When Zenimax announced preorder details for The Elder Scrolls Online last week, response was clearly mixed. The upcoming subscription-based MMO has several tiers, just like most recent releases, each with its own perks. It was some of these perks, including the ability to play as Imperial in any faction and especially the Explorer's Pack, which lets you play any race in any alliance, which drew the most ire. But what do the reactions mean in the context of the community?
It's easy, but shortsighted, to dismiss reactions and opinions to announcements like this as “crying” and “whining”, when it's important to listen to why these reactions are the way they are. When people care about and support something, they want to feel like their support, word of mouth, and participation are rewarded. In the case of The Elder Scrolls Online, working from not just an existing IP but an existing game series, there's a sense of responsibility to the community that is different than even just an adaptation from a different source.
Let's get it out of the way: Zenimax (and Bethesda too) is a for-profit company and ESO is a product intended to make those profits. The game has to be marketed and sell and then be good enough to convince players it's worth the investment of their time and money after launch. Yet it isn't mutually exclusive to be loyal to your community and successful in marketing your product.
The Elder Scrolls Online is following the Nord-sized footsteps of a game that is currently sitting at #22 of the top selling games of all time: Skyrim. So there's a lot at stake trying to get both older and new fans into the MMORPG offering in the series. We're also going to see ESO released on consoles, broadening the potential audience. But a lot of fans that propelled the series forward are looking forward to ESO and have been spreading the word.
Obviously, marketing must be done to reel in the undecided players, so incentives are the norm. And while it's true that many preorder exclusives don't stay exclusive forever these days, with the rise of cash shops and DLC packages, that doesn't help those who want to wait for reviews and word of mouth to play the game.
People who express a preference for subscription games usually prefer the sub because of the idea that there's a level playing field and you get it all for one fee (not 'nickel and dimed' as some see cash shops). Moreover, letting the ability to bypass faction locks, something the devs said was necessary for the balance of the game, be a preorder incentive is problematic for several reasons. The faction race locking doesn't feel like Elder Scrolls (even if the rest of the game ultimately turns out to), and the community was repeatedly told it was necessary and that they would pretty much have to deal with it in the jump to an MMO. Friends would have to all limit themselves into the same alliance or just not play together. It's also locking away a feature that the fans, including the devoted die-hards, have been asking for for some time. Repeatedly, it was said that the locks would be in place.
But now, the Explorer's Pack brings the message of 'it can be done, but you have to pay first'. Sure, some places will let you preorder without being charged anything, and you can always cancel before the game ships. But that doesn't change the situation of the person that chooses to wait until the game has been released and get word of mouth. That person's choices, should he or she want to play with friends already in game (especially if those friends preordered), will be gimped.
Maybe there will be an option to buy the unlock (Imperial edition is already confirmed to be an available upgrade later). The issue is, from a community standpoint, after being told no multiple times, one of the most requested changes is on the other side of a financial transaction, when this should be part of the full experience promised with the announcement of the game's subscription.
There's plenty of attractive loot in the preorder tiers without tying access to all races in all factions to this necessity. It's a bit insulting to longterm fans that have supported the game, spread the word, and kept asking about free choice of races in alliances.
It's not reasonable to talk about boycotts or to get wildly angry about this decision, but honestly, I believe it was the wrong one. The community members that stood by and supported the game from the beginning are probably the ones most likely to have preordered anyway, so from that standpoint, they are still getting what they want. However, gating what turns out to be just a matter of an account unlock, that's where it gets murky. Will it be a separate item for sale at some point later? Many games' preorder “packs” have seen release as paid DLC a few months later. The question also emerges of just what a subscription today actually nets you. Should it net you everything outside of expansions? That's another full-fledged examination of its own, but that question is important to understanding why some people reacted the way that they did to the preorder news.
Many miss the days of subscription games being all-inclusive, and since this option requires no more work than flipping a virtual flag on an account, putting it behind a promo wall (with future access to players that bought the game later unknown), it seems a little on the excessive side. Sometimes doing right by your community is even more rewarding in the end. Ultimately, players will decide whether or not they are all in with preordering the game or even playing it, and life will go on.
Christina Gonzalez / Christina is a freelancer and contributor to MMORPG.com, where she writes the community-focused Social Hub column. You will also find her contributions at RTSGuru. Follow her on Twitter: @c_gonzalez