So here we are, as reported earlier, The Elder Scrolls Online will be rebranded as he Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited as of March 17th on PC, with the console versions released in June under the same format. Buying the game will allow access to the full content released before the rebranding, and “downloadable content” will be included with the now optional subscription. There will also be a cash shop with customization and convenience items (I’m sure the arguments over what these will possibly be have already commenced somewhere). Yet the news both comes as both a mild surprise and not a surprise at all.
First of all, when breaking down the recent rumors, I thought there would still be some significant time left in the subscription-only life of ESO since the game seemed to still be growing and major investments had been made into its improvement and development of the console options. With games running on consoles like Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn with a subscription, it did seem like Zenimax would be giving it a try. Given that the console FAQ regarding subscriptions on the ESO website was updated on January 9th and still maintained that a subscription would be required, it seemed to uphold the notion that there would be a subscription-based launch. I suspect that Microsoft’s unwillingness to open its network as well as tack subscriptions onto content above Xbox Live was probably a key factor here.
I didn’t think that Zenimax would toss its PC players under the bus, so to speak, using the money earned from being subscription-only for some time to fund development and then make it all optional for console release. That is now known to be wrong, and PC players, if they’re going to be angry at feeling like they paid for an ongoing beta, are justified in doing so. I expected trials for the game to happen first, after update 6 was pushed to the live servers. Zenimax has never revealed official numbers for subscriptions, but things seemed to be going well. The game will still have a subscription available for those who still want the full platter of options, including what’s likely to be TSW-like major updates as for-sale DLC. With it still unknown which items or options will be locked away in exchange for the new Crowns currency, judging how much better a subscription might be isn’t completely doable just yet. It seems a safe bet to believe that if you want the game’s subsequent content updates, then a subscription or piecemeal DLC purchases will be there. Cosmetic items aren’t a worry, but convenience items might rustle some players, depending what they are (bank space?).
Yet the bright side in all of this will be that those who had been on the fence will be able to try the game for the first time or to give it another shot after the improvements they might have heard about. Subscriptions are gates, so a trial might have helped in this regard, but many players do feel like some form of unlimited option is better for people to get a genuine feel for what the game has to offer. Various games have offered limited, level-based trials, like WoW, or offered the core story and basic character slots for free, like Star Wars: The Old Republic. SWTOR is also an interesting case since its first expansion content, Rise of the Hutt Cartel, cost $10. Later, second expansion Galactic Strongholds was made available in three tiers - subscribers, then preferred level, then for free accounts. The latest release, Shadow of Revan was also released in tiers, with subscribers getting early access. The Secret World’s issues are released to the shop and subscribers have the option of using the coins from their monthly allotments to pay for them, or players can pay for them with real money. There’s no indication which direction ESO will go just yet, but TSW’s model seems likely.
This flexibility in letting players approach the game without a time limit seems to be a focus in calling the new iteration “Unlimited”, but there will be limits once new content becomes available. And questions remain. Will ESO keep up such a regular and packed update schedule once the number of subscribers takes a probable hit? Subscriptions will be available as ESO Plus, with an allotment of Crowns cash shop currency as well as access to DLC. They will be offered in 30-day, 90-day, and 6-month options (so much for that six month option disappearing), so these should help Zenimax know just how much money it can expect for access to the game from these subscribers for those periods of time. Letting go of a steady, but limited income stream in order to open the doors to new audiences is nothing new, but for ESO it comes with some questions and some surprise.
Yet my hope is that whatever remains of bad impressions and ill will from the mistakes of the game’s launch, the game will find some new players who might not have given it a try before. I know multiple people turned off by the game in its initial form, and who refused to hear my tales of widespread improvements as anything but convincing. June’s console release sales figures should be a very important indicator to keep our attention on, in order to see how this gamble will work out for ESO. So while there was some surprise here, I also do think this is an unprecedented move after all. Lots of people don’t want to pay for access to software they can’t play otherwise. I only hope updates will remain regular, rich, and that despite a few lingering issues, the impressions that last won’t be from the launch of what was, in many ways, a different game back in April.