The Elder Scrolls Online is releasing sometime this year and Zenimax Online is still keeping hush about the game’s business model. This concerns me greatly. If you’ve followed my writing here at MMORPG.com, you’re probably familiar with the fact I am a fan of Star Wars: The Old Republic. Even so, I’ve always felt that EA was lagging well behind the new MMO landscape populated primarily by Free-to-Play titles with the insistence on keeping Star Wars: The Old Republic a purely subscription-based game.
What resulted for SWTOR should serve as a cautionary tale and one that I hope Zenimax Online is paying close attention to. In most cases, you only get one chance with the MMO gaming populace, and adjusting your business model after you’re already hemorrhaging subscriptions is probably not something you want to face. Like all of you, I honestly have no clue what Zenimax Online will ultimately settle on for The Elder Scrolls Online, but I do hope the new reality of the MMO genre is under consideration. Banking on your IP will work in the short term, as shown by SWTOR, but if any hesitation here is rooted in not wanting to devalue the Elder Scrolls IP by launching the game as a F2P title, I would suggest setting those concerns aside. The damage in stubbornly sticking to P2P will be much worse.
It really doesn’t matter how good The Elder Scrolls Online ends up being at launch. Subscriptions, even in their heyday, were always a losing proposition. For one, MMO game design suffered to keep paying players playing by padding out content and utilizing numerous arbitrary time sinks. But for the most part, players were willing to pay, as long as the game was good and could hold their attention. Back then every MMO developer out there was competing for your $15, but in today’s world, they’re really competing for your attention.
The barrier to entry is now so low and the number of options so high, that the notion of sustaining a subscription-based MMO in this day and age is even less likely than it was in the past. If my only option for playing your game is to shell out $15/month, what are the odds I’ll continue playing when there are so many quality F2P titles on the market, with more coming? In the past, I’d have to seriously consider where to spend my MMO time, since $15/month across a couple of titles would add up quite quickly. Today, checking out a new MMO or a massive update to an old MMO is as simple as logging in and downloading the game.
With all the love the Elder Scrolls series gets for its sandbox elements, they’re still ultimately content-based games. Most of the games in the series have had their lives extended by strong mod support from the community, but this isn’t likely to be the case for ESO (unless Zenimax Online has some UGC based features they are keeping under wraps), and so the game will live or die on its content. MMO gamers are notorious for devouring content faster than developers can create it and in this day and age those same players aren’t going to have as hard of a time justifying canceling their subscriptions once they’re done as they might have only a couple of years ago.
I’ve played The Elder Scrolls Online, and from my brief two-hour experience, I came away feeling positive about the game’s prospects. But it will all be for naught if The Elder Scrolls Online isn’t designed from the ground-up to support a Free-to-Play business model of some variety. It matters less whether or not it’s based on the B2P style of Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World, full-blown F2P, ‘Freemium’, or even something new. What you don’t want is to end up in the situation EA faced with SWTOR, where they recognized this new reality a little too late, only to spend the better part of a year redesigning aspects of the game to support F2P.
Read more of our ESO columns: