Are The Elder Scrolls Online and Wildstar shooting themselves in the foot?
Each week, Chris "Syeric" Coke gives his unfiltered thoughts on the MMO industry. Taking on the news and hottest topics, Chris brings his extensive experience as a player and blogger to bear in Experience Points. This week he looks at why subscriptions may be a bad choice for The Elder Scrolls Online and Wildstar.
Last week, the MMO community was collectively blown back on its heels as Zenimax announced that The Elder Scrolls Online would adopt a subscription business model. This came only hours after developers at Carbine announced the same for WildStar, the highly anticipated sci-fi MMO coming early next year. With Final Fantasy XIV's lessened subscription model added to the mix, players are rightly asking whether free-to-play was a fad now falling by the wayside. Are these three games heralds of the changing tide? I don't think so and here's why.
If we're going to question whether these games signify anything, we have to use the lens of history. There is no other way to make an accurate prediction of what might occur in the weeks following their launch. So let's look at the track record of both subscriptions and free-to-play, in a nutshell.
The Real Story of Subscription vs. Free-to-Play
Subscriptions worked to and through World of Warcraft. They seemed to provide enough funding to keep games in active development. Players paid one price in exchange for access to all of the content and time was the differentiating factor; the playing field was even for each in-game minute. MMO after MMO tried to copy Warcraft's. The term “WoW clone” was born, soon followed by “WoW Tourist.” These games struggled and failed but few more spectacularly than Warhammer Online, a game which redefined the word hype through sheer developer charisma. When it crashed, the subscription balloon started to deflate, and Star Wars: The Old Republic burst the balloon entirely. But this was alongside something else happening.
Many of those failed AAA games, seeing the extraordinary success of the subscription-turned-F2P Lord of the Rings Online, made last ditch efforts at saving themselves and dropped the monthly charges. Suddenly, the tables turned. Game after game, once at death's door, started seeing the players return and, more importantly, spend. Ironically, subscriptions started to rise as soon as they became optional. Profits soared. Games were saved: TERA, Champions Online, The Secret World, Age of Conan, EverQuest 2, RIFT, Vanguard, Star Trek Online... the list goes on and on.
But the free-to-play model may not be all it's cracked up to be. Players criticize it for being full of hidden fees. Star Wars, for all of its new-found success, maintains one of the worst, nickel-and-time models in all the AAA space. LotRO gates quests and zones with paywalls. EverQuest 2 sells its best looking armor for cash instead of effort. There is also another issue: no one really knows how free-to-play works in the long-term, but it doesn't look promising. One need look no further than the press/release cycle for the recently converted: announce success, release a handful of small-to-major updates, and go dark. Though no company will reveal how its profits trend over time, Lord of the Rings ever-increasing spending pushes are worryingly indicative.
The successes we’ve seen were so profound, however, that the paradigm began to shift. Players who once only knew free-to-play as a synonym for pay-to-win started to give it a second look. Eastern stereotypes of pressure spending and subverted equality began to dissipate as Western games defined themselves under the League of Legends-like re-skin model (plus a selection of boosters, of course) where everything, all the way to the endgame, was accessible without spending a dime.
TESO and WildStar: Subscription Suicide?
As players have gotten more used to AAA F2P/B2P experiences, their expectations have skyrocketed. Very few games have can justify a monthly fee, even one like RIFT which made its name on rapid content drops and incredible polish. In today's world, if an MMO is going to charge a subscription, the experience it offers has to be so unique that it can't be found anywhere else. EVE Online flourishes for this reason. WoW survives with a subscription because of its incredible (yet declining) player base. Darkfall Online and Camelot Unchained are the figureheads for every niche game targeting a small, refined audience and realistic expectations.
The question is, are The Elder Scrolls and WildStar unique enough to keep players subscribed?
Probably not. We've seen the major systems. We've watched the gameplay videos. We've read the developer diaries. And frankly, a lot of what's neat about each game is just window dressing on the same old design concepts. You'll quest to the level cap. You'll kill lots of creatures with skills and spells and maybe dodge-roll out of red spots. Each game is bringing unique features, but the question we need to ask is how much gimmick it takes before something becomes unique.
