Shut Up and Take My Money: Why ESO Should Charge a Subscription Fee

Surprisingly, a subscription fee may actually be the best business model for ESO

As Elder Scrolls Online inches towards release, the debate rages as to what its business model should be. Some support a free to play model, others promote a Guild Wars style “buy the box” model, and a few are even pushing for a subscription. Zenimax has released no information just yet as to what their plans are, so for now it’s up to us to speculate. Now, considering the amount of time and money that Zenimax has poured into ESO and its expected quality (a premium, AAA MMO) a subscription model seems likely. Que the sighs; but, believe it or not, a subscription fee could be a good thing for ESO.

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A common argument which many opponents of the subscription model present usually goes something like this: “a subscription fee would be a major turn off for potential customers, especially non-MMO players who aren’t used to paying a subscription, or for those who can’t afford it.” Now there is some validity to this argument. For the Elder Scrolls faithful who have never touched an MMO the concept of a subscription will be foreign and rather off-putting. However if we learned one thing from World of Warcraft (other than don’t stand in the fire) it was that people are willing to pay for quality. In fact they are willing to pay hand over fist for quality. When WoW was released, it rocked the MMO market and people happily paid a subscription, simply because WoW was the best.

There is a catch here. ESO needs to be good enough to justify a subscription. People are willing to pay for a good game, but if the quality doesn’t warrant fifteen bucks a month, they will drop it. Fast. SWTOR is living proof of that.   The MMO market has always been especially fickle. The consumers know what they want, and if they don’t get it they are merciless. If they do get it, however, they are willing to go to bat for the game, even monetarily. The bar has been set very high for ESO, but if it can deliver a truly premium, AAA game, they won’t need to worry about scaring people off with a subscription.

A Subscription Could Work

If ESO is everything it’s expected to be, but why not go for a “buy the box” model? Many cite Guild Wars’ successful business model as the perfect compromise between the subscription and free to play models. In fact the “buy the box” model does work…for a little while at least. The main problem with this system is that once you have purchased the game the company behind the game is basically done with you. Now of course the company continues to update and patch the game to keep its customers happy: if the players become dissatisfied then no new customers will buy the game. This trend continues on for a while but eventually the game peaks in popularity, followed by a decline in new sales. Since the company makes all of its money off of new sales there is no incentive to satisfy the existing players. Unlike the subscription model where the threat of losing subs constantly keeps developers on their toes, the “buy the box” model gives devs an excuse to be negligent.

As I stated earlier the “buy the box” model can work over short periods of time. As long as new players are flowing into the game this system works pretty well, and expansion packs can always be used to prolong the flow of new purchases. However if ESO wants to attain the longevity that WoW has it needs a more stable business model. WoW is ancient in video game years, approaching ten years old, and yet it still boasts 8 million+ players thanks to its sustainable business model. If ESO wants to stick around for a while it needs a subscription plan.

Finally there are the proponents of the increasingly popular free to play model. Recently Rift announced that it would be ditching its subscription fee for a pay to play model as of June 12th, marking the fall of yet another subscription MMO. It certainly seems like free to play is the way of the future, so why not apply it to ESO? The short answer is that free to play simply could not support a game of ESO’s caliber. The basic principle of free to play is that by opening the game up to more players, the chance of making money through micro-transactions etc. will increase.  A game in which only a portion of the players must financially support the entire game simply will not work for a premium game. While this model has been wildly successful for other games, the fact is that it simply cannot support a AAA title like ESO.    

“You Get What You Pay For”

Subscription fees are often vilified as bottom-less money pits, but in reality they can be beneficial for both game and player. As I stated earlier in the article, Zenimax has not yet announced its business model and so nobody knows exactly which plan ESO will use, but I for one believe that a subscription fee model is truly the best route for ESO to take. 


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