A Monthly Subscription Doesn’t Doom The Elder Scrolls Online
The recent announcement that The Elder Scrolls Online would require a subscription fee provoked a lot of discussion on what it means for the game’s future. Many people immediately wrote the game off. Some said they’d wait until it went free-to-play. But does the choice to have a subscription fee mean that TESO is doomed?
At first glance, you might think so. MMOs like Rift, Warhammer and The Secret World began their existence with subscriptions, only to quickly transition to a free-to-play model. Furthermore, high-profile releases such as Neverwinter embraced free-to-play at launch, and Guild Wars 2 only requires that the player purchase the game in order to play it forever.
The most common comparison I’ve seen is between TESO and Star Wars: The Old Republic. TESO appears to be very similar, as it has a huge IP behind it and it began as a subscription MMO before transitioning to free-to-play. While SWTOR’s rapid F2P transition might be a cautionary tale, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
You see, SWTOR wasn’t (and isn’t) a great MMO. It has some fun moments, some great story, and a few interesting tweaks to MMO mechanics, but after you’ve played through the story (or stories), it was basically a shell of an MMO. I’ve often described it as “The best single-player MMO I’ve ever played.” I’m told that Bioware has addressed this since release, but it was a case of too little, too late to retain the subscribers the developer needed to survive.
It’s not like we haven’t seen subscription MMOs succeed. World of Warcraft is still the most obvious one, but remember that Everquest ran for well over a decade before shifting to free-to-play. The MMO market has changed a bit since then, but that doesn’t mean that you should write off TESO so cavalierly. There are several reasons why it could still be a subscription-based success.
An established IP
One of the things that a big MMO needs is a recognizable world to exist in. The Elder Scrolls provides that. The world of Tamriel has been expanded on quite a bit since it first appeared in The Elder Scrolls: Arena in 1994. Since then, we’ve traveled its wilderness, visited its cities, and slain its dragons. We’ve walked through its temples, plundered its dungeons, and climbed its mountains. It’s a well-known place to many gamers.
This sort of familiarity is exactly what led gamers to pour into The Old Republic, only to be let down when it didn’t meet their expectations. As Cryptic Studios’ CEO Jack Emmert told me in an interview at PAX East earlier this year, for an MMO to approach a World of Warcraft-like scale, “it’s gotta be a game with a universally recognizable IP.”
A dedicated fanbase
As I write this article, there are more than 28,000 people playing Skyrim on Steam. Despite launching in 2011, Skyrim was a top-10 selling title in 2012, and has sold over 10 million copies to date. On Jan. 2, 2012, Steam records show that Skyrim had over 5 million concurrent users logged in. No matter how you slice it, that’s a monster-size fanbase.
While some might argue that Star Wars has a similar fanbase, I’d argue that its fanbase isn’t as strong in the world of video games. Put simply, the glory years of Star Wars games are far behind us, although this could change with a new Battlefront on the horizon. But still, there have been a ton of Star Wars games, and they’ve largely underachieved. They’ve certainly never seen the level of popularity in the video game world that Skyrim has attained.
Next-gen consoles to launch on
MMOs on consoles are a largely untested idea, but if any franchise can make the concept work, it’s The Elder Scrolls. As mentioned earlier, Skyrim is one of the most popular titles to ever grace the Xbox 360, so it definitely has fans that aren’t PC gamers. Furthermore, the willingness of console gamers to play online has greatly increased in the last five years. This will be the first major MMO to tap into the millions of gamers who don’t play games on PC.
More importantly, both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One are essentially specialized gaming PCs, meaning that the technical problems that plagued the PS3 version of Skyrim shouldn’t rear their ugly heads again. As the game that could break down the console barrier for MMOs once and for all, you couldn’t get a more likely-to-succeed title than Elder Scrolls.
Why a subscription?
This is the question a lot of people are asking right now. It’s difficult to answer, since we don’t know enough about Zenimax’s plans to have a truly informed opinion. That said, there are a few reasons that I can think of for the developer to choose the subscription route:
- Defined income – The amount of money that free-to-play titles bring in varies wildly. Once you get a subscription-based game going, you have a pretty solid idea of what’s going to come in each month. This can be a boon when planning future content and development.
- Behavior barrier – A subscription fee can help weed out players who are only playing the game to harass others. It’s not foolproof, but it certainly helps.
- Removes barriers between players and content – This is the biggest reason, and one that’s already been cited by Zenimax Online General Manager Matt Firor. “We feel that putting pay gates between the player and content at any point in game ruins that feeling of freedom, and just having one small monthly fee for 100-percent access to the game fits the IP and the game much better than a system where you have to pay for features and access as you play.”
The biggest challenge
Zenimax Online has a lot of challenges to face between now and TESO’s launch in the spring of next year, but none are larger than this: They absolutely must deliver on value. In this day and age, there are so many choices available in the MMO market. Gamers can play Rift, Neverwinter, and for a few levels, even World of Warcraft, for absolutely no cost at all. For a $60 purchase, they can play Guild Wars 2. In order to woo these gamers, Zenimax will need to demonstrate that they have enough value planned for the game to justify $15 a month. That means not only having plenty of content in the game at launch, but also having some clear public roadmaps for what’s coming. If they can justify the fee they’re asking with plenty of content, it’ll negate a lot of the arguments against it.
More importantly, they’ll have to answer the biggest question on everyone’s mind right now: Will The Elder Scrolls Online feel like multiplayer Skyrim? If that answer is yes, then I truly believe that people will be happy to pony up $15 a month for it. This could become even more likely if Bethesda is successful in convincing MS to lift the Xbox Live Gold requirement for Elder Scrolls Online.
Could Zenimax do better with a free-to-play or buy-to-play model? No one can know that yet. By the same token, it’s far too early to write TESO off as a failure due to the choice to require a subscription. There are already three million people signed up for the beta. If Zenimax can deliver a game that’s worth the money, I’m certain there will be plenty of those folks (and more) willing to pay for it.