Why The Elder Scrolls Online Subscriptions Tanked

The Elder Scrolls Online had all the promise of a hit massively multiplayer online role-playing game or MMORPG, but the confluence of launch day mishaps, development missteps and impossibley high expectations have led to a subscriber exodus.

 The Elder Scrolls Hype

When Bethesda Softworks and ZeniMax Online released The Elder Scrolls Online on April 4, 2014, it was riding high on two strong hype factors.

First it was promoted to be the groundbreaking and definitive MMORPG entry to the highly acclaimed Elder Scrolls videogame series. As we have pointed out in a previous post, The Elder Scrolls Online creators had the right idea: Turn one of the most cherished action role-playing game franchises into an exhilarating open world experience. Not only was the world of Elder Scrolls expansive enough to populate an MMORPG, the fans found it fascinating to play with others in persistent version of Tamriel.

The Elder Scrolls Online was inheriting the hype from the very successful launch of the The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the latest installment in the series. Skyrim was a commercial and critical success, and arguably the most profitable and popular installment to date. Skyrim sales has exceeded $1 billion and it won Game of the Year awards as critics found little to fault in the masterpiece.

The cult of Elder Scrolls looked to The Elder Scrolls Online as the culmination of all the best things about Skyrim but even better, because it will be set in a dynamic multiplayer environment.

Second, The Elder Scrolls Online was powered by a humongous AAA development budget, estimated to be at least $200 million. That amount of resources was bound to build up high expectations from both players and critics alike that The Elder Scrolls Online would have exceptional production quality and polish.

However, simply inheriting the hype would prove to be a hubris for the game. According to Stubborn of Epic Slant, “While ESO was an overall acceptable game, I felt it traded in the free-form customization players came to love from Skyrim for a mediocre multiplayer game filled with systems that, while solid, failed to truly stand out in any way. In an arena as busy as the modern MMO market, failure to innovate in any unique way often spells trouble.”

Honors from Honor’s Code has the same views saying, “Elder Scrolls answered the question no one was asking. People wanted another Skyrim, they didn’t want a Skyrim MMO. Everything that made Skyrim so cool and such an awesome game simply doesn’t translate to the MMO world.”

Buggy Launch Day

These two factors encouraged fans to give The Elder Scrolls Online the benefit of the doubt, but their confidence in the game started to show cracks when the MMORPG entered into beta testing.

There were plenty of bugs and the play experience was falling short of high expectations. Still, many clung on to hope that these would be resolved before launch day. But with what many saw as a decision to rush the release despite persistent bugs and gameplay flaws, Betheseda and ZeniMax would enjoy a strong launch but then suffer a steady subscriber decline.

Metacritic users have harsh assessments of the bug-ridden MMORPG launch version, giving The Elder Scrolls Online a combined User Score of 5.7 out of 2203 ratings. Users could not forgive the many bugs and broken quests that littered the live version, especially when they will be expected to pay for a monthly sub after the free month that came with the box purchase.

“There are a ton of bugs, some that are seriously crippling, like everything in your bank disappearing or that really cool epic armor on your head just disappearing,” says CptFlippy. “Quests are broken and it seems that the higher level you get the less testing seems to have been done.”

Iru from Healslinger.com says, “For me, TESO was over within the first month. I had played a bit in Beta, and could tolerate the glitches and bugs because I know that is what a Beta is. Once the game was live though, I found any semblance of a persistent world destroyed.  I would run into invisible walls, randomly have my mount dismissed, suddenly be falling through the air.”

 Phasing Issues, Exploits, Imbalance

In our past assessment of The Elder Scrolls Online, we noted that while it was able to create an open world that captured the feel of a conflict-torn Tamriel, there were too many problems that went unresolved.

Players had to suffer through phasing issues, duping exploits and PvP imbalance for months after release. Many felt this was unacceptable, especially given the high cost for playing the game. Not only did players have to shell out for a game box, they also had to foot a monthly subscription. For that kind of financial commitment, a lot of players expected a nearly flawless and fine-tuned MMORPG.

Sadly, launch day systems felt clunky and even downright frustrating, and it did not help that critics magnified these issues with lukewarm reviews.

Popular videogame review sites pointed out that while The Elder Scrolls Online had flashes of brilliance, it was on the whole uninspired, incomplete or imbalanced.

According to the videogame review aggregator Metacritic, the combined Metascore for The Elder Scrolls Online was a tepid 71 out of 100, from the average of 64 critic ratings.

PC Gamer, for example, says that The Elder Scrolls Online had “a few well-designed systems struggle to overcome lifeless presentation. Capable, but ultimately hard to recommend.”

Edge Magazine laments that for all the hype that has been built up around The Elder Scrolls Online, it falls woefully short in the type of MMORPG magic that will have players logged in for years, or even months, to come:

“Players who seek the traditional MMO game experience may find something of value in The Elder Scrolls Online, because it has evidently been built with them in mind. But it is difficult to imagine many others investing hundreds of hours in a place this bland, in a formula this familiar, and in a game this demanding of both your time and your money.”

Tony from LowKey Gaming says, “While the world crafted by The Elder Scrolls Online is engaging and very fun to be in, the game itself suffers from what has been plaguing the entire industry, a lack of polish and an inadequate testing phase. The game set out to be something great but pales in comparison to what it could have been with better execution.“

Other reviewers point to the fact that The Elder Scrolls Online may have been done in by the unbelievable hype train that had industry insiders proclaiming it as the next big MMORPG.

“We approached The Elder Scrolls Online as fans of the series and as MMO lovers, but it came up short from both perspectives. It’s missing that spark of magic that enticed us to get lost in Skyrim or Morrowind for months, or that made us happy to fork over a monthly fee just to access our current favorite game,” says Polygon.

“It seems like so much effort was put into forcibly translating Elder Scrolls’ style into the genre’s norms, but the payoff for that effort isn’t there.”

Balance issues also came to the fore. “I’m very disappointed by this MMO,” says cafebabe. “Player vs Enemy is so badly unbalanced. In some key quests you fight mobs alone easily, but when you touch a boss, you need a group to be 10 levels ahead. That’s just so frustrating.”

In addition, there were complaints that the endgame and PvP portions had been underdeveloped.

While it is true that hardcore Elder Scrolls fans could care less what critics had to say about The Elder Scrolls Online, the same cannot be said of casual fans who could be more easily swayed by disappointed reviews. Combined, this droves of fans to stop paying for the monthly fee even less than a year into playing, and prevented casual fans from giving the game a go.

Drop In Subscriptions

New MMOs need time to grow, adapt to their audience, balance gameplay, etc., and they just don’t get that amount of time before their subscriber base plummets to return to a different game. ESO was already not very fun to begin with, and we noticed a dip in population within the first month of playing, so it was only a matter of time before it went free-to-play”, explains Bradley from What’s Your Tag.

It is hard to track the numbers to display this decline in player interest, but we can piece together disparate data to show the drop in subscribers.

Being a private company, Bethesda is not beholden to anyone to release revenue data, but analyst firm SuperData says that subscribers as of June 2014 – or two months after release – numbered around 772,000.

This is woefully low compared to the 5 million players that registered for The Elder Scrolls Online beta, or the estimated 1.2 million players that may have bought both digital and physical copies.

(The 1.2 million copies sold statistic comes from the 4:1 formula for digital sales as a ratio of physical copies. It has been officially confirmed that The Elder Scrolls Online sold 300,000 physical edition boxes, including the Standard and Imperial editions.)

Revival Efforts

It does not take a math wizard to conclude that The Elder Scrolls Online has since seen a massive drop from the 772,000 subscribers in June 2014.

By the near-end of 2014, forum posters began complaining that the game is beginning to feel empty and dead. There were also cries for help from players claiming their servers were deserted and they had been having a lot of trouble finding players to group with.

The blame game then began. Vocal critics put developers to task for failing to resolve bugs and imbalance issues quickly. Some even went as far as accusing the team of spending far too many resources developing the console versions for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One instead of fixing the PC version.

To be fair, The Elder Scrolls Online did have its share of defenders who believe that developers have been doing a decent job correcting their mistakes. New content has also been rolled out after the launch to enhance the endgame experience.

One of these defenders was MMORPG.com, which praises the developers for taking risks to stand out from the pack and bring to life the beloved Elder Scrolls universe.

“It strives to be different from the usual theme park MMORPG, and it also faithfully represents the Elder Scrolls universe through lore and gameplay,” says MMORPG.com.

