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.

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12 Comments on A Monthly Subscription Doesn’t Doom The Elder Scrolls Online


On September 16, 2013 at 12:46 pm

“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.”

Ok, you cant even compare Star Wars as a franchise to Elder Scrolls. IF you could compare them, the fanbase for Star Wars would be MUCH larger.

The fact of the matter is, SWTOR failed because it was too much like WOW, with not enough content, which is why they went to free to play. Unlike Blizzard, they dont have the knowledge, expertise, and textures to recycle to pump out content ever month.

All BS aside, I feel like the subscription is worth it if they keep coming out with content. I play a good amount, and if I get to max level and find that I am bored, ill drop the sub, simple as that.

Heres to TES succeeding in the MMO world.


On September 16, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Meh, honestly, I’m a little burnt out on subscription mmos. I have a lot of things i could be spending my money on and not even multiplayer Skyrim is enough to get me to fork over $15 a month. If i need my elder scrolls fix I’ll just fire up Skyrim, you know, for free.

I would also like to state that I disagree on the whole elder scrolls gamer fan outnumber star wars fans statement. Sure they may be jaded, and not as inclined to flock to a new star wars game as they used to, but doesn’t mean that they have lost the spark. Please someone make another really good star wars game that isn’t just trying to milk the franchise, and you’d see that there is an incredible fan base out there for star wars.

But yah, I was considering TESO when i first heard of it, but after the subscription announcement, I’ll pass. Besides, not matter what anyone says, we all know this is going f2p down the line. Its just a matter of when.


On September 17, 2013 at 12:54 am

I, for one, am RELIEVED at the news of a subscription model. I’ve played many, many, many MMORPGs, some f2p, so subscription models. My experience has been this: 1) As a general rule, nearly all the f2p MMOs I’ve played have sucked out loud. They feel like, as Ron put it, “a shell of an MMO.” They offer tried and true and BORING gameplay mechanics that you can get pretty much anywhere, and usually their story and graphics are uninspired. 2) MOST subscription-based MMOs that I’ve played have felt a bit more polished. If a developer wants you to pony up your monthly fee, they need to offer a product that is worthy of that money. Blizzard had a fluke on their hands. WoW at launch was not that great. It had bugs and problems like crazy. But for some reason the WoW fanatics can’t seem to remember those days. Players still flocked in droves, likely due to the fact that their only real competitor of the genre was EverQuest, which was becoming extremely dated. WoW took what EQ did, and made a few slight improvements (initially these were small). However, now WoW is an extremely polished game (though I would argue it’s still not all that great… I was never a big WoW fan), and for a new game to succeed, it has to be extremely polished in order to compare.

I’m happy to hear that TESO will have a subscription model. It instills more confidence in me that Zenimax and Bethesda actually CARE about their product and want to make it succeed! Whenever I hear about a game that is launching as f2p, it instills no confidence in me whatsoever.

Last note: We’ll all know whether it’s going to succeed or fail when they (inevitably) launch the open beta. Millions of fans will get their hands on the game and they will know in a short time if this is a game they’re willing to pay to play or not. I’ve been burned by games before (Champions Online, Star Trek Online, and SWTOR, to name a few), so I remain cautiously hopeful. :)


On September 17, 2013 at 8:18 am

I don’t have a problem with a subscription model in general, i just think the quoted price is too high.
The basic cost of buying the game should include 3 months’ access, not one month, and a monthly price thereafter of under $10 would be much more reasonable.


On September 17, 2013 at 1:21 pm

I’m happy about having a subscription. $15/ month is barely anything. As long as they keep content up to date and the game plays as well as it looks! ;) . In regards to Star Wars fan base, I think the author is referring to the fact that most of the Star Wars fan base is probably based upon film/television fans, not computer/video games. Although I know they have some very popular games out!

I think he is regarding to Skyrim having a larger video game fan base than Star Wars. Idk if that is true but I think that’s what he is stating.

