Tuesday, July 07, 2009
WoW subscriptions down to 5 million
Blizzard is quick to boast about their "over 11 million subscribers", but more than half of these subscribers are in China. And the Chinese servers have been down for a month now, with rumors circulating that they won't come back up anytime soon. So if Blizzard were to truthfully state how many subscribers they have right now, the number is down to somewhere around 5 million. But what is really happening is hard to make out, because everyone involved is keeping a lid on the news, total radio silence.
The best guess is that the story started by Blizzard transfering their WoW license in China from The9 to NetEase. Obviously The9 wasn't happy to lose this major earner, and filed several lawsuits. The new operator, NetEase, needs a license to run WoW. But the Chinese authorities didn't give NetEase a license, and "said that in order to protect the interests of domestic gaming enterprises, they would suspend review of all games belonging to foreign companies in the event of lawsuits or arbitration between foreign companies and Chinese companies". This could still go on for months!
Now financially this is less of a blow to Blizzard than it sounds. The Chinese players pay only about 6 cents per hour to play WoW, and most of that went to the Chinese operator, so in spite of China providing most of the players, it only provided a small part of the revenues and profits of Blizzard. Nevertheless the game being down for a month already certainly isn't good press, which is why Blizzard is keeping mum about it.
Imagine Blizzard ran into some regulatory trouble with the US or European authorities and the US or Euro servers would be down for a month! Obviously that would cause a major shift in MMO market shares. In China WoW isn't even the biggest MMO, but there is no doubt that the disguised protectionism of the Chinese authorities will have some effect. Not all 6 million Chinese WoW players will patiently wait until the issue is resolved. The longer it takes, the more of them will wander off to other games, and not necessarily come back when the servers are back up. This may hurt the pride of Blizzard more than their wallet, but there is no doubt that this is major bad news for them. Just don't expect a press release from Blizzard spelling out the truth and its consequences.