Elder Scrolls Online – debates over the subscription fee

By Teo Borconi – 10th January 2014
Elder Scrolls Online – debates over the subscription fee

There has been an increasing amount of speculation about the financial aspects of the Elder Scrolls Online. The upcoming MMORPG from Bethesda, set in the Elder Scrolls universe will definitely have a subscription-based model, at least at launch. Given that the standard monthly fee for a newly released MMO revolves around the $15 mark, and that the game itself will probably cost around $50-60, this means that players will be paying around $200-220 a year in order to play the game, depending on discounts and retailers.


Paul Tassi, an editor and contributor for Forbes’ online platform recently published a long and elaborate article, in which he forecasts a huge financial flop in the Elder Scrolls Online. His main arguments seem to be focused on the fact that the game cost a whooping $200 million to develop, that the general pay-to-play model for MMORPG’s is dying out, and cited the recent financial flop of Star Wars: The Old Republic as a prime example of what he means.

My feelings about the SWTOR comparison are mixed. Yes, it’s true that the Bioware/EA MMORPG was never the success it was hoping to be. SWTOR cost somewhere around $300 million to produce, and shortly after the launch of the game, a quick and abrupt drop in subscribers could be noticed. It didn’t take long for The Old Republic to go free-to-play, and while the game is still running (and receiving expansion packs and updates), it’s definitely not a financial hit. Will ESO share the same fate? It’s hard to predict, and while Paul Tassi seems to think so, I’m not entirely convinced. I’ve played SWTOR at launch, and frankly, for the first 2 or 3 months, I actually loved the game. The subscription model didn’t bother me too much – granted, I’ve been playing MMORPG’s since Asheron’s Call, and had paid for subscriptions for a long time (Anarchy Online, Dark Age of Camelot, etc.), so I was more used to a subscription based model than a F2P model anyway.


The problem of SWTOR wasn’t necessarily in the price tag that accompanied the game, but rather the fact that it lacked end-game content in general. It took only a few weeks to get your character to the highest level and grab the best possible gear, and since the PvP was fairly repetitive, it didn’t take long for players to be bored with it. Paying $15 a month doesn’t seem justified anymore, if you have no real motivation to log in anyway. And that’s where I feel SWTOR failed. It had great story and voice acting, and it was set in an extremely popular universe (there’s no shortage of Star Wars fans out there), yet it just couldn’t keep interest levels high for most players. Making The Old Republic F2P and implementing the Cartel Market was the only solution left for Bioware to somewhat cover it’s losses.


In comparison, Elder Scrolls Online might or might not share the same fate. PvP in ESO seems to be more complex and engaging, but there is also a lot of criticism for the game, based on beta-tester feedback. It’s also important to mention that Skyrim was a huge success and created a huge fan-base, but many of these fans are completely turned away by the MMO tag, as well as the subscription fee. Keep in mind that Skyrim had no multiplayer, so its targeted audience was entirely different than what an MMORPG normally goes for. 

Goblinwork’s CEO Ryan Scott Dancey posted a forecast of his own on mmorpg.com yesterday, in response to Paul Tassi’s article. Dancey defended the subscription model of the ESO, stating that paid subscriptions are still viable, as long as done right. He also took the time to post a chart of estimated revenues from various online games, which you can see below:


He states that both free to play and paid models can be successful, as long as the right market is targeted and it is done right. The fact that F2P models were tailored for Asian markets are used as reasoning, and even though some popular F2P models do tend to work in Western markets as well (League of Legends or Candy Crush Saga are prime examples), they do not exclude paid subscriptions. And I tend to agree. Sure, World of Warcraft has been declining in subscriber numbers, but then again, the game is almost a decade old, and it’s still making nice profit for Blizzard.

The only problem I see with the subscription model is the fact that there’s a limited amount of people that are willing to pay monthly to play. Eve Online has been successful because it brings something different to the table, and it’s targeting an entirely different gamer than World of Warcraft. This is where I feel SWTOR has failed – going after the same player-base WoW had, and not succeeding in taking a large enough bite. I honestly feel that ESO’s success will depend on whether or not in can address players that can’t find the same type of content elsewhere. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess whether or not Bethesda will fail financially or not with its huge investment in Elder Scrolls Online. Speculation would suggest that the game will be forced to go F2P sooner, rather than later.


Still, all-in-all, I think they might manage to pull it off successfully, IF, and only IF the game manages to captivate players for long periods of time, and has sufficient and engaging content to justify a $15 monthly fee. Lastly, I think the fact that ESO will be available on next-gen consoles Playstation 4 and Xbox One will give it an edge, since it’s going to come out at a time where it will meet no competition MMORPG-wise on these platforms. We’ll have to wait well beyond the April 4th release date to see if the Bethesda/Zenimax investment will or will not pay off.