The Elder Scrolls Online: Boldly Going Where Other MMOs Have Failed Before

Has Bethesda lost its mind? TIME Tech's Matt Peckham and Jared Newman debate the company's upcoming MMO, which costs a one-time fee of $60 and a recurring fee of $15 per month.

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Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls Online, the MMO-ification of its popular fantasy-verse due early next year for PC and consoles, won’t just ask you to pony up $60 for a copy at the outset, it’ll reach into your wallet each and every month, the game’s director Matt Firor told GameStar this week.

Is the company nuts? Has it paid no attention to what wildly successful post-World of Warcraft MMOs like Guild Wars 2 are up to? Did it miss the Star Wars: The Old Republic memo? Can a subscription-based MMO survive the looming ennui of millions of content-starved gamers? Does it even care about gamers who don’t have dozens of hours to spend and $15 to burn every month?

While TIME Tech’s Matt Peckham thinks Bethesda hasn’t lost its mind, Jared Newman has already resigned himself to ignoring the game at launch. So the two of us decided to have a mild-mannered debate:

Jared: I just want to say up front that I am not a traditional MMO player. Never played World of Warcraft, dabbled in some free-to-play RPGs, really enjoyed Guild Wars. I was intrigued by The Elder Scrolls Online, as someone who enjoyed Oblivion and Skyrim. So I’m not used to paying $15 per month for an MMO.

But the other key detail is that I don’t have as much time for video games as I used to. I forsee being able to dedicate maybe five or six hours a month to a game like this. To me, Bethesda is basically saying “you’re not welcome.” And that’s a bummer.

Matt: I used to be the sort of gamer who had time to play MMOs like Ultima Online, Everquest and WoW, then I had a kid last summer, which means I’m now the sort of gamer who reminisces about when I used to have time to play games for more than five minutes a day on an iPhone. Laying those deficiencies aside, I’m sympathetic to what Bethesda’s after here with the monthly fee angle. The Elder Scrolls, which I’ve been playing since Arena, is — in theory anyway — about sticking you in a sandbox, blowing a whistle, then trying to stay as much out of your way as possible. The free-to-play model, which I have no problem with in games like Guild Wars 2 or Defense of the Ancients 2, doesn’t feel like the right approach, given what Firor and his team say they’re up to.



Jared: I suppose it’s worth clarifying at this point that when you say “free-to-play,” you’re referring to paying a flat, up-front cost, rather than a recurring fee. There are plenty of pure free-to-play MMOs, and yeah, that’s not something I’d be interested in from The Elder Scrolls. Still, I’m not sure why a subscription is more conducive to “staying as much out of your way as possible” than an up-front sticker price.

Matt: That’s a fair point: Why not charge $60 up front, then let players go wild? That seems reasonable, since it preserves the “100% access” model Firor’s touting (and it fits hand-in-glove with The Elder Scrolls‘ sandbox philosophy). I’m not a money guy, and I don’t want to speculate about the profit model there, but I’d worry, with a game as hypothetically vast as The Elder Scrolls Online purports to be, that without a monthly fee, the company gets into trouble down the road when it reaches whatever its audience saturation point is.

That said, it sounds like they’re already muddying the water: Firor says they’re adding a “real money” shop. He claims it’ll be for cosmetic stuff, e.g. duds, bling, etc. We won’t know until we see it in action, but if they firewall the gameplay, I guess I’m okay with that, too.

Jared: Yeah, I also hesitate to tell Bethesda how to run their business. They clearly think they can get a critical mass of users with a subscription on the strength of the Elder Scrolls name. (Though it’s worth noting that EA and BioWare thought the same with Star Wars: The Old Republic.)

