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Friday, August 15, 2014

Is TESO Really Just Star Trek Online in Armor?

Let's start this by defining how Star Trek Online (STO) is viewed by reviewers and gamers. If you look up STO on, you will see the metascore for STO is 66 out of 100 and the user score is 6.2 out of 10. If you look at the critic reviews, you'll see there are ten positive reviews, 21 mixed and 3 negative. Most reviews site lack of content and repetition as the main faults of STO. Here are some of the better known reviewers' comments.

IGN - 68
A smattering of memorable moments in 50+ hours of game time simply isn’t good enough for me to be able to recommend Star Trek Online to MMO fans. It’s quite a gorgeous game, but that novelty evaporates, and what’s left is repetitive, and simple in all the wrong parts.

GameSpy - 40
Trek fans are meant to salivate at the sights and sounds of their favorite universe made manifest, like a dog hearing the chime of a chow bell. And publisher Atari is banking on the hope that -- like Pavlov's pups -- consumers will be content with the same ol' kibble day after day. The result is a shallow, poorly paced, and repetitive game that, divorced from its storied source material, wouldn't warrant a second look.

Even the best of user reviews of the game reinforce the niche market appeal of the game (emphasis mine.)

Woody309 - Feb 3, 2012 - 10
I tried STO during release and left less than a month into the game. It was horrible. When the recent change to a free to play model was announced, I was curious as to what changes had been made. I reactivated my account and gave it a try. I was pleasantly surprised at all the changes to the space missions and especially the ground missions. Space combat in STO is the strongest appeal the game has. It is unlikely that STO will ever be a mainstream game, but if you are a Star Trek fan, then you should really enjoy STO at this point.

capt_w - Apr 28, 2012 - 8
Won't give the game a perfect 10, but she does deserve some credit. I've played this game since Open Beta, I've seen a variety of bugs since then. Yes the game still has many, but none as bad as they were in the P2P days. Game play is repetitive, PvP has no reward of it's own the game relies heavily on the STF in the End Game content. Micro transaction seem to be their philosophy since most end game content is in the C-Store, also some lower level content as well. The Klingon faction is weak in their content only a few missions to play as them. Would have to say my favorite part of the game is the Character/Ship Customization. You can also mix and mingle classes and rolls in the game on the fly in ground combat.

Admittedly, those are all old reviews. But here is the latest positive review of STO by a player (emphasis mine.)

tagos - Jun 19, 2014 - 8
I tired this when it first came out and it didn't click. Recently gave the FTP version a try because it had a new tutorial and really liked what I found. And what I found was a very polished game with lots to do, lots to learn and lots to explore.

I don't care if it's 'Pay To Win' (not that anyone seems able to explain what people are actually 'winning'). What other people do with their money is their own business. You don't need to spend anything to have a perfectly fine time.

Ships are very customisable through equipment and crew, combat is akin to a 3 dimensional Starfleet Command, which works just fine for me.

The galaxy has a real feel of 'everything falling apart at the seams' and the Federation bringing back into service anything that can mount a warp nacelle.

Even though i'm only a humble Lieutenant I've swept systems clean of Klingons engaged in impromptu fleet actions against The Borg and all sorts of good trekkie stuff. All in all I'm having a fine time and without it costing anything.

If you're a Trek fan then you've nothing to lose by putting an evening aside to play the tutorial and a couple of mission.

"If you're a Trek fan." That seems to sum up the main appeal of STO. And there is nothing wrong with that. I am a Trekkie, and space based MMOs definitely appeal to me. I believe that was the whole point behind the game. There is a known audience and Atari made a conscious decision to appeal to that audience. After all, it doesn't have Star Trek in the name by accident. I think it's fair to summarize STO as a successful niche MMO, but it will never be huge.

Knowing this, let's look at The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) in the same light. I am an Elder Scrolls Fan. I am not the biggest Elder Scrolls fan, but I am enough of one that I paid for an Imperial edition to play TESO early. There are many who did. Some left, but many stayed like I did. And I've enjoyed my time playing TESO. But for all I support the game, and appreciate the uniqueness of it, I also admit it has serious flaws. Those flaws have caused a lot of people to move on - players who are not so enamored with The Elder Scrolls in general.

In fact, when I look at the first six month's of STO's life and compare it to TESO's, I find there are many similarities. The games were both seen as flawed at launch; not ready for prime time. The developer worked diligently to correct the flaws in the game, all the while firmly stating how great it will be. Neither developer talks about subscription numbers because they are concentrating on more important things. Yes, it is all very similar to my way of thinking.

So now it's time to address the elephant in the room. Will TESO do what STO did and go free to play (F2P?) You know, only time will really tell. There are many people predicting it will. There are many who say it will not. Both sides make good points about why it will, or will not, go F2P. Personally I don't really care. I pay or I don't pay for a game because it's what I want to do, not because I think it might become free in the future. I am way to much into instant gratification to play that game. This question interests me in a different way, and I think all those who are saying it will or won't because of their various reasons miss the boat completely. I think the answer, when it comes, will have been based on a much more complicated thought process than most realize, and will provide substantial evidence to a suspicion I have about the future of the MMO genre.

I think most of us MMO players understand there is a general malaise in the genre at the moment. There was World of Warcraft (WoW,) and nothing since then has been great. We've held every MMO that's launched afterwards up to the glory that is WoW and found them wanting. Some far thinkers in the gaming industry review circles have even predicted it may be the beginning of the end for the MMO.

Don't be so shallow. Game developers and publishers are smart people. They run a business, and it is as much a wholesale industry as an entertainment industry. Developers write the games, but they write the games for which publishers will pay. So let's remove the developer from the thought process here, because it's not as much about what players want as what publishers think they can make a profit selling. The important thing to consider is how the publishers are leaning.

I want to give you an example of what one publishing industry did when a single product became so overwhelmingly popular it left no room in the Best Sellers list for anyone else. That's what happened when Harry Potter made the scene. There was a point when there were so many Harry Potter books crowding the famous New York Times Best Sellers list, they created a new list just so they could move the Harry Potter books onto it. That's the Harry Potter Effect™. You see, the New York times has an obligation to the publishing companies to market the books the publishing companies feel generate the most income. That adds a positive modifier to the sales of those books, and has a chance to make a book go viral - to use an Internet term. Never forget, they are best sellers because they are best marketed, not because the are the best written (there's your writer's secret of the day.) And though the Harry Potter series sold copies in spades, it also deprived the other publishing companies of an opportunity to market their best sellers. Those other companies complained to the New York times and the New York Times did something about it. Now there are many Best Sellers lists, organized by genre, and making all the publishers happier.

There is no direct analogy to game publishing in this, except that WoW is like the Harry Potter series in that it prevents other publishers from gaining sales on within the MMO market. But unlike the book publishing industry, there is no easy way to segregate MMOs from other MMOs using simple lists. The marketing necessary for a computer game is substantially different from the marketing needed for best sellers, so MMOs all compete on the same playing field.

This is something MMO publishers understand all too well. It's not an epiphany on my part to be certain. Knowing about the issue though, and coming up with a way to work around it, are two different things. It may be smart to understand that WoW colors the perception of every follow on MMO in a negative way, but it requires a level of magnitude higher understanding of market dynamics to figure our how to get around the Harry Potter Effect™. That's were The Niche™ comes into play. The Niche™ is a smaller subset of the overall MMO market where a game can out compete any other MMO not designed for that subset. Let's look at another analogy to understand The Niche™.

It's one of the oldest evolutionary "tricks" in the fossil record. Species specialize to survive in a very crowded world. By having the longest neck, or being able to eat poisonous eucalyptus leaves, or eating bamboo leaves no other animal likes, Giraffes, Koalas and Pandas survive in a world where they might otherwise have gone extinct. And that is where I believe the MMO genre is going. The Lord of the Rings Online survives in The Niche™. TSO obviously exists in The Niche™. I believe TESO will as well. By placing their games in The Niche™, publishers can avoid comparisons to WoW that always come up negative, and rely on a player base not so much interested in playing the best MMO on the market, as buying into The Experience™. I freely admit The Experience™ is what motivates me to play TESO, not it's less than perfect MMO game play.

