Since the days of Morrowind, players and game critics alike have often described Bethesda's beloved Elder Scrolls series as "an offline MMO." The titles have had many of the elements that make Massively Multiplayer titles like World of Warcraft a huge hit, but it's never allowed for other players to come together and share the experience—until now.
A recent Game Informer cover story has revealed the development of a Massively Multiplayer Role-Playing Game set in the Elder Scrolls world of Tamriel—and reaction has been largely positive. Granted, 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, but for many this was a moment they'd long dreamed of.
I count myself amongst the less-enthused masses—and that's not just because I thought Skyrim was a long, boring slog through some beautiful scenery (in the spirit of full disclosure, I loved Oblivion and Morrowind), but because having spent hundreds of hours with Elder Scrolls titles 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 Zenimax Online Studios will have to overcome if they want this game to be profitable and not just another carcass lying on the side of the MMO highway (hello Tabula Rasa!).
Let's start with the elephant in the room first, shall we?
As anyone who's 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 the MMO? 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 releases 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 taking into account multiple players and locations to work? Somewhere between slim and none is my cynical guess.
To be fair, Bethesda isn't handling The Elder Scrolls Online—it's being developed by Zenimax Online Studios, but it's all under the same umbrella and 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. If that happens, I fully expect my console and PC to explode the instant I click "download."
Another big issue facing The Elder Scrolls Online 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 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—where the "other people" are usually comprised of thousands of versions of that guy from the South Park World of Warcraft episode.
Now, imagine playing the game and instead of your character being the "chosen one," there are 4000 other chosen ones on the server—and the majority of those other 4000 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 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 in the single player games gets jettisoned for a more socialist approach. Players will be forced to cooperate with these social 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 in order to flesh out the world and expand the mythology? Forget about enjoying that 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, forget about the joy of stumbling across some secret cave nestled in a far-off corner of the map too—most will arrive 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 really, do we 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 (for starters, forget about buying houses or the skill progression systems of the solo games…). Even though Bethesda will continue to make single player Elder Scrolls titles, there's a lot to lose here if Elder Scrolls Online doesn't work as anticipated. Is it really worth the risk and potentially diminishing the brand?
Last, but certainly not least, is this: Does the world really need another fantasy-based MMO?
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's dominated the fantasy genre for decades. The MMORPG marketplace is filled with games with fantasy settings, places where elves run wild and ancient evils 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 Zenimax will sprinkle in enough Elder Scrolls mythology to make it feel slightly different than the other generic high fantasy games crowding the market (Daedric Prince Molag Bal will be the primary villain in the title), 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 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 seen recently, launching an MMO is a challenging undertaking for even experienced developers with what seem like can't miss IPs. 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 from their March numbers. That alone should be a cautionary tale to Bethesda and Zenimax moving forward—the road to MMO ruin is paved with recognizable pop culture icons like Lord of the Rings, Conan, and so on. A killer brand guarantees nothing—ask Square Enix as they struggle to overcome the disastrous launch of Final Fantasy XIV. They had a relatively successful MMO under their belt with Final Fantasy XI and have still had difficulty finding a niche in the modern market. Nothing is a given under the best of circumstances.
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 we'll be talking about the game as one of the major players in the crowded MMO market or another title that tried to enter the arena and ultimately came up short. Let's hope it's the former and not the latter…