I've caught up a bit on the news out of BlizzCon, and it seems that Blizz has made a couple of announcements:
- Legion, the new WoW expac, will drop in "Summer 2016". The placeholder is "on or before September 21, 2016".*
- Activision Blizzard will no longer release subscriber numbers as part of financial quarterly statements.**
The former isn't exactly a surprise to me. For all their talk about speeding up releases, Blizzard remains incapable of pushing the release cycle beyond the (roughly) 2 year mark. And this was even when Blizz decided to not wait until BlizzCon and release the name of the new expac at Gamescom. Blizz also stopped major content patches for Warlords significantly earlier than in prior expacs, with the unspoken promise of a quicker release cycle for the next expac.
As for the latter, I'm not surprised. At all.
WoW's subscriber numbers were stable from June 2015 (5.6 million) to September 2015 (5.5 million), but Blizzard's announcement of Legion came in August. Speculation ran rampant on various message boards that Blizz was going to release significantly earlier than they had in previous expacs --maybe even as soon as BlizzCon itself-- and I'm sure that kept people subscribed through the latest quarterly ending.
But with Legion's release sometime in Summer (people will hope for June, but will likely see an August or September release), you can expect subs to plummet.
The subscriber number problem has become an albatross for Activision Blizzard, so they are now attempting to jettison it entirely.*** The thing is, Activision Blizzard loved to trumpet their WoW subscriber numbers when it was a positive, so its absence will be interpreted by analysts as a potentially major problem facing the studio. The corporate finance people can talk all they want about better metrics for the health of the game, but they set the standard for years by talking about subscriber numbers, and you can't simply sweep that under the rug.
That said, a reduction in subscriber numbers is going to have an impact on development of the game. WoW has long been a cash cow for Blizzard, and a reduction in that cash flow means that they've got tighter financial constraints on future projects.
What does this mean long term?
Blizzard is likely to depend more on Overwatch, Hearthstone, and HotS to provide income where WoW is no longer able to. I believe it a very shrewd business decision that Activision Blizzard is opening it's own television/movie studio, and its first project is the wildly popular Skylanders property. Not WoW, not StarCraft, not Diablo, but Skylanders.
That's where the money is these days, and Activision Blizzard is chasing that money.****
Oh, and one more thing: without subscriber numbers, Blizzard is now free to experiment with F2P models in WoW. Sure, they've always said they'll never go F2P, but with the cash shop and the WoW Token they've currently sidled up right to that F2P line. If Bobby Kotick says "go F2P since I can't justify the staff for WoW", WoW will go F2P.
*There's a very interesting discussion on this over at Blizzard Watch as the Breakfast Topic.
**Word of this came out a few days before BlizzCon itself. Here's the eurogamer.net article on this.
***I'm deliberately saying Activision Blizzard versus Blizzard, because this is more a corporate business decision, not one made in the development house itself.
****Money is in mobile games too, and the purchase of King Digital is expected to bolster that area.