The Increasingly Troubling Monetization of The Elder Scrolls Online

ESO Dro m'Athra Senche Mount

Two months ago I penned a fairly exhaustive overview of the more egregious avenues of contemporary MMO monetization, the most offensive of which do not make a material appearance in The Elder Scrolls Online. Of course, long time readers will know that I’ve never seen a cash shop I didn’t hate, and if they needed any further proof, this post is going to provide it.

It needs to be stated outright that nothing The Elder Scrolls Online is doing is a deal-breaker. While there are minor elements of competitive pay-to-win, they have literally zero impact on veteran, endgame players, functioning merely as catch-up mechanisms for those willing to shell out the cash. I still don’t like it, but these sales aren’t doing anything to negatively impact anyone’s play, either. Thanks to its origins as a premium, subscription title, The Elder Scrolls Online also features minimal fun-pain oriented monetization. These were developed by taking advantage of existing opportunities instead of designing the game around the infliction of said pain. What little is present can still be unlocked with a minimal investment of in-game currency per the original design, and in the end no offense is really created.

So what’s rotten in Tamriel? An increasingly insidious cycle of coercive marketing meant to hook players on purchases before they have all the facts.

Limited Releases

One of the more controversial features of recent cash shops (Guild Wars 2 springs immediately to mind) is the idea of a limited time release, wherein players are only afforded a few days to make a purchase.

The Elder Scrolls Online has proved quite fond of these and honestly, they aren’t all bad. Limited releases introduce an artificial scarcity to digital goods, adding value to them by, for example, ensuring that you don’t end up with everyone riding the same mount. The perceived value of retired items can increase with age, as players view them as indicative of veteran status for inhabitants of the game’s virtual world. This increases the value of these items to the players that purchased them, and I can only characterize that as a good thing.

On the other hand, it does create an exigent pressure to buy now, preying heavily on players’ fear of missing out. This isn’t a new advertising technique by any means, but there’s just something slimy about relying on a customer’s fear of regret to coerce them into making a purchase.

Slimy as it may be, this technique is only a small cog in the marketing machine comprising my issue with The Elder Scrolls Online‘s monetization.

The Hype Machine Rolls Ever Onward

ESO Treasure Hunter Outfit

Someone’s hunting for treasure alright.

I’ve noticed a recent trend of MMO games hyping cash shop releases as if they were actual feature releases. The Elder Scrolls Online is not alone in this practice (Guild Wars 2, again), but its latest deep-dive into its upcoming Dark Brotherhood update breaks away from the peloton to secure a definitive lead.

This is a “deep dive” for upcoming cash shop updates, published during a series of deep dives into features coming with the Dark Brotherhood update. Keep in mind that this particular deep dive comes in addition to the regular Crown Store Showcase news releases, which already exist to promote upcoming cash shop content.

The purpose here is fairly straight forward: to build hype for cash shop updates so that players are ready to buy when the virtual items are finally released. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, except for one minor, extremely troubling detail.

Notice what’s missing in their extensive coverage of upcoming cash shop releases? Pricing.

The Other Shoe Drops

That glowing mount on the top of the page? That’s $40. That’s ridiculous, and debuts at an unprecedented high for The Elder Scrolls Online. Worse yet, it’s only on the store for five days.

If You Don’t Like It, Just Don’t Buy It?

Just wait until they add hats.

Just wait until they add hats.

There’s nothing inherently insidious about overpriced cash shop items. The problem is the marketing surrounding those items. Players are given all the hype without any pricing information, and when that information is finally made available to them at the item’s release, they’re pressured into making the purchase immediately due it being a limited time offering.

This is an unabashedly predatory tactic. Selling players on cash shop products while deliberately withholding the price of the item until the last minute, then putting a timer on the sale is a tactic that would make even a used car salesman blush with embarrassment at the audacity of the technique.

The good news is that the Dro m’Athra Senche is just a cosmetic item. So yeah, if you don’t like it, absolutely don’t buy it. Your gameplay won’t be affected at all, and the rest of us won’t have to look at you riding around on that ostentatious, out-of-place, immersion breaking ode to the modern gamer’s lack of impulse control.

The Wrap-Up

So far this marketing scheme has only been applied to cosmetic items that don’t affect gameplay, and I don’t see any indications that this is going to change. All things considered, The Elder Scrolls Online has a fairly inoffensive cash shop, made even better by their subscriber benefits generously including $15 of cash shop currency for each month in addition to the other incentives. Viewed holistically, this game’s cash shop is nowhere near being egregious enough to put me off of the game.

As for the Dro m’Athra Senche, I don’t like it, so I’m not buying it. My personal decision making process was as simple as that.

So why write this? I guess it’s just to raise awareness of how these game companies are manipulating us as consumers. When you next read a news piece from The Elder Scrolls Online or some other MMO promoting its cash shop updates, I want you to think: where is the pricing? If you don’t see it, don’t buy into the hype. Because you never know when that price is going to be 40 goddamn dollars.

13 thoughts on “The Increasingly Troubling Monetization of The Elder Scrolls Online

  1. The consumer demanded this. There was a time when we paid a monthly subscription fee for an MMO and that was that. All content was in the game – no cash shops, no out-of-game currency, just a subscription fee of $9-15 / month.

    However, at some point there was a crusade against the subscription model. Game companies reacted, and free to play / buy to play was born. However, to quote an old cliche, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Companies still had to monetize their product so they started removing content from the game and putting it in cash shops.

    Personally I despise the free to play / buy to play model. I would much rather just spend $15 a month and have access to all content. Unfortunately I’ve realized that I’m in the minority. So my question back to you: how would you monetize ESO? And before you say that the main thrust of the issue is the price, remember that you have no insight into their finances (or their information on what people will and will not spend), so simply stating that they should have cheaper mounts may not work as it may not cover the cost of upkeep for the “free” players.

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    • You can find my exhaustive thoughts on MMO monetization here.

      The short of it is just don’t pit yourself against your customers. Don’t design games where the gameplay drives them to cash shop to seek relief. Don’t make them pay to compete with each other or to make it through content. Don’t market your microtransactions in a way that hides the cost of an item.

      Then, make sure that your monetization incentivizes creating new gameplay and not just adding new cash shop items. ESO already does a fine job of this by selling DLCs (you’ll notice in the article I just linked, I specifically mention ESO as a game that has one of the best models out there).

      On top of that, I think there should always be an in-game avenue for obtaining cash shop items. You can let players sell cash shop items to one another for in-game goods or provide a currency exchange where they trade in-game coin for cash shop currency. In those systems you’re still getting paid for those items, but players at least have an option to earn these items by playing the game. Guild Wars 2 does this very well. SWTOR has an alright take on that, but it relies a bit too heavily on RNG lockboxes for my tastes (which would fall under not pitting yourself against the customers).

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    • Seldon,
      I can understand your point when you said that you prefered to pay every month by spending 15$. Take a look at WoW. It began by 15$ and it even reached 40$ a month. Buying the game, some DLCs as well (the developers worked to create it so they deserve to get paid for it) is fine but having to pay to play, I don’t get the idea… You’ll pay 180$ a year where, thx to the system available in ESO, you barely need to pay (except for horses, boosts etc). I paid only 150$ but I have everything I will ever need. I’ll buy the next DLCs but then, everything else is free. Isn’t it better ?

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      • I think the big point of division here is that you think cheaper is automatically better, whereas people who prefer subscription only models are taking a much more holistic look at the user experience.

        Monetization relying on a cash shop heavily incentivizes putting content in the cash shop instead of the game. For example, TESO has no mount collection through gameplay, because they put them all in the shop. In a game that was previously subscription only (say, World of Warcraft pre-cash shop), these would have provided hours and hours of gameplay for players looking to collect them, so players who typically enjoy that kind of gameplay understandably aren’t very big fans of games with cash shops.

