The Elder Scrolls Online: Throwing Itself Under the Subscription Bus?

I moan a lot about the price we pay… both in cash and annoyance… for games that go free to play.  That is, in many ways, a reaction to people that seem to believe that “free” really means “free” and that there is absolutely no downside to dumping the monthly subscription model.  I try to sum it up from time to time.  But I still see plenty of people giving the free to play model unconditional their love.

That doesn’t mean I have left planet Earth however.  I can see still the scoreboard.

The reality of the situation today is that, if you are a new MMORPG on the market, the barrier to entry for the vast majority of your competitors is pretty low.  A couple games can get away with just a monthly subscription plan at this point.  World of Warcraft, because it remains more popular than any five western MMOs you care to mention.  EVE Online, because it offers an experience unlike any of its competitors.

But after those two, the market is pretty much free to play, with a few niche subscription model games hanging about.  Darkfall stuck with the monthly subscription because it is a niche game.  Camelot Unchained will have a monthly subscription under the current plan, but it seeks a niche and not market dominance as well.

So if you are going to go into the MMORPG market and you want the maximum number of players to play your game, free to play seems to be the only way to go.

Unless, of course, you are bringing a brand new experience to the genre.

I mean, if you have something that people will seriously want and won’t be able to get elsewhere, then there is your market advantage.  If you believe in it, you can skip free to play and move directly to Go, collect $200, and get with the monthly subscription plan.

But you had better well and truly be right.  Because everybody seems to think they have something special.  And the last few who have put their money where their mouths were on being special enough to command a monthly subscription… SWTOR or Rift or The Secret World for example… had to retreat from those positions.

So if you have an MMORPG project under way and you are considering a monthly subscription plan as the sole method of playing your game, you gotta to ask yourself a question, “Do I feel like a special snowflake?”

Well, do ya, punk?

So it was a surprise to me yesterday when WildStar came out swinging with the monthly subscription model.  Carbine has some interesting idea, but for the most part the game seems to be a mild remix of the same old thing.  More evolution of the genre without any “secret sauce” in evidence.  They left themselves a “free” fig leaf with CREDD.  But if that makes a game free to play, then EVE Online is free to play as well.

And, in a one-two punch, I was surprised again today when The Elder Scrolls Online threw in with the monthly subscription model.

Of course, I remain surprised that they are making this game as an MMORPG in the first place.  The primary “win” for this game is to fill the demand for people who love The Elder Scrolls games and who want to play them with their friends.

In playing Skyrim, my biggest disappointment so far is that I cannot play this with Potshot and the rest of our regular group.  My daughter, on watching me play, her eyes wide as she took in the scenery, asked, “Is this multiplayer? Can I play with you?”

So my first question is why this isn’t being developed as a 4-6 player co-op game in the style of Borderlands, with a ton of DLC to help finance things?  I may be missing something here, but that seems like the win.

But no, it is going to go the MMORPG route.  And the team has a reasonable tale as to why they feel it needs to be subscription, which I would sum up as “we don’t want to pollute the game with all the necessary evils that a free to play game requires in order to make money.”  You should read that article in full and soak in what they are trying to say.  It points at a lot of the things I complain about in free to play, and it is refreshing to see a developer in the genre admit that they might be an issue for some players.  The usual line seems to be “suck it up.”

Maybe they are right in going that route.  Certainly the franchise would not be enhanced by an in-game cash shop, crazy mounts, pirate hats, and lock boxes.

And maybe they can afford to.  The Elder Scrolls is a pretty impressive franchise.  That name alone should sell a lot of boxes.

And perhaps they have a plan.  Maybe they are not shooting to eclipse WoW, but to meet a sensible goal that they know can sustain the business and let them keep the subscription plan that they feel best fits the tone they want to set for the game.

Or it could all be a crass attempt to grab as much cash up front as possible while keeping their servers from getting completely swamped on day one while they work on pink cow mounts, pirate hats, and “talk to the hand” emotes for the big free to play transition nine months down the line.

We shall see.

But the monthly subscription model appears to still have some adherents in the industry.  Not everybody appears to have drunk the cash shop Kool-Aid.

Do these two games, WildStar and The Elder Scrolls Online, have something special?  Do they have what it takes to sustain themselves on a monthly subscription model?  Or are we just watching two more victims of self-delusion headed for a fall?

And is the move by these two, plus Final Fantasy XIV, a last gasp for the monthly subscription model, just a chance to poke Smed in the eye again, or a harbinger of change?

21 thoughts on “The Elder Scrolls Online: Throwing Itself Under the Subscription Bus?

  1. Sj

    You wrote ‘an MMORPG’ in paragraph 13 instead of ‘a MMORPG’

    That’s about as anal an introduction I can give, fitting as I read that on the can I guess! Have you seen Star Citizen?


