ESO vs. SWTOR: Comparing Business Models

After playing Elder Scrolls Online for a few hours on New Year's Eve, I joked that I probably wasn't going to get back into it for another year, but actually I've ended up playing it casually throughout the past month and even splurged on an ESO Plus subscription too. Turns out that now that I made it over the hump of replaying content that I'd already seen in the beta years ago, I've been rather enjoying myself, though not always in the ways I expected.

I'll probably be able to get a couple more comparison posts out of the experience, but I'm a bit wary of making shallow "first impressions" posts at this point, as these are a dime a dozen in the MMO space and can end up being very oddly skewed, so I don't want to write about anything that I haven't been able to actually sink some time into/research in a bit more depth. So let's start by talking about business models, as these are very straightforward. (Well, relatively speaking. Actually they are pretty complex, but still less so than the gameplay itself.)

In a nutshell, I was surprised by how similar the two games are when it comes to their business model, considering that SWTOR is often decried for having a terrible one, while I mostly keep hearing people gush about ESO's being oh so great. I guess Bioware is still having a hard time with bad PR.

Buy to Play vs. Free to Play

To be honest I've never quite understood the obsession many outspoken MMORPG players seem to have with B2P over F2P. That one-off box purchase on its own isn't going to pay for years and years of content to be developed, so the devs still need to push the subscription option/additional cash shop purchases either way.

That said, having tried ESO I can see one advantage for the player in that the required buy-in means there has to be less worrying about restrictions during the early levels in particular. SWTOR places some pretty brutal chat restrictions on low-level free players, simply because of how much gold/credit sellers have abused the ability to create new accounts for free.

That said, having to spend money to start playing at all is still an obstacle, even if the price of the base game is quite low these days. I know I was unwilling to give Secret World a try until it went free-to-play for example, but then ended up enjoying it enough to be willing to give Funcom some money afterwards, so there's obviously some value to not having a pay wall at the very beginning. I'd love to know how the two models compare behind the scenes in terms of acquisition/player lifetime value.

The "Optional" Subscription

People often criticise that SWTOR's subscription isn't really optional as playing without it you'll feel very limited. I don't think I've ever met a SWTOR player that denies this either, though I think people sometimes don't give credit to all the content you can access completely for free, which includes all the class stories.

ESO definitely doesn't nag you about subscribing nearly as much, though in fairness they also don't have to since you've already given them money by the point you've started playing. That said, I actually found the game pretty unplayable without a subscription by level ten or so, for the simple reason that is the crafting bag.

The crafting bag is a feature that you only get access to while subscribed and is basically a portable hole that can hold infinite amounts of everything related to crafting. The thing that people don't tell you is that if you're the kind of person who likes to click on everything around you that the game will let you interact with, 90 percent of everything you loot will be crafting materials. Since I'm somewhat interested in crafting, I wanted to keep them too, but from level five or so onwards this basically meant that I could barely complete a single quest before my bags were full. By the time I ponied up for a month of ESO Plus, both my bags and my bank were full to burst, yet the instant I subscribed and the crafting mats were automatically transferred to the crafting bag, my normal bags and bank were suddenly virtually empty.

I guess this particular limitation doesn't get as much publicity because I know from experience with my guildies that most players aren't as obsessed with picking up everything that sparkles and will happily ignore large numbers of dropped loot, and what they do pick up they will happily vendor without thinking about potential future use for crafting or anything like that, but I suppose it goes to show that "optional" is in the eye of the beholder. At least I know that I'm not the only one who's struggled with the lack of crafting bag for non-subscribers, as people's opinions on the official forums range from "it's okay; you can circumvent it by making extra storage alts/a personal guild bank/buying additional accounts" to being entirely put off the game by this particular restriction.

Convenience aside, another thing that both games' subscriptions have in common is that they give you a cash shop stipend for every month that you're subscribed. ESO is much more generous however, by throwing in 1500 Crowns per month vs. SWTOR's 500-600 Cartel Coins. While the value of funny money like that can be hard to gauge accurately, I did the maths and the two currencies are actually very close in terms of real life value as well, so ESO really does give you more bang for your buck, which is nice! It's pretty obviously part of their marketing strategy too, as one month of ESO Plus actually costs less than buying 1500 Crowns separately, so the idea is to use the lower price to lure you into subscribing instead of having you simply make a one-time purchase.

General Cash Shop Observations

ESO for some reason felt the need to not have just one but two cash shop icons, because they figured the Crown Crates (random lootboxes) needed their own, which is kind of funny to me. Either way the icons are similarly unobtrusive as the Cartel Market icon in SWTOR.

