WoW Factor: Dragonflight wasn’t a hit – so now what?


All right, let’s be real and acknowledge that the recent Activision-Blizzard earning report did not say outright that World of Warcraft: Dragonflight was an out-and-out dud. But it doesn’t have to be said explicitly. It’s obvious enough from context, just as it’s obvious that the investor information being released early was an attempt to control the narrative after any plans for a quick purchase by Microsoft have been thoroughly scuppered. (That’s a useful piece for understanding the state of affairs. Short version? There’s a long appeals process followed by more concessions needing to be offered by Microsoft, which increases the odds Microsoft will just walk away. The more you know.)

In the wake of this investor report, which also confirms my speculation after the last report, it’s time to take a look at what the heck is being done with WoW and what to expect as we move forward.

First and foremost, as mentioned… those Blizzard-wide MAUs went up like a puff of smoke. Blizzard had soared to 45M monthly active users last quarter, which collapsed to 27M over the first three months of 2023 – back down to where the studio was in Q2 of last year before the launches of Dragonlight, Wrath Classic, Overwatch 2, and even part of Diablo Immortal. I really find myself thinking that there was some very creative accounting being used to justify those numbers in the first place, since that’s an awful lot of users to just vanish with no more fanfare than when they suddenly appeared (recall that Activision’s Q4 2022 report barely mentioned that massive spike). Again, a huge jump in MAUs with nothing cited as the cause followed by all of them vanishing… I don’t want to say someone was being disingenuous, but those facts placed adjacent to one another certainly create that image, huh?

But I think the more important element to note is simply that after a few months, it’s very clear that Dragonflight is just not taking off. In February, the company admitted it hadn’t even outsold Shadowlands; the kindest thing Bobby Kotick could say about Dragonflight for its first two quarters of existence was that “subscriber retention in the West is higher that at the equivalent stage of recent Modern expansions,” which with all those qualifiers stacked up is no great feat when sales were weak to begin with.

And of course, Blizzard has offered more sales and incentives for buying and subbing than it historically has for any new expansion (I know it isn’t completely new, but functionally) within memory, and still, people just… aren’t coming back.

The limits have been breached. It turns out that two bad expansions back-to-back are enough to wear people out! If you were wondering when WoW would finally stop drawing people back, well, we’ve gotten our answer.

Of course, there are two possible messages that the WoW team could take away from this. The first is that the team clearly shouldn’t have started changing because immediately after the effort was made, out came Dragonflight directly into a crater. But I reject this framing because… well, for all that I think the current leadership makes poor decisions (based on obvious evidence). I don’t think they’re dumb. They understand that these things have a delayed effect and that trust, once lost, takes time to rebuild if it even can be rebuilt.

Unfortunately… the other option is going to be harder for them because it means acknowledging and caring that the changes aren’t enough.

she YELL

This need not in and of itself be a problem, of course. A good team is capable of acknowledging that changes were made, but more changes need to be made, so let’s make more changes. The problem is… this is the WoW team. It’s been like two days since Ion Hazzikostas decided to say out loud that the LFR feature has to be delayed because otherwise people who just queue up for raids see the ending at the same time as people with existing guilds. We can’t have that. The servers would shut down, or something.

Heck, it’s been two days since Ion Hazzikostas gave interviews to plenty of influencers but not, like, journalists. When you’re talking only to people who are sympathetic to you and your cause, that’s usually not a sign that your image is doing great.

This ties into something that I’ve talked about before. As tempting as it might be to say that the WoW developers are just giving players what they want, that clearly isn’t the case. The developers are giving a very small subset of players what they want and seeing more and more other people decide, “You know what, I don’t want to bother with this any more.”

If you are part of the very large subset of players that WoW clearly dislikes, increasingly, you have been driven away from the game. And no, the WoW Classic crowd does not overlap with that subset, especially when the developers decided to remove one of Wrath of the Lich King’s most loved features to appeal to the existing WoW Classic crowd. And I’ve also talked about how WoW has increasingly driven out the bottom and the middle of its playerbase to the point that hurts even its avowed focus on progression raiding. The problem is that even if I don’t think WoW’s leadership is dumb enough to not understand that Dragonflight has to be the first step to regaining trust, I do believe that they might not be able or willing to grasp that the sickness the game has comes down to its ecosystem.

Because no, even if you really enjoy Mythic+, you cannot actually have a game based entirely on hierarchy of play. It’s the same fundamental problem that open PvP games run into, when people who think they are the elite find that their “lessers” leave, and then… suddenly they’re not the elite any more. You are winnowing your own base and making it impossible to replenish.

And I’m not sure the people in charge get that.

So, whatever.

Oh, I’m not saying that they’re definitely content to just wait out the collapse because whatever, the game is functionally just a freebie at this point. But, like… cross-faction guilds are a good idea, sure, except that it doesn’t actually solve the core problem. It’ll be easier than ever to assemble a raid group! But that doesn’t entice people who don’t want to be in a raid group at all. And the game’s anemic supply of other things to do means that most of the other people have already left.

Absent something major changing, it seems as if the days of WoW meaningfully driving MAU counts up are gone and increasingly not coming back. The actions that would need to be taken for that to be different are… well, not being taken. And as I’ve noted before, this is also actively harmed by “fans” who get angry at the suggestion the game doesn’t have to just be a narrow hierarchy tool.

So… yeah. This earning call does not make me optimistic for the future. It might not bring to mind the idea that there’s nothing the studio leadership can do to bring people back to the game, but I think we’re rapidly losing the things that studio leadership is willing to do. And once those things are exhausted, there’s going to be a period of taking a hard look and determining whether the things that need to be done are something the people in charge… actually want to do.

So forgive me if I’m having a little deja vu, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard this before. And with Blizzard bleeding both money and talent, it’s hard to feel terribly optimistic about the state of Dragonflight moving forward, much less Blizzard as a whole.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with almost two decades of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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