Elder Scrolls Online & The Subscription Model

Scribed August 22, 2013 under The Cynic Dialogues

So a few things before I get started. Please read these posts before you jump into mine because they are largely in response to these; Tobold says this, while The Ancient Gaming Noob says this, finally Party Business had this to say.

They pretty much agree on one fact; the subscription model is dead and The Elder Scrolls Online and Wildstar are in fact trying to bring about the return of a likely paymodel failure.

I give kudos to the TESO developer who mentioned a F2P model would likely ruin the impressiveness of TESO. I’d fully agree. It would ruin it. Then again, your game doesn’t deserve to be an MMO either. Why? Good question.

Building on Skyrim
While most of the previous posts looked at the failures of other games to sustain a subscription model, we need to look at exactly why TESO will inevitably fail.

Take a poll of your neighbors, how many hours did they log in Skyrim? If you were like me and bought it on Steam, it’s a pretty easy metric to track. My game totaled about 180 hours. I realize I might not be hardcore compared to some, but let’s just imagine the average player will play twice as much as me (a stretch by any casual gaming metric). 360 hours is roughly 12 hours a day for a full 31 day month. Clearly most people won’t put in 12 hours a day for 31 days (though on launch some people are likely to go overboard).

So, let’s space it out over 3 months. If we assume that their content is largely single player (which most of the other TES series are), most players will likely consume all of the PVE content within that 3 month period. That averages out to just less than 4 hours a day spent playing. Reasonable I suppose (remember I’m using overinflated values for the quantity of content likely to exist in the game).

So, why would a developer want to incorporate a subscription fee? Because in my above example its unlikely that a consumer will be able to consume ALL content within the first 31 day “free” window (assuming they toss in the free month with box purchase as most MMO launches do). So at the very least they are likely to incur at least two additional charges of $14.99 per customer. If we assume they launch with even half of the purchases of Skyrim (I found that Skyrim sold roughly 7 million copies in the first month according to metrics provided by publisher) that’s 3.5 million subscribers or $52,000,000 (that’s million) per month of generated income.

If we assume players aren’t going to play 4 hours a day, and space it out to the fourth month just to cover the casual-players average play time, your looking at an additional 157 million dollars in revenue on top of box sales. If their subscriber counts mirrors how many copies sold in the first month and they manage to provide enough content to fill 360 hours of content that’s an awful lot of money for any game maker to turn around say no to.

So ultimately the question comes down to two things for the developer.

Here’s where things start to bother me. Yea, I’m actually not bothered by the money grabbing tactic as much as I should be. If TESO wants to charge a monthly fee, more power to them. As long as millions of retards fail to realize they are actually paying for the next in the series TES game (with new fangled added multi-player mode!), and subscribe to the game, the developer has every reason to launch with a subscription model.

Tobold says in his post linked earlier that “The subscription business model is still dead, and those two announcements don’t change anything.” He’s not wrong, but he’s not right either. TESO isn’t about heralding the return of the subscription model. It’s more about maximizing corporate profits.

The recent string of developers and publishers turning single player games into MMO’s is not surprising. It’s big business. It is likely that TESO will return most if not all invested cash just from box sales alone. I would be surprised if they don’t break even or turn a profit just from them alone. The real money comes into seeing how long they can bilk people out of a monthly subscription fee.

Maintaining the Quantity of Content
It’s been proven year after year that no company (not even Blizzard) can keep up with its customer’s ravenous hunger for content. They cannot possibly release it fast enough to keep all subscribers happy. In fact, Blizzard has cited multiple times about its customer “cycles” in which subscriptions decline during the end of a content release cycle, and usually pick back up as the new content is released.

Where does that leave TESO? Well, for starters there is absolutely no way they can keep up with customers demand for content. In the past the player’s workshop on Steam with Skyrim is where the lasting appeal for the game came from. Are you trying to tell me your going to keep on staff enough developers to actually release enough content to keep people sated? Doubtful. In the past we’ve witnessed your DLC releases and they barely last 10 hours.

Where does that leave the customers of TESO? Probably abandoning the game altogether within 6 months of launch. The hardcore players will likely depart before then. Does it really matter though? If they can keep on the hook even half the subscribers during this period, it’s the developers who’ve won. Instead of a one time box sale for revenue income, they inherited the tears and wallets of millions of subscribers.

Not bad for a company who previously JUST got income from a box sale.

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