The Elder Scrolls Online, the multiplayer followup to the massive hit Skyrim, just turned a few heads by announcing it’s going with a subscription model. I for one, am flabbergasted they’ve chosen this path. Star Wars The Old Republic (or SWTOR as it’s regular abbreviated to) was the last big budget game that tried this and unfortunately it blew up in its face.
SWTOR was a phenomenal game, the only problem was it was almost too good. The quality of the voice acting and vast scope of the planets meant that it took a very long time to create new premium content, it simply didn’t have a quick enough distribution system to deliver content to keep people playing.
This proved fatal when, after very promising launch numbers, the game lost subscribers shockingly fast. SWTOR took a lot of cues from the beloved classic Knights Of The Old Republic. Every class had a fleshed out unique story complete with companion characters and even a personal starship. The problem was because of its heavily single player inspired gameplay many players simply left once they’d finished their story. The game went from having a legion of packed out servers to a set of ghost towns. Strong reviews did little to stop the rush of players leaving.
Now the game is free to play and is doing far better. With the exception of the Makeb expansion, which was certainly in development before the game was downsized, the new content is bite sized. It’s all about giving people quick chunks of fun content to get little bits of money out of people via their in game Cartel Market. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s working fine. But there was a lot of collateral damage as this huge tanker of a game changed direction. Could it have retained those high numbers if it was free to play from the start? Perhaps, but after such a public example of the perils of a subscription model I assumed nobody would risk that again.
Enter Elder Scrolls Online, which is in danger of falling into the same trap SWTOR did. If they can’t pump out enough content for players to gobble through then it will quickly shed subscribers. As with SWTOR it’s a game that’s banking on pulling in fans from its single player spin-off, an audience who probably won’t be too receptive to the idea of a subscription.
What’s still unknown is if playing the game on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One will require additional fees. Both consoles will have their own subscription service required for online play, Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus. Allegedly DC Universe Online will not require PlayStation Plus, which at least implies Elder Scrolls Online probably won’t either. This puts the pressure on Microsoft to drop that same restriction, otherwise the game would look far more enticing on PlayStation 4.
The free to play model means players can float in and out of the game over time, but a subscription is quite a dedication. Once you drop paying for that subscription it’s rare players will come back, it’s going to take quite a lot to reel them back in.
Historically the only thing that causes a sharp bump back up in players is a large expansion pack or converting to free to play. Champions Online, DC Universe, Star Trek Online and SWTOR itself all prove that going free draws a ton of curious eyes. Interestingly DC Universe in particular claimed at the time that they didn’t need to introduce free to play, it simply made more sense. Rather than an act of desperation it was just updating to modern expectations.
EverQuest Next, another big name upcoming MMO, has already announced there will be no subscription of any kind. Furthermore the game actually allows players to make money by creating and selling their own content within the game, a creative solution that could prove very popular.
The elephant in the room is World of Warcraft. But I’d argue that it’s a very unique beast of a game. Warcraft influenced practically every MMO that’s on the way, or on the shelves, today. It was a very rare and finely crafted game that brought millions of new players to the genre. Today the game isn’t much different from its competitors, save for the huge quantity of content it’s built up. The dedicated long time players are keeping the game from floating well above the need to change to free to play. But despite this, it’s still losing subscribers consistently. It’s not a matter of if it will go free, it’s when will it go free.
If World of Warcraft was staying steady, or even gaining players, I’d be open to thinking that a subscription is still viable. But when even the biggest show in town can’t keep people happy with a subscription, it certainly suggests it’s time to abandon it.
Furthermore we can look at Titan. Although its real name is unknown, Titan is the codename for Blizzard’s next MMO. Shrouded in secrecy the game has been stealthily chugging along for years. Until recently that is, the game has gone right back to the concept phase. Blizzard themselves commented that Titan is very unlikely to have a subscription fee. So even Blizzard, the one company that has a game that’s still thriving with a standard subscription model, are on record saying their next game will not use one.
Upcoming sci-fi MMO Wildstar have also announced a subscription plan for their game, which was equally surprising. But they’re also adding an option to play the game via buying game time with in-game currency. So potentially you’ll never have to actually buy game time with real money once you’re playing. It’s still an odd move though, one no doubt inspired by EVE another game that relies on a long time dedicated audience.
If both games can keep the subscription model for over a year I will be surprised. Avoiding free to play just seems like fighting the current. Times have changed. Although developers may dream of World of Warcraft sized player numbers it just isn’t realistic anymore. That was a one off game in a very different time. Unless developers are confident they have a game that is downright revolutionary to the genre then it’s just dangerous to go with a subscription model.
As a final point I’d like to just say it’s possible both Wildstar and Elder Scrolls are completely aware of this and are actually expecting the results we are. If they duplicate SWTOR and have a strong opening period they could theoretically make a lot of extra money, assuming they can hold onto people longer than the first month. Then down the line they can boost their sales and PR by going free. But they need to be very prepared for this, SWTOR showed that you can’t just change overnight. So planned or not, I hope both games are ready when they arrive next year.