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What The Elder Scrolls Online can teach us about tutorials in the age of free-to-play

By on February 10, 2014

This past weekend, Zenimax Online has been inviting journalists into the persistent, multiplayer environment of Tamriel, the world where Skyrim, Morrowind and Oblivion take place.

It has not been pretty.


The VG247 reviewer said, “I did not go in expecting to be utterly bored – and I was.” John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun had a pretty boring experience, too. He then had this to say about The Elder Scrolls Online pricing model (£50 up front, followed by a £15 per month subscription).

“These are, I stress again, just the opening few hours. But they’re crucial hours. Playing them, one could put together a rationale why Bethesda have opted for a massive up-front fee of £50 to start playing the game, before a monthly tithe thereafter. Were this to use the far more sensible free-to-start option, before asking for a subscription to carry on, I can imagine a lot of players would feel no desire to open their wallet. However, if you’ve put half a hundred quid down, you’re going to feel pretty determined to keep ploughing through in the hope for more.”

This is not about F2P

The problem with The Elder Scrolls Online, to my mind, is not that it is not free. Companies are entitled to charge what they want. Two of the most successful MMOs in the world (World of Warcraft, Eve Online) are subscription, although both allow users to spend an enormous amount with a variable pricing model using microtransactions or ingame currencies. The problem with The Elder Scrolls Online is that it has not accepted how F2P has changed what gamers expect.

We’re making TV, not movies

AAA game developers have had it easy for many years. They know that they don’t have to show players that their game is any good in the first few hours. The marketing department has persuaded gamers to play the game based on the marketing promise. The gamer has paid £40 or more, so they are now committed to the game. The designers can make the first few hours dull, worthy and full of boring teaching-of-the-basics. If the worst happens, and players leave because the initial experience is so dull, commercially that is not a disaster. Professional pride might be dented. Review scores might be lower than you would like. But the cold truth is that these designers already have the player’s money.

That does not work for F2P. All the marketing spend and marketing promise can do for a F2P is to drive downloads. If players play the game and it is a turkey, they’ll leave without spending any money. If they play and it is boring, they have low switching costs to transfer their playing time to a different game which has shown them fun or enjoyment in the first few minutes.

A AAA game has to invest heavily in making its games look  as if it will be fun. A F2P game has to, for its very survival, convince the player that this game will be worth playing – fun, rewarding, exhilarating, satisfying, however you define it – in the first 30 seconds, or it is in real trouble.

Think of a movie director. She knows that the filmgoer has travelled to the cinema. Paid for a ticket. Bought popcorn and settled into a seat for 2 hours of entertainment. That filmgoer is not going to walk out in the first twenty minutes just because the opening is a bit dull. They are already committed.

Compare that to a TV director. He does not have the same luxury. The viewer can switch at the touch of a button. Boredom or a dull start are deadly enemies for the success of a television series.

Over time, we’ve seen movie directors adopt television sensibilities. They want to grab the viewer and convince them this story is worth sticking with.

The Elder Scrolls Online assumes we are in a previous age

Bethesda have form for making dull, worthy intros. I often give talks based on the Design Rules for F2P Games. Rule 11 is “Kill the tutorial.” My primary example that gets it wrong is Fallout 3 (yes, I know it’s not a F2P game). I borrowed the game from a friend to see if I would enjoy it. I spent the first 45 minutes cursing the game for taking me through a dull, worthy backstory that showed me little about what I was going to get from the game, except that the designers were happy to play fast and loose with my time without showing me what the heart of the game was going to be like. That goes down as one of the least enjoyable First Time User Experiences I have had.

The criticisms of TESO suggest that its initial experience is not trying to show you why this game is worth sticking with: it assumes that you are going to stick with it. It doesn’t try to earn your love and respect. It assumes it. In the era of Free-To-Play, with boundless choice and designers setting out to demonstrate to their players why their game is awesome in the first few minutes, this approach is going to be very challenging for Zenimax.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: