In a recent guest column on MMORPG.com, Goblinworks CEO Ryan Dancey responds to a Forbes article that casts doubt on The Elder Scrolls Online’s ability to succeed as a subscription-only MMORPG. Both articles, as well as Forbes writer Paul Tassi’s response to Dancey, are long and informative, and good reads, but I’d like to focus on one particular point in the debate.

Dancey puts forth a notion that we’ve suspected all along: that some MMOs launch with a subscription but with every intention of switching to F2P with an optional sub down the road. I don’t think that was the case with Star Wars: The Old Republic – I honestly think BioWare thought they could maintain subs – but I’d say it could very well be true with The Elder Scrolls Online, and was almost certainly true of The Secret World, which converted to buy-to-play a few months after launch.

He’s right, too, in that it does make sense from a financial standpoint, a point that Tassi also concedes. Those initial box prices plus subscription fees can result in sales in the hundreds of millions of dollars. SWTOR sold two million copies right out of the gate, and I’d be shocked if TESO didn’t manage those numbers, at least, in its first few months.

But I’d contend that the decision between subs F2P is about more than just math. Even now, nearly five years after Dungeons & Dragons Online went F2P and really pioneered that model in the West, and has been followed by dozens of other successful and acclaimed subscription-free MMOs, there’s still the perception that “F2P” = “subpar” or, when considering a game that switches models, outright failure.

That’s not entirely unwarranted, I’ll grant; there are plenty of awful F2P games out there. But so many of the arguments revolve around the constant harassment of cash-shop popups or the reminder that you’re not getting the “full” game or other hits to one’s psyche that are, more often than not, larger than the hits to one’s wallet.

There are still a few blatantly pay-to-win games out there, but those aside, it’s really not that hard to play any F2P game out there for less than $15/month. Sure, if you demand every shiny bit in the cash shop, every flaming sword, every diamond-encrusted piece of armor, it’ll cost you, but you wouldn’t have time to accumulate all that stuff in a typical month of subscription gaming anyway. Some games can toe the line between cosmetics and advantage, but relatively few newer games obliterate that line.

Rather, I think it’s the psychological effect on gamers that make them think they’re getting ripped off, even if they aren’t, at least compared to a box price and subscription. We can still complain about SWTOR’s cash shop, but was it more expensive to buy the base game for $60 two years ago or to pay to unlock all your hotbars, helmet slot, and so on? It’s often the feeling of being nickel-and-dimed that irritates gamers, myself included – I’ve never gone back to SWTOR – more so than the actual cost. And so many free-to-play games feature the word “FREE” so prominently that it’s easy to see why people bristle at the notion of having to pay, even when they’re being offered a potentially better deal than a subscription.

Which brings us back to TESO: I contend that launching with a box price + subscription and then switching to F2P or B2P a few months to a year down the road will create a worse perception problem than if it had adopted a non-sub model from the start. The notion that ZeniMax is “waffling” or that the game is “failing” is supremely negative PR and people who grew used to the sub will grouse about having some aspects of it taken away or at the invading “freeloaders.” Human emotion is difficult for sales charts to predict.

Dancey at least is up front about his game’s (Pathfinder Online) intentions: “We’ll begin with subscriptions only, and transition to microtransactions as soon as it makes sense to do so.” If this approach is planned and from day one, as it is with Pathfinder and, as some believe, with The Elder Scrolls Online, maybe being honest about it is the better choice, even if it does cost you some initial sales.

Or maybe not. Because hey, a hundred million dollars is a hundred million dollars, and that kind of money can offset a lot of bad PR.

the author

Jason Winter is a veteran gaming journalist, he brings a wide range of experience to MMOBomb, including two years with Beckett Media where he served as the editor of the leading gaming magazine Massive Online Gamer. He has also written professionally for several gaming websites.

47 Readers Commented

Join discussion
  1. Ball on July 16, 2018

    If you just want to play an MMO and don’t have any money then F2P Games would be your best option but be aware there may be allot of items locked behind paywalls and micro transactions. But if you have money or just don’t care if you lose access to the MMO when your Subscription runs out you should buy a Subscription to a Subscription MMO the best option would be buying the 12 Month Subscription at least you wouldn’t have to worry about renewing your Subscription every 3 Months or 6 Months.

