At BlizzCon 2023, Blizzard announced a massive update to World of Warcraft Classic called Season of Discovery (SoD), which launched on November 30th, 2023. Many hardcore WoW players pegged SoD as the “Classic+” that diehard fans have been waiting on for years, and it has delivered new gameplay updates and content.
SoD represents an effort by Blizzard to maintain WoW's relevance in an industry that has evolved considerably since the game debuted in 2004. But does this launch actually deliver growth, and is it part of a renewed effort to bring WoW back to its former glories? Let’s find out.
Despite its status as a genre-defining classic, the WoW franchise has grappled with declining player engagement and fierce competition over the past 10 years. WoW peaked in 2010 with 12M paying subscribers; Blizzard stopped reporting subscriber numbers in 2015 when it had 5.5M active players.
Statista estimates that in 2023, the WoW subscriber base decreased to roughly 4.5M, showing a continued decline. Statista’s estimate is questionable, but other sources paint a similar picture. GameChampions, for instance, reported that in 2023, WoW had 5.6M active players, including 870K in WoW Classic.
Whatever the true numbers are, it’s clear WoW has fallen far from its peak in 2010 due to increased competition (Final Fantasy XIV, Lost Ark, New World, Elder Scrolls Online), the rise of other online games (battle royale, MOBAs), and the natural gravity of player churn.
Season of Discovery Unveiled
SoD arrives at a crucial juncture then, promising revitalization and demonstrating Blizzard’s continued commitment to meeting the needs of its devout player base. SoD introduced several new gameplay updates including:
- Phases: SoD will be released in four phases, each with a level cap of 25, 40, 50, and 60, respectively, compared to the opening level cap of 60 for standard WoW Classic servers. Phase two of SoD went live on February 8th, 2024.
- Runes: Hidden runes were planted around Azeroth and provide new passives, abilities, and spells that can be augmented onto characters. Rune abilities can be applied and removed at will, allowing players to experiment with different builds as often as they would like.
- Dungeons Reimagined: Each phase comes with new content that differs from WoW Classic. For instance, phase one includes a level 25 Blackfathom Deeps 10-player level-up raid, formerly a five-player fight, with reworked and redesigned bosses.
- Class Roles: Certain classes have been modified, allowing players the ability to tank or heal using classes that were previously unable to do so.
What do these changes mean for WoW Classic? For starters, a phased approach provides a more accessible, upfront experience than the game historically has offered. (According to WoW forums, the average 0-60 leveling time in WoW Classic can take five to14 days of game time.) It also expands social viability, allowing newer players with later starts the opportunity to catch up to their friends and other gamers.
These changes should incentivize more players to try SoD, and it provides less of an uphill climb when players return after a long absence. The introduction of new gameplay elements like runes and class changes further signifies a shift in the game's dynamic, offering players more flexibility and customization.
We don’t expect these changes to result in material growth of subscriber numbers or new players long term, but they will solidify WoW’s position as a core property for MMORPG gamers.
An overview of WoW Twitch viewership trends from 2018 through early 2024 is below – each spike is accompanied by a significant content release:
Notably, the highest peak in viewership over the past approximately 5 years was the launch of WoW Classic in August 2019. Since then, the effect on viewership of each new WoW Classic release has fallen — until SoD’s release. Some notable launch numbers:
- WoW Classic: Peak viewership, 1.132M | Avg. daily viewership, 146K
- Burning Crusade Classic: Peak viewership, 434K | Avg daily viewership, 94K
- WOTLK Classic: Peak viewership, 383K | Avg daily viewership, 84K
- Season of Discovery: Peak viewership, 575K | Avg daily viewership, 129K
Comparing the two latest WoW Retail expansions, viewership also declined:
- Shadowlands: Peak viewership 947K | Avg daily viewership 138K
- Dragonflight: Peak viewership 799K | Avg daily viewership 121K
This pattern indicates a solid core audience but potentially less excitement and engagement with each content release. However, SoD was successful in reversing the trend, which can be attributed to its revitalized gameplay and innovative updates.
Community and the Future of WoW
While the player response to SoD has been positive, the franchise’s ability to keep its player base engaged long-term while attracting new players remains uncertain.
At BlizzCon 2023, Blizzard also outlined a new multi-part expansion series, The Worldsoul Saga, which will include The War Within, Midnight, and The Last Titan. While this tried-and-true approach remains key to maintaining relevance with existing players, it might not be enough to reignite the franchise, especially with emerging competitors offering new and innovative experiences.
To avoid stagnation and enhance WoW's competitive edge, Blizzard, now under Microsoft and a new leader in Johanna Faries (previously the GM of Call of Duty), needs to diversify its strategy in three main ways.
New Games Built on WoW IP
WoW remains a valuable IP with an expansive universe that now includes WoW Retail, WoW Classic, Hearthstone, and Warcraft Rumble. Expanding the Warcraft IP with new games is crucial to keep the franchise fresh, engaging, and growing.
Mobile action strategy game Warcraft Rumble is the latest example. As Naavik has concluded previously, Warcraft Rumble is a great game but its future success and position within Blizzard’s portfolio is unclear. The game faces challenges in player retention and attracting new audiences primarily due to game design decisions and, so far, limited UA efforts.
While exploring different formats can attract more diverse player demographics and interest to the overall IP, this might not necessarily translate to growth in the core WoW MMORPG player base, given the distinct nature of these two audiences. Nevertheless, this strategy still offers the benefit of broadening the franchise’s appeal, and we suspect there’s more to come from Blizzard on this front.
Another way to grow an IP’s audience is to make the same games (whether new or old) available on more platforms. Blizzard has pursued this strategy in multiple ways with the Diablo franchise; upon launch, Diablo 4 was available cross-platform, and Diablo Immortal was released on mobile but then made available on PC, featuring both cross-play and cross-progression.
