Can Elder Scrolls Online Succeed as a Subscription MMO?

By Jeff Francis
elder scrolls online subscription

The eager anticipation that was building for Elder Scrolls Online has recently taken a hit. At gamescom, Zenimax Online and Bethesda announced that the upcoming mmorpg would be charging a fifteen dollar a month subscription fee for its players. This announcement took many players by surprise as the trend in online games has been increasingly free-to-play with many subscription-based games ditching the subscription fee and going the f2p route. It appears that Bethesda has decided to buck that trend, which beggars the question - can Elder Scrolls Online succeed as a subscription mmo?

The answer to such a question is nebulous. The announcement that Elder Scrolls Online was going to be a subscription mmo has caused an ongoing battle of words amongst gamers. On one side are those who have become comfortable with the f2p model, and on the other side, you have gamers who only play subscription-based games and view f2p games as money pits or pay-to-win. As for Elder Scrolls Online, it is possible for it to succeed with a subscription model, but the odds are stacked against it.

Elder Scrolls Online subscription

On the plus side, the Elder Scrolls franchise has a tremendous following that has increased dramatically over the years. The franchise recently enjoyed incredible success with Skyrim and its subsequent DLCs. Players love the open world aspect of the games as well as the classless system that Bethesda had created. Gamers wanted to see an online game of  the Elder Scrolls, and the expectations are the game extremely high.

The biggest factor if Elder Scrolls Online could be successful as a subscription game is if they capture the joyous gameplay of the single-player games with all the attendant details that the players loved. If Bethesda delivers an immersive, unique experience that feels like the Elder Scrolls, then I think the game could succeed with a monthly subscription fee. It also has to deliver timely new content for players to enjoy on a regular basis. The game's director, Matt Firor, has said that the game will release new content every four to six weeks, which will work in the game's favor.

There are some obstacles in the way for Elder Scrolls Online to continue charging a subscription fee. The first is that of the player's experience. Single-player games are immersive because everything in the game is centered upon the player. When you're playing in mmo games, the focus shifts from the individual player to the community as a whole. You could spend hours exploring a dangerous catacomb and be fully engrossed, only to have the mood shattered as another player runs his character, named "IsmellButtz", into your path and begins dancing obnoxiously. Don't forget about chat as idiots freely spout insults to one another as you hang out in hubs. Barrens-style chat doesn't help one become immersed in the world of Tamriel.

Elder Scrolls Online subscription

Another factor that could hurt Elder Scrolls Online with subscriptions is how the gameplay will differ from the single-player games. While games such as Skyrim were classless, Bethesda took a more conventional route with ESO. The online game forces players to choose a specific class, which locks players into a more rigid role than they're used to in the franchise's games. Personally, I find this a major factor as I loved the classless aspect and was looking forward to playing an online game where I could create my own unique character. The fact that Bethesda is choosing some more traditional mmo features hurts it in another way. There is a lot of competition out there for fantasy mmos and World of Warcraft stands as the one big game with a subscription fee. If the final gameplay of ESO doesn't truly differentiate it from the mob of f2p fantasy games, then you'll see players leaving the game in droves, just as it occurred in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Economic factors are also important considerations. People have less money to spend today and paying a monthly subscription fee on top of the game's purchase price might push it out of reach of some. There is also the competition  from other f2p games, which can offer a cheaper alternative. Finally, some players will bristle at paying two fees for Elder Scrolls Online. While PC users have no worries, Xbox players still have to pay the roughly $5 a month Xbox Live subscription to access the game. Bethesda is negotiating with Microsoft to drop the fee, but that isn't a likely scenario.

All in all, the long term chances of Elder Scrolls Online succeeding as a subscription game is dicey. The industry has changed dramatically in the last few years and the stigma of f2p games has mostly worn off. The recent history of subscription-based games is rocky with games such as RIFT, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and The Secret World all going free-to-play recently. If ESO can deliver on a gameplay experience that is unique and truly feels like the Elder Scrolls games, then it could stay afloat as a subscription game. However, if it feels similar to other mmo games, then it will most likely follow the path of the above-mentioned games and go f2p within a year's time.

Sep162013

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