But anyways, I’m extremely excited for ESO. I don’t know how I’ll be able to wait until 2014! I’ve never even played Skyrim, I’m just obsessed with MMOs. But I’m trying to Skyrim this weekend and we’ll see how that goes ;) .


On September 17, 2013 at 6:11 pm

When I started reading about TESO going F2P, I thought “There goes another wasted opportunity for a great MMO”. Like some said previously, I was actually relieved when I learned that TESO was adopting a subscription model. After playing many of these F2P MMOs I have yet to find something that comes even close to the quality of games like World of Warcraft.

Say what you will, but WoW was, and still is, an amazing accomplishment. It was a revolutionary title that no other game has since been able to surpass in any manner, I believe. The game may not have been greatness the first couple of days (or weeks, maybe even the first two months) but has since been the unreachable goal of many gaming companies in many aspects (most important of which is revenue), and for good reason.

I believe that the next MMO to take the place of WoW will surpass said game in more than one manner. Unfortunately, I don’t think TESO will be that game. I feel of TESO as I do of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn — it’s a game to pass the time until something truly great sweeps me off my feet like WoW did.

I don’t agree with Ron in that it takes a very well known IP to make the next king of MMOs. I may be completely off the mark, but I think the next game to steal the show will be a relatively unknown title like Warcraft was. It may even be code-name Titan from Blizzard.

Blizzard certainly has what it takes to make another ground-breaking game: They have the know-how and experience, but most importantly, they have funds and talent like no other gaming company (Especially after the merger with Activision).

In the end, I believe TESO will make, at most, a dent, if that, but no more. This doesn’t mean the game will fail, by any means, it just means it doesn’t bring anything ground-breaking to the gaming industry. With that said, after playing the 1 hour demo, I can definitely say I’m in love with the TESO’s gameplay (as I was with Skyrim’s) and I would, hands down, gladly pay $15 /mo for what TESO is: An online, and constantly improved, Skyrim. Will I play the game for 7 years like I did WoW? Not even close (a few months at most). But that’s more than enough for me; not so much for Bethesda/Zenimax.


On September 17, 2013 at 7:56 pm

When I first heard about Elder Scrolls Online slapping a subscription on the game, I was angry. I mean, really ANGRY. I was a howling werewolf. I wrote letters and petitions to the company and lashed out at them. Yes, I don’t like having to pay for subscription mmorpgs, most people don’t. I don’t mind buying a $60 box, but having to pay each month is a hassle for me. I’m more of a casual guy that like to kick back and relax without having to stress over my wallet pissing away greens. Guild Wars 2 is a success with a one-time fee to play forever and I think most companies should follow this method. I can play it and then leave it alone for months, then come back and play it again. Just exactly like Skyrim and Oblivion. If I had to commit to subscription fees per monthly, then I wouldn’t get out much and I would be sitting and playing everyday for all the money’s worth. No thanks.

I understand that they’re trying to make revenue and that’s for making a living. But they’re squeezing the cash cow a little too hard with a wheezing moo. And I understand some people wouldn’t mind paying for better polished contents, but I still say Guild Wars 2 does it better with releasing updates and contents periodically while it’s still free.

I’m watching to see if Final Fantasy XIV would turn to the free-to-play model like SWTOR one day. If they do, then I wonder if this would affect the Elder Scrolls Online. If so, then the developers would be sweating and everybody would be watching to see what they would do. What do you think of this? Like in the article, I’m one of the guys that’s just waiting for it to become free-to-play…


On September 19, 2013 at 8:44 am

Too bad, they suck at everything. Zenimax. Bethesda.


On October 11, 2013 at 3:03 am

How about you not have a subscription for the xbox and ps console users? Trying to get the live or plus status removed from your game is asinine; in the sense that most of us STILL have to pay two damn subscriptions just to play your game.


On October 13, 2013 at 8:08 pm

I spoke to Bethesda they haven’t released anything about console game yet and not mentioned anything on pricing they haven’t decided if 1 they will be allowed to charge a premium on a premium service (xbox live) and whether they want to even try


On November 30, 2013 at 4:12 pm

I remember playing Oblivion the 1st time on XBOX 360 wow, what an amazing open world, how much adventure and story line, and the ability to gain strength, magic, and speed how fun and engrossing. Then Skyrim came out and I was entranced into the Icy World of secrets.