“It does need a few key refinements, but I will be subscribing for a good time to come, and I can’t wait to see how the game improves over time. If you’re on the fence, give it a go, or at least be ready and willing when the inevitable free to trial system shows up.”

Subscription-free model

This ominous forecast from MMORPG.com became reality in January when Bethesda and ZeniMax announced that it will be dropping paid subscriptions for The Elder Scrolls Online.

The subscription-free model will still require players to purchase a game box but they will no longer have to pay for a monthly subscription to keep logging in.

Alongside the subscription-free model, the developers will be relaunching the Windows PC and Mac versions as The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited – a rebranding exercise to communicate that the MMORPG is now cheaper to play.

Some would agree at this decision from the developers like Jaedia of Dragons And Whimsy who says, “I have personally always felt that the high-cost box price was too much with a subscription on top, so I have been hoping all along that the game would go for a buy-to-play model. “

Connor from MMOFallout says, “The idea of a mandatory subscription was doomed from the start. The ridiculous notion that a good million or more would pay premium prices for the addition of multiplayer elements at the cost of numerous game mechanics that have either been severely altered or outright removed needs to be considered.”

This is a gamble for developers as they replace a big bulk of their revenue stream from monthly pay-to-play subscriptions to optional perk-based premium membership. Members get a monthly stash of crowns to spend on the online store for customization and convenience items. The membership fee will cost $14.99, or the same as the now-defunct monthly subscription fee.

The subscription-free strategy is loud and clear: Entice more players to populate The Elder Scrolls Online and hope that enough of them would get invested enough to purchase a membership and get more enjoyment out of the MMORPG.

Most notably, the buy-the-box-then-play-free model will be a major selling point as Bethesda and ZeniMax try to recruit fresh blood for its console versions launching this summer.

The Elder Scrolls Online is hoping that it can achieve the same success as the likes of Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn, the relaunched version of Square Enix’s flunked MMORPG. Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn has been on a resurgence thanks in part to a warm reception among console fans.

Will the gamble work?

With the developers hard at work fixing all the problems that hobbled the game at launch and lowering the cost of play by nixing mandatory subscriptions altogether, there is hope that the fan base will flourish once again to launch day levels of size and enthusiasm.

But even if all the chips fall into place and the console versions launch without a hitch, The Elder Scrolls Online will be battling a generation of gamers with far too many options. There is no denying that they have lost a permanently lost a significant number of their game box owners.

One of them is Werit from Werit’s Blog who says, “ESO entered a crowded space with veteran games that have a lot of content.  It’s hard to compete with a subscription-only model when you are the newcomer.  Add in the fact that subscriptions and consoles have not really caught on, it makes a lot of sense that they would change their payment model.  I have been subscribed since launch, but when the changeover happens, I will likely drop it until I see the direction that the game is going.”

It is a reality in the current crowded MMORPG market that you are given one chance to impress a gamer. Squander that chance and they will invest in one of the hundreds of existing other options, or the dozens of flash new titles launching in 2015.

History books will describe The Elder Scrolls Online as having failed to live up to its impossibly high potential in 2014, but it still has the capacity to re-define 2015 as the year it turned things around.

However, there are some who continue to hold on to what little hope ESO has. Larry from Hyperspacebeacon says, “Elder Scrolls games have traditionally sold better on consoles. That is where ZeniMax intends to make up the cost of producing this game. It never intended to make money on PC subs, that was just a way to float it along until it could release on console.”

What are the factors for success? If past subscription-free models are any indication, developers will need to drill down hard to balance the interests of both non-members and members. The perks need to stay reasonably cosmetic but enviable enough to warrant a purchase. Console gamers must also receive versions that have been wholly optimized for their platform, or risk an even larger backlash – console gamers are notoriously less patient of buggy releases – one that the game might no longer be able to recover from.



  • I didn’t play Elder Scrolls online at all. Got into the Beta and played it for one weekend but didn’t really look at it after that. Something I think this article should of touched on was the Elder Scrolls migration to an MMO. I enjoyed Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim because they were my story, no one else. the MMO concept means the world moves and changes while I am away. it is no longer my story (selfish I know but that is how I felt about it). I don’t know how Elder Scrolls online pulled this off story wise, maybe it was amazing but like the article says… Box price and a subscription means I wasn’t going to pay and find out. Though I will be looking at it again … maybe… when it becomes free to play (though that Box price still deters me).

    • Lord Xantosh

      want better graphics in Morrowind, look up MGSO Morrowind Graphics and Sound Overhaul, it is awesome looking!

  • Michelle

    Still owning legal copies of ALL TES games, I waited hopefully for TESO to emerge. Then I discovered that it was to be the usual MMO PVP trash where even ADSL is at the mercy of the cable kid living next door to the TESO server. But I thought that I would persevere and although I never arrived at the PVP level I did enjoy it. That is, until my character Sappho of Lesbos was deemed NonPC (due to the name) and I was told to change the name or else. I went through 6 weeks of emails and one person would say that it was OK then the next would say that it was not (12 emails in toto). I was so disgusted with the pettiness of both the complaint and of the TESO response that I dug my heels in and refused to change the name (It was my main Char and quite a popular char among other(but not all) players.). When the last email trickled through from the upper echelons of the TESO bureaucratic maze informing me that I had to change the name or else. I deleted the whoile game from my PCs and that was that. Personally I am still extremely angry and if the game fails totally then so be it as I have no pity fro TESO. However at the PVE level the game was exceptionally enjoyable although I guess the usual teenybopper who rushes to level 50 and the PVP would be sick of it within 3 months(usual time for an MMO with them). Looking back now I think that it was more the TES mystique than the actual game that enthralled me and I do not miss it as Skyrim & Oblivion still have much to give. Not quite the answer anyone expected but why I left.

  • Simon H

    I can only comment from personal experience (and from talking to other players). It was difficulty. The game in itself was enjoyable and great up to 50, then veteran hit.
    Until 50 I felt fairly effective as a templar healer squishy. Moving in to the veteran content, I found my character unable to kill a single enemy in 1v1. It was utterly hopeless. Now I’m sure there are those of you calling “respec”, but no thanks. I liked the way my character played. It was the character style I wanted from the outset and I stuck with it all the way.
    Suddenly hitting the Veteran wall and essentially being told “You can’t be that character any more” wasn’t ok by me so I simply quit.
    Unless I hear there’s been some rebalancing I don’t see an incentive to return subscription or not. It’s the same story as WoW though. I’m one of the many millions that quit that, purely because we were sick of the top end elitism that turned the game into an unrewarding and painful grindfest or series of fails. I’m not interested in being an elitist or top end. Most players aren’t..

    • Lord Xantosh

      im the opposite for wow, i quit cause of Blizzard enticing stupids to level faster and not learning how to play, prime example in a lvl 60 dungeon me and 3 others were trying to teach this fwit pally dps how to turn off his righteous fury cause he kept whinging about dying all the time! i miss the elitist top end that was BC and WOTLK, the game is way to easy now and it makes it boring! thats why i like the combat system in ESO its a challange to live and you will fail most the time’

  • Yalitzer

    I can say Phasing was the biggest reason I quit. Once it goes free, I’ll hop on and grind to max level and skip story stuff just because I can’t play with friends anyway in this MM-FREAKIN-O.

  • Ian Franks

    In this day and age launching any MMORPG with too many bugs is going to kill it. WOW got a solid user base back when problems were still acceptable, and then was able to steadily grow while fixing problems. All the Elder Scrolls games are awesome, but they are fundamentally designed for one player, and there is a huge difference between playing by yourself and playing with thousands.

    http://gamerjournal.net

  • Sibrwd Rhewi

    I was playing the Mac version from launch day. To start out with, the
    download was over 25 gig. From that point on, there was at least one
    “patch” a month, typically more, that was 5 gig or over. The usual
    cycle was: patch comes out, takes two days to download, patch has bug
    that requires “repairing” several times (more downloads sometimes),
    finally get to play game for a day or two before next huge patch breaks
    it again. And god forbid you should get off the treadmill- then you had
    to suffer through multiple huge patches back to back to catch up.
    Sadly, I loved the game, didn’t mind paying, no issues with the gameplay, don’t mind paying
    for something I like, the graphics were beautiful, and it was one of
    only two MMPORGs I know of currently running that doesn’t cram PvP down
    your throat. But my ISP and system simply couldn’t handle the massive
    constant downloads. If game makers are going to cater to only big city players with unlimited mega fast ISPs, then they can expect to lose a huge chunk of the player base that lives in small cities, suburbs, and rural areas.

