Updated Fri, Apr 12, 2013 by gunky
The Elder Scrolls Online is in closed beta testing right now, and though ZeniMax Online has been generous in their revelations about the game's setting and background lore, they have yet to address one of the most crucial issues about its impending launch: how will we be paying for it?
The question can really be applied to any Triple-A, big-budget title entering the MMO market. Back in the day, it was easy - charge ten or fifteen bucks a month and everyone's happy. But times are different now. The economy is still horrible enough that you can use it as an excuse for pretty much anything. And perhaps because of this, free-to-play is the new go-to financial model for new games. But not all F2P models are created equal, and big-name games have some options.
Game developers need their MMOs to earn money. That's a simple fact. If the game stops earning profit, it gets shut down. It stands to reason that a big, ambitious game like the Elder Scrolls Online will have ongoing maintenance costs proportionate to the scope of the game, and the size of its player base - in other words, quite high. The easiest way to meet those costs and turn a profit is to charge players a monthly fee.
This was the industry standard for years - an initial fee for a copy of the game, either digital or on physical media and in a fancy box with books and such, and a monthly access fee. Eventually, after an expansion or two, the original game might be offered for free download, though a subscription is still required to play it. But this method has fallen out of favor recently, and proven to be less economically viable than it had been in previous years. Except for Blizzard and CCP.
World of Warcraft and EVE Online continue to make this model work and have been using it since before most other games ever saw the light of day. But the fact is, not every game can be an industry titan like WoW or a niche-market champion like EVE. In fact, most of them can't. Most games, with their sky-high aspirations, strive to be the giant skyscrapers in Dubai or Kuala Lumpur. WoW and EVE are the Pyramids and the Parthenon.
The Elder Scrolls Online is not likely to launch as a subscription-only game. The failure of Star Wars: The Old Republic to make that model work for more than a few months serves as a warning: even massive IPs backed by enormous development budgets will need to look at other options for long-term sustainability. The fact that WoW and EVE (and an ever-diminishing cast of other characters) can continue to run as subscription-only titles is a testament to their longevity and large, dedicated player base, rather than to the viability of the financial model in a modern MMO market.