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Should Elder Scrolls Online Be F2P?

Richard Aihoshi Posted:
Columns The Free Zone 0

As of last week, the identity of Zenimax Online's MMOG is finally out of the proverbial bag. Not that it was very difficult to guess. There were really only two possible IPs, both associated with sister studio Bethsoft. However, since the right to make Fallout Online has been at the center of a legal dispute with Interplay, which left The Elder Scrolls Online as the clear first choice. And the open world nature of the RPGs certainly seemed like a natural fit. So, probably like a great many others, I wasn't surprised in the least. 

Indeed, for quite a while now, because I felt safe assuming the project's identity, I've been more intrigued by the question of how it will be monetized. For what it's worth, I've never discussed this topic with anyone on or directly associated with the team, which leaves me free to speculate herein with no chance of betraying anything said to be in confidence.

If I had to bet right now, I'd put my money on subscription plus optional ways for players to spend more.

It seems pretty reasonable to think the game would sell a lot of copies at or soon after launch. Using a rounded approximation, if we say the publisher's net is $30 per unit, retailing a million would bring in $30 million, and it's certainly easy enough to imagine reaching a much higher quantity. That would be a lot of money to pass up by opting to go F2P, which is why I don't think the company will. That said, I'm not so sure it wouldn't be the better choice anyway.

The main reason is the simple fact that F2P is the larger and also the faster growing segment of the MMOG market. What's more, there are more and more indications that the proportion that will only play subscription offerings is both fairly small and shrinking. Admittedly, some of these people are quite vocal, but an individual who yells a lot and tries to make as much noise as five or 10 can is, in the end, still just one person. So, from a business perspective, opting for a mandatory monthly fee means aiming at a minority of the full potential audience. That's fine if you set out to have a niche product, but does anyone think Zenimax has its sights set at such a level?

Yes, there are many more titles in the space. But according to the naysayers, none are top quality. I'm not saying I agree with them, but for the sake of argument, if we take their point of view and also assume ESO will be a superior game, it would mean there's nothing truly able to compete with it. As well, if it is exceptional, how many people who currently swear they'll never try an F2P game will be able to resist trying it?

In addition, we might want to revisit the premise noted above about forgoing many millions in revenue from the first wave of retail sales. It would be pretty naive to think publishers aren't looking for other ways to get some, most or even all of that money out of your wallets and into theirs. I'm not in a position to divulge specifics about any game or company, but the monetization of MMOGs is changing. As I've said before, it's basically inevitable that we'll continue to see more possible ways to pay for our virtual adventures. And I have no doubt some will incorporate optional one-time, up-front payments that can be construed as replacing the retail price.

A potentially quite significant advantage associated with such approaches is the possibility of gaining a greater share of revenue than publishers receive in the current retail model.  Brick and mortar and online distribution both involve various costs and hassles that consumers may not be aware of, all on top of the retailers' margin. They can be very demanding about things like listing fees, advertising allowances, charges for placement particular locations, taking back unsold inventory and/or returned packages, etc. All of these eat into the publishers' net. Compared to selling an electronic copy, so does the cost of producing the physical product.

At first glance, it might seem like stepping outside these channels still risks financial suicide. But maybe it's not so unreasonable a gamble. After all, if you receive more per unit, you don't have to move as many. Depending on the difference in revenue share and the drop-off in sales, the result could even be increased profit. I'm inclined to guess the good folks at Zenimax perceive the balance as too speculative. But safer does have a tendency to correlate with lower upside potential.

To wrap up with a thought that may appear even farther out there, what if ESO were to come to market as both subscription and F2P? The two approaches are generally seen as mutually exclusive, but are they really?  Is it impossible to use either model, or does it just seem unlikely because it would require thinking outside both the retail box and the metaphorical one?


Richard Aihoshi

Richard Aihoshi / Richard Aihoshi has been writing about the MMOG industry since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. He has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.