In general, I like the Crown Store's UI a bit better. SWTOR's store UI is much better now than it was, but ESO still requires fewer clicks in comparison to navigate between categories, which makes it easier to casually browse what's on offer. There are also helpful sub-categories, such as "mounts" being split into "exotic", "horses" or "special". I've often wished that SWTOR had more of these, for example to make it easier to only look at animal mounts vs. speeders, or in the armour section at Jedi styles vs. bounty hunter outfits for example.

Another big plus in favour of the ESO store's UI is that they make it much easier to preview everything before buying. While SWTOR technically has a preview function, it's sometimes disabled for bundled items. Compare this to ESO selling a bundle with several dozen hairstyles in it and letting you preview literally every single one of them before buying (though how to do so isn't super obvious and - like many things relating to ESO's UI - I had to google how to do it).

The general wares in both stores mostly consist of cosmetics of some variety or another, with no power-related purchases. The main thing that SWTOR has that ESO doesn't is that they allow you to manually unlock some of the subscriber benefits (such as the infamous extra hotbars) permanently. The only comparable thing that ESO has is that you can buy DLC content - it's generally free to access for subscribers but unlike in SWTOR, you don't automatically get to keep it if your sub lapses. Also, the current newest "chapter" in ESO or whatever word they use to avoid saying "expansion" is not included in the subscription and still requires an extra purchase no matter what. Another thing that's worth pointing out is that ESO sells some insta-gratification consumables - as I mentioned in my last post, there are mechanics such as riding training and crafting trait research that are gated behind literally months of waiting... unless you're willing to pay up that is.

In general it seems to me that SWTOR's Cartel Market is somewhat better stocked than ESO's Crown store, despite of both games periodically removing items to create artificial scarcity; there's just more stuff to choose from in the former than in the latter.

Funny Money

Now, let's talk pricing! As mentioned above, funny money's whole purpose is to make it less obvious just how much you're spending on things, which it generally succeeds at (especially with additional discounts if you buy larger amounts at once etc.). There is however some napkin maths that you can do, and while doing so I was pleasantly surprised to find that SWTOR and ESO made it easy for me to draw comparisons between the two by having an extremely similar exchange rate. (Note that all prices in this post are in pounds as I'm located in the UK.)

Basically Cartel Coins range in price from £4 to £7 per thousand, depending on which bundle you choose, while ESO's Crowns range from £5 to £8 per thousand. So Crowns are slightly more expensive, but not massively so. The main thing that surprised me was the variance in bundle pricing. I think I've only ever bought Cartel Coins once a long time ago, so I didn't remember how it works in detail, but basically the bundles you can buy range in price from £1.80 to £24. For all the talk about "whales" people like to engage in nowadays, a maximum transaction amount of £24 is hardly daylight robbery. I mean, that's only slightly more than I have to pay for my daily commute. In comparison, ESO's Crown bundles start at £6 for the cheapest one but go up to £110. I wonder how many players actually go for that last one? I think I would struggle to even find enough things in the store that I'd like to spend 21,000 Crowns on.

Anyway, I figured that for price comparison purposes it was both fair and easiest to assume a value of about £5 per thousand Cartel Coins or Crowns. Looking at the different categories you can see some interesting differences.

For example on checking the mounts categories in both stores, SWTOR's ranged in price from about £2 to £13, with most averaging around £7.50. In comparison an ESO store mount will set you back £4.50 to £15, with most of them averaging around £9. One interesting tidbit about ESO store mounts is that the in-game alternatives to them are extremely restricted. I've sometimes heard people complain that SWTOR hides all the good cosmetic stuff in the store - something I've always disagreed with - but even if you see some merit in the argument it's nothing compared to the way ESO handles its mount skins. There are literally only four differently coloured horses plus an event mount available from actually playing the game; every other mount is exclusive to the store.

Another category I compared was that of non-combat pets, where again, SWTOR was a bit cheaper, with the average price for a pet being only a little over a pound, while ESO's tended to hover around £3.50. I suspect that this is simple market pressure at work as pets are not very popular in SWTOR and I doubt they'd sell any at all if they cost more than they do. In ESO on the other hand I see people running around with non-combat pets all the time, despite of their higher prices.

When it came to character looks, I compared SWTOR's armour shells to ESO's appearances, which are slightly different but essentially both grant you a full cosmetic outfit for your character, which I judged similar enough for the purposes of this post. Here ESO is more generous, with prices ranging from £2.50 to £5, while SWTOR's armours can cost up to £13 for some, with most hovering around the £7 price point. I guess this must be one of Bioware's main money makers. I mean, I'm sure ESO players care about their characters' looks too, but SWTOR makes it more of an issue with all the cut scenes making you want to look your most fabulous for the camera. People jokingly refer to the game as "Space Barbie" for a reason.

Crown Crates vs. Cartel Packs

Let's talk about the elephant in the room: lootboxes, oh em gee! I've noted previously that SWTOR has effectively been phasing them out, but the Ultimate Cartel pack is still available, so I guess it counts. As far as I'm aware ESO has shown no signs of shifting away from relying on Crown Crates for its income.

Interestingly, there is a big price difference between Cartel Packs and Crown Crates, with the latter costing twice as much as the former: £2 vs. £1 per pack. (That said, this is still less than I thought either of them were going to cost in real money.) Now, it might be that the ESO crates make up for their higher price with better contents, but to be honest that's hard to judge considering that nobody knows the drop rates for anything for certain, and even if we did know, if the items aren't also sold in the store for a fixed price, there isn't an objective value we can attach to any of them, seeing how people have different opinions on what's a good or a bad drop. One person's favourite mount ever might be another one's trash.

That aside, I do think that SWTOR is miles ahead in terms of consumer-friendliness in this area simply because all the contents of the boxes are tradable. So if you enjoy opening random boxes you can, but if you just want a specific item, you can simply buy it off another player for credits. There is a chance that your particular item might not be available for sale at all times, but in general there is a pretty healthy secondary market for pack items.

I'd previously been told that ESO had this "Crown Gem" system, which was just as good or even better because you can use gems to buy crate items directly, but after having seen it myself I have to call shenanigans on that one. Basically you get gems for disintegrating unwanted junk items from the boxes, such as potions, but they are only worth one gem a pop, which is basically nothing. Bigger items such as pets or mounts cannot be turned into gems at will, only if they're duplicates! So getting an ugly mount that you're not going to use doesn't get you one bit closer to getting the thing you actually want, whereas in SWTOR you'd at least be able to sell it.

Also, and this is something nobody had ever mentioned to me before and that I only learned while looking it up, the top reward tier, which is called "radiant apex" rewards, can't be purchased with gems, ever, so you can only get those via sheer luck.

Really, the only thing I can say in favour of ESO's Crown Crates is that aside from the radiant apex rewards, all the rewards for the current crate season can be inspected via the in-game UI and you don't need to go to an outside site to learn what they are. This would have been a good feature for SWTOR to have too back in the day, though it has now become redundant with the Ultimate pack (as I get that they can't easily give you a preview of every Cartel Market item ever produced).

Trading & Unlocks

After railing against the lack of tradability of Crown Crate items, I do want to mention something positive related to store items and other players in ESO: the game has the option to give store items to others as gifts directly, which I think is very neat. In SWTOR you can give gifts too, but you have to buy them yourself, wait for the bind timer to run out and then send them through the mail or hand them over in person. I think a dedicated gift UI as part of the store is a nice idea.

The other thing I wanted to mention is that (as far as I could tell; personally I still only have one character), all of ESO's cosmetic cash store purchases are automatically unlocked account-wide, whereas in SWTOR you have to pay an additional fee through the Collection UI to get access on all your characters. How much of a boon that is to you depends on your play style I guess - I love creating alts myself but tend to give them all unique looks anyway, so to me automated account-wide unlocks are a moot point. However to players who don't mind recycling a good look, this can be a boon and drastically increase the value for money of purchases in ESO.

Whew, this ended up being longer than expected!

TL;DR: SWTOR's and ESO's business models are remarkably similar. The main differences are:

- SWTOR gives you a big chunk of content for free, but restricts and nags you a lot if you don't spend any money
- ESO's subscription feels more like a nice bonus than a requirement to fully enjoy the game (unless you have a specific play style), largely due to the generous currency stipend
- Both cash stores rely heavily on cosmetics, with no direct power purchases. Both have only a couple of what I would call slightly iffy items in there, such as SWTOR's extra hotbars for non-subscribers, or ESO's unlocks to skip months of waiting.
- ESO's store has the slightly better UI, but SWTOR's has more merchandise to choose from.
- In both cases, the prices for most items are what I'd call pretty reasonable, usually coming in at £5 to £10. I was actually kind of surprised by this, which is funny in itself as you'd think that as a long-time player I'd know better. It gets a lot of publicity when they experiment with releasing something super expensive, but if you look at the everyday items and prices, it's actually much ado about nothing.
- ESO still relies heavily on lootboxes at this point, with some bad luck protection but no ability to trade, which makes them a bad deal for anyone who just wants a specific drop, whereas SWTOR players can get pretty much anything they want from them without having to rely on RNG.

