With Zenimax Online opting for both microtransactions and a monthly subscription, Sean Knight wonders if it will be too much for the MMO crowd
The MMO genre in the west has been going through a tumultuous period concerning subscription-based and free-to-play models. Many MMOs released over the past couple of years have floundered because they went the subscription-based route. With the recent announcement that The Elder Scrolls Online will follow suit and also have microtransactions will it become the latest MMO to fail?
In a previous editorial fellow contributing writer Marcus Mac Dhonnagáin also asked a similar question. Considering the list of MMOs that launched with this archaic model over the last few years, the odds aren’t in ZeniMax Online’s favor. The Secret World, Rift, and Dungeons and Dragons Online were all originally subscription-based games that soon adopted a free-to-play model due to poor reception or declining subscriptions but found renewed life because of the transition and became more successful than ever.
So why does Zenimax Online think that its MMO is an exception?
Explaining the decision to charge players $15 a month, Elder Scrolls Online game director Matt Firor said, “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 anyway.”
Reading Firor’s reasons for the decision one can’t help but think back to Star Wars: The Old Republic. They made many of the same claims as well when it came to the experience, gameplay, and content.
However Firor continues to defend the decision and the inclusion of microtransactions, “There won’t be anything like bonus points, but we will have a shop to buy kind of fun stuff and services too like name changes and things like that. But it’s not part of the core game; anything in the core game is included in the subscription price.”
Firor then adds another reason for the game having a subscription fee saying, “We really put a lot of thought into this and mostly the reason was around the fact that it was an Elder Scrolls game. If you think of your Skyrim and Oblivion experience, it’s not going to a dungeon, and going into the dungeon, and then a window pops up and says pay two dollars to get into the dungeon. It’s just not the way the IP works.”
It’s interesting to see how Firor puts a lot of faith into the fact that this will be an Elder Scrolls game. While the franchise certainly has a substantial fanbase there are other MMOs whose potential fanbases are significantly larger. The IPs behind Star Trek: Online, Lord of the Rings Online, and Star Wars: The Old Republic certainly have their share of fans. Yet in each case, despite their popularity, all had to resort to free-to-play models which kept them going and turned potential failures into successes.
SWTOR, of any other MMO released in the past few years, had the potential to get away with a subscription-based model. Its setting was from one of the most popular franchises and it was developed by BioWare – a company that had its own established fanbase and reputation for developing great games. Two huge names, one MMO, but it failed miserably and quickly resorted to a free-to-play model for reasons that I pointed out in a previous editorial.
There are only two MMOs that are still successful with their subscription-based model and only one of them is still gaining more subscribers: World of Warcraft and EVE Online. WoW released during a time when there weren’t too many MMOs competing and Blizzard offered a solid product with plenty of content. However, it is finally starting to see a decline in its subscription numbers, having dropped from 12 million players to 7.7 million. EVE Online is more niche and, aside from the setting, offers a much different MMO experience that has garnered a dedicated fanbase and continues to draw in subscribers at a slow and steady pace.
To be frank, ESO and ZeniMax Online do not have the clout to make a subscription-based model viable. Not at a time when there are so many great MMOs out there that are F2P, such as Guild Wars 2 (after purchasing the game itself). It certainly doesn’t look good for them heading into the future with EverQuest Next making waves and announcing that it will be free-to-play when it launches.
With all of this overwhelming evidence showing that the standard subscription model isn’t a viable or profitable solution for MMOs right now, why is ZeniMax clinging to it? Could it be an unwillingness to adapt to the evolving approach to the genre or is it more for investors of the game?
In regards to SWTOR a lot of time, money, and resources were invested to develop the MMO. Given that the Star Wars game took six years to develop, $200 million, and 800 people to work on the IP, it is no surprise that BioWare wanted to go with a subscription-based model. Now, despite the success of games going F2P, an investment like that would make anyone nervous and look for a solution to have a reliable return on their investment.
Subscription models, as they are right now, are not a viable solution for the MMO genre which has been stagnant for a long time. While ZeniMax is feeling the heat for also including microtransactions it could be that they are hedging their bets. Technically they are in a better position than BioWare was, because they will have an easier time converting to a F2P model, unlike SWTOR that had to transition to F2P from scratch.
Even then, the inclusion of a subscription fee and microtransactions will only hurt the game. Whether or not the subscription is there to appease investors doesn’t really matter. What matters is how this will affect the way the game is received and how it will be able to retain those players who decide to give it a chance.
If history is any sort of indication, this is how things will play out for The Elder Scrolls Online: The game’s open beta will be promising and it will have a large number of participants. When it launches it will sell a lot of copies, experience the normal issues such as overloaded servers, bugs, and glitches. However, after the free 30-day trial is over there will be a huge drop off of players rather than a gradual decline that will continue. Within four-to-six months ZeniMax will be forced to adapt a F2P model because the numbers are so low that they aren’t making a profit or that the profit margin is negligible.
Until MMOs can evolve, and the genre gets a shake-up, the subscription model is not a viable solution anymore. Developers need to stop looking at their games as a 100-meter race. It is a marathon. If you discourage players right out of the gate then you are setting yourself up for failure.
And ZeniMax Online is setting up The Elder Scrolls Online to fail. If the company wants its game to be successful, then they need to drop the subscription and go entirely F2P. It will help them attract large numbers of players and help them retain a significant number of them rather than watch as their player-base dwindle exponentially over a short period of time.