Yes, there is an obvious problem with knowingly putting a game into The Niche™. It limits the number of players a game will ever have. But this is not the game killing problem most gamers seem to think it is. That's WoW thinking and it's wrong. The biggest killer of any business, game industry or not, is not knowing how much the business will earn. When a business doesn't know its earning potential, it can't set it's budget. If the budget is wrong, and the business over spends, bankruptcy often follows. It is not lack of sales and therefore an inability to earn money that kills most businesses, but an inability to keep costs within earnings.

By placing a game in The Niche™, publishers can actually get a pretty good read on potential income. The mathematics called statistics is a powerful tool. If Target can figure out a woman is pregnant from her buying history, the game industry can figure our how many people will likely play a particular game based on past data. With that number in hand, everything else is a simple matter of math and planning.

To show you what I mean, let's look at the question of whether TESO will become F2P again. I don't know anything confidential about this decision, but I can guarantee you the decision has already been made. It was probably made by Bethesda before launch day and it's a conditional decision.

Bethesda knows how popular The Elder Scrolls series is. They know how many gamers like to play MMOs. They know how many like sword and sorcery games with a medieval theme. They likely know much more than that. From all those numbers, they can get a really good idea of how many people will play TESO, and thus how much money that will generate.

Bethesda also knows how much it spent to publish the game, and what the ongoing costs of running it will be.

The answer to whether TESO will go F2P or not depends entirely on whether Bethesda will be able to pay off development costs and earn enough money through micro-transactions (P2W or otherwise) to pay the operational overhead of keeping the game running. Oh, and of course there will need to be a net profit that goes to Bethesda (Zenimax costs are part of the operational overhead.) I view the box fee as a means to pay off the development costs of the game. It's a one time charge leveled against a sunk cost. That goes a long way toward wiping out the red ink that accumulates during a game's development. The current subscription plan helps pay for the extra operational overhead associated with a new game. After all, TESO did peak at #5 on the Raptr monthly list and all those players require more overhead to service. And now to the decision point. If player numbers match out at point where micro-transactions can cover the operational costs of running the game, TESO will go F2P. However, before Bethesda can pull the trigger on that final decision, it needs to know TESO can actually generate enough income via micro-transactions. That has as much to do with how micro-transactions are implemented as in the spending habits of the players. It's an unknown Zenimax will have to generate a proof of concept on, or TESO will remain subscription based. If Zenimax succeeds, TESO will become STO in armor. And as I look at this more deeply, I hope Zenimax does succeed in creating a micro-transaction model that works. The game is probably more likely to fail entirely if they don't, but that's a whole different blog post. This one is already long enough. Cheers!


  1. Er, you realize you could make this exact same argument about EVE Online... yes? The reviews would be exactly the same. (Incidentally, your view of that fourth review is flawed. "STF" stands for "Special Task Force" and is one of STO's end-game PvE options.) You could therefore try to argue using what you wrote above that EVE will be going F2P at any moment, too. So your comparison between STO and TESO is flawed on this basis.

    The comparison is then also flawed on a second basis: STO went F2P mostly due to the change of ownership and strategy that the STO MMO license went through. The new owners were more interested in a F2P strategy and rebuilt facets of the game to support that strategy. The game's inherent design in several ways already supported this strategy, given the custom ships, uniforms, and other items within the game that lent themselves to making this strategy profitable. TESO is not likely to go through such a change in ownership, nor the significant rebuild that would be needed to make the game successful as a F2P platform. There just isn't enough basis in TESO's underlying design to support a successful, profitable F2P model. What the hell are they gonna sell?

    Finally, the comparison is flawed on a third basis: TESO just isn't a very good game, and it's going to take a lot more than four years of work to make it a good game. This is TESO's greatest weakness: the game launched in an essentially finished state but the game play itself is just *dull*. STO, meanwhile, started out as an *unfinished* game where a lot of work made it a better product and improved the already existing fun game play. You try to emphasize in your player reviews that the game is trying to appeal to Trek fans. And yeah, that's true. But read the player reviews again and you'll see most of them make it clear that the game itself is enjoyable after a rough start and has greatly improved since launch. TESO's long-term reviews are likely to say the opposite... if there ARE long-term reviews.

