Can The Elder Scrolls Online Survive With a Paid Subscription?


Yesterday, Bethesda Softworks announced that their upcoming MMO The Elder Scrolls Online will be using the highly questionable paid subscription model instead of the new standard free-to-play model. Will this franchise be able to succeed where others have fallen? The Daily Reaction crew of Sebastian Moss and Dan Oravasaari discuss.

Dan: With gamescom going on as we speak, it is difficult to stay up on all of the news, so if you haven’t heard, Zenimax has announced that The Elder Scrolls Online will be using the subscription model, and players will have to pay $15/month to wander around Tamriel.

Having seen so many major IPs abandon the paid subscription model after trying so hard to get it to succeed, only to eventually move over to the F2P model, it just seems weird for TESO to try and reintroduce it to the market. With the success of Skyrim and the previous games under the The Elder Scrolls moniker, it is easy to see the power of the franchise, but that still won’t guarantee its success.

Over the last decade we have seen the switch over to the free-to-play model, leading to the death of the subscription-only model in some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry. Star Wars: The Old Republic was set to be one of the biggest MMOs ever to launch, and was thought to even be the one franchise that could be capable of dethroning the legendary World of Warcraft that has single-handedly dominated the scene for years. Sadly, the launch of the game had a mixed reception forcing EA to add in a F2P option, making the game a hybrid of paid and micro-transactions.

The Lord of the Rings Online, a game that in 2010 the NPD Group called the ‘third most popular MMO’, have said that the F2P model was to thank for its growing install base – showing just how influential the new business model had become.

Now, with the PS4 and XBO are set to launch later this year, we are seeing numerous F2P games of various genres hitting the console space. The PS4 will have an unimaginable number of F2P games coming out at, or around, its launch, already setting to clutter up the market for anyone looking to start a subscription plan. Lucky for fans, but not so much for TESO, DC Universe Online, PlanetSide 2, Dust 514 and War Thunder, which are all MMOs of sorts, will be hitting the PS4 without any form of subscription – also not to mention the addition of the F2P shooters: Blacklight: Retribution and Warframe.

Simply looking at the market from that perspective, it is difficult to see why TESO would even have a shot in any space using the subscription model. Bigger IPs have tried and failed, the market is flooded with ‘freemium’ content and they will also be competing with people who are just playing free games with PlayStation Plus.

If we look at the most successful MMO of all time, World of Warcraft, it is odd to see that after all of these years it is still a big success while being able to use a paid subscription model. But, looking at a simple fact, we might be able to not only understand why the others have failed, but why TESO might succeed. Unlike the other franchises that were turned into games, Warcraft has always been a gaming platform, much like The Elder Scrolls, so it has proven itself to fans already. This idea that maybe it isn’t the strength of a powerful IP that matters, but the power it already has within the gaming demographic.

Seb: Yeah, it was a surprising announcement, that’s for sure, and I think this price model will really impact its success.

If any franchise can pull off charging people, it’s The Elder Scrolls. World of Warcraft peaked at 12 million subscribers (now 7 million), which is only slightly ahead of the 10 million sales of Skyrim.

Of course, Skyrim is singleplayer and only costs you once, but the RPG format lends itself perfectly to MMOs, which is why an impressive 3 million people have signed up for the beta. A significant number of people love the franchise’s universe and play style, and even more trust the brand.

With the PS4 and Xbox One focusing heavily on connected experiences, most next gen console users will have the internet speeds to play an MMO, and have a credit card linked to their digital account.

If all goes well, a few million people could sign up for the game, earning Zenimax a significant amount of cash in the long run. If all goes well.

The problem is, as Dan touched upon, there are a significant amount of hurdles to cross. First off, the game has to be really good to build up hype and retain users. Wood liked the game in our preview, but it’s important to note that this game is from a new developer, Zenimax Online Studios, rather than franchise creator Bethesda. This new team has to work on a truly massive game, as well as deal with all the usual problems of a multiplayer game.

And, even if the game is really good, and part of a strong IP, it’s not a guarantee of huge success. Guild Wars 1 sold around 7 million units, and its sequel, GW2, has so far ‘only’ sold 3 million, with an enviable Metacritic score of 90. And, even though Guild Wars 2 is F2P game after you buy the disc, the game’s peak concurrency is around 400,000 players.

The game will also need to keep its audience for years to be a true hit. Star Wars: The Old Republic, thought to be the costliest game ever developed, became the “fastest-growing MMO ever” with 1 million subscribers in three days… but soon began to hemorrhage fans, ultimately leading to the F2P move.

Next, there’s the problem of console subscriptions. Xbox users are already paying for XBL, PS4 gamers will soon all be paying for PS+, and multiconsole owners have to pay for both. Do they really want to add another subscription to that?

And then, of course, there are all the free MMOs that will take up their own share of the market, and be more appealing to price-conscious gamers.

Despite all these clear problems, I’m sure many publications will label this a ‘World of Warcraft Killer’, just like every other MMO as it nears release, but it won’t be (WoW will just die naturally).

What I predict, should the game get decent enough reviews, is a strong start, but a drop in the price of subscription relatively quickly, and a free-to-play capped version within the year. F2P has become the inevitable outcome of all MMOs, and, honestly, I think Zenimax knows this – they’re just trying to get extra money from the core fans via subscriptions while they can, before finally giving in.


2 thoughts on “Can The Elder Scrolls Online Survive With a Paid Subscription?

  1. It will need to be flipping good at release day and offer a lot of perks to stay or even start successful as a paid subscription. I liked Skyrim a lot, and felt that it was definitely missing the MMO to make it even more great. I guess it already has a heavy loyal fan base which would explain it’s confidence in announcing the paid subscription.

    • Remember the same thing happened to Star Wars, now it’s free to play as well. I think initial curiosity will pull people in, then the numbers will decline after a few weeks. I do not wish ill will against it, I really hope it succeeds, but the free to play model is unfortunately what gamers expect now from online MMO’s.

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