’s some creative counting and fudging of numbers, something that the whole MAU stat makes really easy to disguise. I don’t know, but the fact that no attention is being drawn to it whatsoever despite the stat being the highest Blizzard has managed in four years just adds to that vague sense of something being off.
“Is it really that hard to believe?” Well, when the same report all but admits your expansion kinda flopped, yes.
Technically, what the report says is that Dragonflight didn’t hit the heights of its predecessor, but that says all it needs to: Blizzard did not get as many people going back as it had expected. The report also notes that subscriber retention has been better than before, but I can’t think it’s exactly a coincidence that a year-long subscription option was rolled out before this report, not to mention enhancements to the subscription in the form of the trading post. There’s an air of… not exactly desperation, but a more-cloying-than-usual attempt to mollify existing players and entice returning players.
Not going to lie, this makes me a bit worried because there are two lessons designers can take away from this. The first is that the past couple of expansions have really damaged trust, so they’re going to need to work harder to rebuild that, possibly making changes further outside of their collective comfort zone which has helped the game bleed goodwill for half a decade now. I’d say this would be the right lesson (as I said in my first impressions, Dragonflight is a half-measure and probably just slightly over the scale to being a good expansion, but that’s still better than its predecessors).
The other lesson, though, is to draw the conclusion that they were wrong to try new things and just undo whatever partial steps the game has taken to improve its issues. It’s hard to know which is on the mind of the team at this point, but my first instinct is that the other lesson will wind up making stuff like Shadowlands look like a real good time. I tried to scream, but nothing came out but blood.
And of course, we can’t forget that the next report will be the post-launch doldrums, and the report after that will be fully post-China for Blizzard. Neither of these things bodes well for things moving through 2023 until Diablo IV arrives, and I suspect WoW in particular is going to be at once under a microscope and trying to move quickly to respond to all of these changes. It needs to reverse its fortunes post-Dragonflight and turn upward, and it needs to convince more people to buy in.
Which, you know, is going to be hard to do because the game has spent the past several years alienating a large base of its users. That’s tough to reverse quickly.
Of course, I said this report was mixed, not bad, and it definitely sounds from the report that the developers working on WoW do have a plan even if things are looking less than rosy at the moment. Whether or not that plan is going to work remains to be seen and is going to depend a lot on what the plan is. There’s a sense of looking forward, not back, and I’m certainly hopeful – perhaps inappropriately so – that the lesson taken from the slow sales of Dragonflight is that the team can no longer coast to expansion sales based on a dedicated and unmoving batch of players.
And there is that MAU bump. The total lack of explanation there makes me suspicious of where it’s coming from, but in a pure “line goes up” sense it does suggest that something at least drove people to come in and look. Or, you know, that some creative accounting is at play. Probably both in some proportion, if we’re being honest.
I can’t imagine that the weakness of Dragonflight has been a surprise to the developers, of course; people were speculating about this pretty much since the launch lacked a lot of the crowing of success, especially with the number of “come back and play” offers reaching a critical mass. And just a few weeks ago, outgoing Blizzard lead Brian Birmingham acknowledged the issues by pinning some of the blame on Activision executives, saying “[t]hey put [the WoW team] under pressure to deliver both expansions early” (referring to both Dragonflight and Wrath Classic).
Seeing the admission of Dragonflight’s weakness in the report makes it an absolute fact, though, and all that’s left is to watch whether this prompts Blizzard to start moving back into its scrappy upstart mode that’s willing to try some wild solutions or to become even more sclerotic with how it handles its properties.
We’re going to have to wait and see. But the context here certainly doesn’t suggest stable times for WoW ahead, and while on some level that’s a good thing (it’s not like WoW was in a good place a year ago, after all), just because you’re changing doesn’t mean you’re getting better. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.
Also hope for better offerings on the trading post next month. This month’s offerings were kind of… not the stuff I’d put forward as the pitch for the service, you know? Maybe someone really wanted to get a swashbuckling set.