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The Think Tank: Analyzing Elder Scrolls Online's B2P model

Yesterday's reveal that The Elder Scrolls Online will go buy-to-play in March has prompted much speculation about the nature of the cash shop, the ethics of the switchover, the continued viability of the game, and the quality, cost, and frequency of the promised DLC. In today's Think Tank, the Massively staff will discuss the decision. Is B2P the right call for ESO? Was the exceedingly long delay of the console launch a huge mistake? What do we expect from the DLC? And is "Tamriel Unlimited" in fact the worst rebrand ever?

Bree Royce, Editor-in-Chief

@nbrianna: I think B2P is the best possible model for an online game set in the Elder Scrolls franchise. Thus far, Bethsoft has vetoed lockboxes, suggesting it'll rein in cash shop shenanigans, and the sub looks exceedingly skippable. I love the DLC model also; I prefer paying for specific, tangible downloads to paying a sub that comes with vague, usually unmet promises. It's also the model that makes the most sense for console players and for fans of the franchise, who are already used to DLC.

On the other hand, it's impossible at this point not to believe that studios like ZeniMax did not have this planned from the beginning (well, maybe everything but the outrageously long console delay, which will have cost it so very much money). I'm annoyed by the suspicion that ESO wasn't just sticking to subs out of principle but was probably plotting from the start to milk PC subscribers, stringing them along with minimal updates until the console launch. This is a nasty trend in the MMO world in the last few years. I wish studios could be honest about such plans, but that would spoil them. Of course, these plans may be spoiled anyway if more and more gamers wise up and stop buying altogether until the inevitable model conversion. Gamers can be patient, right?

Eliot Lefebvre, Contributing Editor

@Eliot_Lefebvre: It's the biggest news of the month if you hadn't figured out that this was going to happen back around, oh, let's say February of last year. It was a question of when, not a question of whether. Seeing as the game already has a cash shop, already deflated its unrealistic update predictions, and already was greeted with a deserved collective yawn, this wasn't exactly a surprise twist.

Is buy-to-play the right model for the game? As much as anything could be, honestly. It'll work on the consoles where people are buying it expecting Skyrim But New And More, and the business model of game plus DLC worked out well enough there. Whether or not people will continue playing the game after buying it for any appreciable length of time is another discussion altogether, especially as it's a game devoid of many factors that elevated Skyrim to blockbuster console sales. I think in context, it's a smarter move than straight free-to-play, although it speaks to an unsettling idea by the developers that the game is something to be played in short bursts rather than as a continual thing, which is in direct contrast to even other buy-to-play games like Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World.

Of course, PC players should be kind of angry that they've been subscribed beta testers for the game and played a weaker version of the titles whilst the console version was delayed most likely to hammer out the fine points of the business model and prep up content, but again, this was something you could figure out a while back. You have only yourself to blame.

Now, could WildStar join the party already?

Jef Reahard, Managing Editor

@jefreahard: I hope B2P is the right call for ESO because it's a solid themepark that attracted a lot of uninformed negativity from people who barely played it. I'm happy that ZeniMax is keeping the client cost since people should pay for what they consume, but I can't cheer for Tamriel being crapped up with ye olde cash shoppe and all of the pink polka-dot pets and rainbow mounts that inevitably follow. Fortunately I beat the game, killed off my roleplay character, and wrung all the fun that can be wrung out of this sort of title many months ago!

Justin Olivetti, Contributing Editor

@Sypster: This couldn't be better news for Elder Scrolls Online; it's exactly what needed to happen. I love the buy-to-play model, and as a player of both Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World, I have to say that it's a great deal that strongly encourages the development of content.

I'm pretty sure that the decision for B2P and the console delay had a lot to do with each other. If ZeniMax was even leaning in that direction last year, then it knew that taking the time to work out a subscription method with the notoriously difficult console manufacturers would have been pointless. Buy-to-play will be a lot more acceptable to the console market and will be a huge boon to the existing population of the PC crowd. This, coupled with several updates shoring up the game's weak points, will have a good shot of ushering in a 2015 "do over" with greater results.

Larry Everett, Columnist

@Shaddoe: It was a forgone conclusion that ESO would go free-to-play in one way or another. Personally, I'm glad that ZeniMax chose this way to do it. It keeps in theme with how an Elder Scrolls game should be. I just wish it would have happened sooner. Instead, the studio decided to launch an unfinished game to its fans on the PC so that they could unwittingly pay to beta test the game. That said, I'm jumping back in when the game goes buy-to-play because I'm a sucker.

Mike Foster, Contributing Editor

@MikedotFoster: Buy-to-play is my favorite model and probably the only one that would really work for ESO on consoles. I figured they'd be headed this way eventually and wrote at length about the sub being a bad idea before launch. Buy-to-play should bring in some of those Elder Scrolls fans who weren't 100% sure if ESO was right for them, but I'm not sure it's not too little too late for PC/MMO folks. What I'd really like to know is how long they've known this was the plan. Was it months and months ago and the cause of the console delays? Was it the plan at launch? So many questions!

Whatever the case, buy-to-play is a step forward. Next, Bethesda should make ESO fun-to-play.

MJ Guthrie, Contributing Editor

@MJ_Guthrie: ESO has always given me the feel of a single-player experience. The game certainly did not feel very MMOish when something as simple as grouping up with friends was impossible if you were on slightly different steps of a story line. I still recall the duo stream with Shawn where we couldn't even see each other to meet up even though were were standing in the same spot! Because of that, I think B2P is a good move; folks can get it, play through, have the experience, and then move on -- all without being tied to a sub. Now, the fact that MMOs are morphing into just single-player experiences is a different (and unwelcome) matter entirely.

What do you get when you throw the Massively writers' opinions together in one big pot to stew? You get The Think Tank, a column dedicated to ruminating on the MMO genre. We range from hardcore PvPers to sandbox lovers to the most caring of the carebears, so expect more than a little disagreement! Join Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce and the team for a new edition right here every Thursday.