In a move that left the entire online gaming community gasping for breath - after all our breath was spent on a mighty chorus of "CALLED IT!"- Bethesda Softworks announced that they would be relaunching The Elder Scrolls Online as a "Buy-To-Play," subscriptionless version called The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited. The announcement was accompanied with the final chapter of the adventures of the Tamriel Super-Frenemies, which continues to bear almost no resemblance whatsoever to actual gameplay, and a Twitch.tv livestream discussion. Both of these items were uploaded as a package to YouTube (which is great for me because I loathe Twitch.tv), so watch them together here:
The shocking highly anticipated thoroughly predicted changeover is scheduled to hit the PC/Mac version on March 17, with the console version set to finally launch June 9.
This is, as expected by many, a hybrid of the buy-once model of Guild Wars 2, plus Free-to-Play staples like an in-game cash shop (called the "Crown Store") offering "convenience and customization" items, with an option to pay a monthly sub for premium membership ("ESO Plus") which gives a monthly allowance of cash-shop currency. The team is adamant that they are "totally not Free-To-Play, no way no how!", but at this point it's a matter of semantics. I bought a digital copy of SWTOR when it came out, and I bought a retail box copy of LotRO back in the day, and those are both F2P now. If you're a habitual early adopter like me, the distinction they paint by steadfast denial that they are going "F2P" rings a little false. "A rose by any other name," as they say.
To their credit, Bethesda managed to keep the subscription ball rolling 2 months longer than Star Wars: the Old Republic did. That game switched gears after only 9 months, and ESO managed to stay afloat for over 11 months, despite the nearly universal understanding that the subscription-only model would have to go at some point, no matter how ardently Matt Firor defended it. He seems to have changed his tune lately, though:
“Our fans are our biggest inspiration, and we’ve listened to their feedback on the entertainment experience they want,” said Matt Firor, Game Director of The Elder Scrolls Online. “We know that Elder Scrolls fans want choice when it comes to how they play and how they pay, and that is what they will get. We have made numerous changes to the game over the past year, and are confident this is a game that Elder Scrolls fans will love to play. Players can explore Tamriel with friends, battle creatures, craft, fish, steal, or siege. The choice is theirs. The game offers hundreds of hours of gameplay with unlimited adventures with one single game purchase. We can’t wait for everyone, whether they’ve played before or will be experiencing it for the first time, to begin adventuring in The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited."
That's a bit of a 90-degree switch from his pre-launch stance when he informed us all that what players wanted, more than anything, was Perfect Freedom, and the only way to achieve such Perfect Freedom was to charge them 15 bucks a month so they could get all the game at once.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not calling Matt Firor a hypocrite or a liar. In fact, I find his current stance totally consistent with what he said in 2013 - just coming from a different direction. Players had their Perfect Freedom for almost a year now, and got bored with it. Now what the players want more than Perfect Freedom is Ultimate Choice. The change in direction reflects the path the game has taken according to the Perfect Freedom of the players who have been playing it. And all along, they've been steering the ship towards their Ultimate Choice, which is apparently B2P with F2P's cash shop and "VIP" monthly subscription option.
Fans, critics and irresponsible journalists - all of which terms describe me fairly well - have been speculating about the game going Free-to-Play (or F2P with an upfront box price) since long before the game ever went live. It has always been the only model that makes sense for multi-platform titles - PS4 and XBOne players must already pay a service subscription fee to play online games, and tacking on another sub fee on top of that is like double-dipping. Of course, the company doesn't want to just give away a potential bestseller game, either, so a one-time box fee is the logical way to go - they can sell a bajillion copies to the dumb Konsole Kidz now that they've milked the PC Master Race for all they're worth, and earn trickle-in money from MTA's and the handful of "ESO Plus" monthly memberships they will sell.
In April 2013, I inaccurately predicted that the most likely scenario at launch would be B2P or F2P/Freemium, and that subscription-only was totally insane and unworkable in a modern MMO market. 5 months later, in August, I ate crow and admitted my error in judgement when they went ahead and launched as sub-only anyway, but I snuck in another prediction that the game would go subscriptionless by Spring 2015. I reckon I get a half-point for that - March 17 is like 4 days before the first day of Spring.
Man... I was a mean sonofabitch back in 2013. Time sure has mellowed me.
Meanwhile, the dev team is asking the players what we want in the Crown Store. Here's my personal wish list Top 5:
1) Wacky Cosmetics. Hawaiian shirts, ridiculously over-sized anime swords, Christmas-themed crap all year 'round, cross-themed Vault Boy bobblehead decorations, backpacks shaped like electric guitars, steampunk cyber-vampire tophats and monocles and other lore-betraying items. If we're going to have stuff magically appear in our bags, it might as well shatter the lore as much as it breaks the immersion. It would also make the game a little bit more like the previous Elder Scrolls games running a ton of NexusMods mods.
2) Sparkleponies. Sparkleponies everywhere. No game can ever have enough sparkleponies. Ooooo, better yet: sparkledragon mounts.
3) Pay-To-Win God items, because being God is a matter of convenience to me, and it's the only way I will ever enjoy PvP in any game.
4) H1Z1-style Air Drops, so all the sucktards and jackasses can kill one another for Hawaiian shirts and sparkleponies on the off-chance of scoring someone else's God item. Because screw everyone, that's why. These should be in every game.
5) Unlocks for more inventory space. Seriously, I run out of inventory space a lot, and would totally buy more bag room.
The big question now is, will the conversion to the new system redeem the game or condemn it? The mid-stream F2P switcheroo has saved the collective asses of many a MMO. I would argue that some games got way better after the switch, with SWTOR being a prime example of that. That game nearly imploded within its first half-year of operation, but has gone on to release two paid expansions (both of them quite good) and numerous massive content updates since reinventing itself as F2P. It's almost Dark Side/Light Side how much better the game is now than what it was before F2P. And I believe ESO has the potential to do the same.
ESO has arguably a much stronger foundation upon which to build - the base game is a lot more capable and open-ended, isn't constrained by expensive storytelling gimmicks and looks 50 times better than SWTOR has ever looked. SWTOR has done a lot with their tech, so who knows how far Bethesda can push their superior system.
So now that it's official, what do you think? Is B2P going to save or kill the game? What's on your Crown Store wishlist? Sound off in the comments!
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