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World of Warcraft gets a new expansion pack roughly every two years. That might change soon, though. Lead systems designer Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street says that the development team at Blizzard would like to release an expansion every year.
Between each expansion pack, Blizzard releases several free content updates. For example, patch 5.4 for WoW provided a new raid zone called "Siege of Orgrimmar" along with a questing hub called Timeless Isle. Street told DigitalSpy that new content like this helps retain monthly subscribers for the game and even brings some former players back into the fold. However, expansion packs are much more effective in luring back players who have quit. For example, Mists of Pandaria's launch last fall led the player count to jump above 10 million.
"We really want to get to a cadence where we can release expansions more quickly," Street said. "Once a year I think would be a good rate. I think the best thing we can do for new players is to keep coming out with regular content updates."
Unlike most MMORPG's on the market, WoW still requires its players to pay a monthly subscription. While these subscribers ensures a steady stream of revenue, there's a catch with this business model. Players are constantly evaluating whether the game is worth the $15 they just paid. If they're bored and there's nothing new coming to the game soon, they'll unsubscribe.
Blizzard's under added pressure because of their game's age. WoW will turn nine years old in a week. The development team has to find ways to make the game feel new and interesting to players who have spent years in Azeroth. They also have to make sure that the game is competitive with newer MMO's. For example, WoW's combat might be feeling a bit stale to people who have tried out more fast-paced, action-oriented combat in games like TERA or Guild Wars 2.
Given the pressure that monthly subs entail, it's no surprise that many developers opt to just remove subscriptions and sell optional items and services to players. Would-be "WoW killers" Lord of the Rings Online and Star Wars: The Old Republic both opted for free-to-play business models after launching as subscriber-only games. While Blizzard has added some microtransactions to their game, they're not prepared to go F2P just yet. Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime recently said that they would rather make the game more accessible to new and returning players through new features.
They don't necessarily need to go F2P, either. Their 7.7 million paying subscribers give them enough resources to produce new content at a steady clip. We'll see if they can pick up the pace enough to maintain the player base, though.
WoW's next expansion pack, Warlords of Draenor, is expected in 2014.Draenor allows players to travel to an alternate timeline in which orcs never invaded Azeroth. The expansion provides new challenges for level 90+ characters and also allows them to build their own garrisons.