My issue — and this applies to lots of subscription MMOs — is that there seems to be a missed opportunity to reach folks like me, who would be throwing their money down the toilet by locking into a subscription. Maybe there are additional payment models that could appeal to a wider group of people. Why not, for instance, charge $60 up to a certain level cap, then another chunk for high-level play? Or how about charging a flat-fee, plus a small subscription for advanced guild-related features? Or maybe just let people buy a bucket full of hours in the game. I feel like there has to be a better way for a game of this magnitude.

And by the way, none of those alternatives would have to preclude a subscription option. Make it work out financially for people who are definitely going to spend 100+ hours in the game, and the subscriptions will come. But I am not one of those people, and it’d be nice to have an alternative that doesn’t pressure me to get my money’s worth every month.



Matt: There may be a better model for the game down the road, once it finds its feet and audience depending. Think of all the games that shifted gears to a free-to-play model along the way (including World of Warcraft). I’d be surprised if Bethesda holds fast to the retail-plus-subscription model, especially if this thing winds up having legs.

It’ll depend in part on what Bethesda has tucked behind the game’s PR-gilded curtains. If TESO somehow reinvents the MMO (which, odds are it won’t), you might be willing to throw the monthly fee in the toilet when you can’t play, the way some do paying for a Netflix or a Hulu Plus or a cable subscription that’s barely used (but appreciated when needed). If, on the other hand, it’s just “World of Tamriel-Craft,” you’re probably just courting diehard Elder Scrolls fans after the honeymoon period — arguably a smaller audience than NCsoft’s capturing. And I get the sense Bethesda might be okay with that, at least out of the gate.

But the question we’re sort of circling is, “Who’s TESO for?” I’m sure — in fact, I actually know — some people who’d like Skyrim to be 90% shorter. For better or worse, it’s not that sort of game.

Jared: You’re right that plans could change, but it’s a missed opportunity to create buzz and get people excited if you’re shutting vast numbers of people out at launch. I hate to bring up Guild Wars over and over, but the fact that all my game-playing friends were talking about it and joining guilds together is what piqued my interest in the first place. I’ve had that feeling with other MMOs, but the subscription always held me back. So yeah, your question goes back to my original point: Whoever TESO is for, it’s not for me — someone who has otherwise enjoyed playing Elder Scrolls games in the past. Somehow I doubt that “subset of Elder Scrolls fans who would pay for a subscription MMO” is the audience Bethesda is shooting for.

Matt: Maybe Bethesda’s nuts to think it can do, with less iconic material, what BioWare couldn’t holding a license like Star Wars. Would players have burned as fast had BioWare been able to ante up content? That’s the question I’d put to Firor’s team: can they surf the “what do I do next?” curve without it feeling generic? If they can, and it’s not an anodyne grind-a-thon, you’d have your referendum, one way or another, on all these pet theories that The Old Republic failed because of the dearth of content, not the monthly tax.

Not to derail the conversation, but fees aside, my real issue with TESO is the notion that you can have an Elder Scrolls experience — which up to this point has involved perfecting the D&D power fantasy vibe solo — in an MMO. In Skyrim, you’re the frigging Dragonborn. In TESO, you’re some nobody the game’s going to lie to, probably a lot, about being the most important thing since sliced skooma. It’s not the monthly sub that turns me off to games like that; it’s games like that.

Jared: So it sounds like we’re nearing some kind of consensus, in terms of being generally concerned about the health of this game. You’re unsure if TESO can offer enough to justify the monthly subscription, and my issue’s that no matter how much the game offers, there’s no way I’m paying once a month for it. Particularly with the next console generation, I think there will be plenty of bar-raising MMO-like experiences that don’t require a subscription (Bungie’s Destiny and Ubisoft’s The Division, to name a couple) to hold my attention. I don’t need dragons and a skooma habit that much.

Matt: Consensus it is! You may disagree, but I do wish Bethesda the best of luck. It’d certainly be a shame to see something this iconic in gaming crash and burn, but then you look at The Old Republic and realize how fast things can get away from so-called triple-A developers in the crazy funhouse world of MMO-dom.