  2. Fire on April 25, 2018

    This is a hard question to Answer. I love F2P Games since all I have to do is make an account and hop online but then there’s all of those Micro Transactions and 1 Month,3 Month,6 Month,and 12 Month Membership Packages which I strongly hate. I do like Subscription only games since they don’t really have Micro Currency or try to spam you to buy in game items with real money but I dislike the fact that I have to pay the Subscription Cost just to have an Account to the game. I know the Developers are trying to make money for their products but it seems like not allot of the things they do work. No offense.

  3. ASD on November 6, 2016

    I rather buy the game or pay a subscription fee. Because free 2 play is nice but they spam you with advertisements and micro currency and cash shops. Not worth it.

  4. EvilDenies on January 19, 2014

    This is why smart people Buy GW2 and enjoy perfect MMORPG.

  5. Randolfo on January 15, 2014

    F2P ist in most cases more expensive as sub games if you want good charakter progression.

    Best Free to Play Model is

    Path of Exile

    Best B2P

    Guild Wars 2

  6. Bic Boi on January 14, 2014

    It never ends, this $hit. Opinions are like arseholes; everyone’s got one and no one wants to hear anyone else’s.

  7. P2P=Fail on January 14, 2014

    There hasnt been one successful P2P game since WoW and even its losing its grip now.

    Games that go P2P – F2P have bad reps because the “F2P” model is a joke.

    A game that releases as B2P or F2P does far better then one that goes from P2P to F2P/B2P because 90% of the time the P2P to F2P game is nothing but an insult because the F2P accounts are hit with a lot of restrictions.

    Post above was a good call on DCUO, in that game there is no difference as a premium account if you spend 5$ or 100$, you are still restricted the same and thats why the playerbase plummeted on PC, it might work on console because the F2P competition on console is like what..6 games ?

    But on PC it doesn’t work when we have a insurmountable number of F2P games being released every year for PC

    When will companies see that P2P is on its way out and there is no game that will succeed in this day and age as a subscription game..its done..its over..stop trying..all you are doing is giving your company/studio a bad reputation later on when the P2P fails and you go “F2P” but try to keep the P2P part thus ruining the F2P part.

    • Unjustified on January 15, 2014

      Really,i think ESO/WIldstar just start as p2p to have sort of a second launch as f2p. They will try to milk some upfront and sub money and 6 months-1year down the line they go f2p when the hype wears of.

  8. DirtyZerg on January 13, 2014

    The problem isn’t the model..its how companies set it up.

    Here is what I mean, lets take Path of Exile for example..nothing in the store gives you any form of advantage…the game is a hit. It succeeded. They have a strong playerbase and many buy stuff from the store, not for an advantage..but to support the game and look a little cooler.

    The thing with Sub games going F2P..is that they don’t actually go F2P.

    DCUO is a good example here..they keep the subscription option..but they then restrict the F2P/”Premium” accounts with ludacris things like a cash cap..making it difficult for anyone not SUBBED UP to do much of anything without preparing in advance..to be able to repair gear..

    SWTOR is the same..restrictions..

    When a P2P game is dieing but refuses to let go of the P2P they simply incorporate a “Demo” version of the game and slap F2P on it..all this does is scare away any new potential customers..your not going to succeed by trying to force people into subscriptions.

    F2P isn’t a bad model and there are plenty of high quality games that have done it right..TF2..HoN..DoTa2..Neverwinter (tho a bit P2W, not that bad tho)

    Why do these succeed? Because they hit the door with F2P and didn’t try to just add a demo version and call it F2P..the model works..what doesn’t work is greedy companies trying to force people into subscriptions by restricting F2P or even “B2P” accounts..like DCUO/SWTOR..this is why the populations on those games take a huge increase on “F2P” launch and then dive into the abyss again…people don’t like being tricked..and restrictions on non subscription accounts is nothing but a trick.

    • Bic Boi on January 14, 2014

      I play DCUO in an active League (Fearless Legion) that has been around since launch and that has many F2P players who I may add have reached the CR cap and never paid for a thing. You claim it’s difficult for anyone to do anything..but then how is it they’ve successfully reached Tier 5 as F2P? It’s harder, but it’s not impossible. Personal experience.

      F2P =/= All for free. There has to be restrictions or no one will pay.

