TL;DR- Before the end of this year, Blizzard will either introduce "classic vanilla" servers or heads will roll and Activision will turn WoW into Facebook's new MMORPG.
The number of people actively playing WoW is plummeting. All the external websites that depend on WoW have been showing negative activity trends since the post-release peak. For example,
http://i.imgur.com/cqP3r.jpg (wow-heroes.com traffic)
http://i.imgur.com/h4sQH.jpg (wowhead.com traffic)
And while my own anecdotal evidence is hardly conclusive, of the 50 or so people I personally know through/from WoW, less than 10 have active subscriptions right now and have little interest in returning. The truth is that WoW's active subs and income stream have cratered, and Activision Blizzard is sitting on pretty bad numbers until they can find a way to positively spin them. Why have they cratered? Because of two critical miscalculations:
Miscalculation #1: Targeting casuals when they are unreliable player base
In trying to expand beyond their die-hard fans and core MMO audience, Blizzard decided to simplify the game and increase the hand-holding so that it would appeal to the casual gamer. That sounds great in the boardroom, and it no doubt helped increase their "subscribers base" since everyone could finally get their mom and grandmother to play...but Blizzard forgot that it had been the die-hards and core gamers that had been paying the monthly subscription since the game first came out.
These new casual gamers that Blizzard re-designed their entire product to target are NOT stable, paying, long-term customers. They play for a month, get bored, and then jump ship when PopCap releases their next game. Everyone's making a fuss about Rift but Rift isn't really any better than the other MMOs that have thrown themselves against the World of Warcraft juggernaut in the past few years. The difference is Rift came out right as dissatisfaction with World of Warcraft hit a new all-time high. For many players having to choose to relearn a game/class/environment that is clearly and recognizably different than the one they had been playing all this time, that was just the motivation to go ahead and try a new game. Which leads me to the second point:
Miscalculation #2: Retroactively changing the game people already bought into
Blizzard made a huge mistake in basically taking away "Old" Azeroth. Because what this effectively did is take away a game that millions of people had already purchased, played, enjoyed and apparently found worth a subscription. This was the first expansion that *WASNT* an expansion: it was a destruction. Big, big mistake. Blizzard basically told their entire user base "Here is our new content, take it or leave it" and for a big majority, the answer is clearly "leave it". The die-hards and core gamers no longer recognize the game into which they had invested years. And while again this is also anecdotal evidence, let me tell you how it impacted one of my friends, the most devoted WoW fan I know:
She was a teenage girl who grew up playing MMOs: Runescape, Second Life, and then found WoW five years ago and called it her home. Rolled a Night Elf Druid (as does every teenage girl) and ground her way around Tedrassil and Darkshore and onward. Rerolled a human warrior, a dwarf hunter, another NE Hunter, another NE druid, and so on dozens of times on many servers. Finally rolled a Night Elf Priest and made that her main and took her past vanilla into TBC and Wrath and even Cataclysm. HATED Vash'jir. Enjoyed Mt Hyjal so much she got the "Coming Down the Mountain" quest achievement. But hating and getting frustrated with Deepholm, she decided to just reroll a new toon. When she ran into the cave for the level 3 spider quest, and the druid NPC appeared out of nowhere and started shooting things, she cried. She said it was exactly like when she used to play with guys and they would automatically start killing things for her because they assumed she was too stupid or bad as a girl to do it herself. She'd taken half-a-dozen night elves of every class through the original vanilla spider cave, corpse running every time she miscalculated, and here the game was telling her "oh dear, its too hard for you, let me help you."
In a second, I suddenly saw the "new" Azeroth through her eyes. There was no more risk/reward payoff. No more elites you have to group up even at low-levels to fight. No more obnoxiously difficult farming quests that really felt like an accomplishment when you completed it. The first time she did the Fulbolg chain in that twisting maze west of Dolanar, it took her a week to complete it. Now, two steps in, an NPC is again 2-shotting enemies for her and even showing where in the maze everything was. Then she saw what they had done to Darkshore. Before, the happiest part was jumping off the boat and being greeted with more than a dozen new quests, ranging from the top to the bottom of a truly epic-feeling, expansive zone. Now, she had two. And as soon as the game put her on a Nightsaber and rode her down to Twilight Shore, she hit ALT-F4 and hasn't played since.
It's no longer a game anymore. It's a guided tour, with NPCs hand-holding you because of the risk of inconvenience of being forced to socialize to find people to group up for the harder parts. But that's what formed friendships. Thats what made it Massively-Multiplayer and not a Single-Player. This change was very noticeable to me as well. Every time I ran into an elite on a quest in a Cataclysm zone, I braced myself to spam /1 with "LF help with [Quest Name]" ...but no, some gimmick or NPC or magic axe would suddenly turn the epic elite-killing quest into an AFK-and-watch scripted event. That's what the whole game is like now from the very beginning. It would be one thing if they had reinvented Burning Crusade; people would still have the same game for creating new toons. They could focus on if they liked their new character, not question if they liked the very world itself.
And I believe that's the biggest part of continuing WoW interest: rolling new characters. But what if you don't like the new leveling experience? Well then, you are screwed. And that's really what I think it comes down to. Some parts of the new Azeroth are pretty cool. There's so much there, everyone can find one or two things they like. And everyone remembers things about old Azeroth they absolutely hated. But they still did them, didn't they? They cursed over every single one of those 50 tongues, but dammit, they did it and they took that +2 agility dagger and held it aloft proudly before vendoring it. But you can't do that any more.
I can see the writing on the wall and I'm making this post so that either I can be praised as a prophet in nine months or reminded of this next time someone wants to make fun of me. But given the nature of Activision and the way the push for "casual gaming" and "social media" and looking at their customer base, not the games, as their product...I'm pretty sure that when WoW's income drops, panic mode is going to kick in, you'll see some politely worded press releases about top Blizzard employees pursuing other endeavors, and then you'll see Activision double-down on causal gaming and basically make WoW into either an hourly or upsell game (levels 1-10 free, pay for each zone beyond that) or worse, into the next big Facebook application with some way to have all your Facebook friends form a group and go place a single instance of some raid or dungeon together.
Or, before the year is up, you'll see the big announcement that due to overwhelming player demand, they are introducing new "classic" servers (despite the developers swearing over and over they will never do that because they want the game to "move forward"). Because then they will have actually expanded the game, while still keeping everything that people already had, knew, loved or trusted.
That's my prediction. Activision Blizzard will either double-down on casuals and kill WoW, or they'll swallow their pride and reverse course on old content before it's too late. One or the other before the Christmas purchasing season at the end of the year.