  • wowFAD

    The points brought up in this article are insightful and completely spot-on. However, the reason ESO failed to retain subscribers — the reason for the massive winter exodus — is that the developers were treating players like political campaigns treat voters: promise good things are coming tomorrow so people can justify playing (and paying for) a broken game, today. It’s possible to string anyone along like that, if you make the *right* promises.

    During the summer of 2014, the developers were clamoring to make up for the mistakes they made with post-level-50 progression, e.g., the Veteran System by coming up with a new progression scheme dubbed the Champion System that would depend upon Champion Points accrued account-wide. However, it was going to take time to roll out the Champion System, and new Fall releases (Destiny, Wyldstar, Dragon Age) were quickly siphoning away subscriptions. So, to retain subscriptions, in early October 2014, the developers made a promise that they would track all experience points earned from that point onwards — account-wide — that would be translated into Champion Points upon the system’s implementation. They weren’t specific about the exchange rate, but they *did* promise there would be one.

    However, in the December 19th 2014 episode of ESO Live during which the developers were supposed to unveil details into the soon-to-be-implemented Champion System, that promise was not just broken, it was shattered. Most people watched the live stream hoping to learn what the exchange rate from XP to champion points would be. But there was no exchange rate unveiled to the player community. Instead, they informed the player base that they would be getting a flat 30 champion points, regardless of XP earned in the ten weeks since Zenimax promised to track it. And then… Zenimax went on holiday, leaving their players feeling confused, betrayed, and outraged.

    The developers had made a promise to players they reneged upon in a BIG way. Guilds quit the game en-mass because many players had rolled multiple alternate characters to accrue more supposedly tracked XP, completing quests they could not repeat unless they deleted their alts.

    Zenimax later “compromised” by telling players they would be getting 70 points, not 30, but the damage was already done. Zenimax made and subsequently broke a promise that invalidated ten weeks worth of playtime for thousands of players. When it became inarguably clear in the official ESO forums that XP wasn’t tracked, the mass exodus began in late December 2014. Hemorrhaging subscriptions, in a hurry to plug the leak, less than one month after the December 19th episode of ESO Live, the game went buy-to-play, pay-to-win, offering XP-earning bonuses to “premium” players willing to continue paying $15 per month.

    Whether or not any of those promises materialized, I cannot say. I quit the game with the rest of my guild when the alts I’d spent ten weeks developing proved to be a waste of time, as well as a constant reminder of how Zenimax Online Studios manipulated me into staying subscribed & playing for three months longer than I would have, otherwise. No kidding, if they hadn’t made that promise, I would not have rolled an alternate character and would have quit ESO to play Dragon Age sometime that autumn.

    To “bring back” players slighted by the developers over the Champion Point Reimbursement debacle, they’d have to make good on their October 2014 promise and reward players for the time they put into the game in good faith that XP was being tracked for the Champion System. Short of that, the shot-callers at Zenimax are kidding themselves if they believe console release will save the game. The pre-launch hype of ESO was significantly greater than FFXIV’s, so ESO doesn’t have a well of untapped players willing to try out the game for the first time, like FFXIV did. ESO used up all of its Elder Scrolls name-brand loyalty momentum last year at Launch #1. The “Tamriel Unlimited” launch is proving to be insufficient. Console launch will also undoubtedly come and go with just as little notice from players.

    ESO would have been a massive, unparalleled success if the developers had more respect for their players and at least *tried* to make good on the promises they made. Unfortunately, they decided to error on the side of stupid and underestimated the fallout. Thus, the game failed.

  • Porter William House

    I bought the game for 25 bucks right before it went sub-free with my hunch since I played the beta that it was inevitable. It paid off and I did sub 3 times for a total of like 69 bucks spent on this game…

    I have a level 42 character and while the PVE is fun, it gets boring. It’s too on the rails and the quests are the same thing over and over again just with different races in the different little zones. How many “rescue the army schleps” or “gather the minstrel instruments” quests can you have?! It also has no-bearing on the overarcing “super-evil daedric price trying to take over the world plot.” Granted there’s the dolmans and the little spawns of daedra here and there, but I HATE that the “story” is a separate space-time continuum from the world. It makes the PVE just feel like you’re grinding for the next little snippet of “story”. The delves are short little cookie cutter, copy pasted things with maybe a lorebook, boss, and skyshard, and are so repetitive looking that you stop paying attention to the scenery which does looks good.