When I heard Xbox One was coming out with Elder Scrolls i wanted to get the console immediately. However….
After learning that the system was $500.00 and there would be a monthly subscription fee. I lost that spark… why…well maybe because after the cell phone bils, extra insurance, cold callers, i feel fee’d out. I mean another monthly fee is not what I WANT. This is only my Opinion, but if you gave me a cool game similar to Skyrim with better Graphics. I WOULD BE HAPPY. But the fact when i buy a game i have to pay for monthly fees seems disappointing. I want the best bang for my buck. I work and sometimes take work home. I play at my convenience. Do you really want me to hurry to play… I don’t feel like it. I would rather not play and miss out on an adventure than feel pressured to pay and play at the end of the month. I know its about the best quality gaming experience but the DLC’s seem to be working fine.

In the end. I won’t be purchasing the exciting game. Yeah it won’t break the bank but i refuse to get into this per month play fee. When does it end…IT WON’T. Do the math $15.00 a month x 12 months. You will spend $180.00 for the year on a video game not including the $60.00 initial game purchase. $250.00 for the Game seems a bit steep guys.



On January 22, 2014 at 6:21 am

People keep saying they do not wish this to be f2p it is not f2p you have to buy the game for 60 dollars and then they milk ya for another 180 dollars a year- that would be 18 full priced DLC’ if bought them for 9.99 each and most would wait and buy them on sale or buy a GOTY. You guys try and make it sound like TESO is a free download and will pay 15 bucks a month for it or micro trans- nope wrong- you pay 60 straight up and then extra fees- It is not F2P……

People forget they are talking Beth here- Beth does not care to patch its games and in all honesty has some of the most poor mechanics of any games ever played or sold and if you was to get it fixed or get any help at all it all comes from the community and or mods- Beth puts out patches to add DLC’s is about it and Beth holds the record for most bug game on earth- Marrow Wind or one before it I can not remember which. Then take a look at other MP games Beth has put out and was bug and flop garbage Brink for one Rage and some more. I have friends that rented servers to have ranked Brink- less than 2 months later closed them down the game was so poor- typical beth garbage- period.

TES and FO3 and NV have some of the worst melee mechanics and gun play ever played- swing it takes 5 minutes for your character to react- so its hard to fight in real time- shooting any bow or gun is a joke- bots have a floaty movement about them its odd looking and the games are ugly and poor performance for being DX9 games and tho You/ I have a strong system it does not matter- and you need a degree and have to install 4 programs just to add mods- please.

Do not misunderstand- I do love FO3 and NV but I can not stand RPG games like TES or any others- but I do not like FO3 etc because they are great gameplay and fighting mechanics- No I like the combo genre the A-RPG and the large open world and lots to find and do and the great story behind the game is what it has going for it or for me. I have played free games and Indie games with better fighting mechanics and characters that move more natural looking and better graphics also- vs anything the Gamebroy engine Beth games.

We/ I asked Beth for a patch or DLC whatever to add co op to TES Skyrim and FO3 and NV so we could play the games or the wastelands with a bud- just 1 other friend to have fun with- We normally play these games alone and not just because they are great games but because we do not like mp or mmo and playing with a lot of jerks and fools and hack cheaters- and people cheat on consoles also- cheat stats and other things- so dont start that crap– but we ask for 2 player co op we got 200 players that will hack and cheat and act like asses and do not know what teamplay is and most will pirate or borrow his friends game or account- it will be 199 idiot hackers with bows and swords on pc and only 32 players and smaller maps on the next gen crap.. and will cost ya 240 bucks the first year and 180 or more each year after- I will pass..

You people need to stop saying it you are glad it is not a F2P model- it is not and never was- buying a game for 60 bucks is not free- and milking ya for an extra 15 a month is what it is- get it right.