Despite the hype, ZeniMax Online and Bethesda raised a few eyebrows last month when they announced that ESO would require a monthly subscription to play. According to game director Matt Firor, the subscription is required to ensure the game is a true "Elder Scrolls experience." Firor contends that predictable revenue streams generated by monthly subs are necessary to guarantee players the massive amounts of high-quality content they have come to expect from games in the Elder Scrolls universe.
There's just one small problem: The history of the Elder Scrolls franchise directly contradicts the idea that expansive, interesting content is intrinsically reliant on monthly payments from players.
Bethesda's Elder Scrolls Online argument
The case Bethesda (or ZeniMax) is trying to make goes like this: Free-to-play games have obnoxious paywalls and other limitations that create situations in which players who pay have better experiences than players who do not. Because of these design requirements, the only way to create an Elder Scrolls game that stays true to form is to build it as a subscription-only title.
Here's Firor on just that subject:
When you're in an Elder Scrolls game, you're in a world. We don't want players to hit monetization fees when they're in the world. It's like, I go into a dungeon, if I don't have access to the dungeon is pops up a window: you don't have access to this, go buy 50 credits. We didn't want that experience. That's not an Elder Scrolls experience.According to Firor, the studio has plans to release new content every four to six weeks, listing 15-hour Thieves Guild and Dark Brotherhood quest lines as examples of what players can expect to see. Firor argues that only the forecastable revenue stream created by subscriptions will give the ZeniMax team the security it needs to create this type of high-quality content and keep it coming.
The mountains of Skyrim
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim launched on November 11th, 2011. It is the highest-selling Elder Scrolls title ever released, and its relatively recent launch makes it the most suitable point of comparison for a new online-only Elder Scrolls title. Of all the Elder Scrolls games ever made, it is likely that Skyrim will be the most like The Elder Scrolls Online simply due to the proximity of their release.
Since its launch, Skyrim has received three expansions: Dawnguard, Hearthfire, and Dragonborn. The first and third brought new quests and story content, while the second was focused mostly on player housing. According to reports gathered from forums and around the web, Dawnguard took about 20-30 hours to complete, and Dragonborn took about the same. Dawnguard cost $19.99 at launch; Hearthfire cost $4.99 and Dragonborn cost $19.99. Bethesda has confirmed that no further DLC will be added to Skyrim.
So let's do a quick tally. Skyrim launches on November 11th at $60. Six months later (May 29th), Dawnguard launches at $20. Four months after that (September 4th), Hearthfire hits for $5. Finally, Dragonborn launches for $20 on December 4th. That means that in its first year of release, Skyrim cost players about $105. In return, they received roughly 390 hours of content (30 for Dawnguard, 30 for Dragonborn, and an estimate of 30 for Hearthfire, in addition to the base 300). This is assuming, of course, that Skyrim players purchased all DLC -- no doubt quite a few were still playing in December 2012 without picking up any add-on packs -- and paid full price for the game at launch.
ZeniMax Online claims that subscription fees are necessary to fund the constant creation of content the studio has planned for ESO. But is the studio going to release over twice as much content every year than was released for Skyrim? If $105 buys you roughly 400 hours of game, does $240 buy you over 800? Is ZeniMax planning to release 800 hours of content every year (66-ish hours a month)? Doubtful. A sub will certainly create a steady revenue stream for ZeniMax and Bethesda, but it is unlikely that revenue stream will result in Elder Scrolls fans' dollars keeping a Skyrim-esque content-to-cost ratio.
MMO design and PR speak
It's true that this isn't the fairest of comparisons. MMOs have costs that single-player games do not; servers, support staff, patches, and updates do not pay for themselves. However, in a games industry where a buy-to-play game like Guild Wars 2 can update every two weeks and thrive and plenty of free-to-play games make money hand over fist without being pay-to-win or utilizing annoying paywalls, it's hard to buy into the idea that ESO will offer qualities and quantities of content unmatched by non-sub games. That's the speech BioWare gave everyone with Star Wars: The Old Republic, and we all saw how that worked out.
ZeniMax's subscription argument contends that suddenly this formula no longer works. It claims that The Elder Scrolls Online can't possibly carry the same content-to-cost ratio as any previous Elder Scrolls game because, hey, this one features multiple players and has the word "online" in the title. It is a weak, transparent argument disproven by dozens of exceptional free-to-play and buy-to-play titles, and it is an attempt to fool Elder Scrolls fans into believing that the only possible way ESO could exist is as a subscription-only title.
Will it make money? Sure. But if you believe the PR fluff that says this game's subscription is going to ensure content like no other game can deliver, you're in for a nasty surprise. A subscription isn't a favor to players, so perhaps ZeniMax should stop pretending it is.
Thoughts? Email me: Mike@Massively.com
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