Will Elder Scrolls Online Become Free To Play?

elder scrolls 1The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) has come under a barrage of criticism since its inception. Fans of the series were divided. On one hand some didn’t care about the £9 per month subscription fee. I have many friends who pretty much only play Skyrim. Every time they attempt to delve into a completely different game Skyrim pulls them back in. To them, paying a fee every month to play alongside friends is worth it.

“Can TESO maintain and warrant the subscription fee?”

On the other hand Elder Scrolls has inevitably isolated fans who begrudge paying for the privilege to explore this vast and expansive world with friends. This mentality is sadly the case with any subscription based model and it doesn’t just apply to Elder Scrolls. So the real question is can TESO maintain and warrant the subscription fee indefinitely or will they change tact and become a free-to-play model?

Essentially there are 3 major models that developers like to follow. Each with their pro’s and con’s. There are subscription models, which we’ve already touched upon. The free-to-play model were gamers can play the game for free but can pay for coveted content in the form of microtransactions. Finally there is the player created content model were the game is either paid for in full (like a traditional retail model) or completely free. The additional content throughout the games lifecycle is created and modded by players. This can range from missions, maps or in game items – some are free, some come at a price.

Bethedsa, so far, have failed to disclose any figures relating to how many active TESO players are currently subscribing to the game. This could be because TESO came with a 30 day trial period and many of those trial periods will only just be beginning to run out. It could also be due to the fact TESO has been riddled with bugs and issues since launch. Bethedsa will be desperate to fix all the problems first to help convince fans to stick with them. Perhaps this focus towards these issues is the reason we haven’t heard any actual figures? Perhaps Elder Scrolls hasn’t been a big a success as Bethedsa were hoping?

We look at what model type TESO may likely fall into.


So far there has been only one truly successful subscription based game and that is World of Warcraft. At the height of it’s power WOW was suspected to have around 12 million active subscribers. To date that number has dropped to a still might 7 million. For a game that is almost 10 years old that figure is outstanding. TESO could replicate this success to an extent.

world of warcraft

Subscription is all about the long game and the appeal of TESO, as opposed to WOW is very similar. Whilst I expect a backlash of comments about how both games are nothing alike, they are similar in terms of the worlds they are set. You can expect to see Elves & Orcs in both games and for those who are attracted to magical fantasy worlds that pay homage to Lord of the Rings, both WOW and TESO tick those boxes.

Largely due to Skyrim, RPG’s have become mainstream. They don’t just appeal to the D&D crowd that were (perhaps unfairly) stereotypically associated with such games. Now the average Joe has played Skyrim. If the value for money vs content is satisfied and the need for that content remains strong Elder Scrolls Online could last anywhere from 5-10 years.

However, that is unlikely. Even though the beta was mainly through invite only, the only figure we can clarify is that 3 million people played the beta. Bethedsa’s Matt Firor confirmed “We’ve had well over 3 million beta sign-ups.” Whilst impressive this number is nowhere near either the 7 or 12 million milestone that WOW set. However, numbers aren’t everything. Eve Online, back in 2003, started with thousands of subscribers and have continued to grow. This year Eve Online has peaked at over half a million subscribers. yet is considered a huge success despite being nowhere near the size of WOW. It would appear anywhere in between is sustainable.

Even with WOW’s declining numbers, FFXIV Realm Reborn reported that 2 million people were actively returning to the game. This perhaps gives hope to the subscription based model. But as I said this is about the long game. WOW changed it’s subscription model by allowing players to play for free for a limited time. Once a players character reached level 20 and they wanted to progress further, they would have to pay a subscription.

If World of Warcraft continues to lose players we can expect the game to become free to play one day and it appears that sticking to just a subscription model may not guarantee longevity. Skyrim is a huge franchise but nowhere near a big as Star Wars. Yet the online Star Wars game by Bioware, The Old Republic, quickly changed it’s stance from subscription to free-to-play. You can expect TESO to chop and change the parameters of their subscription fee all the way up to the December release of TESO on the Xbox One and PS4.


If TESO chose to become free to play, it could adopt the ethos of DC Online Universe. DC allows players to play for free but has embraced almost every model to cater for all types of players. DC Online Universe gives players the option to purchase DLC packs, with differing special powers and playable areas – much like any standard retail game such as COD with its 4 map packs. These DLC packs would be a one off payment and that would be the end of it. Money in the bag, so to speak.

dc online universe

Interestingly, DC Online didn’t scrap their subscription fee but changed how it worked. Alongside DLC packs, they also had a tier system for subscription at differing costs. The Legendary subscription, for example, would grant you access to features in the game that a F2P player would not have access to, such as a bank account to store virtual money. F2P players are restricted to carry around 1500 credits and yet some in game items are well over that price.

Star Wars: The Old Republic ditched subscriptions in favour of microtransactions, as a result they have generated around $139 million in revenue. Even though microtransactions have come under scrutiny, largely due to the term ‘free-to-play‘ being misleading, this may be a model TESO will have to adopt. Dropping the subscription certainly does encourage more people to test out the game but whether it is profitable is another thing. So far the signs are good despite claims from mobile games developers that the revenue generated from micro transactions is less than 1%. Big name developers don’t seem to be suffering at all, as WOW (which also has included micro transactions) reported around $213 million in additional revenues last year.


Although details are sketchy, free to play post apocalyptic zombie game H1Z1, which is coming to the PS4, intends to blend micro transactions with player created content to instill longevity to the game. Players will be able to create items and hopefully areas within the game. Some of these items may be free or perhaps some of the content will available at a price. Another game that has embraced this ethos is Unreal Tournament. The new Unreal game will be made in conjunction with modders to help create the necessary content. As reported by Polygon, Polge (Epic) said that “free means free.” Unreal Tournament will not be classed as a free-to-play game and will not involve micro transactions. Instead players will be able to create and sell content on the forums such as in game maps and game modes.


This is following in the footsteps of many PC games such as the original Neverwinter Nights and even Skyrim. Both games encouraged modders to create their own content and either sell it or share it with fans of the game. Neverwinter’s revolutionary stance saw 1000’s of servers running with player created content. Although the original Skyrim had this ethos, and produced amazing content such as Falskaar, it is unlikely TESO will change to a player created content model. Very few games that start with subscription fees are just handed over to the public to do as they will. If TESO had originally been sold in retailers in the usual way with 3-4 DLC packs throughout the year, we perhaps would have seen player created content. As such, I doubt Bethedsa would want to lose out on any potential revenue streams.

With all of this being said, it is the next few months that will be key. Several patches will be in place to ensure that the money subscribers are paying is at least value for money, but with the Xbox One and PS4 version of TESO delayed until sometime around December this year, Bethedsa will have a tough time maintaining those subscriptions. The addition of those console gamers, which were expected to join the battle in June, would have gone a long way to ensuring that TESO’s initial success was cemented.

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