Mind you, I don't begrudge Bethesda for wanting to make money on the game. I don't believe that I am entitled to some special treatment because I'm a fan or because I have remained loyal or some other excuse. I want ESO to be as successful as it can possibly be, as I believe that everyone on the development team wants this creation to be successful. I also understand that ESO's investors want the game to make as much money as it can. Sometimes those two forces can be at odds with each other, but it's certainly not the case here. With the right business model, both the artists creating the game and those who make sure the artists are getting paid can reach the same goal: success.
The real question lies in how success is achieved and where the actual money is made on a game like ESO. From my perspective, there are two major areas where ESO will have to be successful in order to recoup the losses during production and then to continue to make money after launch: initial sales and added value beyond launch. Unfortunately for a game like ESO, a subscription model might obtain the first part, but the second part will fall extremely short.
The initial sales of Elder Scrolls Online are virtually guaranteed. Elder Scrolls has decades-long followers, with each game out-selling its predecessor. Skyrim, the most recent in the long line of single-player Elder Scrolls games, outsold all of the games that came before it. And it retains a very healthy post-launch community with the additional DLC Bethesda offered and the creative modding community. A game launched under the Elder Scrolls brand is almost guaranteed to see extraordinary initial sales.
If we take a look at another similar franchise, one I happen to write about as well, we can see the weight that a successful intellectual property plus a proven developer carry. Star Wars: The Old Republic topped the charts in initial sales. At launch, it earned the rank of the most successful MMO in the industry based on the first month of sales. Star Wars fans flocked to the game, BioWare fans flocked to the game, and those who wanted to see a continuation of the ultra-successful Knights of the Old Republic series flocked to the game. Despite what I would consider poor marketing strategy, the game stood tall. Elder Scrolls Online will likely follow in SWTOR's figurative footsteps.
But because history often repeats itself, it's likely that Elder Scrolls will have some of the same post-launch problems that the other franchise had, probably multiplied because ESO intends to launch on multiple platforms. As much as launching on consoles, PCs, and Macs will benefit the bottom line, it will also amplify any issues the game will have as well. In fact, take a look at the comments on Massively's MMO-disinclined sister site Joystiq. The commenters seem to think the subscription model is "just a scam," as Joystiq commenter Wassabi said. This is coming from a community that believes it's OK to play video games on an outdated, overpriced PC just because it has fancy lights on it and hooks up to a TV. (I'm just kidding, console users; I don't think that consoles are a scam... wait, yes, I do.)
The real bottom line will come from the ESO developers themselves. Can they churn out content fast enough that gamers feel they are getting their money's worth? I can speak only for myself when I emphatically say, "No, I believe it's an impossible task." Don't get me wrong; I believe there will come a time when the subscription model will make a comeback, but I don't think it's going to be 2014. At this time, game developers cannot produce content fast enough to satisfy their playerbases, even though some games, like Guild Wars 2, are doing their damnedest to try.
With very few exceptions, I like my game time to equate to about $1 per hour spent playing the game. That means if I pay $60 for a game, I hope to get about 60 hours of gameplay, give or take. So if a game has a $15 a month subscription, I hope to see about 15 hours of new content a month. Given that the game will likely launch with a bit more than 60 hours worth of gameplay, I'm willing to forgive some issues. But I think that just like SWTOR, ESO could fall on its face two to three months after launch because developers will not be able to produce quality content fast enough.
Since I do want the game to succeed, I am hoping that Bethesda and ZeniMax will come to the conclusion that this payment model is just not going to work and come up with a better solution before launch. They have time. Or maybe they have something crazy cooked up that will make the $15 a month worth every penny.
Next week, I will cover what I believe are some quality alternatives to ESO's announced payment model. In the meantime, let me know what you think in the comments. Are there alternatives you think are more fitting the franchise? How could this situation been handled better? Or is there just no way to sugar-coat it to the fans? I'll see you next week.
Each week, traverse the treacherous terrain of Tamriel with Larry Everett as he records his journey through The Elder Scrolls Online, an MMORPG from ZeniMax. Comments are welcome below, or send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org. He promises to keep the arrow-to-the-knee jokes to a minimum.