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Is Warcraft in trouble?

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World of Warcraft - Blizzard Entertainment

Subscriber numbers tend to ebb and flow with massively multiplayer games. No matter how high they get, people generally expect them to come down -- unless that game is World of Warcraft.

So when Activision-Blizzard announced earlier this month that subscriptions of its crown jewel had fallen 5 percent, heads turned. Was the mightiest title in the persistent world universe finally showing signs of weakness?

The answer really comes down to perspective. While the loss of 600,000 subscribers in one quarter would be catastrophic to virtually any other game, WoW is hardly struggling, as it still has a healthy 11.4 million people paying their monthly fees.

The drop-off has sent a message to the developers, though. The slow pace at which expansion packs have rolled out to date has to change, something that puts Blizzard in very unfamiliar territory.

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Blizzard, historically, has been a company that has never rushed on games. It typically takes as long as it feels necessary to finish a title, and, as a result, has become one of the most adored developers in the industry, with no critical or commercial flops to its name.

But because players have become so well acquainted with Azeroth, they're getting antsy when there's no new level cap to hit -- and they're burning through expansion packs faster than anyone expected.

"As our players have become more experienced playing World of Warcraft over many years, they have become much better and much faster at consuming content," said Blizzard president Mike Morhaime during a conference call with analysts. "And so I think with [the most recent expansion] Cataclysm they were able to consume the content faster than with previous expansions, but that's why we're working on developing more content."

Rather than paying $15 per month as they wait on that new content, players are putting their accounts on hold and sampling the competition. That's proving to be good news for new entrants in the field, like the surpsingly successful Rift from Trion Worlds. And it bodes well for upcoming titles, including the EA's highly-anticipated Star Wars: The Old Republic.

More than 1.5 million people have signed up to participate in the beta for the upcoming game, which some industry observers see as the title that stands the best chance of giving WoW a real run for its money in subscribers.

EA certainly is hoping to live up to those expectations.

"For us it's about creating the right experience for expanding from tier 1 and the tier 2 users to getting people who have never played an MMO before, but are interested in Star Wars, to engage and give it a try," says Eric Brown, CFO at EA. "If we do that, our addressable market is well beyond 12 million people ... into more of a general gamer population, pretty much anyone that has a minimum spec personal computer."

The exodus from WoW is also giving an opening for several free-to-play MMOs that make their money on microtransactions. Titles like Vindictus and Lord of the Rings Online scratch a similar itch as WoW, and fans are getting excited about the forthcoming Guild Wars 2, which will carry an upfront retail charge, but no monthly subscription fees.

Of course, before anyone starts working on the obituary for WoW, they might want to first do some homework.

The Cataclysm expansion sold over 3.3 million copies in its first 24 hours on shelves, according to Mike Hickey of Janco Partners. That's 18 percent better than the previous expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. In its first month, Cataclysm sold 4.7 million copies in its first month of release -- again, an 18 percent improvement.

And while the numbers are down now, they'll spike again later this year when Activision-Blizzzard releases Cataclysm in China, a ripe market for the game.

Meanwhile, the first round of tickets for BlizzCon, Blizzard's annual convention/lovefest -- and the spot where the company often announces new WoW expansion packs and gives away all sorts of WoW tsotchkes -- went on sale Saturday and sold out in minutes, with queues reportedly reaching into the 12,000-15,000 range. A second round, which will be available Wednesday the 25th, will likely go just as fast. Even with subscribers down, the company's rabid fan base will ensure that, for the time being, the king of Azeroth will keep its throne.

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