  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Sj – I remain undecided as to whether, when faced with an acronym that people are going to pronounce by saying the letters (Em Em Oh Are Pee Gee), you should treat it as a following vowel and use “an” or if you should use the first letter of the actual word (Massively) and go with “a” as the lead in. I am sure there is a rule in a book of style somewhere and a contradictory one elsewhere. Welcome to American English, where we do what we want! Long live the memory of e. e. cummings!

    And yes, I wrote something about Star Citizen at the beginning of the month, so I suppose I have “seen” it, in as much as there is anything to be seen at this time.


  3. Sj

    Haha awesome! Sorry I couldn’t resist I always have a giggle at seeing an excellent post pages long replied to by a grammatical observation.

    I have lovingly followed all your posts on Warcraft and EvE, I will search for your previous post on Star Citizen I was away in Sweden then so think I missed it. Take care :)


  4. João Carlos

    “More evolution of the genre without any “secret sauce” in evidence.”

    The game that promised a revolution was GW2, that is B2P. and the game that is now promising a revolution is EQN, that will be F2P.

    IMHO, the fact that GW2 aparently is making a good profit is a clue for everyone see it is risky to try follow the sub model. Investors will not like if you say “we will have no profit, but we are free from F2P devil”, because investors want… well… profit.

    I can be wrong, but if both WildStar and ESO strategies don’t work and they need go F2P, they will give a strong proof that “resistance is futile”.

    Anyway, it is possible that ESO want be a niche MMO, so the sub model make sense. I cannot see sense in WildStar position, however.


  5. bhagpuss

    I always say “an” before any word that begins with an open vowel *sound* , not just ones that begin with an actual open vowel. I see it as similar to the aspirant and non-aspirant “H”. In this context I always say and write “an MMORPG”. I would never say or write “a MMORPG”. If I felt the need I would re-structure the sentence to avoid the issue but I’m confident enough that my usage is correct not to need to do that. Scirbendi, which is a fair source for advice on these things, agrees.

    Oh hang on, was there something about MMOs? If I was taking bets I’d say that two years after launch the only one of TESO, WildStar and FFXIV that will still be subscription-based will be FFXIV. Square are like that (and send me my blasted early access code SE !!).

    Smed must be rubbing his hands in glee right now.


  6. Syl (@Gypsy_Syl)

    …I’ll try and not nitpick grammar ;)

    “Or it could all be a crass attempt to grab as much cash up front as possible while keeping their servers from getting completely swamped on day one while they work on pink cow mounts, pirate hats, and “talk to the hand” emotes for the big free to play transition nine months down the line.”

    THIS. as others on twitter have said too, it seems like the whole ‘lets sub first and then go f2p’ is its own business model by now. I don’t really like it, it seems somewhat sucky for the early subscriber. or maybe not. I don’t know. this last week has been too confusing. :D


  7. Tesh

    TESO is silly from the ground up, as far as I’m concerned. The appeal of Elder Scrolls games is the big world that I can interact with and do crazy things, sometimes with mods. If I want to play it with anyone, it would indeed be a small group of friends and family. TESO should have been a “buy to play” game with no persistent world or servers, just the ability to let players link up with friends.

    That’s the multiplayer experience they should have brought to the table, and it would have been a fairly unique experience.


  8. Matt

    F2P will always have appeal, because part of the difficulty of getting people to play your game is getting them to start playing it. Subscriptions and box prices are a barrier to entry and companies reasonably want to remove them, especially in a world where MMOs are a dime-a-dozen.


  9. Carty

    I just want to be that voice in the wilderness that has decided to avoid at all costs playing any more F2P games. I’ll linger in Neverwinter just long enough for a sub MMO to launch. Why you ask? Not any of the fancy observations well made on this site about the distorting effects of the model on game-play — I want out because the damned things are too expensive. I’ll happily pay you $50 a month for the full experience because F2P seems to run $100 a month to get the stuff to play. I can’t resist opening Nightmare boxes or paying to move my 3-skill crew to a new tank every other day….


  10. NetherLands

    Like others said, a B2P version of ESO would have made more sense, this seems to be a somewhat cynical move to make Kotick’s wish – get people to pay subs to play their console games – come closer. Still, ESO could be aiming for a more modest subscriber base so I can see why they want to do it thusly

    I’m more flabberghasted at WildStar. It seems to be squarely aimed at the WoW-crowd, and could imo (have) be(en) quite a contender for that market.

    Putting the whole game behind a paywall (I always find people complainting about F2P ‘paywalls’ a tad funny, as subs put a whole game behind them, how exactly is that less of a wall?) however will severely reduce its ability to ‘steal’ WoW subscribers, most certainly if they’ll also charge for boxes and expansions.

