(Keep reading that title and the word 'bucket' will stop making sense to your brain. Bucket bucket bucket bucket bucket.)
So Activision-Blizzard's earnings call went out yesterday, and the big thing that all the Warcraft nerds picked up on is that WoW's subscriber base has slipped from its 12 million high point to about 11.4 million. To put this into perspective, the State of Azeroth has slipped from just behind Pennsylvania (6th in the US) in population to being tied with Ohio for 7th. Oh the fuck noes.
Naturally, that bizarre breed of creature that likes to complain constantly about Blizzard while still paying to play their game* has pounced upon this news with great fervor. Surely their wanton disrespect for the wishes of [casual players|hardcore raiders|alt levelers|roleplayers] in making Cataclysm content [too easy|too hard|too fast|too slow] has come back to them and they're suffering for it. (And yes, I have personally heard ALL of those arguments.)
So I have two points to make in response to this.
1) This is not a massive blow to Blizzard. Guys, the 600,000 subscribers that the game has slipped from its peak is larger than EverQuest's entire player base ever was at a time. People who didn't play MMOs before WoW came around (including me, but my guild started in EQ1 and has a lot of vets from those days to offer perspective) may not understand exactly what an unimaginable juggernaut this game is. Any MMO that manages to get a million subscribers at one time is considered a runaway success on par with a Titanic or Avatar. Most game companies would shit bricks of cayenne pepper wrapped in barbed wire at the thought of having a subscription-based game with five million users. WoW is on a completely different plane of existence than the "MMO market". It is to MMOs what Windows is to operating systems. Yes, there's competition (more on that later) but it's going to take some kind of severe event to knock this game out of commission.
This goes for the people who keep postulating about Blizzard jumping on the free-to-play bandwagon, as well. If WoW goes free to play anytime in the next five years, possibly ten, then I hope one of you bastards has Will Smith's cell number because Mike Morhaime is a goddamn pod person. Despite the slump in subscribers, Blizzard actually made more money from WoW this past year, between sales of the expansion itself and (more likely) the craptons of premium services.
So no, they are not suffering. Not even remotely. With every expansion, new players come in and old players pick back up to see what's new. And a little while afterwards, the newbies who didn't click with it and the oldies who remember why they left peter off. Morhaime himself said it was a perfectly normal drop, it just happened a bit more quickly than it did with Wrath. That could be tied as much to old WC3 players being more invested in the Arthas storyline as anything else. Which brings us to the next point...
2) This is not because of your pet problem with Cataclysm. Sure, it might have influenced it some. It may have played some part in the erosion. But no one problem single-handedly caused half a million people to leave the game. First there are the people that leave for all the normal reasons people leave: financial burdens, RL issues, just plain burnout with the game. Then there's the aforementioned normal post-expansion dropoff. A decent number of people did pick up RIFT (heck, so did I), but most of the ones who left WoW for it entirely were people who were already dissatisfied with WoW and probably would have left soon anyway.
And you know what? For every person I've seen who did, I've seen at least one who went and tried it, was somehow disappointed, and came back. (Even more who keep playing both! Gaming isn't zero-sum, guys!) For every person I've seen complaining that the raids are too hard and it's not worth playing anymore because they can't progress, I've seen another complaining that Firelands just needs to come OUT already because they're sick to death of tier 11.
So no, Bitchmoan McWhinypants, the loss of six hundred thousand players is not Blizzard facing their comeuppance for wronging you. They're still making money hand over fist. World of Warcraft is still the most popular MMORPG in the world, by light years. And most of the remaining 11.4 million of us are still having a grand old time.
* This does not refer to players who sometimes have complaints, or even who often have complaints. I mean the people who write long rambling screeds on the forums on how Blizzard is the worst game company in the industry and treats them like crap and they've never been so insulted in their life and they want free game time for the 20 minutes they couldn't log on because their server was longer coming up than others on maintenance day. THOSE guys.