Why I Couldn't Care Less About TES Online - o_JMan240_o Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Why I Couldn't Care Less About TES Online

When “The Elder Scrolls Online” was announced I was excited, despite only having a passing interest in the series’ single-player iterations. I watched the gorgeous trailer and patiently awaited more information. I ignored early suggestions that the gameplay was rote and uninspired, giving the developers the benefit of the doubt that things would improve from the state it was originally displayed in. Even with my optimism, all it took to completely torpedo any interest I had in the game was one word. Subscription.

I’m not inherently against the idea of a subscription model for MMOs, but when I hear an upcoming MMO will be using one I can’t help but expect them to land right where “The Elder Scrolls Online” did. There seems to be a complete lack of desire to do anything other than blindly follow the pricey and abusive “World of Warcraft” model - a model that has guaranteed I’ll never have any interest in one of the world’s most popular games. “Star Wars: The Old Republic” floundered at launch under a subscription model, and subsequently angered a lot of subscribers when it went free-to-play. Final Fantasy XIV also struggled under a subscription model, and ultimately re-released to muted success in 2013. It seems like every MMO that chooses a subscription decides to set the price at or near $15 a month and, in attempting draw the same profit as “World of Warcraft,” falls flat on its proverbial face. The price being asked by “The Elder Scrolls Online” is too high, and I expect the game to crumple under the weight of collective disinterest in paying it.

For roughly $15 a month, a person could get a subscription to Netflix’s streaming service along with Hulu or Gamefly. Thousands of TV shows, games and movies. Bethesda, and to be fair many other companies launching MMOs, somehow seem to think asking the same price for one product is justifiable. Those services don’t directly compete with “The Elder Scrolls Online” from a content standpoint, but Bethesda is still competing for the same money - especially from cash-strapped fans. Even for those who aren’t short on income the game boasts a staggering price-tag.

Like other MMOs, “The Elder Scrolls Online” has chosen to slap its fans in the face by charging $60 for a game that requires a subscription fee to play. I can’t think of better word for the practice of charging up-front for an MMO than dirty. It’s dirty, and it contradicts what the game even purports to be. Subscription MMOs set themselves up as subscription services. Players who pay the subscription get access to the game, and when they stop paying they get cut off. Ownership is transitive, and players can’t actually possess the game itself. Similar subscription services don’t require a buy-in. When people subscribe to Netflix they don’t pay to download the client, they pay to access the content. Even Spotify has dropped their pay-for-mobile model. MMOs do, however, and it raises some interesting questions about what type of product these publishers are selling along with the rather underhanded way in which they are doing so.

Are these MMOs retail products or subscription services? Is the content being accessed included in the initial purchase or provided by the subscription? These games cannot be both a fixed, whole product worth the industry standard $60 retail price and a subscription service requiring people to pay for continued access to content. Services can deliver products, sure, but products and services cannot be one and the same. Yet companies like Bethesda continue treat their fans as idiots and abuse people who trust them. If the game is a subscription service, Bethesda is charging their fans $60 for a menu that tells them to get lost if they aren’t subscribed. More importantly, that $60 retail price lifts the burden of upkeep from the publisher’s shoulders. There’s less incentive for them to properly maintain the service at launch if they know they’ve gotten four months of payment from every customer while providing only a month of access in return. That type of abuse is rampant in the MMO space and why hearing the word subscription killed my enthusiasm.

The over-priced model only helped make the decision to checkout even easier. At roughly $225 for the first year and $180 a year afterwards* - $285 and $240 respectively for Xbox One players if you include the price of Xbox Live - “The Elder Scrolls Online” is a ridiculously expensive game. So what justifies asking for the equivalent of three full-price retail titles every year? It can’t be all for server space, other publishers run servers out of pocket for years after the release of a normal retail game. In many cases, those same retail game servers stay up for as long as, or longer than, many MMOs. If most of that money isn’t covering the cost of maintaining servers, then customers must actually be getting something with the service, right?

Again, the $60 retail price of the game causes conflict in determining the value of the subscription. I already gave one explanation above, so the only other is players are being charged for a game they already bought; considering the fairly substantial backlash from press and players alike in response to one-time online passes, even the vague potential of that being the case should cause outrage. $15 a month for a game that was already bought at full-price seems a lot worse to me than one $10 charge to play a used game online.

The argument for "The Elder Scrolls Online" in the face of similar practices from other games and other industries also doesn't hold up, because the model's previous existence doesn't make it any less abusive. At least in areas like the smartphone market, buyers get the phones at a reduced price when signing up for service - even if the phones are absurdly marked up without it. Bethesda is sitting back, bold faced, and telling fans they'll be paying full price for this game and a subscription on top if they want to play. In either situation, service or product, Bethesda is screwing its customers and I want no part of it. With my excitement for the game thoroughly extinguished by its ludicrous pricing, I was also given pause to reflect on how an MMO would fit with the “Elder Scrolls” experience.

“The Elder Scrolls” series is about exploration, roaming free across an environment and reveling in the idiosyncrasies of the games’ giant open worlds. MMOs are about hemming players in and slowing them down; mercilessly crushing them into a fine powder if they wander outside of the zone appropriate to their level and making sure they can’t go anywhere they aren’t supposed to in the carefully manicured world.  MMOs are an exercise in refined control of player action, “The Elder Scrolls” is an experiment in player freedom. Outside of the exploration of lore, MMOs embody the exact opposite of what has come to define “The Elder Scrolls.”

Could “The Elder Scrolls Online” flip the script on MMO design and give players a legitimate “Elder Scrolls” experience? Maybe, I haven’t played the game itself so I can’t speak to it’s quality or structure. However, that uncertainty is paired with an archaic and abusive pricing structure. I would gladly pay $60 a year for “The Elder Scrolls Online” - even on top of paying for a service like Xbox Live. At that price, I’d probably stay subscribed to it for years and I’d be willing to bet that a lot more people would as well. Heck, I’d even consider buying the game at retail and paying for expansions in that case. Instead, Bethesda is asking me to spend most of my current yearly gaming budget on one game, while simultaneously treating me like I’m too foolish to realize the unjustified money they’re trying to milk out of my wallet. I’m more than happy to pass up “The Elder Scrolls Online.” In fact, I wouldn't touch the game with a half-mile long pole at this point. As far as I’m concerned it’s poison, and a detriment to the genre. The concept of an MMO is wonderful, but that entire sector of the industry is mired in abusive business practices and a lack of innovation. “The Elder Scrolls Online” may have thoroughly stamped out any interest I have in MMOs moving forward - impressively, without me having ever touched it.

*Cost derived from “The Elder Scrolls Online” Store FAQ, images courtesy of elderscrollsonline.com's Media section.

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