    A cynical cash-grab before going F2P seems likely to me, to be frank.

    For completeness’ sake, afaik Ultima Online and Dark Age of Camelot are still sub-only games and still kicking (DAoC could imo use a more gentle payment plan).


  11. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @NetherLands – TESO is being done by ZeniMax, so I am not sure where Kotick comes into it, unless you are suggesting an industry-wide conspiracy. But as I noted, it seem like a natural for a Boarderlands style treatment. Ah well.

    WildStar. Yeah, I would have put money on it going F2P from launch. Maybe even putting some of those bright minds on newer/better/different ways to approach F2P. Instead, we have some ex-WoW people making a WoW-model game.

    I don’t think your paywall comment is very well thought out. The monthly subscription model doesn’t fit that word in any way I have every seen it used. It is like calling the price on a loaf of bread a paywall. There is no promise or expectation that it should be anything other than it is.

    F2P irks because it ends up being “Free To Play (except where it isn’t).” You go in on the promise of free and then run up against said paywall, maybe knowingly, maybe not. That is why the term comes up, as it is a literal parallel to, say, how the New York Times treats their online content. Some is free, some is not, and there is no promise up front as to where the line will be drawn.


  12. D506

    @João GW2 promised a revolution, but gave us more of the same. EQN is promising one now, but I’m not holding my breath. If GW2 making a good profit is a hint the the sub model is risky, what does WoWs obscene profits say about the f2p model?

    Some of the largest and longest running MMOs (WoW, EVE) are still subscription based. There is no definitive evidence that F2P games are inherently less risky or more profitable than sub games. Sure, everyone says their F2P conversation was wildly successful, but so did CoH right until they closed the door.


  13. Pingback: The Cynic Dialogues Elder Scrolls Online & The Subscription Model

  14. NetherLands

    Perhaps it helps if I put it this way.

    Say you have Game A and Game B (any similarity to actual games is purely coincedental. Really)

    Game A is F2P, allows someone to do all the levelling content without paying a dime, and besides some cheap bips and bops that are mostly Vanity items only charges money for doing the content most people don’t end up doing anyway (ie Raid content).

    Game B is a subscription game, charges money for accessing all the content including the levelling content that gets thrown off kilter more every Expansion that gets lobbed atop of it, and uses the subscription money solely for providing free Raid content Patches despite most subscribers never doing Raid content with any regularity.

    How exactly is Game A less accessible and more ‘stingy’ with its content – coin ratio than Game B?

    The point where you have to pony up to play (paywall) is reached evidently much later with Game A than with Game B, Game B starts asking for payment right of the bat while Game A only at a certain, later point.

    I’m seriously puzzled, when did looking a gift-horse in the mouth become standard behaviour :?


  15. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @NetherLands – I think you are making a huge stretch there in portraying things as otherwise equal, aside from who pays how much when. Not all costs are measured in dollars and cents.

    Having played several games now that have gone from subscription only to F2P, there is a change to the nature of the game and what gets focused on. The restrictions on free players and the constant stance of trying to sell players something new from the cash shop seem to be universal changes.

    You may not care about those changes, but it seems disingenuous to pose questions as though they do not exist.

    I would respond to your horse metaphor with one of my own:

    Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

    F2P is easily compared to a Trojan horse. The promise of free is in the name, but then they start asking for money right away. That alone can turn people off.


  16. Carty

    @Nether: You compare two straw men — F2P doesn’t want you to actually play the game from end to end without cost — they need revenue to survive too. So you are either paying for items you really need to enjoy the game, paying to be competitive, or paying for access to content. Frankly, I would rather pay a monthly fee then be constantly at war with wallet bleed in a game that wants to nickel and dime me for what in my experience has been far more money per month than I had here-to-for been quite happy to pay in my subscription. To me F2P is just a massive illusion to get me to pay more. F2P is a compleationist’s nightmare. And your subscription model is based on the WoW distortion that games are just leveling rides and expansions are needed. I’m hoping for a decent sandbox with an end-game (sorry for that term) that I will want to play for ages with minor need for “content” since the players drive it. TESO beats Skyrim (assuming they get it right) because there will be an interesting 3-sided war with player built and destroyed stuff. CU promises that as well. IF either delivers, I’ll happily pay a sub to be there.


  17. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Carty – “To me F2P is just a massive illusion to get me to pay more.”

    Indeed, one of the industry arguments for F2P and against subscriptions has been that subscriptions leave money on the table and effectively limit how much money an individual customer can pay. Money is historically something easy to get religion about.

    I don’t hear that one much anymore, but it was a big GDC discussion point around the reign of the once mighty Zynga.


