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World of Warcraft team responds to shrinking subscriber numbers

This year's BlizzCon event was full of exciting news for World of Warcraft, including a trailer for the upcoming movie and the announcement of a release time frame for the game's sixth expansion pack, Legion. But just days before BlizzCon started, the news for Blizzard's massively multiplayer role-playing game looked much more grim. The developer revealed that the game was down to 5.5 million subscribers, its lowest number since 2005, and that it would no longer be sharing subscription numbers at all.

Is it all so bad as it looks? We spoke with World of Warcraft executive producer J Allen Brack during BlizzCon, and he called the issue of subscriptions "a difficult problem."

"One of the problems that we have as a team and that I think the community has as well is this perception that there's a direct relationship between the number that we announce and the health of that community, and the health of that business," Brack said. "That's not really true. I wouldn't say that World of Warcraft is necessarily half as successful now as in previous times."

"You're going to drive yourself crazy as a developer"

Brack says the World of Warcraft development team has stayed focused on not letting dropping numbers affect what they're doing with the game itself.

"For us, the team can't focus on how to make a quest that adds 100,000 more subscribers," Brack said. "How does this raid boss retain people for five months longer? You're going to drive yourself crazy as a developer doing that. The only thing we can do is focus on good experiences, focus on learning everything that we can and trying to put it into what we're working on and make World of Warcraft the best thing that it can be."

Part of the solution Brack and team have pursued revolves around making World of Warcraft more easily accessible to both new and returning players. The last expansion, Warlords of Draenor, included a level boost option that could take a character instantly to level 90. Likewise, Legion will come packaged with a level boost that kicks players off at level 100, complete with a unique tutorial segment to help them learn their fresh, high-level character.

"Level boosts have worked out really well," Brack said. "We want to make it easier to play with your friends. We have a huge component of people who have been playing World of Warcraft for 10 years or some obscene number, and they have friends that either played a long time ago or maybe they've never played. It's easy now to just buy the box, and you're all caught up."

As part of making the level boosting process better, Brack revealed that in Legion, the level 100 boost token won't actually be consumed until after a player has finished the tutorial segment.

World of Warcraft: Legion

"If you've always wanted to try a rogue, you can try that, and if you decide it's not for you before you finish, it won't consume the token," he said. "It gives the option for people to try all the different classes."

Blizzard's new push toward accessible expansions has required that the developer change some of its attitudes toward what these expansions are. Brack explained:

"One of the things we started talking about internally with the release of Warlords of Draenor, and one of the reasons we did level boosts then as well, was the idea of an expansion as like a Dungeons & Dragons module. We have so many people who play World of Warcraft, who come in and out on a regular basis, and we think that's awesome. We've had expansions that didn't speak to certain types of people, and we've had expansions that really spoke to them. We think that's okay. Making it easier to come back and play with your friends or bring your friends along, that's how we're looking at it."

By the time Legion hits in summer of 2016, it will have been almost a year since patch 6.2

One issue that many fans believe is tied to World of Warcraft's falling subscription numbers is the long stretch of time between new expansion packs, particularly stretches with no new content patches to tide people over. For example, Warlords of Draenor's patch 6.2, the expansion's second and final content patch, released in June of this year. By the time Legion hits in summer of 2016, it will have been almost a year since the last push of significant new content in the game.

Brack told us Blizzard is aware of the problem and looking for solutions. The developer is currently working on a smaller patch, titled 6.2.3, that will update the game's "timewalking" feature, which allows players to go back and play through old dungeons. Patch 6.2.3 will add dungeons from 2010's Cataclysm expansion, as well as new rewards and an improved system for upgrading pieces of gear.

"We think that's going to help," said Brack. "It's not entirely new raid tiers. It's not entirely new raids. But the challenge we have is if we work on, like, a patch 6.2.5 or 6.3 or something like that, that just pushes the expansion back even further. That's the push-pull we have."

Blizzard has notoriously been openly (if unsuccessfully) working to decrease the time between expansions — generally about two years — almost since World of Warcraft's initial launch. Brack told us that's still a goal, which explains why Legion will be hitting almost half a year earlier than that regular two-year cycle would place it, and why "the majority, almost the entirety" of the World of Warcraft team is currently cranking away on the expansion. A few others on the staff — "design leadership and some of the art leadership" — are looking ahead to start planning for Legion's content patches and, beyond that, the game's unnamed seventh expansion.

"Legion is still speeding up our expansion release schedule quite a bit," Brack said. "We definitely want to continue to shrink that time."

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