A basic free-to-play model gives the core of the game away for nothing. Generally, the game makes its money on a cash shop that sells either upgraded armor, weapons, or other items used in-game. Most of the time these items are alternative versions of existing in-game items, but sometimes they can be upgrades or straight-up better items. However, most of the time, the items in a cash shop tend to be cosmetic or convenience items. In this model, developers make money off the idea that players will love the existing content so much that they will want to support the game by buying items from the shop or that customers will love the new shinies in the shop so much that they buy them to enhance the free experience.
The free-to-play model works for many games because it lowers the barrier to entry to zero. This allows games to benefit from having hundreds to thousands of players on at one time, giving the game a feeling of success and life. However, given that ESO will have probably millions of players right off the bat anyway, I don't believe it needs to lower its initial paywall. Over seven million people bought Skyrim at its full price. Player will be interested in playing this game too, paywall or not. Free-to-play will likely just add stress to the servers and certainly not capitalize on the number of players who will buy the game sight-unseen just because it's an Elder Scrolls game. (I admit: I'm one of those people.)
Many games that are labeled free-to-play are what should be considered freemium. I consider freemium games to be subscription-focused because the biggest value in the majority of freemium games is the most costly subscription, and the whole system is developed to steer players to that sub. Even though the base game is free, this type of model usually has a highly restricted model. Sometimes additional content can be purchased outright, but usually specific content is hidden behind a tiered monthly payment system. Cash shops are used to supplement the subscriptions, but many times, the upper tiers of subs are gifted a stipend of cash shop credits, yet again encouraging players to pay for the most expensive sub.
For a long time, I expected ESO to use a freemium model. It's the most traditional form a western MMO takes when it switches to a F2P model. It is also the safest, and I assumed Bethesda would be conservative with its business model. I still expect the game to eventually switch to this type of system, but not until the pure subscription model has run its course. The unfortunate inevitability of Elder Scrolls Online's starting with a pure subscription model is that now some players will wait until it's free-to-play before even considering playing it. If the game will eventually end up with this model, I think Bethesda should just cut the interim model and jump right to freemium.
Guild Wars brought the buy-to-play model to MMOs in 2005, years before it became the hipster model that Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World employ. In a buy-to-play model, once you buy the game, you can play it anytime you want with no further monetary obligation, much like a traditional single-player game. Additionally, players can usually count on a cash shop for additional cosmetic type items and temporary power-ups. Because the box sales are the primary source of revenue to cover the development costs, the upfront cost to the player usually remains steady for longer than the traditional MMO.
I'm actually surprised that we didn't see ESO announce this type of payment model. Players on consoles are already paying to access the consoles' gameplay networks, and any additional costs would raise the payment wall that much further. However, the downfall in a pure buy-to-play model is that if box sales tank, there is no a fallback plan. But I don't expect ESO to tank. Maybe Bethesda isn't as sure about its product as I am.
The industry has seen multiple types of hybrids based on these models. In fact, the freemium model is itself a hybrid. And since there are so many different types of hybrids, I thought I'd make my own that I think would be the most beneficial for ESO.
First, the box should cost the traditional $60, but the subscription should be removed. And as in the buy-to-play model, the base cost should stay a bit high for an extended period of time to offset current and future costs. Secondly, the cash shop should offer traditional cosmetic items. I like the random dye sales like you see in Guild Wars 2 myself. Lastly, we should see a reduced sub, not to access the game, but for future content. ZeniMax explained that ESO will see regular updates on a six-week cadence. If that can be guaranteed, then the game can coordinate those releases with a sub, or maybe players can buy the updates in bulk. Forty dollars might secure you the right to the next four updates, for instance. This way the game feels more like a traditional single-player game to my wallet, yet the corporate guys feel that it's still a subscription.
But my way isn't the only way. What are your thoughts?
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.