The Elder Scrolls Online beta & the problem with monthly fees

Friday, 7th February 2014 15:00 GMT By Dave Cook

The Elder Scrolls Online had a PvE press beta this week, and after some eight hours of play, VG247′s Dave Cook has decided he probably wouldn’t pay for a subscription yet.


I was fortunate enough to play The Elder Scrolls Online for two hours back at gamescom. In the article that followed I suggested that the MMO’s PvE component felt more like a single-player extension of Skyrim with optional co-op for those who cared to use it. As such, I had trouble seeing the true value of a monthly £8.99 subscription charge.

I’ve now played the game’s PvE beta for over eight hours and that stance hasn’t changed. I’m currently at level ten. Here’s the proof:


For many years now; since the dawn of DLC and the monthly subscription model, developers have long-debated the value of a dollar online. What is the correlation between virtual wares and real tender? How much is too much, and indeed, how generous can you be before it hurts the bottom line? This is not an easy question.

When The Elder Scrolls Online was announced as a subscription-based release, we observed many gamers on our ever-ticking social feeds crying foul, suggesting that the days of regular fees were long gone. Sceptics cited World of Warcraft’s dropping active user numbers, and the Star Wars: The Old Republic’s free component to counter the move, yet the model remains to this day. I’m sure it will be dropped in time.

However; The Elder Scrolls Online starts with something of an intelligent proposition; by first dropping you into an island off the coast of Skyrim. Now, I really enjoyed the fifth Elder Scrolls game – as I’m sure most of our readers did – and the opportunity to return to that part of the world really spoke to me. If you simply couldn’t get enough of those snowy peaks, and ice that dazzles under the sky’s hazy aurora borealis effect, then you’ll really appreciate these first few hours.

You’ll find yourself in familiar, reassuring territory as you trudge across the fantasy tundra fulfilling quests and defeating enemies as you go, and pretty soon it’ll click that Zenimax has stayed true to the series. This is an Elder Scrolls game through-and-through, right down to the Skyrim-themed HUD, similar combat mechanics and an aesthetic that is simply unmistakable. It has not – as some suggested – been given the World of Warcraft palette treatment.

It’s at this point The Elder Scrolls Online’s PvE component enters something of a ‘Catch-22′ situation. When you bought Skyrim you purchased all of that sizeable content for a one-off fee, but in the MMO, you’re getting the same familiar quests and mechanics for a monthly charge. It seems strange to type this; but it’s almost too familiar to warrant more expenditure. Again, I feel that PvP could be the clincher but we haven’t had a chance to try it yet.

Let’s dive into what we do know and start at the beginning.

(You can also watch me play 12 minutes of TESO above)

Evacuating Bleakrock

The Elder Scrolls Online doesn’t skimp on the character creation front; offering a wide range of returning races and factions to choose from, each with their own unique skill trees and passive buffs. From Redguards and Argonians, to Orcs and Bretons, you can tap into the series’ rich history of creeds and crests. I’m fond of those mead-swilling Nords, so I rolled a Dragonknight complete with fire-based abilities.

I won’t spoil the tutorial location as it’s quite central to the plot, but after arriving in Skyrim you are given the title ‘Vestige’ by a man known only as the Prophet. He warns you that the forces of Molag Bal are descending on Tamriel, courtesy of a cataclysmic event called the ‘Soulburst.’ Your role in the sticky situation has been pre-ordained by the Elder Scrolls themselves, but you learn that your fate can most certainly be re-written. So begins your quest.

Furthering Bal’s cause, Covenant Forces quickly sail upon Bleakrock, and it’s up to the Vestige to round up as many civilians as possible then escort them to safety in Morrowind. Getting people to safety involves fulfilling the same vein of fetch quests and ‘go here, kill this’ goals the series is known for, but here they feel by the numbers. There’s no shortage of tasks and plenty of NPC dialogue to add context to the chores, but it’s largely pedestrian filler.

Things do improve some-what once you hit Morrowind’s mainland, with its mushroom-infested highlands and volcanic mountain ranges. By this point you’ll have a firmer understanding of how the world works, the best way to handle yourself in a fight and the myriad features beneath the hood. Combat is explained early on, and while it’s largely the same format as Skyrim, there are a few additions to stop the ‘click-to-attack’ monotony from setting in.

Enemies can pull off charge attacks denoted by a flash of light above their heads. If you block the blow you’ll enter your foe into a stun state which allows for a heavy knock-down strike. The blocking window is tiny however, even if you hit right-mouse as soon as you see the light flashes. Area-of-effect moves are also sign-posted by red ground markers, giving you a chance to dodge-step away from moves before they register.


I like the combat changes. They certainly expand the format away from simply swinging with your weapon on the spot, or spamming magic from a safe distance, which means you have to react to what your opponent is doing more prominently. This is a positive design choice. The same cannot be said for stealth, which takes something of a back-seat. Part of the problem stems from the enemies’ stunted perspective.

Like previous Elder Scrolls games; crouching enters your avatar into a stealth state which allows for sneak-attacks and helps you bypass enemies. However, it’s all too easy to just run past foes at a reasonable distance. I’ve even run right up to enemies full sprint and only after I started bashing in their skull with my axe did they notice me. The mechanic needs work.

But when you do get noticed and combat kicks off you can always fall back on your arsenal of abilities. My Dragonknight Nord’s ‘Ardent Flame’ skill tree is full of fire-based attacks that dish out painful DPS effects, and can help interrupt power attacks. Starting ability ‘Fiery Grip’ is great for closing distance on threats by pulling them in with a red-hot chain, making it great for snaring ranged enemies – such as archers or mages – within melee distance.

I’ve been coupling this with ‘Spiked Armour,’ a temporary buff that dishes out light damage back to enemies with every incoming blow, as well as raising your defensive stat. The skill trees are massive to begin with, but after you level up an ability to a certain level it can be morphed into a new, more-powerful variant by spending a skill point. There’s certainly a lot of offensive and defensive options to play with.

Once I had hit around level six I was feeling pretty confident in my Nord’s ability to dish out pain, thanks to his selection box of brutal attacks and my ever-improving armour set.

That was, until I ventured further into the Morrowind mainland…



  1. FLOW0410

    video youtube is off

    #1 11 months ago
  2. mark_t50

    Sounds like you just don’t want to play an Elder Scrolls MMO, in which case as you rightly point out, Skyrim is the obvious better solution.

    For those who want to experience the world of The Elder Scrolls with other players, group up, form guilds and get an MMO experience then Skyrim simply doesn’t offer that choice. So on the understanding that unlike the standalone Skyrim game, this game requires covering the costs of the servers, Bandwidth, maintenance, staff, ongoing patch and game development for years etc. Then the fact they are charging a monthly fee seems more reasonable imho.

    Sure, there is an argument to be had that they could go free to play and cram the game full of microtransactions, but I’m old school and prefer the monthly sub anyway :) Don’t worry though, I’m sure this will go ‘free to play’ within a year of launch as seems to be the way of things these days.

    #2 11 months ago
  3. Dave Cook

    @2 I did want to play an Elder Scrolls MMO man, but not if it’s simply the same game with co-op, which is what this is (PvP aside of course). It doesn’t offer enough ‘new’ to warrant £8.99 a month when I’ve got Skyrim sitting on my shelf.

    #3 11 months ago
  4. Darkfield

    Why is your warrior so skinny Dave? Anywho, I foretold this, even though I really like to give it a try at launch I know that it’s not going to worth the monthly fee, as it feels and looks too closer to Guild Wars 2 gameplay structure than a traditional MMO. I also been hearing a lot about how it lacks end-game which is a very important bit of an MMORPG if you want to keep the subs on. Otherwise it’ll be like SWTOR when you got your kick from splendid class stories and after you were done with that there wasn’t much to keep you interested. As was the case with GW2 itself I wasn’t even far off level 20 before I was bored to death by it.

    #4 11 months ago
  5. BrokenSpline

    This game will be going F2P within a yeah. It is the most boring MMO I have ever played. It uses the conventions of MMOs of Today and puts an ELder Scroll sticker on it. Its not at all a Elder Scroll game or at least what you expect from it. I have been invited to the beta every time there was one and after the 4th one I have been giving it to other people to play and they all say the same thing, “I wouldn’t pay a sub for this shell of a game”

    #5 11 months ago
  6. deathm00n

    @Dave Cook Just a correction Dave, not everyone begins in skyrim, it depends on your race, if you choose Breton you will begin in High Rock for example.

    #6 11 months ago
  7. deathm00n

    @Dave Cook And to each their own I guess, if the game WASN’T like Skyrim I would never pay for it monthly, if it’s exactly like Skyrim but online, then I will pay for it gadly.

