The Elder Scrolls Online Subscription Model: Will It Doom the MMO?

You'll have to pay to play Elder Scrolls Online. Will that pay off for Zenimax?

So now that we know The Elder Scrolls Online is choosing to ignore all the failed attempts by other game developers to make a paid-subscription MMO model work in recent years, what does this mean for the future of the game? Does ZeniMax Online Studios believe the game is superior to all the other doomed IPs and will be immune to the negative stigma that subscription-based games have these days?

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Maybe it will, but the perception is that subscription-based games are out of date, out of touch, and on their way out completely. So how will ESO be different to warrant a monthly fee?

The Elder Scrolls games are all about allowing the player to go where they want, be who they want, and do what they want. We feel that putting pay gates between the player and content at any point in game ruins that feeling of freedom, and just having one small monthly fee for 100% access to the game fits the IP and the game much better than a system where you have to pay for features and access as you play. The Elder Scrolls Online was designed and developed to be a premium experience: hundreds of hours of gameplay, tons of depth and features, professional customer support – and a commitment to have ongoing content at regular intervals after launch. This type of experience is best paired with a one-time fee per month, as opposed to many smaller payments that would probably add up to more than $14.99/month any way.”

It shows an incredible amount of confidence in the product for General Manager Matt Firor to come out and say they will be using a $15/month plan, without also adding in a free-to-play version.

In today’s MMO environment, a hybrid model may have been a better choice, giving players the ability to subscribe to access premium content, or play for free to try it out and decide whether or not it’s worth subscribing to; or at the very least, drop some cash at the in-game store. Half of ESO’s potential player base is coming from the single-player Elder Scrolls camp, many of whom have never even played an MMO. The other half are MMO veterans, many of whom are tired of paying for, and subsequently quitting, games that simply repeat the same old formula. So ZeniMax better nail this game, or they could be in trouble.

I won’t pretend to be an MMO expert with knowledge of how the business works. I have paid to play some MMOs over the years (World of Warcraft for a brief time, Star Wars: The Old Republic for a while, and am currently playing Rift under a three-month subscription plan to try it out), but I have never fallen in love with the games enough to warrant paying a monthly fee for very long.

I am a massive Elder Scrolls fan, however, so the idea of an online version of the game really excites me, but I’m still not sure I want to pay for it monthly. Especially if I have to buy the game at full price up front, rather than being able to access the game for free as long as I sign up for a subscription.

I’m not saying I won’t buy this game. I’ll buy the heck out of it. But whether or not I spend years playing it will come down to how fun the game is for the single player (I’m looking to play this game for the massive open-world single player experience, not to raid), how much there is to do once I reach max level without getting repetitive, and whether or not I feel all of this justifies paying for it every month.

I’ve put well over 300 hours into Skyrim and over 500 into Oblivion and am not bored yet, so I have a lot of confidence ESO will be similar. But that truly is the key for me, and players like me. Players who love the Elder Scrolls for being an engrossing single player experience. Players who don’t necessarily want to be part of large groups, but rather enjoy feeling like they truly are the lone hero who can save Tamriel. That’s what made Skyrim so special. I was the Dovahkiin, there was no other (except in the Dragonborn expansion). If I didn’t save the world, no one would.

But in Elder Scrolls Online, that is not the case, and it’s completely obvious when you see multiple players running around on the screen. It’s hard to pretend like the fate of the world rests on my shoulders.

I was the hero in Skyrim. Tamriel’s fate was decided based on my actions, and I absolutely loved it. But I sometimes wonder if I’d still be playing Skyrim if I had to pay for it every month. And that’s the question I hope ZeniMax has thought through very carefully. If Elder Scrolls Online is not the long-prophesied “WoW Killer,” then it is indeed headed down a dark, treacherous path by taking on a subscription-based model.

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Brian Armstrong
Proud gamer parent and freelance journalist (and fundraiser). I cover anything and everything that's interesting about the gaming industry, and even some stuff that isn't so interesting.