Since the days of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, players and game critics alike have often described Bethesda’s beloved Elder Scrolls series as an “offline MMO.” The titles have featured many of the elements that make massively multiplayer titles like World of Warcraft huge hits, but they’ve never allowed other players to come together and share in the experience…until now.
A recent Game Informer cover story has revealed a new massively multiplayer role-playing game set in the Elder Scrolls’ world of Tamriel, and reaction has been largely positive. However, not everyone was thrilled with the idea of taking one of the last fantastically successful single-player franchises in gaming and making it an MMORPG.
I count myself amongst the less-enthused masses – and not just because I thought Skyrim was a long, boring slog through some beautiful scenery (even though I loved Oblivion and Morrowind). After having spent hundreds of hours with this series over the past decade and thousands (upon thousands) of hours with various MMOs, I find the idea of an Elder Scrolls online RPG fraught with potential pitfalls. Here are three significant ones that the developers will have to overcome if they want this game to be profitable and not just another carcass laying on the side of the MMO highway (hello, Tabula Rasa!).
1. The bugs
Let’s start with the elephant in the room first, shall we?
As anyone who has played the previous Elder Scrolls games already knows, Bethesda is lousy when it comes to finding and fixing bugs prior to release. The PlayStation 3 version of Skyrim has been out for months and the company still hasn’t completely fixed the issues with that experience (which were game-crippling in most instances). But hey, they did manage to make dragons fly backwards for a while! The other versions of Skyrim weren’t plagued with the same issues, but each has certainly had problems.
If the teams involved are incapable of making a single-player game that manages to run properly, how can we begin to expect them to master the intricacies of an entire online world? MMOs are huge, with tons of complex coding required to take into account all the dumb stuff players tend to do in hopes of breaking the game or finding a competitive advantage. If a company released a patch with the unforeseen consequence of making dragons fly backwards and didn’t catch it on their own, what chance do they possibly have of getting a multi-tiered quest chain with multiple players and locations to work? Somewhere between slim and none is my cynical guess.
To be fair, Bethesda isn’t directly handling The Elder Scrolls Online. It’s being developed by Zenimax Online Studios, but the Bethesda team is actively involved with the title’s development. The only way this gets worse is if Zenimax farms out the quest coding to Obsidian (developers of some other infamously buggy games). If that happens, I fully expect my console and PC to explode the instant I click “download.”
2. The “online” part
Another big issue this game needs to face is that while everyone talks about The Elder Scrolls feeling like an offline MMO, the key word there is offline. The beauty of this franchise is that it puts the player front and center in these high fantasy adventures where they can impact everything. That all goes out the window in an MMO.
Noted existentialist Jean Paul Sartre once said “Hell is other people,” which doesn’t even begin to describe life in an MMO.
Now, imagine playing the game and instead of your character being the “chosen one,” there are 4,000 other chosen ones on the server…and the majority of those other 4,000 players are dedicated to either getting what they want at any cost, preventing you from getting what you want through the bending or breaking of game rules (better known as “griefing”), or are so inept that they’re just constantly in the way. Sounds like a blast, doesn’t it? The engaging solo adventure where the player becomes the hero gets jettisoned for a more socialist approach. Players will be forced to cooperate with these misfits, which will greatly impact the experience.
For example, remember all those great books and other things that players can read in the offline Elder Scrolls games that flesh out the world and expand the mythology? Forget about enjoying them online even if they are included. The raid leader doesn’t have time for the peons to read the lore books or watch the in-game cutscenes. There’s phat lootz to be had! Meanwhile, you can also forget about the joy of stumbling across some secret cave nestled in a far-off corner of the map. Most players will arrive at one to find xXxZephiroth420xXx and his gang of naked Argonians dancing around like it’s a nightclub.
In the spirit of fairness, other people are a problem endemic to all MMOs, not just The Elder Scrolls Online…but do we really want this? Do we want to spend $60 for the game and a monthly subscription fee for this sort of experience when the single-player games are so successful? What’s wrong with playing to a strength? In this case, that strength is creating (mostly) compelling single-player experiences with rich worlds to explore where the player is the center of the universe. Most of the things that have made The Elder Scrolls so compelling don’t really translate to the shared communal experience of an MMO. Even though Bethesda will continue to make single player Elder Scrolls titles, there’s a lot to lose here if The Elder Scrolls Online doesn’t work as anticipated. Is it really worth the risk of potentially diminishing the brand?
3. The “MMO in a fantasy setting” part
The Elder Scrolls has its own rich mythology, but let’s face it, there’s not much that distinguishes it from the standard Dungeons & Dragons/Tolkien template that has dominated the fantasy genre for decades. The MMORPG marketplace is filled with elves running wild and ancient evils that need vanquishing. Isn’t this all a little played out at this point?
This says nothing about the fact that, despite Zenimax’s protestations to the contrary, The Elder Scrolls Online already feels like it has a lot in common with a little Blizzard game called World of Warcraft. I’m sure the developers will sprinkle in enough Elder Scrolls mythology to make it feel slightly different than the other generic high fantasy games crowding the market, but will that be enough for gamers who’ve been traversing fantasy worlds since the days when the original Everquest was dubbed Evercrack? It’s going to have to be if Bethesda and Zenimax want to see this game competing for market space and not going free to play (or worse) a year or two after its debut.
As we’ve recently seen, launching an MMO is a challenging undertaking for even experienced developers with what seem like can’t-miss franchises. Who would have expected the mighty Bioware and Star Wars to struggle? EA’s most recent financial report shows that game has lost 400,000 subscribers since March. That alone should be a cautionary tale to Bethesda and Zenimax moving forward. They need to remember that the road to MMO ruin is paved with recognizable pop-culture icons like Lord of the Rings, Conan, and more. A killer brand guarantees nothing.
Of course, it’s too early to make any definitive conclusions about The Elder Scrolls Online. With no official release date (or even a beta announcement), there’s plenty of time for amazing things to happen…but one has to wonder if this game will be seen as one of the major players in the crowded MMO market or just another title that tried to enter the arena and ultimately came up short. Here's to hoping it's the former and not the latter.