    I wouldn’t want it to become another WoW clone, or if they scrap the FP view. If it is actually Skyrim Online, count me in (when I get the money to buy it and the time lol)

    #7 11 months ago
  8. fearmonkey

    Dave, Did you spend anytime playing the other two factions besides the Ebonheart Pact? The reason I ask is that Daggerfall Covenant and Aldmeri dominion feel VERY different than what you played if you only played one Faction. I have played two betas and played each faction and nothing about the other two will feel that familiar. Ebonheart is alot like Skyrim/Morrowind, but thats great, its there if you need it.

    I think this aversion to subs is really stupid honestly (Not saying you are Dave, but that others have commented about it before). I played Wow for years as well as other paid sub MMO’s and have played a bunch of FTP ones, and in my opinion, you get what you pay for. FTP MMO’s are lacking and nowhere near as good. The only ones that are good are ones that started off as paid sub games. As long as Zenimax gives me a reason to keep paying, constant updates and making the game better, I don’t have an issue paying.

    The one thing I don’t think you have really got about the game from your article is that this is the chance for longtime TES fans to visit places and see things we have only read about before.
    When I entered Daggerfall in the beta I was like WOW…Since I had only seen it in the Pixelicious pre Poly Daggerfall TES 2. This is a chance to vist all these places like Summerset isle, Black Marsh, these big cities we hear and read about in books, new planes of oblivion, etc. This is a chance to see what the next Elder Scrolls location might be influenced by or look like. That alone makes the game interesting to me.

    I am so looking forward to this game, I have enjoyed what I played so far enough that I bought the game the first day it was available, fee or not :)

    #8 11 months ago
  9. OlderGamer

    Let me first start by saying I am one of those oddballs that don’t enjoy ElderScroll games. To me they are boring and have very poor mechanics. I thought Kingdom of Amular was ten times the game of either Oblivion or Skyrim. Gameplay matters people!

    That being said the trouble I see here is pricing.

    I understand the monthly fee. Infact Skyrim had a subscription fee too. It was called DLC. Same with CoD, BF, and others. What those games don’t have and presumably what TESO will have is a purchase price(60usd), a subscription price(15usd/month) and no doubt expansions/dlc/content packs. All of it adding up to a very expensive experience. And as Dave pointed out, most people will prolly play Skyrim and pass on this.

    Also the MMO space is crowded.

    Rift, for example is a hella good f2p game. Solid. No fees.

    Guild Wars2 is pay up front, with zero subscription. When expansions release, pay again just for that expansion. Again zero monthly subscription. And GW2 is a very solid experience.

    However those(and countless like them) are PC games. Where TESO could find a home will be on consoles where their just isn’t a crowded MMO space. But the new systems have a small user base (compared to PC), and I wonder how much attention it will garner from next gen owners. I myself have a handful of f2p PS4 games downloaded, like DCOU(solid f2p), but spend my time playing other games.

    I think TESO is a high profile franchise, that will leave fans expectations unfulfilled and sports the wrong biz model.

    Ironicly, if the game cloned WoWs PVP, I would change my outlook, and I would prolly buy the game myself on PS4.

    #9 11 months ago
  10. _LarZen_

    As a self proclaimed mmorpg veteran I find ESO to be quite exciting. It is a wonderful world they have created and I am so pumped to explore it all and conquer everything the game throws at me.

    The problem with people complaining about subscription based mmo’s is that they don’t know what a game of this caliber need to sustain players for years. When I play a mmorpg I play each day for hours. And I can see that ESO can be my next mmo fix for quite a time.

    The moment it goes F2P the game is dead and I move on.

    #10 11 months ago
  11. fearmonkey

    @oldergamer. While I agree that KOA was a good game, I don’t think it was near as good as any TES game. TES games are primarily based around exploration, Koa was primarily based around action and combat, very different styles of games.

    You share the views of some of my friends, they don’t love the exploration as much as they love the combat. I prefer the exploration, I love being let go in a world, choosing my own direction and doing what I please. KOA really wasnt that type of game. KOA had some exploration but it was really about fast combat and quests, and more of an action game. I didnt really love the art style as much as TES games either but it was a good game.

    I’m With Larzen on a game going FTP, I have yet to find a FTP MMO that keeps me interested for any time at all.

    #11 11 months ago
  12. fearmonkey

    @BrokenSpline I highly disagree it;’s boring. maybe to you, but I have loved the betas so far.
    FTP sucks, and I hope it doesnt go that direction.

    #12 11 months ago
  13. CyberMarco

    get a beta key from here

    #13 11 months ago
  14. lookingglass

    The real issue here is that people are expecting Skyrim where you can roam around forever in the game after you buy it.

