Recently, some players of The Elder Scrolls Online noticed that Zenimax had quietly removed the option to subscribe for six months at a time. Given the game’s somewhat rocky start and time spent since release revamping the game, as well as the upcoming console versions, naturally, the whispers began to swirl. Was the removal of the six-month option an indicator that the game would go free to play or even become a buy to play game? Let’s break down some of the possibilities.
The Elder Scrolls Online is no doubt undergoing a series of massive changes, and we got some more news on the long-delayed console versions recently. Update 6, which is hitting the PTS and expected to go live this month, will bring a series of changes, including the Justice system, Champion system, and Provisioning overhaul. These changes will arrive in phases, so while they will debut in the next content update, there will be some time before they are completely implemented, tested, and tweaked. The Champion system will even exist concurrently with the old VR system at first to ensure things go as planned. The console editions won’t launch until these systems are in place, which some peg as likely to happen six or so months from late December, when the subscription changes happened.
While that time frame does seem plausible, Zenimax hasn’t commented on a release window, and with an extended delay already ongoing, there’s little reason to do so before they’re about ready to ship. Console MMORPG releases are tricky, especially with a subscription price attached, but the more traditional MMOs that succeeded have been subscription games. Not counting newer releases like Destiny, designed with consoles in mind, games like Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV do maintain player bases on console. A recent report confirmed by Square-Enix puts the company’s combined number of console players at under a million combined across three games, but there’s profit happening.
Still, some have their doubts about the potential for double-dipping between console network fees and subscriptions. Final Fantasy XIV on PS4 doesn’t carry PSN fees. Players simply buy the game and pay a subscription. It’s unclear whether a similar arrangement would be in place for ESO when it launches on PS4 or Xbox One. That is a primary source of the guess that the game might be prepped for a free to play or buy to play launch in time for console release.
How likely is this? While nothing is impossible in the world of MMORPGs, The Elder Scrolls Online seems to be doing well in terms of player numbers from what indicators we have. While Zenimax hasn’t released official figures, the significant number of large updates, with consistent content, overhauls, and other blatant investments of time and money don’t look anything like a game that is struggling. All of the work being done on the game, if it were being done just to produce a buy to play game on consoles, with presumably, paid content updates like The Secret World (since the game’s structure is not really built for microtransactions), would seem a bit like shooting itself in the foot. Relying on subscriptions provides a more reliable revenue stream since a company knows just how much they will get in any given month.
Although the Secret World did go buy to play, there is still a subscription option available for the game, and the change in model was due to low player numbers. The Zenimax team, including Matt Firor, has been forthcoming with the mistakes made, and committed to investing in improvements. There hasn’t even been a trial for the game just yet. If a game were truly flagging, trials would seem like a logical step in getting people into the game. Signs seem to point to overall health.
It is possible that the game could launch with different revenue streams on different platforms. Given the server technology in place, and the reluctance of Microsoft to open its network to outside players, if the launches happen on consoles as planned, there could be two or three different player environments happening at once. Console players could conceivably get a buy to play, pay for updates version of the game, but that probably wouldn’t make PC players very happy. Some might question the importance of PC players after the first year, if console offers enough promise, and accuse the company of treating PC players as more like paid beta testers, another criticism levied at Zenimax.
Yet, given the numbers Square-Enix confirmed, and the fact that PC is still the most important platform for traditional MMORPGs, it doesn’t seem probable that Zenimax would suddenly throw its PC players under the bus, especially after all the requests for community feedback and subsequent improvements. Not to say that Square-Enix’ console numbers are the end-all for MMO goals (because they’re not), but they can teach us something about MMORPG player bases for conventional MMOs (and not something that operates under different parameters like, say, Destiny).
Overall, again, while nothing is impossible, despite the removal of the six month subscription option, based on what we know now, the rumors don’t seem to hold much water at the moment. Signs point to a solid player base, people planning to return after update 6 launches on live, and the game took the MMO face off right here on this site. Zenimax addressed the chatter about the missing 6-month sub option via its French forum, saying that most subscribers merely preferred shorter options.