I’m happy that The Elder Scrolls Online will be subscription based, even though I know this might be the most unpopular opinion piece I’ve written since my decision to leave Call of Duty behind a few years back but stick with me on this one.
Free to play games are tricky beasts, no matter what assertions are given you often feel like there’s something just out of reach. It’s not uncommon to see severely limited character slots, curtailed XP gains and limited back / bank space (also the less said about lockboxes the better). But with a subscription based game, there are no shackles preventing you from experiencing the game in it’s entirety. This doesn’t mean that all F2P games are bad, in fact there are a few out there that are considerably better than subscription based titles.
Putting aside user experience for a moment one of the reasons I feel subscriptions still have a place in modern MMO gaming is because continuous development is key. Far too many MMOs have shuttered after a few years which for a genre built on building communities and living worlds is very very sad. With the exception of community based projects to keep a few servers going, very few of us who have devoted thousands of hours to these games will ever be able to share that experience with others again.
People still point to Star Wars: The Old Republic as the shining example of the death of subscription gaming. I might add that many of these same individuals may have a) Quit before the early patches b) Only returned to the game after F2P and noticed lower populations than at launch C) Never played the game at all. I say many, not all of course as there are people I associate with who hold on to this notion and I respect their opinions. However, I still play SWTOR and I subscribe. When I look around the fleet or higher level planets I see more subscribed players than I have since the first 2 months post-launch and people are enjoying the game. SWTOR failed to reach it’s potential, not because of a subscription model but because of Bioware’s misunderstanding of the hardcore MMO fan attitude. many rushed to level cap and wanted to begin the end game content immediately which of course was severely lacking at the time. Bioware’s response boiled down to “Make an alt, we’ve developed a great story for each class”. People equated that fundamental flaw with the assertion that subscriptions are dead which is not true for us all.
Subs power continual development; SWTOR’s update schedule is pretty damn ferocious, with new flashpoints, raids and events being added at an unprecedented rate. It’s important to remember that their subscription numbers never dropped below 500k and actually increased significantly after the F2P option was added; a move that gained them 2 million additional players on top of the original 1.5m who have passed through the doors. When I ask myself whether they would be able to fund developments like they have without a sub model, I say no.
For me It’s a simple matter of maths. Let’s take The Secret World for example. A game that was a spectacular failure; despite EA backing and major ad campaigns their initial sales after 3 months globally totalled 200k. Here’s a purelly speculative calculation looking at what would have happened financially after 60 days if they same engagement numbers happened using their actual launch method vs something like Neverwinter’s founder’s pack.
200k Game purchases @ £39.99 = £7,999,800
100k Subs (assuming 50% redemption after 1 month) @£8.99 = £899,000
Total income = £8,898,800
200k Intro packs @£40 = 8,000,000
200k additional microtransactions avg cost £5.99 = £1,198,000
Total Income = £9,198,000
This would lead people to believe that F2P will make more money initially but if we assume 60% of the income generated from the first 60 days covers the initial development costs, licenses, distribution rights it takes an enormous bite out of available funds. The fluid nature of microtransactions and the desirability of “must have” items means the income is far from guaranteed. A game with what appears to be a “low” number of subscriptions could still generate a higher amount of regular income.
So how does that apply to The Elder Scrolls Online; Zenimax Onnline Studios is an entirely new division with a large number of new hires, new offices and equipment. Before a single line of code was written a significant amount of cost was generated. Add to that the reputation of the Elder Scrolls brand meaning a certain level of quality and attention was needed it wouldn’t be a surprise to hear that ESO was the most expensive MMO ever made. After their Quakecon video it’s hard to dispute the claims that The Elder Scrolls Online is a triple A title:
If Zenimax Online has spent an enormous amount of money, to bring you the game we’ve all been asking for (admit it, all of you wanted an Elder Scrolls game that was at least multiplayer) what right does anyone have to demand free access to it? MMOs need new content added regularly, modifications to gameplay, nerfs, boosts and thousands of hours of attention. If this game was not subscription based, could you really say that in 10 years time you’ll still be playing? World of Warcraft is not dying and nothing will legitimately claim the title of WoW killer, but I want something that I can look back on and to talk about in the same way. Neverwinter, Age of Wushu, Aion & Tera to me will not be active in a decade whilst Rift and SWTOR might. Give ESO at least two years of your time and money and we might have something we can treat with some level of benign nostalgia. Whilst we’re also playing WoW 2 and Project Titan naturally.
I’m not trying to tell you that ESO is a game that is so good you’ll put ten years of your own money into (even though I think that it is) but what I want, is an MMO with permanence. Remember, Eve Online is still sub based and has one of the strongest communities in gaming; they only exist because CCP has enough income to support the game and continue to evolve. Give ESO that chance.
Whist you’re at it, give Wildstar the same opportunity.