Do you think there's anything important I got wrong or left out? Feel free to add it in the comments and I'll edit it in where applicable.


  1. I am sorry. This is an very readable article, food for thought and has lots of points to discuss...but...do you really pay 24£ a day for commute? That is a lot of money, no?

    1. It's a little less than that, but yes, taking the train in the UK is ridiculously expensive. A monthly season pass to go to London and back from where I live costs more than an annual season pass for all of Vienna would cost me in Austria.

  2. I have zero interest in ESO or even the SWTOR cartel market... yet I read all of this. You're a good writer!

  3. Really interesting, thanks.

    So far I haven't spent any money on additional cartel coins, I've been totally happy with my monthly allowance from the sub.

    And ESO... well I didn't buy a subscription and didn't really play enough anyway.

    Also chuckling a bit here because of the other comment about the commute post, because I was also thinking that - but didn't have time to comment earlier. That really sucks, but IIRC some people here in Germany also paid like 300-400 EUR per month to commute into the city. Still kinda pays for itself via cheaper rents, if that would be ones only concern about not living in the city where ones job is - and from what I know London is quite a bit worse with rent than Munich.

    1. Rents are still high on the outskirts of London too. So we get the worst of both worlds. :)

  4. Shenanigans!!! Worth reading this post if only for that word. Havnt heard it in years.

    1. I love that word! My first draft actually used a different term in that particular sentence but I decided that it was too crude and didn't suit the tone of the rest of the post. :P

  5. I think the legacy system adds something in SWTOR's favour as you have the option to splash out more on many items to buy them for the account. I'm *much* more likely to buy stuff that benefits all my characters, it's something I particularly liked in Neverwinter as a lot of mounts/artifacts/companions were account level rewards.

    From my limited experience with the store in ESO everything is per character, at least the mounts that I've bought with subscription-reward crowns have been.

    1. Go into collections (Press U by default). Click mounts > right click the mount you want to use and select Set Active. That is now that characters mount. All your characters can use anything in collections with the exception of a few race specific appearance options.

  6. For me the difference between the two games subscription models is that for SWTOR you pay to remove restrictions and for ESO you pay for additional perks. From a perception standpoint with Swtor you're punished for not subbing whereas in ESO you're rewarded.

    What I really like about ESO is that when I'm not playing often and drop my sub I can still log on and do meaningful stuff on my main max level character. So even on my breaks I still play a little and stay connected to the game. I've also in the past spent my 'free' crowns on unlocking some DLC's so I always have access to them. With Swtor until recently if I took a break I wouldn't even logon since there was no real reason to on my main because level 70 rewards were locked behind command ranks which were sub only. Now I can do the Ossus weekly but that's only because I spent 30M on the artifact authorisation unlock last time I was subbed.

    Crown gems used to be quite easy to come buy with the number of free crates you could get but they've dried up recently. At one point I had over 500 without buying a crate myself.

    On last thing, you haven't really looked into housing yet. If you want to find a way to spend 21000 crowns then housing will do that, especially the limited time crown store exclusives that appear occasionally. I think the most expensive furnished one was around 18000, it was an island but still.

    1. I agree that perception matters, but to be honest I felt pretty heavily punished by the lack of access to the crafting bag too. Funnily enough I think I can see now how this might be less of a problem at max level once you've unlocked all the regular inventory upgrades, but as a new player it's really bad. It strikes me as a kind of a funny reverse to squeeze players the hardest when they've only just started but then gradually make it easier to play without paying.

      And yeah, Stardust on Twitter also pointed out that the housing system is a big "Crown sink". Still doesn't change that I'd personally struggle to spend 21,000 Crowns as I'm not really into housing. :)

  7. One difference between SWTOR and ESO that I've found unexpectedly vexing is how they treat shop credits for multi-month subs.

    I sub in three month blocks in both SWTOR and ESO. In ESO, when I'm billed, I immediately get all three months worth of Crowns. In SWTOR, I get one month worth of Cartel Coins at the beginning of each month - despite have paid in full up front.

    1. Yeah, that's an interesting thing I never thought about before trying ESO to be honest (as I'm not exactly sitting there awaiting my monthly stipend with anticipation).

      The ESO way does seem like it should be better in every way: better for the player because they get everything right away and can spend it on something larger there and then, but also better for the company: With more currency at their disposal, the player will be more likely to use the store, and with no more "free" currency coming in for several months, they may well decide to just buy more directly next time they see a store item they like.


Share your opinion! Everyone is welcome, as long as things stay polite. I also read comments on older posts, so don't be shy. :)