Friday, January 09, 2015

Is Elder Scrolls Online Going Free To Play?

That's the murmur in today's headlines after EB Games Australia began pulling The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) from their stores along with the prepaid gaming cards. Everything related to the game is to be removed from the retailer by January 14th, based on a reported notice sent to stores. According to EB Games Facebook page, this is part of a recall by the manufacturer. It also includes pulling games such as Destiny and The Evil Within. Which is a really vague way of saying "the publisher wants their game back."

Having worked with the company (EB/GS) for years, a 'recall' can mean one of several things: the product is being discontinued, there is a physical flaw in the product (games are patched all the time these days so digital flaws are no longer tagged for a recall), or the publisher is altering the product for future consumption.

But there is a concern amongst fans of the game, when just a week ago TESO users found the 6 month subscription model removed from the system. Weak subscription numbers are typically the reason on why a publisher would pull an MMO. Unfortunately Bethseda has been very quiet about releasing this information. The last check was in June at 770 thousand subscribers, based on a report from a research company not affiliated with the publisher. I remember a lot of hype leading up to the release of the game, especially in 2013. The booth at PAX East was enormous and the line was never-ending. Once you were in, you could expect a 5-6 hour crawl before you touched the demo. From what I saw, it looked pretty. Couldn't get into the line fast enough to test.

But when you factor in the layoffs of some TESO team in September and the general decrease of subscription numbers across the board for MMO's (except World of Warcraft), it's easy to see why people are under the assumption the TESO will go to the Free-To-Play format. Recent history of MMO's such as The Old Republic have shown that FTP is almost expected. The Star Wars game is living on with this model well enough that it developed an expansion pack. The logic is consumers who love the game will pay for it; customers that subscribe get perks that the FTP consumers do not see. And those who are FTP are not cheated out of the story. Unlike some flash MMO's and RPG's such as Maple Story, which restrict you on story, character choices, items, etc. until you pay, TOR, Guild Wars (which has always been FTP after you purchase the boxed game), and Age of Conan allow you to play the game in it's entirety. If you want to reach level 50 as your warrior in AoC, you can do that. Even in WoW there is a Free to Play aspect. Restrictions are there, such as limited inventory space, a limited number of trades per day, things of that nature. But when you purchase the game, you're getting the game. The limitations are non-existent by comparison to the flash MMO's.

There is also the concern that TESO may shut down entirely. It's not exactly unheard of. Warhammer Online did this in 2013. There was no early warning. No time to say goodbye to guild members and friends. The company posted a notice on their website and gave everyone a few hours to grab their last screenshots before the servers were turned off. Even better, those who paid their subscription fees only received a partial refund, and time card users had to argue with the stores for a refund. (I snicker at the latter, because those time cards can not be refunded at any retailer. Brick and mortar stores make a tiny percentage off of those sales - it all goes back to the publisher because it's an even exchange of money. Just as if you buy a Best Buy gift card at your local grocery store. The cards are there as a way to lure you to purchase other things. That's why they're typically situated around candy and magazines, products that are easy to pick up and add to your cart because "it's just another dollar." That's how the stores get you. But I'm digressing. Once that game card is purchased, all responsibility is on the publisher to help you with any concerns. Stores do not have a way to activate, deactivate, exchange, or refund those products. They are, essentially, a store-front for the product but have 0 control over them. If you ever have a game card issue, go to the publisher. The retailers hands are tied. And that's a good way to keep the money, Warhammer! Offices are closed. No way to issue a refund!)

To be frank, some games are not meant to be MMO's. Taking a racing game or a single player RPG and transforming it into online content is not an easy feat. Elder Scrolls is about the solo experience. You are the lone warrior set out to save the world from whatever evils may await you across the landscape. Part of the game's lure was to explore the space and face perils by yourself. There's beauty in that concept, and it doesn't translate as well when you throw a thousand people into that mix, all attempting to do the same thing.

Games such as Final Fantasy and World of Warcraft were developed with the group experience in mind. The RPG's of Final Fantasy always centered around you AND your bounty of companions saving the world. It was never one person that saved the day, but a collaboration. This is where properties that currently exist trip up when they make the move online. If you don't have that group dynamic already in place, it doesn't work. That was one of my biggest concerns when Alpha and Beta testing TOR. What about this game would convince me to play with a group when the story and content is focused on the single player?

I get the feeling that is the struggle TESO couldn't overcome.

Given that TESO was only released in April of 2014 and still has a lot of life in it, the game servers going down is unlikely. We'll just have to wait and see what happens next in the Elder Scrolls saga.


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