It wouldn’t be right to suggest that World of Warcraft had ever, at any point during the last 16 years, been a less than popular and successful game. The days when it was thought the biggest game in the world are long behind it, but it has been reliably raking in subscription revenue and expansion pack sales on a considerable scale the whole time. It’s also a fool’s errand to mark any one expansion out as a return to form; many WOW players will argue that each expansion is either a disgraceful betrayal or a triumphant comeback, but different sections of the community seldom agree on which is which. (Meanwhile, long-term but less invested casual players like myself tend to think they’re all pretty good.)
Yet something feels different this time. Shadowlands, WOW’s eighth expansion – or perhaps we should more properly call it the ninth edition of the game – was briefly the fastest-selling PC game of all time this month, before Cyberpunk 2077 came out. Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick has been talking up this venerable franchise too, boasting of record player engagement before the expansion released and noting that it brings in over a billion dollars a year, making it the financial equal of stablemate Call of Duty.
What’s going on? The pandemic, certainly. Few are the popular games that haven’t seen more interest and more playtime this year, with everyone spending more time at home, searching for comfort and entertainment. Kotick also seemed to suggest last year’s launch of the retro WOW Classic was a turning point. The developers say that there isn’t much crossover in the communities of the classic and modern games, but it’s easy to imagine that Classic boosted mindshare and tempted many lapsed players back to the wider fold. (And since the games share a single subscription fee, they’re commercially indistinguishable.)