Elder Scrolls Online: Subscription's Last Stand Or Re-Emerging Trend?
Once dominated by the subscription-based model espoused by hits like World of Warcraft and EverQuest, over the past decade massively multiplayer role-playing games have gradually shifted toward free-to-play. Juggernauts like WoW still fare well with subscriptions, but other publishers found it easier to lure and keep players if users could try the game for free and then purchase items via cash shops if they deem it appropriate.
When Bethesda announced in 2013 that Elder Scrolls Online would adopt a subscription based economic model, many scoffed. After all, the last few major MMOs to opt for a retail box product/monthly fee, The Lord of the Rings Online and The Secret World, eventually gravitated toward the free-to-play system. Yes, you can still subscribe to games like Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Lord of the Rings Online, and Rift, but it's not required to play the game and see if you like it anymore. The same can be said for Sony Online Entertainment, which folded all of its titles (including the EverQuest and PlanetSide franchises) under the free-to-play umbrella.
In defense of its approach, Bethesda says the $14.99/month subscription fee is necessary because it plans to support the game with regular, significant content updates. It's not the only studio taking this approach right now, either. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn launched with a traditional retail box plus subscription model and brought a dead game back to life (though how much it's really living is still to be determined.)
If there is any franchise that could potentially pull off the subscription model in modern times, however, it's Elder Scrolls. More than 20 million people bought copies of Skyrim, making it one of the most successful retail games of all time. The series also heavily favors exploration and side quests over base narratives. That could help it elude the potholes that damaged the momentum for The Old Republic, which was too story-centric and eventually ran out of compelling content near the end game.
The trick for developer ZeniMax Online Studios is to create content that draws in that considerable base rather than alienate them with too many conventional MMO mechanics. MMOs and single-player role-playing games are very different beasts, but if ZeniMax can successfully create harmony it could generate a large enough base to sustain this efforts.
We won't have to wait long for results, with Elder Scrolls Online launching next week (or this weekend for those who pre-ordered) and WildStar attempting a similar launch two months after ESO launches. By the end of the year we should know if subscription based games have the stamina to swim against the tide of free-to-play or if the undertow is too strong. If these games fail to retain users, it could close the door on the model altogether for new MMOs.