‘World of Warcraft’ expansion sales sizzle

3.3 million people buy 'Cataclysm' in first day

The latest expansion to Activision Blizzard’s “World of Warcraft” franchise has sold more copies in 24 hours than many games sell throughout the course of their lives.

More than 3.3 million people around the world bought “World of Warcraft: Cataclysm” in its first day of availability — making it the fastest-selling PC game of all time, according to the publisher.

“World of Warcraft” — dubbed “WoW” by players — is a massively multiplayer online game, an evolving persistent world; players are charged $13-$15 per month to fight virtual trolls and each other. It remains one of the industry’s mostprofitable and successful franchises. More than 12 million people around the world are subscribers, and that number could increase.

“When we release an expansion, we always see a lot of people return to the game,” said Frank Pearce, co-founder and exec VP of product development at Blizzard.

The release of any “WoW” expansion is always a festive retail event, but with “Cataclysm,” the company gave players the chance to buy the game digitally the moment it went on sale at brick-and-mortar stores — the first time it has done so. Many see that as a nod to the fact that digital distribution will eventually become the dominant sales method in the industry, but Pearce noted that there are some advantages retail will always have over digital.

“Retail has things to offer that we can’t offer digitally — like the collectors edition, which is always popular with our very passionate fans,” he said. “We’re also planning midnight launches for the game at retail around the globe with our developers in attendance and signing autographs. You can’t get that experience through the digital purchase.”

More than 10,000 stores worldwide had midnight launches for “Cataclysm.” And an additional 15,000 people attended official launch events hosted by the company in 10 countries.

Although technically an expansion, “Cataclysm” is in some ways a relaunch of “WoW.” Developers used the launch as an opportunity to fundamentally change the game world — reinventing areas that have been familiar to players for six years.

“The content (in the original version of the game) was created years and years ago, before we really knew how to create the best content for the game,” Pearce said. “The level 1-60 experience really doesn’t have the best content. It’s not putting our best foot forward. This lets us do that for new players.”

While the teams behind “Call of Duty” steal a lot of headlines, Blizzard is by far the most important studio in Activision’s collection. Revenues at the division were up 68% year over year in the third quarter due to the release of “Starcraft II” and the release of a previous “World of Warcraft” expansion pack in China, which has an active player base.

Up next for the developer is “Diablo III,” the long-awaited next installment in another of its most loved franchises. That title is tentatively expected late next year, but Blizzard (which is known for delaying games until they meet strict internal quality standards) has not made any announcements about a ship date. Company is also at work on an unannounced massively multiplayer online game that it hopes will eventually become as big as “WoW.”

As for a launch date on that title, not even the industry pundits are willing to hazard a guess.

“We don’t set product release windows based on any financial projections we have,” Pearce said. “We want our games to meet our own expectations and the expectations of our fans.”