It was only a matter of time before The Elder Scrolls Online went buy-to-play. Before the game even launched last April, swathes of the series’ fanbase (many of whom are bound to consoles) had already turned their backs on the eagerly-awaited MMO, refusing to fork out for a monthly subscription plan.
In truth, you can’t really blame the publisher for going down this route. After all, when the game went into development at Zenimax Online Studios the massively multiplayer genre was a different beast, with Blizzard’s World of Warcraft still going strong. However, as the past nine or so months have proved, subscription-based games are once again in decline, despite the occasional albeit muted resurgence here and there.
Naturally, this shift has taken its toll on developers, whether they be working on upcoming MMOs or simply keeping existing ones afloat. In the past year alone we’ve seen studios cancel projects left, right, and centre, with notable casualties including Transformers Universe, World of Darkness, Vanguard, and EA’s Dawngate. There simply isn’t enough money in the subscription based gaming market like there was in the early to mid 2000s. On top of that, the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (or MOBA) genre has absorbed a huge portion of the PC-focused demographic.
It’s not all doom and gloom though – at least not for those willing to adapt and change with the times. DC Universe Online, for instance, has witnessed a huge surge in popularity over the past couple of years by dropping its monthly fees and then crossing over to PlayStation 4. Meanwhile other MMOs, most notably EVE Online, continue to operate as a premium service simply due to how nuanced they are in a genre choked by tropes and conventions.
Despite the pleading of Elder Scrolls fans, Bethesda went ahead and launched their subscriptions-based MMO adaptation last April. Although fairly predictable, the game certainly has its moments, scoring generally positive reviews across the board. According to reports throughout the year, The Elder Scrolls Online has also managed to hold down quite an impressing playerbase with figures in October circling around the one million mark.
That’s fairly impressive, especially when you consider how very little we’ve heard about the game since launch. For many of us, the only news that has really caught our attention is Bethesda’s continued delays for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions of the game. Sure, this is a huge big budget release and needs plenty of work in order to make the transition to consoles, but at the same time it feels as though the publisher has been stalling.
This week, Bethesda finally announced that it will be dropping subscriptions plans for the game as of March. On top of that, they put a solid release date on the console version, marking it for launch this June. In biding their time and keeping a finger on the pulse of the MMO market, Bethesda has allowed itself to explore the best of both worlds, getting a taste of both the F2P and B2P business models. Many online games simply can’t afford this luxury yet, due to the prevailing strength of the Elder Scrolls brand, Bethesda can adapt and will no doubt generate a fair amount of revenue in the process.
So, if the game is dropping its subscription plans, who is losing out? Well, depending on how The Elder Scrolls Online performs on consoles, no one. When it launches, gamers picking up the new Tamriel Unlimited edition can expect to pay a one-time fee, opening access to everything the MMORPG currently has to offer. No stupid level caps, or limitations to what players can do within the game’s virtual realm.
Bethesda isn’t completely shying away from paid add-ons and microtransactions, but these options will centre around character customisation and other cosmetic elements instead of carving off chunks of playable content and building a paywall around it.
In a way, Bethesda also comes out of the transition better off as well. If there’s one thing console gamers have completely failed to nurture, it is the subscription-based business model. Launching The Elder Scrolls Online in its current form would have quite likely been a misstep, even if the publisher then dropped its subs a few months down the line. In getting ahead of the game, Bethesda has ensured that when it relaunches in June, The Elder Scrolls Online is as palatable to console gamers as it could possibly be.