In TESO's case, you'll explore the world first person. Very Elder Scrollsy. You'll complete quests for fully voiced NPCs, and your choices will sometimes effect what happens in the future. At the endgame you'll three-faction PvP (because that's what ES fans asked for) and explore adventure zones with groups. Novelty and neatness and old.
In WildStar, you play a path based on the Bartle player types. Are you an explorer, achiever, killer, or socializer? Decide and enjoy a wealth of quests and areas suited for just your kind of player. You'll complement players of other types with unique abilities and buffs. But these paths aren't 100% of gameplay, and more of an accessory to it. You'll build up a house and plot of land, make hedge mazes, and have parties. When you raid and dungeon-delve, the encounters will change over time.
Both of these games have fun features. They're innovating and trying new ideas. But ultimately, they're MMOs. Everything we've seen says that the core experiences, and the bulk of in-game hours, will be different flavors of vanilla with sprinkles on top. After 90 days, will those sprinkles be any better than SWTOR's full voicing? Any more unique than RIFT's dimensions? Any more exhilarating than TERA's combat? Will there be such a unique endgame that the dozens of other raiding and PvP experiences disappear from memory?
If there was such a killer feature in either game, we probably would know about it by now. Most of the big news, the genre-defining news, is out. That leads me to believe that the developers are convinced they have something special. And they might – but we've heard that story before from every subscription MMO ever. Hearing Matt Firor describe the benefits of the subscription model was eerily like hearing the Bioware doctors prattle off the same before SWTOR's release.
It's time to put up or shut up. Zenimax and Carbine need to talk to us off the ledge and explain how they'll keep us interested after the novelty has worn off. We know they'll have raiding. We know they'll have PvP. We know about their update plans. We know it all because we've heard it all before and we'll hear it all again. What is it about your game's systems that will keep me hooked? What in your progression chain will keep me coming back for more? What makes you different?
If history shows us anything, it's that we will get a drip feed of PR friendly answers to those questions and, sadly, PR thinks we're cows to be lead to pasture. What's more likely, and perhaps being planned, is an entirely new model that no one wants to talk about.
The Sub-now, Free-later Model
If you look at the press/release track for each of the AAA games listed above and do it with a business-minded eye, you'll notice a trend: profits from box sales, profits from subscriptions and even bigger profits after the free-to-play switch. You'll also see a handful of games which, interestingly, added cash shops midway through their subscription lives, more so the closer to present.
The Elder Scrolls will launch with a cash shop and WildStar is considering it. This tells me that both companies are considering their free-to-play options before they've even given subscriptions a go. That's either a lack of faith or a good look at how much the sponge can be wrung.
We may have a whole new model on our hands: launch with a subscription, then go free- or buy-to-play. It is dishonest, it's conniving, and it's extremely profitable. The industry has embraced this model “by mistake” to the tune of incredible, press-release-worthy profits. Is it so hard to imagine a company like Zenimax, already prepping their cash shop and knowing that console players dislike anything other than optional DLC, is planning for a transition down the line?
Carbine isn't in those shoes. They're not promising a cash shop for WildStar, and frankly, they seem to be doing a whole lot more unique. But do they have the golden goose or is this another case of buy now, wish you waited later?
When I look at the MMOs I've played, whether they've gone free or stayed sub, I see an incredible value. These are games we play for hundreds of hours, thousands. They are games designed to last far longer than any we'd play alone. From this viewpoint, I see any game expanding the industry as a positive for us all, and any game failing as a loss. So believe me when I say that I hope The Elder Scrolls and WildStar reach every corner of success they deserve.
The new model we've seen emerging is a problem, however. It is a poisonous, devious potentiality that encourages players to invest and commit only to feel taken and robbed. Let it be said today that many of us look to TESO and see free-to-play spelled out in their cash shop. Let it also be said that we won't fall for these tactics for long, if that is what they are. Tread carefully,
Chris "Syeric" Coke
Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight