Update: Blizzard has gone on record to say that the 10.1 million subscriber figure is not correct and was likely the result of miscommunication. Current policy states that subscription numbers are not to be disclosed.
Original Story: In cyclical fashion, another World of Warcraft expansion has released, and with it have come millions of new and returning players. Lead Game Designer Tom Chilton confirmed today that the current subscriber count is "around 10.1 million players", which is up from the 5.5 million of late Warlords of Draenor. At this point the surge is to be expected, and it's mildly impressive given the sheer age of the game.
The real question is whether or not Legion will be capable of reversing the downward trend that World of Warcraft has been experiencing since Cataclysm. In late 2010 the game achieved its greatest feat by recording more than 12 million simultaneous subscribers. It's a number that has since seemed elusive as Cataclysm, Mists of Pandaria, and Warlords of Draenor have all seen large upticks at launch with severe falloff afterward.
As a matter of fact, Warlords of Draenor's 5.5 million subscriber count in early 2016 was the single lowest point since late 2005 when the game grew past this figure at a rapid rate, accruing more than 7.5 million subscribers before the start of Burning Crusade.
World of Warcraft's struggles to remain top dog are much more complicated than just the game's age, though. Issues with content delivery frequency are perhaps an even larger factor, made worse by shortcomings with major elements of the game including balance, theme, and story.
When you look back to Wrath of the Lich King, you see an expansion with a purpose. It featured Arthas, arguably the most notable character in Warcraft's lore. It had great raids and dungeons, from Ulduar—which is considered one of the top 3 raids by many players—to Icecrown Citadel. It had an exciting new class, the Death Knight, that shook up the game's PvE and PvP landscapes. It also had attractive tier loot, and Northrend.
When put in the context of World of Warcraft's annals, Wrath of the Lich King stands out as a memorable era. And frankly, the same can be said of Vanilla and Burning Crusade.
For one reason or another, every expansion since then has fallen short in a major way. For example, Cataclysm's endgame content was severely impacted by the sheer amount of development time that went into redesigning Azeroth. Mists of Pandaria had an extremely divisive theme that many players didn't care for. Meanwhile, Warlords of Draenor was incredibly anti-social thanks to Garrisons being such a major feature.
When I look at Legion I don't necessarily find these outspoken issues. What I see is a highly entertaining, refined, and well-rounded expansion. The Burning Legion always makes a great enemy as does Gul'dan. The Broken Isles are a great place to spend time in, and so is the Emerald Nightmare, Legion's first raid. It also has an attractive new class with Demon Hunter, which became my new main due to how fun it is to play.
Sure, there are some minor missteps, such as how anti-alt the Artifact system is, how backwards the new loot system can feel at times, and how poorly configured class balance is. However, these things are mere blemishes on a large, beautiful work by Blizzard Entertainment that's hooked veterans and new players alike.
Equally as important, judging by what I've heard about Legion's upcoming schedule, I have every reason to believe that there won't be droughts like we've been seeing lately. This means it won't just start strong and then falloff, it'll continue its momentum until the final days of the expansion.
World of Warcraft: Legion might just appear to be another expansion arrival that has brought back players for a short period of time, but don't be surprised if it breaks trends. This is a very special package that could retain subscribers better than we have seen in a long, long time. The death of World of Warcraft may yet be a long ways away, after all.