World of Warcraft loses another million subscribers

World of Warcraft character art Blizzard hopes the addition of a Panda-inhabited continent will help attract players back to its game

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World of Warcraft (WoW) subscriptions are at their lowest level since 2007.

Activision Blizzard has disclosed the video game had just over nine million paying users at the end of June. That is down from a high of more than 12 million two years ago.

Blizzard said it hoped an upcoming expansion pack would revive interest.

It coincides with a report that the firm's parent company, Vivendi, is about to drop plans to sell its majority stake in the business.

The news was revealed in the Activision Blizzard's second quarter earnings. Its net income fell to $185m - down 45% on the previous year - sending its shares 4% lower in after-hours trade.

Panda-powered revival

The firm said WoW remained the world's "number one subscription-based MMORPG" [massively multiplayer online role-playing games] despite the latest dip.

But subscriptions to the eight-year-old title have been on the decline since September 2010.

"We ended Q2 at about 9.1 million subscribers worldwide," Michael Morhaime president of Blizzard Entertainment told analysts, according to a transcript of the conference call provided by the Seeking Alpha financial news site.

"This figure is down from the 10.2 million we reported at the end of Q1, with the majority of declines at the quarter coming from the East."

He said that September's release of the Mists of Pandaria bolt-on update, involving a lost continent populated by warrior Panda bears, should see a "substantial number of returning players".

He said the firm had experienced a similar phenomena in the period around the launch of Cataclysm, its last expansion pack, in 2010.

World of Warcraft screenshot World of Warcraft lost more than one million subscribers over three months

Mr Morhaime signalled that he also hoped gamers attracted to its other online fantasy title could be tempted to crossover.

"There are a surprising number of Diablo players that have never tried World of Warcraft," he said.

Free-to-play option

WoW's popularity drop coincides with problems for Electronic Arts' flagship MMORPG.

The firm revealed earlier this week that subscriptions to Star Wars: The Old Republic had dropped more than 40% since the start of the year to less than one million players.

EA decided to offer users a free-to-play option in an attempt to lure them back and then try to sell them premium content.

Other titles, including Turbine's Dungeons and Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online, have taken similar steps.

WoW offered users a limited 20-level free-access option in 2011. But one analyst told the BBC he did not think Blizzard would be seriously considering a wider implementation at this point.

"I think the option to move to free to play is still a long way off for World of Warcraft," said Ed Barton, director of digital media at Strategy Analytics.

"They are in a relatively privileged position because the game has had such success.

"The fact it still has over nine million subscribers after such a long period after its launch is a testament to its quality and the fact that Blizzard's update have kept the whole experience compelling for a diverse range of geographical markets."

Dungeons and Dragons Online Dungeons and Dragons Online helped pioneer the free-to-play MMORPG trend in September 2009
Sale talks suspended?

Commenting on news reports that the French media conglomerate Vivendi was looking to sell its 60% stake in the games developer, Activision Blizzard's chief executive, Robert Kotick, said only that he remained focused on "the delivery of great games and superior shareholder returns".

Reuters had previously reported that Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Time Warner and the Chinese internet giant Tencent had all been approached with a view to raising more than $10bn (£6.5bn) for the shares.

But a report in the Financial Times suggested the idea of a sale might be about to be dropped.

It said that a person "close to the situation" said the idea had now been shelved in favour of a broader strategic review later in the year.

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