Grumpy Gamer: This Crow Has A Funky Aftertaste . . .
I'm man enough to admit when I'm wrong. It's not my favorite thing in the world, of course, but I will accept the fact that I've made a mistake. I will, however, continue to argue for the logic and reasoning behind these errors.
It turns out, against every prediction I made, that the Elder Scrolls Online will be launching as a subscription-only game. It was my estimate that it would launch as free-to-play or, more likely, buy-to-play. Those models made the most sense, for many reasons .
It was going to be launching on consoles, which don't often do separate-subscription games. Guild Wars 2 proved that a buy-to-play game with a cash shop was perfectly viable, and lots of other games seemed to be following that strategy. And every other Elder Scrolls game to date has been buy-to-play. So I stand by my reasoning, even though the outcome was apparently wrong.
Frankly, I was shocked and dismayed to read that ZeniMax Online was going with a subscription model. The logic behind the decision is more or less sound, but I fear that the conclusion they reached will be just as incorrect as mine.
This is what Matt Firor thinks F2P would mean for Elder Scrolls Online.
The idea behind going with a subscription, according to ESO director Matt Firor, is to finance future development and to keep monetization separate from the game experience. For example, instead of running into a dungeon and being told you have to spend money to be able to enter it, you will instead pay your monthly subscription and have access to 100% of everything.
That kind of thing will be a breath of fresh air after the aggressive marketing encountered in some F2P games. I'm sure a lot of us are tired of being urged to reach for our already-strained credit cards any time something new is added to our games.
I was less surprised when WildStar announced the same strategy. A better-WoW-in-space game, made by ex-Blizzard people, aimed at WoW's audience, might as well follow the same business model. This seemed like an appropriate move. Maybe not the smartest move - time will tell on that one - but appropriate. I may be alone in this belief - some of the comments on WildStar's YouTube channel are... not particularly kind.
The decision for ESO, however, feels like a left-field move. All signs seemed to be pointing elsewhere, and for new games without a very specific niche market or pre-existing subscriber base, a subscription-based game seems like a reckless gamble these days. Almost every MMO has converted to F2P/Freemium over the past few years, except for World of Warcraft and EVE. WoW is a lumbering RPG-asaurus Rex that is essentially too big to fail (yet...) and can still support a large base of subscribers as it has for the past 9 years. EVE has a stranglehold on a niche market, providing a game experience not really offered anywhere else, and can also support a subscription model because they have that corner of the market nailed down. ESO and WildStar are pushing a new product into an already-overflowing market, where the titans already hold sway.
Stepping out into that crowded field as with the old-fashioned Pay-to-Play subscription model is extraordinarily bold. Like, "charging a horde of bloodthirsty trolls armed with only a bent spork" type of bold.
Star Wars: the Old Republic should serve as a cautionary tale to all game developers. The Star Wars IP would seem to make for an unsinkable ship, and EA dumped several truckloads of money to make this particular unsinkable ship a luxury liner. But, as with happens with real unsinkable ships, SWTOR hit the iceberg of lack of endgame content, and it nearly sank. A hasty conversion to F2P was the.. lifeboat? No, lifeboats would have saved all the fleeing subscribers bailing out of the game after the first few months. Maybe F2P was a tugboat, dragging the nearly-empty husk back to the dock to get refitted. The metaphor runs thin here - anyway, the F2P conversion saved SWTOR's ass.
SWTOR had other issues that made the subscription model unsustainable, and some will argue that it isn't a "paragon of why P2P no-longer works." And they would be correct - it's not. But its failure to sustain the Pay-to-Play subscription model is definitely symptomatic of a much larger issue, because it happened basically everywhere. The reason we draw from this particular well so often is because SWTOR seemed basically too big to fail. But the quarter-billion-dollar development budget, the marketing might of EA, the wizardry of BioWare and the genius of the Star Wars intellectual property combined were not enough to prevent their record-breaking, best-selling, massive MMO from crashing and converting to F2P after less than a year.
ZeniMax wants to keep monetization separate from gameplay, unlike Perfect World who do exactly the opposite and wrangle you towards the cash shop every few seconds.
Is ZeniMax Online shooting itself in the foot, trying to use an outdated business model to sell their cutting-edge product? Are they going to be able to last out the "free month subscription with purchase" crowd? Is there going to be enough endgame to keep people satisfied enough to want to keep paying for the game after they've reached level cap? Or are they going to suffer the same fate as SWTOR, and be forced to shoehorn their game into an ill-fitting F2P conversion in order to keep the lights on?
I still think it was a wrong decision, and my forecast is grim. My predictions:
3 - 4 months after launch, the first major population drop-off when people hit level cap and get bored with endgame content. Provided, of course, that ZeniMax Online offers multi-month subscription blocks like everyone else, and offer a free month with purchase. If not, this could occur a lot sooner.
5 - 6 months after launch, steady declines in subscriptions necessitate staff layoffs. Thousands of players will drop their subscriptions in protest, as a misguided show of solidarity.
7 or so months after launch, the reduced staff has difficulty meeting pre-determined deadlines for content updates. Updates start getting pushed back and delayed. Thousands of players will drop their subscriptions out of frustration because they're bored of gear-grinding in the same dozen or so end-game dungeons or of getting serially ganked in ultra-unbalanced end-game PvP.
8-ish months after launch, there will be talk of F2P conversion. Thousands of players will drop their subscriptions in disgust, because those people who play F2P games only want to ruin everything for the good people.
9 months to a year after launch, it's time to crap or get off the pot. Lacking the incredible budget of EA, ZeniMax is going to need to be creative to fix things. They somehow cram their excellent, cutting-edge game into some cobbled-together F2P conversion with a half-ass VIP program for subscribers. Thousands of players drop their subscriptions in a fit of righteous, entitled anger because they've been playing "since beta" and shouldn't have to pay for the cash-shop horse or armor or whatever like these dirty new F2Pers.
18 months after launch, a more-refined F2P system revitalizes the game, numbers have never been higher, people are buying lore-breaking chainmail bikinis in record numbers. Most remaining subscribers drop their subscriptions due to redundancy.
I'm not hoping for these things to happen just so I can be right. I want these things to be wrong, and for ZeniMax to have a runaway success so they can keep making the awesome games I love. If things work out well for ZeniMax and their crazy backwards decision, and ESO somehow becomes a phenomenal success despite the ridiculous and outdated business model, I'll merrily eat my words. Again.
Personally, the worst part for me is the inevitable string of smug "told ya so!" posts on message boards, forums and elsewhere, from the (seemingly) delusional adherents to this outdated model who predicted it would be the only possible choice because they've mostly only been playing WoW and EVE for the past 5 years. I got into arguments about this with some of those people. Internet arguments, with pointless personal attacks, childish name-calling and everything. So here's me eating crow. And here's hoping that I have to do this again in Spring of 2015, a year after the game launches. I still think you're all wrong, but I hope I'm not right this time.