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The Free Zone: TESO - The Post-E3 Rumor Mill

Column By Richard Aihoshi on June 24, 2014

With the latest iteration of the US trade event having come and gone, it was natural to expect the bump in volume of rumors that has followed. For various reasons, it doesn't seem as pronounced as it once was. Nonetheless, it's still an annual rite. This time, The Elder Scrolls Online has been front and center.

I can't help but feel this has been pushed if not prompted by the reports that surfaced a couple of weeks ago about as many as 300 customer service staff being let go from ZeniMax Online's Irish office, supposedly leaving only 100. At time of writing, this doesn't appear to have been confirmed. However, if these figures are accurate or even in the ballpark, they clearly don't portend well for TESO's prospects. Be warned though that I have no solid basis either to vouch for or to deny any of the speculation discussed below.

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The free to play conversion timetable being moved up

This is kind of a two for one since it assumes a fact not in evidence, namely that the studio already has some form of plan and timetable to change the revenue model for its still-new offering. For whatever it may be worth, I stated my opinion at the end last year that the over-under line for this switch was two years from launch. However, I have yet to see any meaningful indications it will convert at all, never mind within this time frame.


At the moment, my best guess is that there's no realistic probability such a shift will happen before next spring at the very earliest. The key reason is that switching before then would mean forgoing revenue from box sales of the PS4 and Xbox One versions. They won't be available until at least late this year. Even without further delays, I doubt the game would move to F2P without waiting a while after that, say a minimum of a few months.

The console versions will flop

While it's impossible to be certain without hard sales data, it does seem more likely that the PC version of TESO has under- rather than over-performed at the checkout counter. As a possibly significant indicator, I don't recall seeing it on the NPD Group's US top 10 best selling video games list for April or May. Even though it's just on one platform, I'm still curious that the usual initial surge of purchases wasn't enough for it to rank high enough to appear in either month.

If we add this to the first rumor, it becomes pretty easy to concoct an uninspiring if not gloomy outlook for the PS4 and Xbox One ports. There were already sizable questions as to how willing the single-player franchise's devotees would be to accept not only an ongoing monthly fee but also an MMO adaptation. In the latter regard, I can't help but remember The Sims Online. It floundered despite the huge popularity of its solo IP. The primary reason was very dissimilar gameplay. This isn't a console example or recent, but I nonetheless wonder if TESO's is close enough to satisfy expectations that users have derived from Skyrim and its predecessors.

What's more, the reviews to date certainly haven't tended to sparkle. There's also no reason to feel this will improve significantly over the coming months. While the extent to which PC scores impact console gamers is questionable, it does seem like a stretch to think that six months from now, huge legions of them will have the impression TESO is a title they absolutely must play.

The game will introduce separate F2P servers

For the same reason I don't foresee the subscription model being supplanted for at least another nine to 12 months, it seems unlikely this rumor will come true for a while either. That said, maybe it's not such a bad idea. Although few titles have adopted this approach, it wouldn't be completely unprecedented. Whether it would be preferable to going F2P with a monthly payment option is, I suspect, mainly a matter of personal preference. 

Personally, I'm neither for nor against the concept. As a long-time industry observer however, I'd be pretty interested to see how it would work for a title of this stature. Indeed, there's even a part of me that wonders about the viability of offering three types of servers. One would be limited to just monthly fee players, with the others being F2P-only and mixed.

Impending major downsizing of the team

This one is unsurprising. Any studio is likely to staff up for the later stages of development, and it's difficult to have enough work post-launch to keep everyone busy. So, at that time or soon after, it's fairly normal to transfer people to other projects when possible and/or to let some go. In this instance, I'd guess that if a big one-shot layoff  happens, it won't be until the console versions are either closer or ready to ship.

Closing queries

Does TESO provide an online experience that's familiar enough to satisfy console gamers, especially those who aren't serious about MMOGs and whose expectations for the IP have been shaped by the single-player RPGs?

How probable is a shift to F2P, and how soon do you think it's likely to happen?

Should ZeniMax Online have delayed launching for the PC in order to have a simultaneous release across platforms?

Does the studio have another MMOG far enough along in development to require sufficient staff to avert a large-scale layoff?


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The Free Zone
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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