The Soapbox: The case against The Elder Scrolls Online's subscription model

The Elder Scrolls Online
The Elder Scrolls Online is one of the most anticipated online titles of 2014. Marking the first true massively multiplayer incarnation of the venerable Elder Scrolls franchise, ESO has the rapt attention of fans, developers, and industry watchers. It is the latest attempt to leverage an existing franchise into MMO territory, one that will without a doubt see a huge launch and immense media coverage through its first few months.

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 Elder Scrolls Online
It's certainly possible to challenge Firor's assertion that free-to-play games all have horrible paywalls or that 30 hours of new quests every six weeks will be even remotely enough to satisfy MMO players. In fact, the ZeniMax team's confidence in such small amounts of content certainly hints that it may be out of its depth when it comes to designing games for this particular niche. However, all we really need to do to show the critical fault in the thought process is look at content-to-cost ratio established by the last Elder Scrolls game.

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.

The Elder Scrolls Online
It is important to note here that Elder Scrolls games are not like other games. Fans spend hundreds of hours in Elder Scrolls titles, despite the fact that they are single-player experiences. Skyrim is reported to have as much as 300 scripted hours of gameplay, and that's the base game before expansions. There are thousands, if not millions, of players who purchased Skyrim at release and are still playing it to this day, replaying the story, running crazy mods, or just enjoying its rich universe.

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.

The Soapbox The case against TESOs sub fee, as established by Skyrim
Now let's look at The Elder Scrolls Online. The box price will likely be $60, just like any other new game. The sub fee is reported to be around $15. If the game launched on the same day as Skyrim (and all players received one free month of game time), subscribers would have paid for 12 months of time by the release of Dragonborn. That's $180 plus the $60 on the box. The total cost of playing The Elder Scrolls Online for its first year is $240, over twice as much as the first year of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. For the sake of this comparison, we will ignore ESO's cash shop and any additional cost it may represent.

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.

The Elder Scrolls Onlined
The "Elder Scrolls experience," as Matt Firor calls it, is about an enormous immersive universe that is the player's to explore. It is about freedom. And most of all, it is about continuing to play a game for years after its release, making up new adventures and discovering new secrets along the way. Skyrim is just the most recent example in a long line of games that have offered near limitless content to players because that is what Elder Scrolls titles have always done. It is the Elder Scrolls formula, through and through.

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.

The Elder Scrolls Online
ESO might have been something special if it followed the existing rules of Elder Scrolls games and their history of immense content at a low cost. As a buy-to-play title, it would have offered a competitive payment model for a long-awaited enhancement to one of gaming's most beloved franchises. Instead, it will be yet another failed attempt to replicate World of Warcraft's one-in-a-million sub success by slapping a familiar name on a box and shoveling it out to fans with a subscription fee attached.

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

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared by Massively as a whole. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
This article was originally published on Massively.