World of Warcraft may be losing subscribers, but the queue of people snaking from the door of London's Cafe de Paris have a different story to tell. There are hundreds of people on the street and hundreds more inside, where Blizzard has organised an evening of events and performance to celebrate the launch of Mists of Pandaria. The vast majority of people here have already purchased the expansion online, and the vast majority will be wait for several hours to get into the event, if they get in at all.
And yet they are here, standing in line for a game they already own. It is a spectacle of loyalty and enthusiasm that many MMO developers have aspired to create, and only a select few have ever achieved. 9.1 million paying subscribers may be 25 per cent less than WoW's peak, but it's still 8 million more than any of its dwindling crop of competitors.
"The MMOS that are coming out have to live up to the standard of the Warcraft of now. The Old Republic can't replicate 8 years of content"Dan, 24
"I've cancelled and re-subscribed quite a lot of times," says Ryan, a 32-year old who started playing WoW in its earliest incarnation. "I haven't got all the time in the world to play any more. I still enjoy it: when there's new content, it's good; when that's gone...."
Ryan allows his sentence to trail off, but what comes next is very much a matter of opinion. For some, it will translate as recognition of Blizzard's downward spiral, each new content drop greeted by an ever decreasing number of fans, until WoW conforms to the current trend and adopts a free-to-play business model. For Ryan and his friends, however, that they'll be back for more isn't up for discussion. As long as there's new content, they'll keep restarting their subscriptions. So far, they've been given no compelling reason to stray.
"We've tried 'em all [MMOs], but everyone always goes back," Ryan says. "It's just not the same. I've tried Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, but you just get a feel for Warcraft. It sticks with you."
"I had a go at Aon, but that didn't really fit the bill," says Luke, one of Ryan's raiding buddies. "I want to have a go on Guild Wars 2, but the spec on my PC isn't up to it. My friend is playing it, but then he's buying Mists of Pandaria tonight."
And his fleeting interest in Guild Wars 2 will stop there, on hiatus in favour of a game that asks for a monthly subscription fee in addition to the retail price. In the age of iPhone and Facebook and dozens of free-to-play MMOs consumers aren't supposed to think like that any more, but WoW continues to exist in a world where millions of people have no qualms with paying £10 a month for a game. In the World of Warcraft, the subscription model is far from dead. It is always 2007.
"I started out quite casual, and it grew from there," says Lena, who has been playing since the launch of Wrath of the Lich King in 2008. "I've always told myself that I can just stop paying the monthly subscription if I stop enjoying myself, but I've never actually unsubscribed since I started. I haven't reached that point yet. For me, it's been a continuous line."
"Look at other people," adds Dahar, a 20-year old who has been playing WoW since 2004. "They spend so much on shoes, clothes, every single day. This is my little hobby... If I stopped, I would come back. If I stopped again, I'd come back again."
"The main draw is the social aspect; the fact that I play with people I know, and have known for 15 or 16 years. That's as much a reason to stay as the expansion packs"Gideon, 39
The enthusiasm that these people hold for WoW is entirely sincere, but when asked about what gives it the edge in terms of gameplay most struggle for an answer. Everyone I talk to has sampled the world of MMOs beyond the familiar shores of Azeroth, and despite the potential saving they could make by jumping to a free-to-play competitor, nothing has offered an equivalent experience. For Dan, 24, it's simply a matter of legacy: with fewer competitors, the World of Warcraft he played in 2004 was able to make the mistakes necessary for refinement, building a vast stock of content in the process. For all the resources poured into competitors like The Old Republic, WoW's greatest weapon is its history, and that can't be bought.
"Have I played other MMOs? Yeah, name them: Rift, The Old Republic, Guild Wars," he says. "With a lot of MMOs you don't feel like there's a lot to do once you've maxed out. I played The Old Republic, paid subscription for a month; it was a very nice story, and then... nothing. Warcraft has a lot more going for it. It's the only one that seems to maintain a decent user-base. I mean, if it didn't work for people, it wouldn't still have 9 million subscribers."
"The games that are coming out now have to live up to the standard of Warcraft, and not the Warcraft of 8 years ago, but the Warcraft of now. The Old Republic can't replicate 8 years of content; there just wasn't enough to keep people going."
There is an unmistakable sense of sentimentality around World of Warcraft. For many people here, it is the first MMO they ever played, the source of treasured friendships and fond memories - things that are not explicable in terms of market forces and disrupted business models. Gideon, 39, played WoW on the first day it went officially live, spurred on by the enthusiastic recommendation of friends who played the beta. In his mind, only EVE Online has the "stickiness" of WoW, and for both games that's almost entirely for reasons outside of the game and its mechanics.
"I don't think I'd play another MMO now," he says. "I've devoted a lot of time to this game, I still have friends playing it, and, frankly, I've got other things to do [than play other MMOs]. It came along at the right time, and I'm still there because I enjoy it. For me, the main draw is the social aspect; the fact that I play with people I know, and have known for 15 or 16 years. I still play with the same people, and that's as much a reason to stay as the expansion packs."
Everyone has their theory about why WoW remains so popular, but the one idea common to all of them is its society. For Nick and Sam, the social aspect of WoW - an aspect, it should be noted, for which Blizzard cannot be given full credit - is the whole point. Indeed, it changed their lives.
"I met Sam through World of Warcraft five years ago, on a sunny day in Blade's Edge," he says, smiling. "We started chatting, she was up the other end of the country, but it brought us together. We've been together ever since, and we're getting married next year."
That's the lure of World of Warcraft. If this is indeed the beginning of the end, the decline will be long and slow.