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Blizzard's big challenge: Duplicating the success of World of Warcraft

One of the most successful video games ever made is a decade old. What's Blizzard's next act?

Warlords of Draenor is the fifth new storyline created for World of Warcraft. It launches Nov. 13. Blizzard Entertainment

World of Warcraft is already one of the world's most successful games. Now it's time for a second act.

That, at least, is Activision Blizzard's challenge on the eve of BlizzCon, a gathering of its most ardent fans who travel to a convention center in Anaheim, Calif., to celebrate the company's games and get a peek at its upcoming projects. The company has used previous events to announce new initiatives, such as last year's unveiling of Warlords of Draenor, a highly anticipated new storyline for World of Warcraft.

This week marks the eighth BlizzCon since 2005, and the company is expected to discuss upcoming installments for its StarCraft strategy franchise, more details about Blizzard's upcoming battle game Heroes of the Storm, and improvements to the Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft card game. Both, like World of Warcraft, are popular among fans.

But they aren't new.

Large game companies often field new franchises, such as last year's post-apocalyptic zombie game The Last of Us from Sony, and Ubisoft's cybercrime thriller Watch Dogs, released in May. Blizzard, in contrast, hasn't launched a new franchise in more than a decade.

Instead, it has consistently offered new installments and iterations on existing games. That has also allowed Blizzard to focus its resources on creating high-quality games that earn praise and command strong sales.

"It's the same as the movie business; There are only so many people who can make 'Avatar' or 'Titanic,'" said Joost van Dreunen, head of industry watcher SuperData Research, referring to the two highest-grossing films ever made. "It's about doing better than the rest."

Blizzard has tried to do something new before. For seven years, the company worked on a project called Titan, a large Internet game akin to World of Warcraft. In an interview with the game site Polygon, Mike Morhaime, head of Blizzard, said his team had set out to make an ambitious new game, but it ultimately wasn't good enough.

"We didn't find the fun," Morhaime said. "We talked about how we put it through a reevaluation period, and actually, what we reevaluated is whether that's the game we really wanted to be making. The answer is no."

Becoming the biggest

Blizzard has long prided itself on meticulously creating games with rich storylines. Its Warcraft series of games, released for PCs in 1994, wove an elaborate tale of epic battles between humans and orcs. Diablo, released two years later, and StarCraft, which landed two years after that, were created with similarly rich stories.

Blizzard's biggest achievement was World of Warcraft, a fantasy adventure game built around the storylines of the 1994 title, but played over the Internet with millions of other gamers. Unlike any products Blizzard had sold before, World of Warcraft charged a subscription of up to $14.99 per month in return for hundreds of hours of gameplay.

At its peak in 2010, World of Warcraft counted 12 million concurrent active subscribers, pulling in more than $217 million in December of that year, according to SuperData. It became a cultural phenomenon, inspiring competitions, dedicated fan websites, novels, an upcoming feature film and an Emmy-winning satire.

Its subscriber base has since waned, now down to 7.4 million at the end of September, and competition from titles like Riot Games' League of Legends have lured some customers away.

But Blizzard is still a household name among gamers in part because of events like BlizzCon, in addition to other efforts to connect with customers. That good will among fans, analysts say, helps make sure any new game Blizzard launches will be received.

"That audience is the most loyal and highest generating revenue," said Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities. He said events like Blizzcon, and whatever is announced there, serves to please the fans and keep them exciting about Blizzard's games. "I think they really and truly believe in giving back to consumers."