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Is WoW Free to Play with Microsoft?

Hi friend! I‘m sure you‘ve heard about Microsoft‘s upcoming acquisition of Activision Blizzard by now. This has big implications for the future of gaming icons like Call of Duty, Overwatch, and World of Warcraft.

In particular, you may be wondering: will the legendary MMORPG World of Warcraft go free-to-play after Microsoft takes over?

The short answer is: unlikely in the near future. Microsoft will gain ownership of WoW in 2023. However, drastically changing monetization seems risky when WoW still brings in over $100 million revenue annually from subscriptions.

But could Microsoft make WoW permanently free down the road? Or will they find a middle ground like discounts for Game Pass members? Let‘s dive deeper into the factors at play.

WoW Currently Requires a $15/Month Subscription Fee

First, it helps to understand WoW‘s current business model. WoW has required a subscription fee ever since launching back in 2004. Here‘s a quick recap:

  • WoW is free-to-play up to level 20, but subscriptions are required after that point. No way around it!
  • The standard subscription fee is $14.99 per month. Discounts are offered for 3-month ($13/month) and 6-month ($12.99/month) subs.
  • Expansions like 2022‘s Dragonflight must be purchased separately every 2 years or so.
  • In 2021, WoW reportedly still had around 3 million subscribers globally.
  • That puts annual revenue from subs at over $100 million even with players dipping in and out between expansions.

So subscriptions are still big business for WoW even after 17 years. This consistent revenue stream means Blizzard will be very cautious about disrupting it.

Microsoft Will Soon Own WoW After Acquiring Activision Blizzard

In January 2022, Microsoft rocked the gaming industry by announcing plans to acquire Activision Blizzard for nearly $69 billion. This gives them control of Activision‘s popular franchises like Call of Duty and Overwatch.

But the deal also gives Microsoft the rights to Activision Blizzard games like WoW. The acquisition is awaiting regulatory approval but expected to finalize by June 2023.

After that point, Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer will oversee strategy for Activision Blizzard‘s titles. This includes potentially integrating them into Microsoft‘s Xbox and PC ecosystems.

So while WoW‘s development and operations won‘t change overnight, Microsoft will now have influence over high-level decisions like pricing.

Could WoW Be Added to Xbox Game Pass?

Now this is where things get interesting. Once the deal closes, Microsoft could technically add Activision Blizzard titles like WoW into their popular Xbox Game Pass service.

For context, Xbox Game Pass provides unlimited access to over 100 games for $9.99 per month. Major Microsoft-owned games like Halo Infinite are included on day one.

If WoW joined Game Pass, subscribers may get the WoW sub bundled at no extra cost. But there are a few reasons that may not happen:

  • WoW makes $180+ million annually from subs based on 3 million players at $15/month. Leaving that money on the table is risky.
  • Game Pass drives low margins. Bundling an expensive service like WoW sub could impact profitability.
  • If not fully bundled, charging for WoW sub on top of Game Pass fee may seem redundant.

Based on that, I‘d say WoW will not be fully free with Game Pass. But Microsoft could still offer discounts like $10 off the WoW sub for Game Pass members. Let‘s explore a few other scenarios next.

How Else Could Microsoft Change WoW Pricing?

While going completely free-to-play seems unlikely, Microsoft does have a range of options to lower barriers for new and returning players such as:

  • Offering limited-time free access periods to incentivize players to resubscribe and stick around after reengaging with the game. Data shows this strategy converts well for lapsed users!
  • Rolling WoW content older than 2 years into the free-to-play model while keeping newer expansions paid. This lets players sample the full scope of the game while monetizing new content.
  • Creating a discounted "Starter Edition" with restrictions like level caps or cosmetic unlocks to appeal to cost-conscious players.
  • Exploring ‘premium‘ subscription tiers with exclusive perks and bonuses that superfans will happily pay more for.

Adding flexibility caters to both sides – those wanting to pay less and those willing to pay more for premium value.

WoW Player Count and Revenue Over Time

To understand WoW‘s future, it helps to examine the game‘s trajectory. Let‘s look at some key stats:

WoW Subscribers and Revenue Over Time

Year Global Subscribers Approx. Annual Revenue
2010 12 million $240 million
2014 7.4 million $180 million
2019 1.7 million $35 million
2021 3 million $180 million

Source: Statista

A few interesting takeaways:

  • Revenue peaked around 2010-2014 when subscribers did too, crossing into billions in annual sales.
  • The lowest point came following the poorly received 2019 expansion Battle for Azeroth, bleeding out nearly 2/3rd of remaining players.
  • But 2021-2022 saw a rebound close to 2014 levels fueled by Classic nostalgia and the Dragonflight reboot.

This shows that while WoW is past its height, its player base has stabilized. Maximizing revenue now is about sustainability and reducing churn versus raw player growth.

WoW Retail vs. WoW Classic

One more key factor is the difference between retail WoW and nostalgic "Classic" WoW:

  • Retail WoW has all the modern quality-of-life improvements but a steeper progression climb.
  • WoW Classic mimics the original brutal 2004-2006 design with more grind and challenges.
  • Retail WoW still operates on a subscription-only model. Subs are required to play expansions.
  • WoW Classic is bundled free with a retail WoW sub. No extra subscription needed!

Separating the two experiences lets Blizzard appeal to both camps – those seeking old-school difficulty or modern accessibility.

The Pros and Cons of Shifting to Free-to-Play

There are reasonable arguments on both sides of the free-to-play debate:

Potential Benefits:

  • Attracting new players unwilling to pay $15 a month to just try the game out
  • Removing friction to resubscribing for lapsed players
  • Possibility of increased long-term revenue if conversion rate is very high

Potential Downsides:

  • Eliminating $180 million+ in reliable annual subscription revenue
  • Devaluing the premium status of a long-running subscription MMO
  • Risk of alienating existing devoted subscribers
  • Greater incentives for predatory monetization tactics

Given the risks, Blizzard will likely steer clear of changing a working formula. Unless WoW‘s population drops dramatically more, subscriptions are probably here to stay.

But never say never!

In Closing – Gradual Change More Likely than Drastic Shifts

While dropping WoW‘s subscription cost sounds appealing, the reality is unlikely to be so cut and dry.

Complete free-to-play conversion poses high risks Blizzard will probably avoid for the time being. But offering free trials or Game Pass discounts to reel in old and new players makes sense.

Realistically, we probably won‘t see any huge changes to WoW right after Microsoft‘s acquisition. They‘ll be focused on integrating teams and units first.

But down the line? Microsoft could leverage their industry-leading subscription services to make WoW more accessible while keeping its profit machine turning.

The true test will be keeping WoW engaging and innovative enough to warrant that $15 monthly investment. But with Blizzard‘s pedigree and Microsoft‘s backing, WoW has the support needed to meet this challenge.

Thanks for reading this epic-length guide! Let me know if you have any other big WoW questions.

Your gaming pal,
Steve