    The game runs smooth, I get 70 fps+ running on max settings and my computer isn’t good compared to hardcore builders. The graphics look nice, but after awhile it’s like being in a shopping mall for awhile, the colors and scenery and everything looks the same over and over.

    Crafting is great and is the only thing I 100% love about the game. I make new gear every 2 levels but it really makes the game too easy.

    I PVPed a ton and probably gained the bulk of my levels through it. It’s great on teamspeak with guildmates but after an hour of taking the same keep over and over and resource capping, it gets monotonous. How many times can I take the same copy-pasted keep (Allessia!!!) over and over? The PVP should have been more sandboxy. Even the PVP is on the rails, there’s really only 1 or 2 main paths to get to places and there’s only 1 or 2 GOOD ways to capture stuff. I don’t like the Chinese checkers layout at all (although I get that it’s for balance)

    Speaking of balance, the classes are garbage and while it’s claimed you can build however you want, you really cannot because there are certain “builds” (and even the stupid company posts builds on their Facebook) that are preferred and maximize the “numberz bruh.” The classes are so imbalanced and it’s ridiculous in pvp when 1 guy can outlive 10+ people on the field by just shielding and healing over and over. I’ve had so many fights where I just quit the game because the enemy would just heal and shield and I would just keep running out of magika…AND I WASN’T DYING BECAUSE HE WASN’T HITTING ME. Also, it’s completely ridiculous that some classes can TELEPORT through walls and get on top of towers and kill you when YOU OWN THE KEEP. So many high levels do this in non vet and it’s maddening when your friends who are lower get trolled by 1 guy.

    I don’t know, I log on for a day, and get into it, but then I end up looking at the clock realizing I spent hours playing, doing the same basic thing over and over before logging off and wishing I was at work making overtime instead. It just isn’t FUN enough for me. I felt basically the same in beta. There just isn’t enough “life” to it. There’s crafting and everything but I want more life. I want to LIVE in this game and it hasn’t pulled me in yet. It just feels like 3 disjointed things PVE, Story, and PVP in one game.

  • Lord Xantosh

    its funny how people expect this game to be bug free on launch day, clearly they weren’t around for launch days of EVE online and WOW, those were buggy as hell, shit even to this day wow releases a patch and its buggy as fuck, this is the standard for online games, because trying to get something so big perfect takes time and money, but these plebs don’t seem to understand that!

    • Franciscus Michael Panggabean

      Here’s the thing, do people actually care about the fact that other mmo’s had bug as well? Second, This game was probably originally targeted for Elder Scrolls players first, MMO players second, so ES players will of course have different perception of what’s suppose to be in the beginning. They won’t see it as another MMO game, but as another Elder Scrolls game.

      • Lord Xantosh

        Sadly thats the thing wrong, is so many sites (not the actual ESO site) were coining this game as Skyrim online and thats where alot of hatred for this game started (because it was nothing like Skyrim), and sadly being an mmo does take away from the feel of the other Elderscrolls games (being the one and only hero), but i personally love the game, the mechanics, the graphics, the community (thankfully they have kept console fanboys separate from us PC master race)

  • Groot

    i feel like i was actually in the minority about liking Skyrim bc it WASN’T a MMO game.. i love the W3: Wild Hunt.. lol.. thank goodness for that right now.. i don’t mind playing MMO’s, but after a long day at work, if i wanna play some games, a lot of times i’m done with people at that point and i just wanna chill and do my own thing. what’s crazy is i’m a people person by day! go figure, right.. 😛

  • ToeUp FromTheFlowUp

    The reason why it failed is simple. Skyrim was incredible. Graphically, and the overall immersive experience of it all. If they could have captured that and simply made it into a mmo experience that would have been great. Instead it was not that. The game graphically was more cartoony and dull, and I didn’t find it in the least bit appealing. I played it once and never returned. I hated it.