June 9, 2015, saw the end of my subscription to Final Fantasy XIV. I had fully intended to return to Eorzea after a brief two-month break, but something happened. I expected ESO to be a fun distraction from what had become a monotonous experience in Final Fantasy. Instead, I found an MMO rich with content and where choices mattered. Every skill point made a noticeable difference in my character’s development. With so few MMOs on the PS4, Zenimax has a product that will last a long time.
A long history of MMOs
I’ve played MMOs since Ultima Online and EverQuest, and firmly believe that the genre took a massive downturn when the paid subscription model disappeared, replaced by an overabundance of free-to-play cash shop games. When SquareEnix and Zenimax announced FFXIV and ESO would have subscription fees, I was all aboard the hype train.
But then Zenimax delayed the console version—twice. I started playing Warframe to pass the time. Yes, Warframe.
My MMO resume starts with EverQuest and Ultima Online. I played Ultima Online casually, but EverQuest was where I truly began. My proudest achievement in my two years playing EverQuest was a level 39 Iksar Necromancer. I spent so much time exploring the world in EverQuest that I forgot to level up. While I fear kited beetles on Luclin, my best friend blasted up to level 50 just in time for Final Fantasy XI to pull us away from EverQuest forever. We played Final Fantasy XI for around two years as well, until World of Warcraft came out.
I came up a melee Warlock build in WoW, back when Firestones added fire damage to your weapon. I utilized the Thrash Blade and Firestone and got as much strength as a cloth wearer could find. It was a horrible build, but I managed to rival the kill speed of a rogue friend I competed with. But the experience taught me of the importance of customization in games I enjoy. The only other game to hold my attention as long as WoW did was EVE Online, where the entire game is about customization.
The Death of the Subscription Model
WoW might be directly responsible for the shift for free to play. After all, who could compete with the juggernaut? Every new release was unfairly compared to the years-old and well-polished WoW. Rift came out in 2011 and promptly “stole” 600,000 players from WoW. The famous quote by David Reid reacting to WoW’s subscription number drop from 12 million to 11.4 million players read, “You can do some math… we know very well where those 600,000 people are.”
Rift went free to play around two years after its release, a trend that would be common during the transition to simply releasing games free to play.
As WoW’s numbers continued to decline, and previously paid MMOs went free to play or shut down entirely, the subscription model seemed doomed.
ESO and FFXIV: The Return of the Subscription Model?
SquareEnix and ESO both announced subscription models, sparking the discussion on free to play vs subscriptions. Many players across many forums praised the developers for breaking the “rules” of new MMOs and returning to the classic system. The announcements were met with an equal amount of criticism for not understanding the current market and archaic business practices. Despite the naysayers, both companies pushed for the value of their subscriptions.
Then Zenimax announced a cash shop for their subscription game at launch. Then, ESO released on PC with such awful design choices like an inability to see other players. Zenimax would eventually delay the console version before rebranding the game as ESO: Tamriel Unlimited, a buy-to-play game with an optional subscription model. The merger of free to play and pay to play had only been attempted a handful of times, most successfully by ArenaNet’s Guild Wars 2. Although FFXIV had seen success on consoles, this made a lot more sense to console players as well. It seemed like a smart idea, and I preordered the game from the PlayStation Store.
June 9, 2015.. Finally.
I was about to enter my final year of university when ESO came out. Thankful for the three-month break, I hit the game hard with a Khajit Nightblade in the Daggerfall Covenant. My favourite moment from that character was stealing a sword from the weaponsmith, laundering and equipping it, and then walking past a guard who complimented me on my stolen weapon—in front of the weaponsmith from whom I stole it. Due to the nature of memory, this may have actually happened in Skyrim and not in ESO. I’ve never confirmed guards in ESO actually make comments on weapons.
Despite my preorder earning me the “Any Race, Any Alliance” upgrade, I wound up restarting as an Argonian sorcerer of the Ebonheart Pact. It took me about nine months to reach level 50, and even today I’m only Champion level 41. A week ago, after an Overwatch- and No Man’s Sky-inspired break from the game, I decided to start over again. I created an Orc Dragonknight and went back to Daggerfall, where it all began. I had enough Champion Points to get “Plentiful Harvest,” which gives a chance to earn double from resource nodes.
Play ESO how you want.
My Dragonknight has spent two skill points in combat skills and fourteen points in crafting skills. I’ve spent the last three days running around Wrothgar collecting iron, flax, and runestones. ESO’s DLC areas have a scaling feature built into them that “battle levels” you so players of any level can enter the zone. In addition, DLC areas spawn gathering nodes based on your crafting skills, so I can gather everything I need by running around Wrothgar, dodging harpies and avoiding evil tree monsters. This really helps the “play how you want” concept behind ESO. The fact that I can have fun with only two combat points and fourteen crafting points playing the game how I want to play is refreshing. I do plan to eventually expand my skills to five combat abilities, but I’m in no rush to do so.
I haven’t even touched on the PvP aspect of the game, in which three factions battle for control of Cyrodiil and the Imperial City. I’ve barely touched the game’s instanced dungeons. I’ve never seen any of the endgame content—though, to be honest, endgame has never interested me.
So what is it?
To answer the question posed in the article title, I think ESO’s appeal is the “something for everyone” approach Zenimax took, but with one key element. Players who want to do nothing but veteran dungeons and fight huge bosses can do that. The people who want to spend 133 skill points in crafting and ignore combat can do so, and the game now offers more ways to accomplish that goal with scaling DLC areas—and One Tamriel’s scaled world release will further enable the pacifist player.
For the first month I played ESO, I pickpocketed. I learned where I could hide in Daggerfall and I stole everything I could. Later, I learned I could steal from shops and break the items down. Then, for another month, all I did was steal iron greatswords and break them down to level crafting. In those two months, I killed less than a dozen enemies outside of the city gates.
So it’s this freedom, but it’s a little more than that. It’s also important to note a lack of penalty, especially with One Tamriel on the horizon. Playing the game how you want to play really doesn’t negatively impact other players. There are a handful of exceptions, like a character with no passive skills joining a dungeon, but the no passives player likely isn’t joining dungeons on a regular basis. In Cyrodiil, low level players lack the skills, equipment, and levels to compete, but there is plenty they can do. Healing, repairing walls and doors, scouting.. even PvP has an abundance of choices. And it’s this choice that differentiates ESO from so many other games. Within the “theme park” MMO setting, ESO manages to still give players enough choices to feel less theme park and more sandbox.