The Elder Scrolls Online

The Elder Scrolls Online and the Problem With Subscription Games

Jack talks through Zenimax’s decision to go with a subscription model after playing The Elder Scrolls Online for every moment of his free time for an entire weekend.

Throughout the past couple months, a handful of lucky people like myself and a few of my friends were privileged enough to occasionally participate in the beta for The Elder Scrolls Online. While I had a chance to check it out previously, this past weekend solidified a few feelings and opinions I had regarding the mechanics of the game, the quality of the content, and the payment structure. All of these things are tied together to some degree but in a way it is the subscription-based model that the developers decided on that left the biggest impression.

It is an unfortunate reality of modern gaming that any game promising “endless” content and online play must either outright ask the player for more money than most other games on the market or entice the player in some way to invest their hard earned cash in virtual goods. The distinction between these two models defines the two ways a developer can extract the capital they need to grow and maintain the title while keeping players interested: the subscription model or “free-to-play”.

The Elder Scrolls ArgonianAsk anyone walking down the street whether they would like a service for free or if they would rather pay ten to fifteen dollars a month for a similar service and you’ll get some very odd looks. Everyone’s natural inclination is to go with the free service. That’s what these games are. They are no longer products that you buy, sell, or use at your own discretion but rather they become a medium through which you pay people (developers) for entertainment. With that in mind, an intelligent consumer might be inclined to start asking more questions: “What is the quality of the free service compared to the paid service?”, “Are there payment options available in the ‘free’ service that improve the experience?”

These are the questions thoughtful gamers are forced to consider when dealing with Massively-Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) like World of Warcraft or even Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas (MOBAs) like Dota 2. Free-to-play titles, such as Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic, usually require an initial payment just like any other game. What differentiates these titles from your usual game is how the developers afford to keep providing new experiences. In a free-to-play title, developers will often charge for experience boosts, cosmetic items, or exclusive characters or items.

The subscription model is precisely what it sounds like: players pay a modest fee once a month (or bulk payments every 3, 6 or 12 months) for continued access to the game and new content. While, on paper, the free model sounds preferable, as you can still play the game without paying anything extra, I can tell you from experience that both models have their flaws depending on how effectively they are implemented. There is far less volatility, you might say, in subscription models. You usually know precisely what you are getting when you pay that monthly fee. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for free-to-play games.


Dota 2 is often acknowledged as the ideal free-to-play title because the folks at Valve have so expertly navigated the minefield that surrounds developers making free-to-play games. The items they encourage players to purchase do not affect gameplay in any meaningful way besides looks. Players can pay for loading screens, interface styles, and character appearances, none of which can determine the outcome of a match so there can be no arguments that free-to-play is synonymous with pay-to-win in this case. Games are a wonderful place to take a break from the outside world so no one likes to be forced to consider money when playing their game.

In contrast, the longest running and most successful subscription-based MMO is World of Warcraft, by a mile. As a Warcraft title, Blizzard based this hugely successful MMO on one of the most well known franchises in gaming. The problem with a subscription model is actually the same problem that exists in free-to-plays, it’s just less overt. When someone pays for a service monthly, most people are compelled to utilize that service as much as possible to “get their money’s worth”. If you’re anything like me, you start doing this crazy math calculating how much money per minute of play you’re spending to see if it’s worth paying for another month of play: stressful.

So what will be the problem with The Elder Scrolls Online? Hopefully nothing. The gameplay is fun. It still feels like an Elder Scrolls game despite some of the MMO mechanics which seem odd in that context. Once you get used to it though, it’s a truly enjoyable experience. It also might be the best looking MMO out there that strives for photo-realism. The multiplayer experience is still a little clunky but I’ll write that off as beta-issues until I see the final product. However, the subscription model Zenimax and Bethesda have decided to go with still leaves players like me thinking about money and wondering when to cut themselves off and move on to the next title.

Elder-Scrolls-Online-Flame-AtronachWhat it all comes down to is that The Elder Scrolls Online better have some seriously impressive experiences and a wealth of end-game content if it hopes to maintain its player base beyond the first month. A similar problem existed with Star Wars: The Old Republic. It used a similar subscription system but didn’t have enough content to sustain players who reached the maximum level so of course Bioware saw a massive drop off relatively soon after release. Hopefully Zenimax has learned from the mistakes made by others in the industry and won’t be victimized by the same pitfalls.

All that said, is there cause to be nervous about Zenimax’s decision to go with a subscription model? Maybe. I do prefer the a subscription game to a free-to-play. That way I know exactly what I’m getting for my money and don’t have to budget myself mid-game. There’s no concern over pay-to-win items or mechanics and I can simply pay for two or three months of a subscription and know I’m not missing anything without investing even more money on items or boosts. I like that. Should we be worried? Well I’m nervous that every game might suck but I feel pretty good about this one in particular and, despite the older method of monetization, I think the subscription model is the right call.

Published by

Jack Rooney

I am a truly avid video game player with a critical eye and an internet connection. Loud opinions will be shared. Check my stuff out by visiting . Follow me on twitter: @JackofCouchCoOp

  • In all aspects of life, including gaming, I prefer an economic model that monetizes every individual service or item separately. If I want a particular item or service, I can pay for that item or service alone, and nothing else. I always save money in that sense because I am never paying for anything that I don’t want. Monthly subs are a form of price bundling. With monthly subs you pay for things that if sold separately you would not buy. In the real world this gets a little more complicated. For example, bundling by the Cable companies supports good channels that might otherwise fail. But in the virtual world, very little developer support is required to maintain the usefulness of any particular virtual item. This makes individual pricing a much more viable model.

  • I would absolutely agree with you if I believed with 100% certainty that every developer can achieve a perfect free-to-play model that is both meaningful and fair. Purchasing skins and cosmetic items can often feel pointless while anything more (missions, boosts, items, etc.) can feel like some players are getting unfair opportunities, powers, and options that other players don’t, just because they have more money to burn. I think I prefer a model where everyone has the exact same chance to succeed to greater or lesser degrees based on time, skill, and commitment. When I see someone with awesome gear or a high level I don’t like wondering whether it was earned or bought. All that said, both models are perfectly viable and I probably wouldn’t mind playing The Elder Scrolls Online if they went free-to-play instead. I just don’t like having to purchase a game and then wondering how much I’ll have to spend to get the most out of it. That price bundling is preferable to me for that peace of mind and immersion if nothing else. It often breaks the experience momentarily for me when I see a real money option (or some equivalent token thing) in an in-game store. For some people though, I can definitely see how what you’re saying is better.

    • ccmclaugh

      “I think I prefer a model where everyone has the exact same chance to succeed to greater or lesser degrees based on time, skill, and commitment.”

      To be fair, you might restate that sentence to say, “I think I prefer a model where time, skill, and commitment are the method to succeed.” In a pay2win game, everyone has the same chance to succeed; everyone can pay money to succeed. I think that what you mean is that you prefer a game that favors a players investment of time over a game that favors a players investment of money. Even in a pure subscription model, those who pay a subscription to gain access to a game have an advantage over those who don’t pay and therefore have no access. 🙂

  • Has a developer ever considered a tiered subscription plan? Say for example 30 hours per month costs $8 and unlimited hours costs $15. This would diminish the desire to play as much as you can each month to get your money’s worth. I’ve never played a subscription based game because I know it would consume me.

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