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What Microsoft’s Purchase of Activision Blizzard Might Mean for WoW

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Back in mid-January, international software giant Microsoft announced its acquisition of gaming company Purchase of Activision Blizzard. In its press release, Microsoft framed the purchase as an effort to jump-start growth in its gaming division — and to provide building blocks for its fledgling metaverse development.

In other words, it’s part of Microsoft’s ambition to grow its Xbox ecosystem and further enhance its first-party gaming output. But the news came on the heels of a year of scandal and controversy for purchase of Activision Blizzard, and its timing left many observers scratching their heads.

Some wondered if the purchase was Microsoft’s way of snatching up some premium intellectual property while its owner was vulnerable. And others saw it as an attempt by Activision Blizzard to reset the narrative by co-opting the somewhat more respectable reputation of its new owner.

But for game fans, none of that matters much. They’re more concerned about how the corporate reshuffling will affect their favorite games. And when you consider that Activision Blizzard is the studio behind hits like Diablo, Overwatch, Hearthstone, and Call of Duty — that’s no surprise.

But of the many fans of Activision Blizzard’s games, none has a following quite like that of World of Warcraft (WoW). Fans of the now nearly 20-year-old game have been on edge for some time, with many questioning whether the game was nearing the end of its life. But now, those fans have a mixture of hope and trepidation after the Microsoft acquisition. And they’re wondering what it means for the future of WoW.

Although it’s likely that there won’t be a complete answer to that question for some time, some details have already emerged that suggest where WoW might head under Microsoft’s direction. Here’s everything we know so far, and some reasonable guesses as to what’s coming next.

Microsoft Looks to Increase the WoW Player Base- Purchase of Activision Blizzard

Not long after the news of the acquisition broke, Microsoft gaming CEO Phil Spencer went on record about his expectations for the WoW franchise. In a conversation with journalist Stephen Totilo, he stated that Microsoft wants to see the number of players increase for the venerable franchise within the next five years.

He didn’t disclose any plans for how he expects to make that happen, but it’s a tall order, indeed. That’s because it appears that WoW has been hemorrhaging subscribers for some time. Some estimates have the game down to 4.59 million subscribers as of this year, while others estimate the number to be below 2 million. In either case, increasing the subscriber count would require a reversal of a trend that’s been happening since 2016.

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And short of a major expansion of the game — one more successful than previous add-ons — it’s difficult to see how Microsoft will pull that off. The only hint that Spencer shared about Microsoft’s plans is that it intends to make WoW “more accessible to more people”.

The End of Exclusivity- Purchase of Activision Blizzard

Given that Microsoft’s gaming portfolio is tied to its Xbox console ecosystem, it’s reasonable to expect that an expansion of WoW onto the platform is a part of Microsoft’s plans. That would expose the game to the 100 million monthly active users of the Xbox live service, at a minimum. And because there’s traditionally little overlap in the PC gaming and console gaming audiences, that would mean exposing it to a mostly new audience.

And that’s not all Microsoft might have in store for WoW. It’s also expected that it will stick with Activision Blizzard’s previous plans to bring WoW to mobile devices within 2022. It’s a move that predates the acquisition, but one that should help to attract a new audience for the game. But that, of course, depends on the execution of the move to mobile.

In recent years, Activision Blizzard has developed a reputation for poor-quality releases. And it’s unclear how — or even if — Microsoft plans to address the problem. Some of the issues seem to have stemmed from some high-profile departures at the studio, while others come from the company’s now-notoriously poor quality assurance processes. And it would seem that fixing those issues would be a priority if Microsoft expects any new version of WoW to succeed.

A Move to Game Pass

Another one of the ways that Microsoft may be planning to attract more players to WoW is by eliminating the game’s subscription fee completely. Gaming news outlets are already speculating that the path to player growth might run straight through Microsoft’s Game Pass subscription service. Adding the game to that service would effectively do away with the current $15 per month subscription fee players now pay to play the game.

And, it would add another 25 million potential players to the game in one fell swoop. Such a move might also stem the tide of long-time players that are fleeing the game by lowering existing players’ ongoing costs. Beyond a major overhaul of the game’s graphics and the addition of new content, that may be the surest route to player growth that Microsoft has available to it.

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Exploiting Legacy Versions

Another trick that Microsoft could have up its sleeve to grow the WoW player base could be to move to further exploit legacy versions of the game itself. Before being acquired by Microsoft, Activision Blizzard was making moves to try and shut down fan-operated servers for earlier game versions. Those servers, while still common, operate in clear violation of the game’s terms of service. And Microsoft has a history of guarding its intellectual property with some ferocity.

Although it’s impossible to get an accurate count of how many people continue to play WoW on private servers, the number isn’t a small one. Activision Blizzard itself has already had great success with its WoW classic and Burning Crusade Classic editions of the game. And there’s still a very active and thriving market for WoW classic and WoW TBC gold online — illustrating that players are still more than willing to spend their money to play those games.

Knowing that, Microsoft might look to leverage its massive cloud services division to expand support for previous iterations of WoW. Then, they might look to drive as many of the private servers offline as possible, or even make efforts to lure players away from the illicit servers. It’s an approach they’ve used in recent years to stem the tide of piracy for its other software offerings — to mixed success. Either way, it’s yet another possible route to fulfilling their ambitions for WoW.

The Bottom Line for WoW Fans

At the end of the day, it’s still impossible to tell exactly what Microsoft has in store for the WoW franchise. But they have made it quite clear that expanding its player base is a definite goal. We already know that the effort will include the launch of WoW into the mobile space, and it’s difficult to imagine that Microsoft won’t expand the game’s reach into its Xbox ecosystem.

And beyond that, there are some other obvious moves that Microsoft can make — like adding WoW to Game Pass or making a play for the legacy audience — that would serve their overarching goals for the game. As for when they plan to clue players in on what’s to come, nobody can say. But one thing is clear — successful businesses don’t expect growth out of products nearing the end of their life.

So that means the acquisition of Activision Blizzard and the subsequent comments about WoW are unequivocally good news for fans of the franchise. After years of disappointment and a declining player base, there’s finally reason to hope for a revival of the grandfather of all MMORPGs.