Activision-Blizzard announced in their latest earnings report that World of Warcraft sank to 5.5 million subscribers in the past three months. That's the game's lowest population in years but in a way this is good news for Blizzard.
World of Warcraft had 5.6 million subscribers as of June so the game's total loss over the summer was around 100,000. That's a much smaller loss than the game has suffered in previous quarters. Between December 2014 and March 2015, WoW lost around 3 million. Another 1.5 million left between March and June.
Why did the game's population begin to level out this summer? The new content updates for WoW likely helped. Patch 6.2, released in June, introduced several new features to the game. It added a new zone called Tanaan Jungle complete with new quests and rewards. Raiders received a new challenge, Hellfire Citadel. Blizzard also rolled out special weekend events and Mythic level dungeons in the same patch.
Blizzard then followed up on that update with Patch 6.2.2. This patch was smaller in scope but added a long-awaited feature: flying mounts for Warlords of Draenor. Players are now able to earn the right to fly in the latest expansion's zones by completing a multi-step Achievement. Players generally unsubscribe when they're bored by WoW so the new activities that these patches introduced help to stop the bleeding.
In their earnings report, Activision-Blizzard suggested that excitement over upcoming expansion pack Legion could be another reason that the player population for WoW has stabilized. I can buy that reasoning. The expansion adds a number of features players have been waiting years for, including the Demon Hunter class, separate abilities for player-versus player and class strongholds. Plus, the news of a new expansion gets players to look forward to the future. They try to finish every bit of the current expansion that they can and also prepare their characters for the grind to the new level cap.
Still, anticipation only gets you so far. Some players will simply let their subscription lapse until the new expansion arrives if they have nothing else to do. There's still pressure on Blizzard to keep producing new content for Warlords of Draenor. They don't want to lose paying players for the year (or more?) between now and Legion's release.
To keep their remaining players, Blizzard has another content patch on the way. Patch 6.2.3 adds new mounts and higher-level loot to many existing activities in the game. It also brings back the Valor Points currency, which players can spend to upgrade their existing gear.
Blizzard has yet to announce a release window for Legion. All we know so far is that they plan to launch the beta test by the end of the year.