Bethesda Head of PR Todd Hines said in a GameSpot interview that the upcoming Elder Scrolls Online MMO’s monthly subscription fee of US$14.99 was a “value proposition”.
To quote: “We feel pretty strongly about the support we’re going to have for the game and what you’re going to get for those dollars [which is why we’re not going free-to-play].We’re also very confident in our ability to support it with content. And not content of the magnitude of, it’s a new month, here’s a new sword or here’s a funny hat–but content that is real and significant and it feels like regular and consistent DLC releases.[...] We want to do the version that we think is the best game and the coolest experience. And that means putting a lot of people and a lot of content creators towards having stuff that comes our regularly; every four weeks, five weeks, six weeks. Big new stuff that you want to do.”
The bigger issue here is whether or not Bethesda even keeps in touch the outside MMO gaming world. Majority of online games evolve for the better over time without the need of subscription fees. Subsequently, MMOs do work under the free-to-play model that comes with a monthly payment option; you fork out the money, and the previously-restricted free version becomes whole again.
A Guilded Age
The PC online RPG Guild Wars 2 was a highly-rated title by critics and fans. It also did not have a subscription model, yet somehow it flourished in the long-term since its 2012 release. How so? The game gets bi-weekly content updates from in-game purchases to minor bite-sized events. Major story content and quests like the Flame and Frost series to Lost Shores add in new dungeons to traverse and new game systems for players to tinker around with. The game’s mass spring guild vs. guild tournament will be ongoing starting this end of March until May.
Essentially, this is the sort of “value proposition” Hines was talking about, with the key difference being that Guild Wars 2 did not require its users to fork out monthly fees. Granted, its parent company NCSoft is a huge company that has experience with online games and the Guild Wars franchise had been around for a while. Then again, Bethesda and the Elder Scrolls franchise have been around since the mid-90s. By right, a company with that much experience would have had considered the free-to-play model as an evolutionary step in the business of selling and maintaining games.
EA’s Republic of Old
Star Wars: The Old Republic was a retail MMORPG that had a subscription model when it first launched in 2011. While initial subscriptions were around the one million mark, the game did average in the long run despite its brand due to the game’s lack of long-term content. As a result, subscribers left after a few months of its release. Analysts projected the total cost of the project to be aaround US$200 million; whether that was the real number or not was irrelevant because at the time EA needed to make up for the game’s possibly high costs.
Enter the game’s constrained free-to-play model. In this mode, players can level up and play as normal, but the classes they can pick are limited in race and some options like travelling methods and PvP content are restricted. Players will either have to contribute to the game’s microtransaction or pay the monthly fee for the full experience. Do note that no up-front payment is involved when it comes to downloading the game file.
Because of this method, the game amassed over two million subscribers and had a thousand new players coming in every day since early 2013. If an MMO based on the incredibly popular and long-cherished Star Wars franchise, that also used arguably one of the more popular timelines of the series, had to ditch its traditional “retail plus subscription fee” model to be successful after an early peak, what chances on earth does Elder Scrolls Online has to stick with an outdated method of payment?
The Elder Scroll series have always been a highly-acclaimed single-player RPG experience. The upcoming MMO will be the first franchise’s foray into the online space. And so far, word on the street is that the game is looking pretty standard: nothing that offends the sensibilities of MMO auteurs, but nothing that stands out to the point where it can be crowned as the second coming of the genre. To be fair, it’s already facing an uphill battle; an MMO has yet to break away from the “do many quests/instances with loads of like-minded groups” mold and cannot give that same single-player feel the Elder Scroll series offer.
The game’s level of community buzz and Bethesda’s confidence in its upcoming MMO (like that SingTel plan that comes with it in Singapore) are a few reasons for its subscription-based plan. In some way, it respects its audience enough that they can make a decision to support it with continuous funding, along with the actual game that retails at US$59.99 (or SG$79.90).
Unfortunately, it’s inadvertently comparing itself with the likes of EVE Online and World of Warcraft, two MMOs as old as Father Time and are still using subscription-based plans. The key factor separating ESO and those two is that they’re products in different times. EVE Online and WoW thrived at a time when subscription models were widely accepted. ESO? Not so much.
Stick to the times, Bethesda. Otherwise you’ll be chasing away potential long-term players.