Oh New Blizzard. After attempting “We are making the game like Vanilla again, come back!” with WoD, and failing to actually deliver, New Blizzard is back with “We are making the game like TBC, our one good expansion, come back!”, and, based on the feature list, have failed again.
Likely the only good that will come out of Legion is it further reinforces that TBC was the last time WoW was growing because it was still a solidly designed MMO, and I’m one of those crazy people who believes that the quality of your design has an effect on how successful something is. New Blizzard is, in a somewhat ironic way, trying to copy/paste Old Blizzard now. Unfortunately New Blizzard isn’t as good at the copy/paste game (see WoD vs Vanilla design), so isn’t getting the expected results.
Another problem going forward for New Blizzard is people aren’t going to be fooled again. WoD provided a large spike because people want WoW to be vanilla/TBC WoW, and bought into Blizzard being capable of return the game to that level of quality. A lot of people experienced that Blizzard isn’t capable of that today, and won’t believe Blizzard saying it this time around.
Additionally, past mistakes like the initial release of Diablo 3 with it’s RMT AH, subpar games like Hearthstone, and abortions like HotS have all worn away at the Blizzard name. They aren’t a sure-hit studio anymore, and fewer and fewer people will blindly buy the next Blizzard offering just because its a Blizzard game. What Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo built, these new release have torn down.
There will of course be some spike in numbers when Legion releases, because for all its long-term faults, enough people do still enjoy the first month of new WoW leveling content, and even at increased expansion prices, still see that month as a worthwhile buy. But between now and launch, subs will continue to erode away due to bad design and the fact that FFXIV is doing to WoW what WoW did to EQ2; just being a similar but outright better game (though for all its faults, WoW today isn’t nearly the disaster that EQ2 was, so at least the fight is a bit harder). How far those sub numbers fall will be interesting, as will seeing how much smaller the Legion pop will be compared to WoD.
I also think another major factor will be when Square-Enix announces it now has the largest sub MMO out, because that announcement will be seen as big news and draw the curiosity of the ultra-casual WoW player who doesn’t follow gaming news as closely as a lot of us do. MMO population momentum can turn quickly, and if suddenly guilds in WoW are getting empty, with everyone going to that FF MMO they keep hearing about from their friends/guildies, that snowball is hard to stop.
For me the most interesting item to watch is not when WoW is dethroned, or how quickly it falls overall, because those items are now inevitable, but the larger picture of when will Blizzard stop being considered a major studio? Right now their pipeline looks terrible (HS, HotS, and the only upcoming new title is Overwatch, which I think most of us know will be DoA), and they can’t live off older IP glory like Diablo and StarCraft for long. Can’t say I’ll shed too many tears over seeing the studio that nearly destroyed the MMO genre finally burning down.