      • S4rd4 on October 26, 2014

        I think his point is that strict restrictions might turn people away from the game just like my self.I have tried many “f2p” games and i dont have any problem paying to support the game if i like it.Smite for example i was playing for a few days and i liked it and i bought a God Package they had in their store.Path of Exile next,i played for for 1-2 weeks and i bought storage expansion.I left those games after a while but i dont regret spending my money on them not a single day.Why? Because they gave me the chance to play their game and enjoy it without any annoying restrictions and i appreciated that. SWTOR on the other hand the momment i realised that i count even trade with another player and even my chat messages were limited i said no thanks some other time.Yes there are very few games that have gamebreaking restrictions in their model but i agree that if you really offer your game for free you have greater chances to keep people playing it and giving their money to support a game they love and not to a game they have to pay eventually just to make things a little easier for them.

  9. hardmode on January 13, 2014

    nerdy mmo talk, you are talking about your incorrect way of life… paying this paying that… why are you so short minded?

  10. cacaballz on January 13, 2014

    Both sides are full on wrong. P2W, Sub etc… The fact is all about who is signing what contracts and how the business structure is set up in the first place (and intelectual property rights). For example, most games that shut down were usually already paid in full( most mmorpgs are), and could self sustain with a group of 5 dedicated payers. The big problems arrive when games want bigger stashes in cash by inticing investors (board members). Doing this means they HAVE to pull in X amount of dollars above budget each year. This normally works…but when it doesn’t…in an IDEAL world, the investors walk away and the game keeps running. Since GREED runs every market. Those investors sign contracts that say: “If we do not get our X at end of year, you will shut down operations, and if ANYONE re launches this title, even if F2P, and 1 penny is made…then we are due to all entitlements and can sue you for damages”… This is why Hackers that make private servers is where you escape this stupid mess of greed. Long live HAckers!
    The greed companies like to give you propaganda and they hack your account and blame it on hackers as “oh noo! Look how bad they are! They stole your wow gold!” LOLOLOLOL! They make money on that by creating “mobile log in services for a 1 time key purchase”…such a joke. You all are sheeple, and the faster you realize that the easier your gaming experience will be.

    • Solo dolo on January 13, 2014

      You’re dumb. I advise you to never comment on anything, ever. Thank you.

    • hardmode on January 13, 2014

      you are so right…

  11. Anonymouse on January 12, 2014

    If the game sucks, then it sucks regardless if it’s Sub or “Free?”.

  12. I hate F2P on January 12, 2014

    I hate F2P 90% = p2w and the 10% are bad games ….

    • You idiocy tires me on January 13, 2014

      So lol, path of exile, and planetside 2 are all bad games. Ok if you say so.

      • Bic Boi on January 14, 2014

        >Poster above names two games

        >Insults previous poster who rightly mentions that almost all F2P are pay to win in some way and that there are a bit of bad games..which again is true.

        >Apparently path of exile and planetside 2 are 10% of all F2P games

        >Mind=blown

        Use your brain before you post.

        • Pleb on August 16, 2015

          Original comment states that “90% = p2w and the 10% are bad games”, which, if your math is not good enough, is 100%, which would mean that every free to play game is either pay to win, or a bad game.

  13. Zalor on January 11, 2014

    Uhm, do you guys know ESO is in beta? The game is still subject to change and it’s going through the polish process. That’s kinda what a beta test is for. It’s very early to start claiming it as a bad game.

    • Sobex on January 12, 2014

      While true, They are NOT going to completely rework the combat system (Which is entirely floaty, has no weight, and is just boring as can be). Hell, Most the bugs from the previous beta, still havent been fixed. People unable to log in, MANY MANY grouping problems, Guild problems, AI problems. Is it a decent MMO? Sure, I’m sure it will be above your typical generic cash grab at a license. But it will not be handled the way it should be.

      In short, It does a few things decent, but nothing great.

  14. Gam3r on January 11, 2014

    the problem with ESO is that when it launches it will have so many errors that f2p games will look like wow compared to it.

  15. Qtar on January 11, 2014

    It will fail and they will start to make it f2p and then blame about the fp2 model when the game dies completely.

  16. Rawasa on January 11, 2014

    Blade and Soul china broke all boundaries when it launched F2P…high quality game with no pay-to-win cash shop items, and with a VIP option. Only problem is its in chinese.

  17. Merkadis on January 11, 2014

    The sub times are over.
    Whatever or whoever will say the fact won’t change, besides all they keep making(cloning) are boring grinders anyway, like hell i’ll be paying for that crap.
    And no1 seem to mention Path of Exile which shop is the crystal clear example of what f2p model should be like, and as we all know the game not only survive, it actually thrive like theres no tomorrow.

