Tamriel Infinium: Elder Scrolls Online juggles making money and making content with Crown Crates
I think it's fair to say that the $15 subscription model just isn't cutting it for MMORPGs anymore. I understand that. The $15 pricetag dates back at least 15 years, and even if we were to factor in inflation alone, the cost of that subscription would be worth about $19 today. Teams creating the content were a lot smaller then, and frankly, players were satisfied with less than perfection. (Think about the number of incomplete MMOs that launched at that time.) There has to be a new way for developers to make more money. There has to be a way for developers to give players what they are looking for and at the same time bring in enough income to support its engineers, producers, and investors.
I believed that Elder Scrolls Online had that system down. The developers created content like the Thieves Guild DLC, then sold that as a package or allowed players to subscribe to get content as it released. Single-player games have done similar for years and have even adapted a type of subscription model with season passes. Unfortunately, it's becoming clear that the DLC with optional subscription just isn't enough, at least for the beancounters at ESO. Like many MMORPGs before it, ESO has now adopted lockboxes, gambleboxes, in the form of Crown Crates.
I've spent some time and more than a few of my own Crowns to attempt to discover how worthy these crates are and if they are actually worth it from a player's perspective -- with an understanding that ESO needs money to continue to thrive as a company.
My gut reaction to ESO's Crown Crates is that they are terrible, and even after experiencing them, I question whether they provide any actual benefit to the player whatsoever.
Simply put, Crown Crates are ESO's version of lockboxes. They are boxes buyable with real money that contain, randomly, elixirs, experience boosts, poisons, and of course, cosmetic items. Most of these items are unique to the Crown Crates, but there are some that are mirrors or the same items that can be obtained through other methods, even if that other method is via a direct purchase through the Crown Store. A single crate will cost you 400 Crowns, a four-pack costs 1500 Crowns, and 15 crates cost 5000 Crowns.
To give you an idea of how much that equates to in real-life money, let me note that it costs about $15 to buy 1500 Crowns. That means that one Crown equals one cent. This is pretty much the industry standard. And though I am surprised at how few crates you get for your money, the actual cost of Crowns doesn't faze me.
If we want to put a pricetag on the items that you get from a Crown Crate, you can say that each crate costs $4 and each item, in turn, costs $1. As we will see in a moment, some of those items are clearly worth that dollar, but most of the time, they are not. But does it balance out?
After spending what would be equal to $50 on a stack of crates, I would hope that I would get about $50 worth of stuff back. And I'm not sure that I did. Granted, I received a couple of outfits that I didn't have before, a couple of pets, and of course, a lot of potions and other boosts, but altogether, it wasn't worth the equivalent of the price of the original game.
The rewards from the crates fall in six different categories: Common, Fine, Superior, Epic, Legendary, and Apex Rewards. After opening 15 crates, I received 0 Apex Rewards, 1 legendary reward, 2 epic rewards, 10 superior rewards, and 47 stacks fine or common rewards. (Because the Fine and Common items stacked, I'm not sure how many I received in a stack exactly.) However, if I earned an item I already had in the superior, epic, or legendary category, I would not get it again; instead, I would gain a stack of crown gems, ranging from 5 to 10 gems in my experience.
I like the idea of Crown Gems to replace a duplicate item, but the execution on ZeniMax part fails to even come close to satisfactory. Crown Gems are used to purchase items directly that you could get as loot from the Crown Crates. One of the first items I received was the Brilliance Brocade Robes. Great item, and it looks great. Then a few crates later I received another one. And following the mechanics of the Crown Crates, I received Crown Gems, instead -- 10 to be specific. If I were to buy the Brilliance Brocade Robes with Crown Gems directly, it would cost me 40 Crown Gems. See where I'm going with this? It's a pity reward, not fair compensation.
Do no harm
I'm a player who is extremely interested in the way that my character looks; my outfits are just as important to me as my achievements. And one of the primary reason to do the PvE content in ESO is to gain the rewards -- the different looks and cosmetic loot items. That ultimately demands we examine the end result of the cash shop.
Yesterday, ZeniMax told us its policy regarding the Crown Store items in regard to the upcoming housing system: "As with all Crown Store activity, we abide strictly by our 'do no harm' mantra, and we don’t ever want there to be a 'pay-to-win' scenario in Elder Scrolls Online." Most of the time, we equate pay-to-win with PvP or even endgame dungeons. But maybe we should start equating pay-to-win with what we really want out of the game. "Winning" in MMOs varies from player to player.
I had a player talk to me while I was opening crates. I received a Black-Masked Bear Dog as a reward. He said to me, "That is so much more BA than the all white dog. Was that a limited thing or from the crates?" I told him that it was from the crates. But it goes to show that it is possible to win by opening crates. My dog was better than the one you can get in game, at least for that guy.
In the end, I understand why lockboxes exist, and I'm actually OK with them as a money-making tool. But developers cannot focus on this single tool as its only way to make money or get good rewards in game. There must continue to be ways to get exceptional looks outside the crates. Otherwise, it's a downward spiral of monetization exploitation, and it is doing harm.