    This isn’t Skyrim. It’s an MMO. Have there ever been in the history of MMOs a fun, all-around-great-experience, B2P MMO? Short answer… No.

    Guild Wars 2 is the closest and it still suffers tremendously from the lack of subscription (That map is too full! Please wait until everything’s over and everyone leaves. Oh! And we can’t add big, permanent content because we don’t have a steady income stream to predict and plan many months ahead. Sorry!)

    All of this F2P and B2P is mass hyperbole generated by people with zero game loyalty and those who don’t want to spend money on things unless they are perfect and forever.

    Play it or don’t play it. Buy it or don’t buy it. Cancel the subscription or don’t cancel.

    Grow up and stop whining about it.

    #14 11 months ago
  15. ommidiam

    I really don’t feel the need to pay for a game more than once to play it. Or pay to play at all. One price is enough.

    #15 11 months ago
  16. TheWulf

    It sounds like an oldschool MMORPG with oldschool MMORPG problems, with gimmicks layered on top to gussy it up. That’s exactly what I was expecting, honestly. Just another clone, with borrowed bits from stuff like GW2 in the hopes to avoid being called such. The issue there, of course, is that just like WAR proved — the mix of old and new is worse than sticking to one or the other. You’ll alienate both crowds at the same time.

    I can’t say that this is surprising, like I said, it’s what I’d read of it from the start. Everything I heard from NDA-breakers pretty much painted the same picture, too. This is Warhammer Online all over again.

    #16 11 months ago
  17. TheWulf


    Ah, the ignorant strawman.

    I believe the issue is more that the content isn’t actually ever fun, so whilst there may be a dearth of content, it’s not enjoyable. What happens is that people don’t feel satisfied because of this, and their natural response is that it must have been due to a lack of content, because it’s human nature to never really think about anything and to ignore any desire to be inquisitive.

    I’m sure that wasn’t always the case, but it is with people now, they rarely ask questions, get curious, or want to know things. So they assume. And then more content is delivered, which isn’t satisfying, so more content is demanded. And the cycle continues. If the content was fun and enjoyable in the first place, you’d actually feel satisfied and fulfilled.

    But oldschool MMOs offer a form of fake fulfilment. They use reward schedules and other forms of operant conditioning to trigger dopamine spikes, so you think you’re enjoying yourself because you’re being rewarded. Are you, though? I would say that if you were, there wouldn’t be any feelings of negativity after consuming the content. Did anyone complete Portal and believe that it was a bad game because it only lasted for but a few sweet hours?

    No, of course not! And the reason why? Portal was thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end.

    And that’s how this works. The lack of fulfilment makes you want to seek it due to the amount of hours you’ve put in, your brain urges you to seek your reward. And that reward is dangled in front of you — the veritable carrot on a stick. And like an obedient little donkey, you trot on and on, trying to catch it.

    And as you continue your quixotic quest to catch the carrot, you continue paying your subscription.

    The reward has to be somewhere? Right? In the end-game? Maybe the next tier of armour? Maybe the next tier of armour? Maybe the next tier of armour? Maybe the next expansion pack and the tiers of armours that will accompany it?

    Ad nauseum.

    All the while you’re trying to find the fun. I often hear that ‘the fun is in the end-game,’ and then ‘the fun will be when I get that next drop.‘ I’ve been exposed to enough WoW addicts (unfortunately for me), to know how it goes.

    It’s all about taking advantage of those who’re weak-willed and lack the self awareness to question their own actions. Unfortunately, there are too many people like that in the world, and this is why gambling works. Beep boop! Automaton reprogrammed for addiction. Running addiction algorithms. Executing ‘play until I die’ runtimes.

    An unaware person is no different than a robot, and so very easy to reprogram. The bizarre aspect of human nature is that hypnosis works best on those who believe they can’t be hypnotised. Often out of wilful ignorance, and a lack of awareness. And thus they get reprogrammed. As I’ve pointed out before, the use of various sorts of NLP is a fact of life, these days. Marketing departments use it in adverts, car and door-to-door salesmen use it in their pitches, and so on.

    And it’s just such a boon that people are so horrifically unaware and poorly educated. I was discussing this the other day with a good friend of mine, who’s majored in abnormal psychology, and a lot of her class has to do with just this sort of thing. It has to do with behaviours, making and breaking them, and how mostly humans are creatures of habitual routine, because they never question it, and it’s easy to create habitual routines in an unaware human — in a robot.