    So yeah, stop ur BS ladies and gents, it all IS possible, only why would those companies bother with that? they just want $ after all, at least most of them.

    • tolshortte on January 11, 2014

      people have been saying ‘sub times are over’ for years now. and yet the big budget mmos still release as sub based. face it, they aren’t going any where despite how you feel about them.

      and clearly you aren’t trying to compare what PoE is to EOS and its kind are you? seriously? while its a decent game for what it is ARPGs are not MMORPGS.

  18. Schnauzbert on January 11, 2014

    F2P Games always had a “cheap” feeling on me, atleast 98% of it. Games with subscriptions are usually of higher quality. I think F2P model would be a bad idea for such a big game as The Elder Scrolls.

    • removalmitt on January 11, 2014

      Don’t agree with your idea of quality – hence why so many have to switch to some sort of ftp just to keep population / income rolling.

      I personally found games such as rift and tera boring (no I didn’t get to end game but why must the journey there be so boring – and why would they both or definitely one of them if I remember do some event which skipped loads of levels). Cannot believe ppl would pay a sub to play them originally.

      I think a sub model is bad for near enough any new game being released in the future, days of huge mmo sub games are over, only those games that have large pops / time invested now can hold onto those ppl. Although the initial box and sub sales may generate good revenue initially, I think they miss out on a larger population which they could hold onto but in the time to move models those that would have moved to something new and better.

      • tolshortte on January 11, 2014

        players are going to move on in a couple of months anyways these days. most games don’t have a large portion of their gaming base that stay longer than 3 months.

        mostly I think its because the games themselves don’t require a great deal of time to conquer. if they do they are considered grindy and people move on anyways. Rift didn’t need to go f2p, they were doing fine. they tested your theory that it would attract more players if they did. I haven’t seen the results of that from the company but I do know lots of older players who did sub that have left since. Much like SWTOR, going f2p brings in new players but alienates older players. when SWTOR went f2p my guild of 60 practically vanished overnight.

        I would challenge you to name one mmo with the scale of SWTOR, Rift, ESO, etc that launched as f2p. just one. that is also considered at least average quality wise.

        • Unjustified on January 11, 2014

          Planetside 2. And even better, they only sell exp boosts,weapons that you get while playing and fashion. And even if you were to sink in all the money to buy all weapons,and pay booster,you would have a long time ahead to get your upgrades to cap you would be 25% better stat-wise than a new player,that can still very easily kill you.
          Then runes of magic,but that went p2w down the line, which in the end kind of killed it,but that was some time ago,not sure how it is doing now.
          There are others,but i can’t say more of the top of my head

        • removalmitt on January 11, 2014

          Hey tolshortte, yeah prob can’t give you a f2p that went as f2p with the numbers that those games peaked at current wise (but ya got EQ next, black desert, black gold incoming soon).

          My reply was aimed at Schnauzbert’s comment about f2p being a bad idea for teso (initially but just ended up generalizing). Just as you have stated, when a sub game switched to ftp your guild dropped out, ppl p2p then after a bit anyone can play f2p. Those that p2p are gonna be a high percentage of your long stay player base and if you kick them in the teeth….

          I’m not against b2p (although gw2 was a bad experience of that). I just think that a game misses out on a bigger player base initially and going toward for the future of the game if they start out as a sub.

          Also the gamers moving on in and around 3mths – only if the game is pants (whether that be endgame, amount of content, variety etc)

          • tolshortte on January 11, 2014

            thanks for the comments

            I hope f2p releases some games that are competitive with p2p titles. I really do. I want to save 60+ dollars for a great game. who wouldn’t? I like the idea of b2p as well, but I haven’t experienced a game to date that was overall positive with that model either. I own Defiance, GW2 and TSW. probably the best 3 from that model. and I wont say they are bad, but they aren’t great either.

            as far as the 3 months thing goes, I don’t think its the games. end game hasn’t really changed much since the initial treadmill style came. I think players for the most part are more or less looking for something new and exciting. just really hasn’t happened yet.

