How Much is Too Much?

By Jonathan Barnes, 5 years ago
While a select few might think the big news concerning this week was the slow dripping of new screenshots, the real meat of the story came from Matt Firor, General Manager of ZeniMax Online. Firor recently made the announcement (via GameStar) that there will be a $14.99 per month fee charged to play the game (after the 30-day period following the initial purchase).

I, for one, think this is an unacceptable cost (especially for console gamers who are getting their first crack at a quality MMO), and I'm definitely not alone in that sentiment.

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Before we turn this into a torch and pitchfork party, though, let's take a step back and look at the business angle of this decision.

No talk of MMO's can occur without mentioning the 800 pound gorilla in the room, World of Warcraft. Over the past (almost) decade, Blizzard's behemoth has dominated the scene and raked in a ridiculous amount of coin for its makers. ZeniMax would be dumb not to want a piece of that action. They have an amazing IP in The Elder Scrolls franchise and a population that desperately wanted to play The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim "with friends" (I actually have a pair of friends who play the same sections of Skyrim at the same time to share the experience). It doesn't take a business genius to put two and two together to determine exactly why they chose this model, but that doesn't account for the two biggest contentions.

First and foremost, Star Wars: The Old Republic. Take one of the most beloved IPs in the world... one that is bigger than pretty much anything (Star Wars), attach to it one of the most respected developers on the planet (BioWare), give them time, money, and resources, and then (wait for it...) profit. Sounds about right, doesn't it? As we all know, though, it didn't turn out that way. Yes, the game initially sold well and was pretty-well-received critically (85 on Metacritic), but they couldn't retain subscribers, were forced to switch to the free-to-play model, and eventually the game became one of the final nails in CEO John Riccitiello's coffin.

SW: ToR was (by most accounts) a pretty good game, but it couldn't hold on to its gamers. Heck, even WoW has lost almost five million subscribers since 2010. So what is the lesson here? I would venture that given the bevy of quality options out there, many gamers are becoming more and more reluctant to pay a monthly fee for a single gaming experience... even a good-to-great one.

This dovetails into contentious point number two.

Console gamers are already paying a monthly/yearly fee to access the multiplayer aspects of games that don't charge a monthly fee. Asking them to plop down an additional $180 per year for the privilege to play one game seems like highway robbery, even if it's a great game. While Firor did hint at the possibility of "further discounts", it seems like a bridge too far.

Furthermore, think about it this way; Xbox One games are set to retail at a (for now) industry-standard $60 price point and you can usually pick up a year subscription of Gold for around $50, sometimes cheaper. So, part and parcel, to purchase one year of ESO you're going to be paying just short of $300. That's almost the equivalent of four new (non-discounted) games and a year of LIVE. For a community such as ours, do you really think that gamers are going to forgo the tasty achievements of four games for the simplicity and comfort of playing one?

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Firor did take a minute to explain the reason for the monthly fee model. I think it's important, so I'm going to quote it verbatim (again from GameStar):

The Elder Scrolls games are all about allowing the player to go where they want, be who they want, and do what they want. We feel that putting pay gates between the player and content at any point in game ruins that feeling of freedom, and just having one small monthly fee for 100% access to the game fits the IP and the game much better than a system where you have to pay for features and access as you play. The Elder Scrolls Online was designed and developed to be a premium experience: hundreds of hours of gameplay, tons of depth and features, professional customer support - and a commitment to have ongoing content at regular intervals after launch. This type of experience is best paired with a one-time fee per month, as opposed to many smaller payments that would probably add up to more than $14.99/month any way.

And it's important to state that our decision to go with subscriptions is not a referendum on online game revenue models. F2P, B2P, etc. are valid, proven business models - but subscription is the one that fits ESO the best, given our commitment to freedom of gameplay, quality and long-term content delivery. Plus, players will appreciate not having to worry about being "monetized" in the middle of playing the game, which is definitely a problem that is cropping up more and more in online gaming these days. The fact that the word "monetized" exists points to the heart of the issue for us: We don't want the player to worry about which parts of the game to pay for - with our system, they get it all.
These are all valid points and I don't want to take away from them, but in an age where the console community is already expecting "hundreds of hours of gameplay" (think about how much time you've put into your favorite shooter or RPG), "professional customer support" (you want good servers and regular patches, right?), and the promise of "ongoing content at regular intervals after launch" (who doesn't love map packs and expansions to your favorite game?) without paying a standard monthly fee, how can they honestly think they'll be picking up a ton of console subscribers... at least enough to offset the additional cost of multi-platform development?

Firor goes on to say that ZeniMax is hoping to do new content every 4-6 weeks, and has dropped terms like "New quest lines, skills, zones, (and) dungeons". Those things sound great, but do you really think you'll be willing to pay $15 per month for that? You can also bet that they'll still be charging you for each and every one of the big expansions they're no doubt planning in subsequent years.

Furthermore, in an interview with Firor says that the game will still include microtransactions for non-essential stuff* like "name changes and things like that". I don't begrudge any company their right to monetize their product, but this is the final straw in my book as a potential consumer in one of their prime demographics.

*Translation via The Escapist

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Look, I'll admit that I'm not a PC gamer. I've never played an MMO (though I'd love to get into SW: ToR) and the idea of paying a monthly gaming fee on top of what I already spend is going to feel expensive and unjustified to my gaming budget. That being said, I do realize that such a case is the norm for a lot of gamers. Furthermore, if the fee was something closer to $5 a month or the prevailing free-to-play model (on top of retail purchase and LIVE fees), I'd definitely check it out, maybe even spend a bit more to support a game I enjoy and a developer that I respect, but I tend to play games for about three months at a time and knowing that I'll be paying an additional $30 (or more) just to play the base game isn't something I'm willing to sign up for... even for a franchise and developer that I enjoy.

I love RPGs. I have ever since I was about nine. I'd love the opportunity to share that experience with friends, especially in a world as realized as The Elder Scrolls. I hope that ESO does well and that ZeniMax supports it for a very long haul, but I think they just lost a prospective gamer.
Jonathan Barnes
Written by Jonathan Barnes
Jonathan has been a news/views contributor since 2010. When he's not writing reviews, features, and opinion pieces, he spends his days working as an informal science educator and his nights as an international man of mystery.