    So, yeah. They whine about the content because they’re not having fun with it. They feel they’re not getting their money’s worth. But because MMO marketing has programmed them to belief that the amount of time (rather than the amount of fun) you get out of a game is a proper metric of worth, they demand more time. What they’re actually not realising is that they aren’t having any fun.

    At all. Not even remotely.

    Oldschool MMOs are brilliantly designed rat traps. Where the rats are unaware human beings. Present the cheese, the reward, trap the rat.

    If you have fun with something (again, Portal), this complaint never comes to the fore. As Dave points out, when the game has a difficulty spike, it becomes less fun. The conditioned response to that is to grind for more power, which keeps you playing for longer, which keeps you paying a subscription. The reward of new armour allowing you into that new area will drop some day, right?

    Like I said, automatons are way, way too easy to reprogram. And an oldschool MMO fan is nothing but. So they’ll grind, and grind, and grind away… mindlessly, and only complain when there’s nothing to grind any more.

    It’s… repugnant, really. It’s repugnant that there are people so lacking in self awareness, education, and comprehension that they’d fall for such a con, and it’s repugnant that there are people who’d take advantage of that.

    I guess it’s because psychology is a thing I do.

    And you try to warn people…

    But yeah, that’s a straw-man. The real problem with MMOs is that they’re just not fun, they’re designed for addiction, not fun. They’re no different than casinos.

    #17 11 months ago
  18. sebastien rivas

    Hi guys,

    @ Dave,
    Yes, I agree on questionning this sub pricing.
    Where do they all pull a 14.99 from is a wonder.
    This price kind of grind my teeth per se but even more so when as a gamer I get indefinitely stuck because of group or bigger only oriented questing. The 15 bucks a month quickly comes in my mouth like a stinky old slipper that rages on fir days

    #18 11 months ago
  19. sebastien rivas

    @sebastien rivas

    …. writing from my cellular, I pressed post by mistake without a chance to edit and add.

    Anyway, I have to little patience to wait from grouping, even more so when I know the zone I play in is too empty and Rage occurs if I know there simply are too many empty servers. I just stop subbing.
    Such fate occured with Warhammer Online, Rift at least

    #19 11 months ago
  20. Darkfield

    @TheWulf What the actual fuck are you talking about?! You’re like this small noisy and utterly annoying propaganda machine who is programmed to talk out of his ass all the time. Exactly like the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and their death to the west and imperialism attitude. Yes! It’s that pathetic.

    “So they assume.”
    Sounds like what you’re doing all the time!

    “I guess it’s because psychology is a thing I do.”
    oh, lel!

    #20 11 months ago
  21. GrimRita

    I’ve only heard bad things about this, from almost everyone. I’m not an ES player but need a decent MMO to waste some time in. It’s pvp elements were of interest but the setting does nothing for me give them lack of variety in classes and crafting.

    But those thinking that this is an extension of ES are probably going to end up disappointed like those poor souls who believed that SWTOR was going to be a KOTOR 3 in spirit. No doubt people will give it a try but if there’s nothing to hold them – freemium by December.

    #21 11 months ago
  22. Ekona

    After playing through the beta a few times now, and speaking as a massive modern (IV & V) TES fan, the trouble I have is that this may well be a good MMO, but it’s an awful TES game as it stands.

    Dave mentions the stealth aspect, but if you’ve ever played Oblivion or Skyrim as a thief-type character, you’ll quickly realise that’s simply not possible here. The difficulty progression really is buggered beyond belief, or at least it appears to be from a non-MMO player.

    Maybe it’s me, and it’s actually a very good MMO. What it’s currently not, is a decent TES game. For that alone, there cannot be any justification for a monthly sub.

    #22 11 months ago
  23. orren

    @Ekona “but if you’ve ever played Oblivion or Skyrim as a thief-type character, you’ll quickly realise that’s simply not possible here. ”

    Well i only played an assassin to level 10 but so far, it was very possible to play it that way. Sneak up on an enemy from the back, hit him while he’s unaware of you, get an one-two shot kill. What’s not possible?

    “The difficulty progression really is buggered beyond belief, or at least it appears to be from a non-MMO player.”

    I don’t know what difficulty problems you mean unless you think the game is too easy. I did not die until level 10, and that was because a pack of mobs spawned on top of me while i was reading a lore book.

    #23 11 months ago
  24. macklwinstead

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    #24 11 months ago

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