MMO development is a notoriously risky business venture that many publishers don't even consider touching. Not only are they expensive to craft, but player retention is an increasingly challenging problem that suffocates even the most ambitious titles. But those who have succeeded would say that the investment was worth it.
World of Warcraft stands as the shining example of success in the MMO space.
In a world where paid subscription is an endangered species, World of Warcaft continues mandating a $14.99 monthly fee. It's a strategic decision by Blizzard that has allowed it to avoid implementing the commonly abrasive microtransaction shops seen in most competing games, but at the cost of a potentially much larger install base,
Despite this, Blizzard has managed to maintain healthy subscriber numbers during the game's more than 12 years of existence. At its best, it held North of 12 million paying customers, equating to roughly $180 million per month in subscription revenue, or $2.15 billion per year. Currently, it's estimated to have somewhere between 9 to 10 million active players.
Equipped with a player population that rivals most countries, World of Warcraft earns revenue not only from subscription, but also from expansions that are usually priced at $39.99. It also makes a wealth of money from merchandise. Even barring physical goods, it is the highest grossing modern video game.
During 2016 it was estimated that World of Warcaft has earned more than $9.23 billion in revenue since its debut in November 2004. This figure eclipses even the closest competition, which include surprising entries such as the Korean FPS CrossFire at $6.8 billion, Wii Sports at $6.08 billion (packaged with hardware), and Lineage at $5.74 billion.
Only three games top World of Warcraft's revenue totals, all of which are titles that relied on a tremendously lucrative arcade market in the 80's and 90's. Space Invaders ($13.93 billion), Pac-Man ($12.81 billion), and Street Fighter 2 ($10.61 billion) are those three games.
League of Legends is poised to potentially dethrone World of Warcraft in a few years thanks to its industry-leading $1.6 billion in revenue per year, the bulk of which is made through microtransactions.
Although World of Warcraft endured a tumultuous few years spanning from mid 2011 until late 2016, it has recently experienced the highest level of activity since 2010 during the era of Wrath of the Lich King. Much of this recent success has been owed to the Legion expansion's thematic attractiveness, in addition to strong update support.
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