  18. NetherLands

    @ Carty
    “So you are either paying for items you really need to enjoy the game, paying to be competitive, or paying for access to content. ”

    Nowhere did I say that you never have to pay for ALL content in a ‘F2P’, I realize that games (except perhaps argueably private servers) aren’t charities. Also, I’m talking themeparks here.

    The original point made was that ‘F2P’ were (in short and very broad strokes) ‘evil’ for asking payment only for certain content (evil paywalls), while subs were ‘good’ as they asked payment for all content (a payment castle).

    Now, how this pans out depends on your playing preferences.

    If you focus on endgameplay, subs are usually cheaper on your wallet, as F2P tend to monetise the ‘Level Cap ASAP’ conveniances and Raid requirements subs charge you for even if you don’t like any of those.

    If however you don’t give a toss about speeding to endgame, only having to pay for speedy levelling conveniances and Raid requirements can result in total F2p, and can most certainly be easier on your wallet.

    I personally fall squarely in the second group, I can do without raid drama and all it entails . Iif I wanted to I e.g. would have had only to pay for a single Race unlock for eg Vanguard (I ended up being subscribed for a year because I wanted to support the title, though that turned out to be a stupid move because of the mandatory XP hike subscribers recieved shortly after) and I have yet to spend a dime on EQ2 – yet I enjoy both games and aren’t hampered one bit by e.g. Raid Gear requiring payment to equip.

    Does that mean that the nature of games doesn’t change if they change payment plan?

    No, I e.g. used to sub to LotRO and left with the transition when it turned out I would have to basically re-pay for content I had already bought with the X-pacs. But I think it is too simple to chalk it down to F2P in general, instead of to a dick move by a single company.


  19. bw022

    I don’t think a subscription is going to fly with ESOL.

    First, they announced they are charging $60 for the game (with a free month’s subscription), plus $15 per month. That is $240 a year. This is already more than Netflix, four months of cable, a yearly movie budget, my IMAX passes, a gym membership, etc. It costs more than five premium games.

    Second, since it runs on the new consoles… that is in addition to the $60/year Xbox/PS4 fees on top of the cost of the new consoles.

    Third, their initial market will be Skyrim players — not used to monthly fees. It isn’t likely to be better than Skyrim out-of-the-box (graphics, characters, limitations, etc.) so it will fail on a direct (single player) comparison. Their secondary market… new console players — also not used to monthly fees.

    Forth, no way kids can get into this. Asking your parents for a $500 Xbox One for Christmas is nice… $300 a year to play one game? Not going to happen in numbers.

    Fifth, there will be a huge incentive not to buy initially. The $60 up front to try a game for one month? Many will wait until they hear reviews, wait for a price drop, or hope for it to join the free-to-play crowd. Play Skyrim, wait for the next ES game, or use that money for other games or other entertainment entirely.

    Sixth, in August Lee Bradley reported that “according to Zenimax Online game director Matt Firor who has said that the game will include a shop from which players can buy items, name changes and such.” The idea that someone plays $60 up front, $15/month (or so), and then still have to pay more money for decorative things would be enraging to most people. Even if they officially nix this, it will make many people hesitant to join this.

    Seventh, if the goal of ESOL is to be able to play Skyrim with friends or family, which many Skyrim folks want… the fees are insane. Playing with friends or family isn’t something people spend hours a day doing — it is something you might be able to do maybe once a week. This isn’t enough to justify 5x $240 a year.

    Eight, a lot of ESOL sounds just like any other MMORPG. PvP, factions, single instance/server, zones, end-game content, farming, etc. is not cooperative Skyrim or ES. If they need to pad this out for content or wish to attract other MMORPG players… why not play Guild Wars, Neverwinter, EVE, Lord of the Rings Online, or WOW? Will players interested in PvP, factions, farming, etc. really care if they are in ES as opposed to anywhere else? Are they willing to pay $240 for the privilege of PvPing in one setting over another?


  20. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @bw022 – I think you are overstating money as a barrier. It will always be a problem for some. And, as you note, kids don’t have that sort of budget. But I haven’t seen anything lately that says kids… we’ll call that under 20… make up anything like the bulk of the video game buying market.

    In the end, a good game that provides a satisfying experience will sell. As you note, the subscription is pretty much the same as a number of alternatives, and lots of people play those. Price as a barrier does not hold up. I remember Spaceship Warlock selling $400 CD-ROM drives back in the day.

    Quality, game play, and expectations though, that is where this could fall through. As I said in the post, and have repeated in many other locations, Borderlands seems to be the better model for them to follow. That would give players the “play with friends, co-op” option and would allow them to sell modules for a continued revenue stream.

    We shall see.


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