          • Kestas25 on January 12, 2014

            F2p has bad quality, bad communities and cost more to play then p2p (This seems to be main mind set). Its false free to play cost nothing and there no bad quality ones you know why its free so you download you try and move one. You can’t do that in other models for you sunk some money in to it and might as well get your money worth.One could say you can try out countless trials to test out where your puting your money but its rare to get full game in trails theres still limitations. What i’m trying to say free is better then other because your given a chance to chose ye rare given proper time to develop as they think it will not produce much revenues and is prety much like peny stocks. There is countless in numbers and main purpose to sell as many as possible to make few extra bucks.

      • Zac on January 11, 2014

        It’s not just a feeling, vast majority of games DEVELOPED FOR F2P are cheap.

        The sad reality is most people would rather play a crappy game for free than pay for a good one.

        Another thing worth noting is the player base. Most newer P2P releases sabotaged themselves at the get-go with too high graphic quality and hardware requirements, limiting their player base to only a fraction of what it could be with a more modest graphic quality.

        For example, we tried to move our 300 man WoW guild to SWTOR at release and only 40 people were able to play it with decent performance back then.

        According to Steam the most common graphic card used is Intel HD 4000…

    • Razer on January 11, 2014

      You can thank Zynga and the Koreans for most of these shoddy cash-in games. There’s no shortage of stupid people to fleece out of their money.

    • Cristian on January 13, 2014

      Also Panzar, Warframe or Neverwinter have a cheap feeling on you?

      • Cathulu on January 14, 2014

        I don’t know about panzar or warframe but neverwinter for sure.

        its a VERY good free to play game, but it would have been a laughing stock as a sub. ESO is awesome, i’ve been beta testing it for a while and each test gets a lot better (with this last one changing my mind that it may actually work out)

        I’m sorry but I wanted to love Neverwinter so bad,

  19. chefmadness on January 11, 2014

    Are we really going to talk about this crap again & again. Please for the love of gaming write about something else. It seems like every week you gotta talk about (Is Free-to-Play Where Good Game Franchises Go To Die, Should F2P Games Offer Subscriptions, Maintaining Critical Mass: F2P’s Secret Weapon, ) These are just some articles that revolve around the same subject. & they all talk about the same damn thing. Seems to me Jason winter dose not like the F2P market since he talks down on it all the time. Please write about something worth while or just wait till their is some good gaming news to pump out. It seems like the bomb just jibber jabber & put out articles just as lame filler sometimes. I’m just saying. I mean no offense.

  20. tolshortte on January 10, 2014

    mounted

    the Idea that a payment model will make a game fail is ridiculous. personally I think this article was used to push the f2p market now that its got a negative vibe surrounding it. I think they pick ESO because its not very good judging from the two betas ive participated in. so to make a prediction that ESO will be a disappointment and end up f2p isn’t a huge leap honestly. so if you wanted to use a game that starts as p2p and then claim that payment model is why it failed causing it to go f2p this would be the game to pick

    the f2p model imo is a lot like communism. its great on paper but doesn’t work irl for many reasons including greed. I wish there was a great f2p model out there, but the best I have found is good at best. if you want an even playing field for leveling, gear, content etc then f2p is impossible. counting on cosmetics to fund your game isn’t viable. most of the players in f2p games never plan on paying anything, hence why they play f2p titles. obviously there are players like myself who will invest in a f2p title trying to support a dev whos made an honest effort at creating a fun game but I would say those players are a minority.

    back ESO. f2p, b2p or p2p, it will fail. its just not that great. its not bad. but I haven’t been enthralled by it at all. I imagine the release has to be better than the beta(at least I hope) because so far I don’t see where that 200mil went.

    • Rule907 on January 10, 2014

      Cosmetic only seems to be working pretty damn well for LoL.

      • OMGFrogz on January 11, 2014

        The nexon games are doing fine too. Horrible company though.

      • Zac on January 11, 2014

        However, if you look at the store stats you see they make majority of their money selling new blatantly OP champions every couple weeks, and then nerfing them.

      • Cristian on January 13, 2014

        MOBA in general.

    • tolshortte on January 11, 2014

      mobas were left out of the articles. probably because they require less funds to produce and maintain.

      we will never see a game as large as ESO, Wildstar, Eve, WoW, Rift, etc launched by a f2p platform. the money isn’t there to support it. without the initial box sales and sub fees games of that size and depth wont see the light of day. don’t get me wrong , id love to save 60+ dollars on a great game. it just wont happen.

    • im batman on January 11, 2014

      same with tera…terrible p2p come´s f2p

    • Emil on January 12, 2014

      You could at least try to write properly…

HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY?