The Elder Scrolls Online

Ryan Dancey defends Elder Scrolls Online's subscription fee

Emanuel Maiberg at

Forbes’ Paul Tassi recently wrote a piece predicting that Elder Scrolls Online, the upcoming MMO from Bethesda and ZeniMax, will be “the biggest game disaster of 2014.” He argued it could never recoup its rumored $200 million budget with its monthly subscription fee monetization model. “Console players, and hell, most PC players these days that aren't die hard WoW or EVE Online devotees, have no patience for the increasingly outdated monthly subscription model,” he wrote. Yesterday, Goblinwork’s CEO and former CCP CMO Ryan Scott Dancey wrote a detailed counter-argument over at mmorpg.com.

In short, Dancey argues that the monthly subscription model is still viable if used correctly, meaning as just one of several models a developer should give the player as an option. He points out that free to play and microtransactions became huge in Asia because of vastly different lifestyles and playing habits in the region. Lower incomes, fewer people with credit cards, and people who play at cyber cafes more than they do at home created the F2P model out of necessity, according to Dancey.

Games like League of Legends and pretty much the entire mobile games market (Candy Crush Saga anyone?) have proven that the F2P model works in the West too, but according to Dancey it's better to have both options, allowing players to pay a fixed price subscription if they want, or play for free and buy various aspects of the game à la carte.

Dancey's estimates of current MMO revenues

Dancey also doesn't consider an MMO’s transition from subscription fee to F2P a failure. “It just indicates that the game’s market is maturing and the developers are deploying resources to expand the footprint they use to monetize their work,” he writes. “The sign a game has failed is when it is closed, not when it begins to accept MTX [microtransaction] payments.”

Turbine has found success with The Lord of the Rings Online this way and Star Wars: The Old Republic seems to be recovering by the same process, so Dancey suspects that more and more MMOs will end up with this F2P/subscription hybrid model.

Less convincing is his argument that Elder Scrolls Online’s rumored $200 million budget makes more sense when you consider that Skyrim sold about 3.5 million units, amounting to about $210 million in revenue. It’s a powerful brand, sure, but I think players are informed enough to make the distinction between two very different games with similar branding, and that a lot of Skyrim fans lose all interest Elder Scrolls Online the moment they hear the “MMO” acronym.

It’s an interesting debate either way, and it’s sure to get more interesting in the next couple of years. The important thing to keep in mind is that what and how we pay for games is completely malleable. It was $50 before it was $60 and it was all over the map prior to that. At some point, we used to pay one quarter at a time, standing up in-front of a cabinet among strangers. It was Barbaric.