The implementation of a similar strategy with WoW titles could allow Blizzard to tap into the mobile gaming market while maintaining the rich experience PC gamers expect. This would not only cater to the current fanbase but also potentially attract new players who prefer playing on mobile.
Blizzard can also take the lessons learned from Diablo Immortal regarding the criticism it received at release related to aggressive monetization, and how that affects retention over time. According to our partners at data.ai, Diablo Immortal’s downloads and ARPU trajectory have fallen significantly since launch.
The gaming industry has seen several successful media adaptations recently with the likes of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, The Last of Us, and Cyberpunk: Edgerunners. Transmedia will continue to be an important way for games to gain and maintain cultural relevance.
Of course, Blizzard and WoW aren’t entirely new to this world. The 2016 Warcraft movie was a big box office success, generating $439M worldwide against a budget of $160M. Domestic reviews of the film were lackluster, but this leaves an opportunity for Blizzard to re-engage the IP in film or TV. If done well (a difficult task!), this would capitalize on the franchise's rich lore, pull in old fans, and grow the fanbase.
A fourth, more speculative way to grow WoW and potentially reignite the player base is finding ways to unleash UGC. Blizzard has not historically incorporated UGC into its games (apart from StarCraft II’s old school, robust map editor), but implementing UGC tools in WoW could be transformative.
As an example, Blizzard could dip its toe into UGC by offering players the tools to generate content that doesn’t affect core gameplay mechanics or strategy – like cosmetic items, emotes, animations, or custom UI themes. If it wanted to go a step further, it could explore a Dungeon/Raid Builder or Quest Developer, providing the tools to allow players to build their ideal dungeons, raids, or quests. WoW players are some of the most vocal and passionate fans in gaming, and UGC could be a tool to focus that love for the franchise into new ways the developers never imagined.
Of course, this would take a tremendous amount of technical work at a time when the company just laid off 1,900 employees, and there’s no indication Blizzard is interested in UGC – but we hope this changes in the future.
Looking ahead, I hope the franchise expands into new genres, embraces more platforms, tackles transmedia storytelling, and dabbles in unleashing the creativity of its fans.
The only way for a franchise that’s been losing players for years to reverse course is to innovate its way into a new trajectory. Without a change or expansion in strategy, it’s difficult to see WoW growing beyond what it is today, which is a respected but increasingly static entity in a genre that’s only growing more competitive.
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Game of the Week
Enshrouded: Survival RPG For The Masses
By Jordan Phang, Naavik Consulting Partner
- Developer: Keen Games
- Publisher: Keen Games
- Platform: PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S
- Status: Steam Early Access
- Genre: Survival RPG
- Gameplay: Link
The mega viral hit Palworld has cast a shadow that makes it hard for titles released this year so far to stand out. However, like the plucky Spartans, our Game of the Week, Enshrouded, has managed to weather the storm and gain a decent following.
What Is It?
Described as Valheim meets Zelda, Enshrouded combines survival elements from the former and the discovery from the latter, creating a survival RPG that is more forgiving. It has a much lighter touch in the survival aspects, as you can’t die from hunger or thirst; like Zelda, it eschews procedural generation, and the entire map (except for your home base) is hand-crafted by developer Keen Games.
How Is It Doing?
According to VGInsights, the game has sold 728K copies since its launch on January 24th, which is very good. It can only be considered a sleeper hit because of all the noise Palworld has been generating — one wonders if it would have performed better if it had a clearer run. Still, its revenue ($14.6M) is on track to surpass Keen Games’ prior title, Portal Knights ($17.1M), which was released seven years ago. Keen Games will be happy with Enshrouded’s performance, though the developer will perhaps wonder what might have happened had Palworld not released five days before.
Enshrouded‘s more casual survival experience certainly helps it stand out, but it’s the voxel-based building and terrain system that really sets it apart. Watch as Asmongold goes from“meh” to“wow, that’s badass!” when he sees a video of the environmental destruction.
What does voxel-based mean? Put simply, it uses the same tech as Minecraft but with a realistic aesthetic instead of the cartoony blocks. That tech then enables the user to terraform the terrain and build almost anything their heart desires. Watch this video of Chiselchip making a hobbit house to see what the building system is capable of. Once players start getting more familiar with the tools, expect to see incredible builds that will keep the game’s ‘viral quotient’ high.
How’d They Do It?
Open world survival isn’t as crowded as other genres, likely due to its technical difficulty. So how did Keen Games go to market, considering this was its first self-published title?
Keen Games had the advantage of a successful title in Portal Knights (1.4M units sold), and smartly leveraged its acquired skill in the genre to refine its formula (Portal Knights is also a survival RPG with voxel tech, highly inspired by Minecraft).
That, combined with a relatively uncrowded genre, its voxel-building, realistic aesthetic hook, and a strong demo, gave Enshrouded a good chance of success. The game was revealed in May 2023, and the trailer received respectable views (778K).
It also got covered in a video called “Top 10 Upcoming Survival Base Building Games for 2024” by Guns, Nerds, and Steel, which has 1.2M views, and Asmongold did a reaction video, helping get Enshrouded’s name out there.
Enshrouded also received a nice bump in follower count during the Steam Next Fest, eventually becoming the most-played demo of the event.
Upon release, the early access trailer got 1.4M views, and jackfrags and Force Gaming, among others, covered it. All this culminated in Enshrouded being the fifth best-selling Steam game of the year to date (try your best to ignore Palworld).
In summary, Enshrouded was created by a team leveraging its experience in the genre, targeting a less crowded market, had a cool, unique selling point, and was packaged in a demo that left players wanting for more. This is just the beginning of its journey, and we’re excited to see where it goes. Congratulations to Keen Games!
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