The enormity and depth inherent in the MMO genre make creating any MMO a daunting task. As you probably already know, the crazies over at Bethesda and ZeniMax Online have made the task extra daunting by adding the immensity of the Elder Scrolls realm into the mix. Our own Angelo M. D’Argenio recently told you about his hands-on experience with the Elder Scrolls Online’s PAX East demonstration. He concluded that the game only “kind of” feels like an Elder Scrolls entry. Granted, the game does still have a bit to go, but that sort of lack luster impression could kill the interest of many fans, including myself.
In order to understand why the MMO could be so disappointing, we need to discuss the Elder Scrolls franchise as a whole. Bethesda’s successful RPG formula, which they used to great success in both the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series, is often heralded at being the best at what it does. What it does is provide an enormous, customizable, engaging first-person RPG experience. Bethesda delivers these impressive experiences entirely through single player campaigns.
In these campaigns, Bethesda hands you a succession of impossibly impressive things: a character who is a complete blank slate, an enormous (and gorgeous) world to explore, and a plotline that changes drastically depending on the player’s decisions. And then you’re told “Go.” Without sacrificing depth or diversity, the game gives you – and only you – an entire world to control. This is arguably the biggest reason for the series’ popularity: having access to a world that rivals any MMO, but having it all yourself.
I think a lot of the disappointment with the current demonstration of Elder Scrolls Online will be from fans expecting The Elder Scrolls VI. Although Bethesda has promised a return of the quality gameplay we already know, the new online variation will be a distant relative to the brilliant, single player adventuring that the series is built on. Instead of focusing on the single player aspect of the game, ESO will focus on creating a satisfying multiplayer experience. Although this unlocks countless options that previous installments of the series didn’t have, it eliminates that most important aspect of “owning” a fully fleshed RPG world.
The shift to a multiplayer focus is not necessarily a bad thing. Plenty of series have seen successful adaptations and installments that deviate from the IP’s roots. Sure, it’s no longer going to be strictly a single player package, but the world could still prove just as enthralling as before. As Angelo explained, the combat is as versatile as ever; you can pick up almost anything sharp, hold something magic in your other hand, and still fight effectively. The game also looks absolutely gorgeous; it puts most MMO’s on the market to graphical shame. Despite reaching these high points, Bethesda has one giant hurdle to overcome: losing audience interest to the very concept of an “online Elder Scrolls.”
Think about why MMOs are popular, why players enjoy them over single-player gaming. Some gamers relish the player-to-player interaction. That sense of competition compels them to come back to the game night after night. Other gamers are after an endless gaming experience: they want a game that virtually never runs out of content. Then there are those that just want to get online and play casually with their friends. The Elder Scrolls reached popularity by doing exactly zero of these things. Core supporters of the franchise don’t give a crap about the new online potential, and by moving the series to an MMO format, Bethesda risks losing its core audience just for the simple fact that it’s an MMO.
That brings us to the key question surrounding the game’s future. If ESO loses its core audience, then it’s up to the current MMO player base to save the profit margins. With that said, it’s important to keep in mind that the reigning MMO titans of today already have the market all but cornered, and show no signs of loosening their grip. ESO could be successful if, to put it bluntly, it was more impressive. At this point, nothing about the game really stands out other than the name itself and how pretty it is, which isn’t going to do much in the way of snatching players away from their current MMO fix.
This boils down to a flawed target market being paired with a currently unimpressive game. A significant portion of Elder Scrolls fans may not want to play the game, and MMO players won’t stick to a game that doesn’t impress them since they have so many other places to get their fix. As a result, ESO could be left player starved and deep in the red after its launch. I hope that the remaining development period is enough time to patch up the game’s misgivings and polish it into the epic (and profitable) adventure we’re all hoping for.
Readers, what do you think? If you agree with my outlook on ESO, but for different reasons, say so below. If you think I’m being a pessimist who needs to shut up and enjoy the Elder Scrolls, then feel free to comment me square into the jaw. If you’ve got a completely separate opinion of the game, feel free to post that too and put me in my place. Either way, I’m genuinely curious as to what the rest of the gaming world has to say about ESO, because, quite frankly, I’d love to be wrong on this one.
Date: April 10, 2013