        The worst part is that as far as cash shops go, having less gameplay is pretty much your best case scenario, with coercive monetization (we’ll give them no inventory space and drop tons of non-stacking junk loot!) and pay-to-win (ranging from XP potions to directly selling power) coming in further along the spectrum. When it comes down to it, it’s not just not have to worry about any of that bullshit because the game is subscription only.

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  2. Since the focus of the article is ESO, I don’t really want to address games that do a poor job of managing their cash shop. To address your points:

    – ESO isn’t designed to have any of the concerns in your first paragraph, except for “hiding the cost of an item.” It isn’t really hidden though since it is visible once the item hits the store. I guess this is more of an issue of “oh I was so looking forward to that cool item but now that I see the price I can’t afford it / don’t think it is worth it.” That’s a very subjective complaint.
    – Second paragraph, no issues.
    – Third paragraph is the contentious part, because as soon as cash shop items are also achievable in game they are vulnerable to farming, market manipulation, and a whole host of other issues. The cash shop is to make the company money, not as an alternative advancement system for players who don’t have the time to play the game. I think that’s something overlooked in your article and reply.

    In the end, my real only complaint regarding your otherwise well-written article is the subtly sensationalist title. There’s nothing really troubling about the ESO cash shop. A limited-edition cosmetic was posted that is equal to three months of subscription fees, $40 at full crown price, or somewhere around $25 of on-sale crown price. Nothing in that is troubling. It is what it is. Now, if the mount ran faster than other mounts, that would indeed be troubling.

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    • It’s naive to think that withholding the cost of an item while hyping it up isn’t a deliberate marketing move to sell players on the item before they’re in possession of all the facts, and then further applying pressure to buy with a limited time sale of the item. That’s a coercive and manipulative way to market a product, and there’s absolutely nothing subjective about any of this.

      Your response to my third paragraph makes no sense at all. In SWTOR and GW2, items only enter the game through the cash shop, they can just be resold to other players or cash shop currency can be resold by players who purchased it with real money. It doesn’t take any money away from sales (also, re: the cash shop not being an alternative advancement system, tell that to ZOS the next time they put a motif on the Crown Store).

      As for the title being “subtly sensationalist” – honestly, that statement makes zero sense. Subtle and sensational are virtually antonyms. Further, the article lays out exactly what’s troubling about the cash shop. You’ve decided that you disagree, but that doesn’t mean the title doesn’t perfectly match with the content of the article.

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      • So a SWTOR player who can buy a cash shop item on the galactic market doesn’t take any money away from sales? I’m not sure how you can make that argument. It sounds like you simply don’t like cash shop exclusivity, which is fine. I’m not a fan either.

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        • I can make the argument because I understand how the system works. How exactly do you think an item ends up listed on the GTN? I’ll give you a hint: it comes from somewhere and the answer isn’t “the force did it”.

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          • A player bought a loot crate and sold the item (to answer your question). So EA monetized one player. If the item was cash shop exclusive, then the first player would have not been able to sell it on the GN, and if the second player wanted the item they would have needed to buy a loot crate off the GN.

            Seems pretty simple to me. Scenario 1: one person spending money. Scenario 2: two people spending money.

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          • Except your scenario is incorrect. The seller buys the item specifically to sell for in game currency, not for their own personal use. If they couldn’t sell it, they wouldn’t buy it. There wouldn’t be any sale at all.

            The system creates excess demand by providing an additional use for cash shop items.

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          • Ah OK, I see what you’re saying. It is very similar to the game time token idea. A very controversial topic, since the person spending money on the cash shop to get in-game currency is simply leveraging a sanctioned version of RMT, which is the original pay-to-win system.

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  3. Pingback: The Increasingly Troubling Monetization of The Elder Scrolls Online, Part 2 | The Errant Penman

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