We tried to tell players that Elder Scrolls Online looked like it might be moving toward a Free-to-play or Buy-to-play model (both versions that let players play without paying a subscription fee), but in discussing the possibilities we were often dismissed as hack journalists or just haters. This is the Outhouse after all, so those are often apt descriptions, but it doesn't mean what we say is false, whether one likes it or not.
ESO players have been dealing with haters making "Free-2-play soon" style comments since before launch, so they had unfortunately built up a sort of armor against the comments that prevented rational discussion. This means that many fans of the game have been ignoring the possibility while non-fans were the only ones absorbing the news. How this will effect the roll-out of the news remains to be seen, but so far it seems many players are shocked despite previous evidence and the various ES forums are currently melting down over the change.
So let's get to the change and why you shouldn't panic...
The game will be moving toward a Buy-to-play model similar to Guild Wars 2. A player purchases the game itself and has access to the full, regular portion of the game. A cash shop will sell extra optional items if a player really gets into the game and wants to add onto their character (and support the company making the game they enjoy). Often future expansions are sold separately, much the same way games sell DLC on console, but regular updates seem to be included.
There will still be a subscription offered as well, now called ESO Plus. This will give players exclusive in-game bonuses, a monthly allotment of "crowns" to spend in the cash shop, and free downloads of all DLC.
PC players will have access to the new version of the game, called Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited, come March 17th. All accounts will be converted and special offers made to lure players back. This roll-out is in preparation for the console roll-out on June 9th, as a Buy-to-play model offers a better chance at healthy player base on console.
How will this effect the game?
Some players will be disappointed as there is truly a segment of the population that likes the subscription model keeping things a bit segregated. But, the fact is, it will give the game a shot at a better player population, which it needs and probably won't effect the roll-out of future content.
It seems most players haven't noticed in the last 8+ months, very little content has actually been added - the only new zone (area of new world content) added was Craglorn, a 4 player group zone they have actually been working on since before launch and was supposed to be in at launch. With Craglorn, three Trials were added, which are like 12-player dungeons and an Arena, a 4-player 10 round battle vs. various enemies. Aside from the Trials and Arena content, much of Craglorn was fairly weak as far as a new zone goes.
In addition to Craglorn Zenimax also added two new vet dungeons, which are good challenges for max level players, but 'small' overall in being considered substantial content. My feeling has always been that two dungeons and one 'ok' zone added in eight months isn't exactly subscription speed updates. Don't get me wrong, their support has been pretty good in addition to that content, but in the end I'm not going to spend so much time applauding someone fixing what's broken that I don't notice the lack of new content added. I'm aware of a pretty sizable chunk of players that have left the game simply due to lack of end-game content - which is what kills most MMOs in the end. Moving toward the Buy-to-play model will simply move players to the position the company has already been in, in my opinion.