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
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.
Option A: Subscription-Only
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.
Tried And True - This method has been around for a
long time, and it has been known to work. For a while, anyway.
Built-in Customer Loyalty - Gamers who pay for game
time generally try to make that money count, and tend to take the game
Exclusivity - A monthly subscription discourages
casual players who will check out a game for a short while and then move
on to something newer and more shiny, without ever spending any money.
Outdated Model - The times, they are a-changin'. What
worked five years ago doesn't work so well anymore, unless you are
Blizzard or CCP.
Unsustainable - Even huge-budget Triple-A games have
a tough time sustaining this model. Star
Wars: The Old Republic is a good example - its
subscription-only model lasted less than a year.
Limited Market - Paying a subscription requires a
monthly income and a means of paying the monthly fee electronically.
Young people, who make up the majority of the game-playing public, often
don't have jobs or credit cards.
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.
Option B: Free-to-play
Free-to-play is not the dirty word it may once have been. Back in the
day, there were only a handful of sleazy, small-time F2P games with dodgy
cash shops selling pay-to-win items and disproportionately huge
populations of Asian gold-sellers. Then some forward-thinking Western
developers took that model and made it legitimate and respectable,
attaching it to big-name games. Converting flagging titles from a
subscription model to F2P has proven time and again to be a game-saver. It
worked well for Star Wars: the Old Republic, and even better for DC
Turbine's hybrid "freemium" model, used in Dungeons
& Dragons Online and the
Lord of the Rings Online, set a standard for the industry,
and would probably work really well in the Elder Scrolls Online. There is
an option for players to subscribe if they prefer, and subscribers gain
certain advantages over free-players (a monthly allowance of cash shop
currency, unlimited access to all game features, etc.), but players can
enjoy essentially the entire game for free. Dedicated players can also
earn cash shop currency through gameplay, usually through grinding for
achievements or running specific content over and over.
Cash shop items in these games tend to be cosmetics (outfits, skins for
mounts), convenience (XP buffs, consumables, stuff that can be earned
through extended gameplay) or character unlocks and upgrades. Items that
offer purchasers a particular advantage over other players are generally
considered taboo, but some games do offer "statted" items for direct
purchase through the cash shop. Some of the starships sold through the
C-Store in Star Trek Online,
for example, come pre-packaged with leveled weapons, but these ships are
not really any more powerful than the same-level ships earned through
Current Standard - This model has proven popular with
the gaming public and profitable for developers. Games that cannot
sustain a subscription-based model thrive when they convert to
free-to-play or "freemium."
Broad Market - Allowing access without requiring a
financial commitment allows players to play the game at their
convenience, without feeling like they need to make the most of their
subscription fee. And since so many players no longer spend all their
game time with just one title, players feel free to come and go as they
please, hopefully leaving some of their money behind.
Microtransactions - Players who don't want to spend
$10 or $15 a month for a subscription are often perfectly happy to spend
$5 a month in the cash shop for cool stuff. Some players will spend even
more than the cost of a subscription, a buck or two at a time, for the
cash shop items they feel add value to their game experience. And some
players (like me) will spend extra money in addition to their monthly
subscription for those must-have cosmetics and cool toys.
Nickel-and-Dime - Monetizing every tiny aspect of the
game can make the game feel cheap. Super-restricted UIs and a hundred
per-character unlockables can make the new-player F2P experience
Zero Accountability - Free-to-play can weaken a
game's community by making it easy for miscreants to create disposable
accounts for the sole purpose of causing trouble - trolling, griefing,
spamming and other such disruptive, selfish behaviors. These players
don't feel compelled to spend money on the game, and since their only
investment is the time taken to download the game client, they feel they
can get away with anything. When it stops being "fun," the jerk players
bail, having never spent a dime.
The Razor's Edge of Pay-to-Win - It's a very fine
line between cash shop items that offer convenience and items that
become mandatory for certain kinds of content. If a careful balance is
not struck and cash-shop items become a prerequisite for raiding, the
game becomes "pay to win" and players feel ripped off.
This is a much more likely option for the Elder Scrolls Online, but
Zenimax Online may take a different approach than Turbine, BioWare or
PerfectWorld. Sticking too closely to the established model risks coming
off as conventional and possibly cheap, and ESO likely needs to appear
innovative in all aspects. The competition in the F2P market is kind of
fierce, and all developers are constantly trying to find new ways to make
their microtransactions more lucrative than the next guy's.
Option C: Subscriptionless with Cash Shop
Also known as "Buy-to-Play" (B2P) or "the Guild
Wars 2 model." A copy of the game is initially purchased, and
there is no further financial commitment required. The initial box price
gives players full access to the game, and an in-game cash shop with
cosmetic and convenience items funds the maintenance and development teams.
Again, a fine line must be walked here. On the one hand, the developers
need to make players want to spend money in the cash shop by offering
lucrative items. On the other hand, loot boxes requiring a store-bought key
to open them are kind of annoying. There's no guarantee that they contain
anything worthwhile, and they can't be pawned to vendors like other trash
loot, but they accumulate quickly and take up precious inventory space.
Cash shop items tend to be fluff and convenience, plus nonessential
upgrades. Cosmetic outfits and accessories seem to sell fairly well, but not
all players care much about how their character looks. Convenience items
serve to eliminate tedium - for example, using a consumable to access a town
service out in the wilderness instead of having to run all the way back to a
town, or boosts to accelerate experience gain (or other, similar level-up
resources for PvP ranking or faction renown, etc.). Nonessential upgrades
include increased storage or carrying capacity and additional character
slots - you get more value from these upgrades if you play a lot, but most
players can probably get by with the default.
One and Done, Plus Bonus - Pay one upfront fee for the
whole thing, and the rest is all voluntary. A large number of players will
be happy to spend additional money to enhance their game experience in
some way, but no one feels compelled to.
Familiarity - A lot of players will be coming from the
Elder Scrolls series and not from a MMO background. The one-price
admission fee will be most familiar to them... as well as to ZeniMax,
which is breaking new ground with their first MMO.
Spikes and Dips - These games generate a spike of
income from the initial purchases, but this drops dramatically a few
months after launch. By then, pretty much anyone that will ever play the
game has bought it, and new players come in at a crawl.
That Fine Line - Again, there is a fine line between
"convenience" and "requirement." For example, the ability to buy extra
inventory space is great, but only if inventory space is not ridiculously
restricted without paid unlocks. And any game offering statted gear in a
cash shop will ultimately be accused of being Pay-to-Win, even if the gear
sucks compared to drops or quest rewards.
Guild Wars 2 challenged the dominant F2P "freemium" model and seems to be
doing very well, without so much as a single subscriber. This bodes well for
future games, but only if these future games have as much to offer as GW2
does. The Elder Scrolls Online looks like a serious contender as direct
competition for GW2, and adopting a similar financial model makes sense, in
While B2P and F2P/Freemium seem the most likely models for the Elder Scrolls
Online to follow, we won't know for sure what direction they will pick until
closer to the launch date when ZeniMax Online announces it. And of course,
there's always the possibility that the studio will come up with some kind
of new financial model. However it pans out, we'll be there, happily parting
ways with our money.
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