    Right now, I personally see TESO following the LOTRO/Age of Conan model: subscription for three years or so with the last year of that a fundamental redesign of game principles for a F2P relaunch, followed by such a relaunch. I could be wrong, though. It'll depend a lot on if Bethesda wants to stick it out that long.

  2. Really? :D Why, yes, I think I did see the EVE Online relevance. :)

    I interpreted "STF" as Star Trek Franchise considering the overall comment. That could be my own bias. Nevertheless, I don't see the potential misinterpretation as all the detracting from the point about F2P versus subscription. It certainly does nothing to counteract the fact STO is seen as mediocre MMO that only Trekkies truly like.

    The ownership change was brought on by the failure to make expenses come in less than income. I'd say that's a pretty good indication the original owner didn't want to "stick it out that long" as you put it. The sale was a cut the losses and just take the tax write-off maneuver. Bully for the purchaser understanding how to take advantage of a niche MMO. They saw an opportunity and acted on it where the seller could not think outside the box. Just because the decision was made in a different board room doesn't invalidate my premise in the least. The change of ownership had no real bearing on the article so I left it out as unnecessarily confusing. YMMV. :)

    I know lots of people who disagree with you on TESO not being a good game. It's just as good as STO when you're into it. If your not, it's the most flawed game ever. You seem to be one of those looking for the perfect MMO. Actually, I should qualify that with "for you." We all are looking for the perfect MMO - for our self. All players have things they like, and things they don't like. Your EVE Online past tells me you like PvP more than I do. Your perfect MMO would likely need to have well balanced PvP. Mine? Not so much. I coined the tern The Niche™ for a reason.

    I do not necessarily disagree with your view the road TESO will take will be like LOTRO or AoC. They too are in The Niche™. It may take three years to get the game to the point were it can go F2P. It might not. I will guarantee it won't go F2P until it's financially able to.

    Finally, you say nothing at all about the concept of The Niche™ or my thoughts on the decision process of making a game financially successful, F2P or not? You used three paragraphs to discuss "flaws" in my comparison of TESO to STO, as if I somehow offended you by saying unkind things about a game you are currently playing (you mentioned that a while back,) but your comment really doesn't address the topic of my post. This post was not so much about STO, or TESO, so much as it was about the nature of game publishing and the decision to go F2P or not. Can I assume you agree with the actual point of the article, or did you run out of ink?

  3. Whether you think "STF" stands for "Star Trek Franchise" or "Star Trek fan", it doesn't support the point you were making when you emphasized it when I point out what it really stands for. ;-)

    If you prefer, *in my opinion* TESO is dull. I know I couldn't even be bothered getting to 50 in it. 47 is as high as I managed with any of my characters. I just couldn't bring myself to keep running the same dungeons over and over again the same way to get to 50. Leveling through PvP was better but at the time I quit, the PvP was even more blobby than EVE, which is saying something. The game just wasn't fun or challenging on its own merits.

    I didn't comment on "The Niche" because quite frankly, that discussion applied to nearly EVERY MMO. There is only one MMO not in a niche, and even that one kinda is... since all of us think of WoW as a "fantasy" MMO. I certainly didn't see this as the main thrust of your post. It seemed clear to me that the main thrust of your post was (a) whether TESO would go F2P, and (b) whether it would happen soon enough that you could quit your subscription without guilt. ;-) After all, if TESO is a great game, you shouldn't have to make excuses for why it should go F2P or comparisons of how it might.

    As for the comparisons to STO themselves, I objected to them for the reasons I stated in my comments above: the two games simply aren't on comparable tracks. Other than -- like most every MMO -- being niche games and the fact that both got sub-standard reviews at launch, they don't have anything much in common.

  4. HA! Thanks for the come back. I'll have you blogging again in no time! ;)

  5. Im sorry to say, I wont play it even if it goes free to play even though i bought the game. Too boring. No housing, no community and a mount cost a fortune. If they dont change that (and a lot more im afraid) they will continue live in a very very small niche that´s my 2 cent....


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