Blizzard Entertainment cancelled Titan. The publisher threw out the work it did on the massively multiplayer online follow-up to World of Warcraft, and it doesn’t sound like it’s even gonna try to force out another MMO role-playing game any time soon.
That leaves one of the most financially successful game publishers of the last 20 years in an interesting position. Blizzard may have to rely more and more on new models, like we’re seeing with its free-to-play releases Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft and Heroes of the Storm, to fill the massive hole on its balance sheet. World of Warcraft’s $15-per-month subscription model has 6.8 million members. That is already down 43 percent from a high of 12 million in 2010. That’s a ton of cash the company is no longer making, and things could get worse if WoW’s subscriber numbers keep falling. And the Titan cancellation highlights that Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm might never make the kind of money that World of Warcraft did.
In November, WoW will turn 10. That’s why Titan made so much sense. As WoW’s popularity continues to fade, Blizzard could have introduced its next-gen MMO to replace the revenues that it has come to rely on from World of Warcraft. But that’s no longer the plan, and the developer is going so far as to say that it isn’t the “MMORPG company.”
“We don’t want to identify ourselves with a particular genre,” Blizzard chief executive Mike Morhaime told Polygon (the publication that broke the story). “We just want to make great games every time.”
Making great games in different genres is a pretty good way to describe Blizzard’s latest hit. Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft isn’t an MMO or a dungeon-crawling RPG. It is a digital collectible-card game that for PC, Mac, and iPad. It went live earlier this year after and extended beta-testing period, and it has already caught on with a significant audience. Hearthstone is free-to-play game with microtransactions, and this is likely exactly the kind of new game Blizzard will have to rely on in the future.
And that could pay off.
Earlier this year, Cowen & Company analyst Doug Creutz predicted that Hearthstone could generate as much as $200 million in 2014. That’s possible. Hearthstone was the seventh most played PC game in July, according to gameplay-tracking site Raptr.
On mobile, however, Hearthstone isn’t exactly the latest Candy Crush Saga. Blizzard’s card battler is the 42nd highest-grossing game on iPad right now. That puts it behind publisher Electronic Arts’ Real Racing 3 driving game, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood from Glu, and the Injustice: Gods Among Us fighting game from Warner Bros. It’s possible that players are doing most of their spending on the PC version, but it’s also possible that Hearthstone just isn’t the best at getting players to spend money.
Even if Hearthstone does reach $200 million this year, that’s nowhere near the kind of money World of Warcraft pulls in. Just try out some fuzzy math: $15 times 6.5 million subscribers is somewhere around $100 million every month. That’s more than $1 billion a year, which is more than even the highest-grossing free-to-play game in the world makes — the Chinese military shooter CrossFire generated $957 million last year.
Hearthstone alone is probably never going to fill World of Warcraft’s shoes. Blizzard knows that. Like it said, it just wants to make great games, and — according to our review — Hearthstone is exactly that.
That’s why Blizzard is working on more than just a digital card game. The company is also testing a new multiplayer online arena battler called Heroes of the Storm. This is the developer’s take on the massively successful League of Legends and Dota 2 genre of competitive games.
Heroes of the Storm is still in its earliest test phases, but it has the potential to turn into a serious earner for the World of Warcraft company. League of Legends was the second highest-grossing free-to-play game last year with $624 million in microtransaction sales. Dota 2, which is the biggest MOBA after LOL, brought in around $80 million. If HOTS catches on, it too could bring in a couple million bucks.
But once again, however, that’s not World of Warcraft money.
None of this is to say that Titan would have made “World of Warcraft money.” The evidence suggests that subscription-based MMORPGs are a thing of the past. Star Trek Online didn’t work and is free-to-play now. The Lord of the Rings Online switched from paid to free. Even Star Wars couldn’t figure it out with The Old Republic, which has also become a free to play.
“We didn’t find the fun,” Morhaime said of Titan. “We didn’t find the passion.”
From what Blizzard is saying, it sounds like Titan wouldn’t have succeeded where Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars have failed.