First, it should be said that 300,000 subscribers is not a number to be scoffed at. Depending on which numbers floating around the MMO-sphere you believe, most people can still agree that WAR is sitting comfortably in the top 2-5 subscription MMORPGs population-wise.
It should be noted, however, that there is much speculation surrounding this 300k figure. What about all the 3- and 6-month subscribers who may not have actually been playing at the time. It may have also been boosted by holiday sales figures, where players did not make it past the first free month. This is also a number that represents total subscriptions in both North America and Europe and we have no idea how it is split up.
There are several things we know had an effect on their end-of-year numbers. First, the game had a very stable launch in NA and a horrible launch in EU (starting as early as open beta). While the game was technically sound for most people, many were experiencing constant crashes to desktop, graphical glitches, and generally poor client performance. Shortly after release, Mythic was pressured by the WAR community to add quite a few extra servers because the queues were bursting at the seams. Mythic complied, but as players left after their first free month, all but a lucky few servers had low population issues. Instead of quickly merging these servers, Mythic offered free transfers, which is a much slower process (albeit better for PR).
While the server stability may have been rock solid and performance was generally pretty good, it quickly became apparent that WAR lacked certain elements of polish that players expected at release. Examples of this include broken quests, mobs that acted funny, improperly functioning class abilities and mechanics, poor client performance controls, a lack of visual diversity in gear, etc. It may be somewhat unrealistic for players to expect a "finished" MMORPG at launch, however, there was a monumental pile of little things that really nagged people.
I must not forget to mention the most important factor affecting WAR's December '08 numbers: Wrath of the Lich King. When your goal is to compete with the 800lb gorilla of the market, it may not be the wisest decision to launch your brand new MMO against the most anticipated MMO expansion ever. There was simply not enough time to fix all the smaller issues with WAR in the two months between its launch and the release of WotLK. It should also be said that no matter how much WAR improved itself in that period, most people would have gone back to WoW anyway. What's the main reason WAR went from 750k subs in October to 300k subs in December? Everyone was rolling a Death Knight instead of playing in RvR. That said, having a better game would have mitigated some attrition.
So the big question is, where does Mythic go from here?
According to a recent investor's call, EA will be earning revenue from WAR for at least the next 12 months: "We're going to get a full year of Warhammer subscription revenue... That's a very ratable, more predictable business." Mythic recently announced that they'll be rolling out a huge "live expansion" called Call to Arms over the next five months. They have also announced 1.11, 1.2, and 1.3 patches that should address many of the remaining issues with the game. I think these things alone should help quiet the doom and gloomers predicting a 2009 shutdown of WAR's servers, but if that's not enough, there's still the fact that Mythic is one of the best developers when it comes to listening to their community. Here's hoping the players can suggest viable solutions and Mythic pays attention. My advice for the very near future? Please consolidate the servers ASAP.
It took games like EQ2 and EVE many months to catch their stride and eventually grow and stabilize their populations. I think WAR may be in for the same rocky ride. As wonderful as WotLK is, people have already experienced all it has to offer, and in the coming months, many more will be looking for something else to scratch their MMO itch. Blizzard can help offset this with content patches but it will not stop everyone from giving WAR another try.
The thing is, WAR needs to be a much better game than it was when these players left in the first place. To be quite honest, I think it needs to be a much better game than it is at the time of this posting. I believe, however, that Mythic has set themselves on a good course, and with quickly implemented continued improvements, WAR may be able to settle down at the 500k mark by December 2009.
WAR will never reach WoW in terms of numbers because it is fundamentally a niche game in comparison. That said, with a continued focus on RvR and polish, WAR can easily and dominantly plant itself in the number two spot for subscription-based MMORPGs. But they'd better act quickly (and smartly); time's a tickin'.