I’ve been a big fan of The Elder Scrolls games since Morrowind and love them. Sure, there have been some bugs and glitches – some of which have been hilarious, the rest of which where never entirely game breaking. but ultimately, there is no reason or willingness for me to needlessly hate on the companies involved in the production. With that said, while everything points to the fact that I should be on the edge of my seat for this game, I’m just not. This article is, in part, an effort to deduce why.
The cornerstone of my belief of TESO being a bad idea is the O bit. The fact that it is an MMO. I have played many games from this genre over the course of the past six or seven years – well over four thousand recorded hours on World Of Warcraft alone – and have learned what I like, what I don’t like and why I do and do not like these things and I have come to a point of generally disinterest for the format. The Elder Scrolls Online, while having so much that screams awesome to my nature as a gamer, also checks a lot of ‘No’ boxes for me when it comes to MMO’s, pre-release presentation and utilization of franchise.
My gaming habits – if you’ll indulge me – are quite closely mirrored by my habits across all mediums of entertainment. For instance, I have a preference for fantasy over sci-fi but I don’t disregard one over the other. I like single player over multiplayer but I don’t go lone wolf when teamwork is necessary – unless going lone wolf is necessary to the team effort – and, most importantly for the matter at hand, story is everything. I can overlook gameplay, graphics, design, functionality… anything and everything takes a backseat when a lovingly crafted and/or intricately detailed story is being presented to me. This is something I have always received from the series in question and don’t doubt people will be receiving from TESO.
The problem is, I believe that a key component to Elder Scrolls is destined to be lost in translation from strictly single player to massively multiplayer and that component is, to be frank, selfishness. For example, my exploits as The Dragonborn would have been sourly affected had it come to light that I was not the sole beneficiary of the Dovahkiin prophecy but in fact one of two… or in this case, one of a number dependent on server capacity. During my time on World Of Warcraft, I heard and saw the word ‘Hero’ tossed around a lot, mainly in my direction, but it never really felt the case when everybody was, if not sporting weapons and armour that made my own look like rags and sticks, carrying exactly the same stuff as me. Being that the objective of the game for me was acquisition and affirmation of status, it’s understandable that the arrival at said status was nullified upon receiving it. In other words, becoming a ‘Hero’ felt worthless and I really don’t enjoy the idea of that feeling being found in Tamriel, too.
When I load up Skyrim it’s because I want to escape the mundane, if only for an hour. I want to plunge into the depths of a dungeon or wrestle a dragon to the ground and absorb his soul like no other man, woman or cat/human hybrid could. I like that, it’s immersive escapism and I know I’m not alone in that feeling. You don’t have to be boring-real-world-you for a little while. It’s why a lot of us hold this hobby. An MMO, on the other hand, is a messy affair, one that it is difficult to take seriously as a game, if what you seek is a respite from the real world. It’s hard to immerse yourself in something when there are five people around you, in the immediate area alone, named ‘Red Ragnar’ or some other variation of a canonical character’s name, the chatlog is being spammed by gold sellers, elitists snobs and trolls, and the item your quest tells you you must gain is the same one that everybody else, who happens to be doing the same quest at the same time, has to get. Waiting for something to respawn because the last guy already took/killed/saved it is not very immersive. It’s one of the many reasons people made Bejeweled and Peggle addons for WoW – so you can play games while you wait for the game you’re playing to refresh/catch up.
Back when the announcement for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was doing the rounds, I came upon an article about how it was an RPG that could potentially topple Skyrim. Personally, I think the two games, while admittedly action oriented RPG’s with a western style about them, are incomparable but the thing I took from it is the adoration with which people look upon Skyrim and it’s predecessors. The thinking being that any richly detailed open world epic adventure game set in a fantasy environment should be considered competition for those currently donning the ceremonial robes and crown of ‘King of Genre’, and it brought me back to when the same discussion was circulating around MMO’s, and the reigning champion was Blizzard. It took me by surprise because it hadn’t dawned on me until that point. I still largely regarded Elder Scrolls games to be those that people played but seldom spoke about with others as it wasn’t exciting enough to qualify against the likes of Call Of Duty or Devil May Cry, but upon reflection it was every bit a huge, fought for, success. Bethesda were – are – a powerhouse and I had just not considered what level of dominance they had earned. Primarily with the Elder Scrolls series and Fallout 3 but not to disregard other games that have been noteworthy to their success like Rage, Dishonored and so many others. The point I’m getting at here is that for a company that some would consider the Blizzard of this particular type of experience, is an MMO really necessary?
It wasn’t too long ago that another smiled upon developer took the king of one genre vs king of other genre fight into their hands. Bioware’s The Old Republic was a game that was seminal in my current dispassion for MMO’s. I had long awaited a follow up to what are easily two of my favourite games of all time for six years. I absorbed every tidbit of pre-release information available, broke a personal rule and preordered. I even got a tattoo to commemorate the game, it’s release and Star Wars as a whole… and the end result killed me. Never did I wish for KOTOR 3 more than a few months after the release of SW:TOR, and judging from how quickly they fell in line with the current market, they realised the error of their ways. You could say “Well, it’s your own fault for getting your hopes up. Never put all your eggs in one basket.”, and that’s a valid point. I shouldn’t have done that and I resolve to try not to do it again. Which is why I approach this – The Elder Scrolls Online – with a degree of unease. I can’t handle another monumental disappointment especially when it looks to me that the goal, above all else, is to – broken record – topple WoW and embarrass Bioware while they’re at it.
The recent release of the cinematic trailer looked, for all intents and purposes, like an attempt to point to Bioware’s beautifully rendered action sequences from their pre-release promotion and say “This is how it’s done!”. But in the understandably amazing cinematic provided by Zenimax, that very well competes with Bioware’s own, the key difference for me is clear. When Bioware did it, it still felt like Star Wars. This didn’t feel like Elder Scrolls. There’s big unfamiliar behemoths destroying the landscape and an army of interchangable warriors, archers and mages letting out battle cries as they charged in to be the hero of the skirmish and so much more cut and paste this-is-what-fantasy-looks-like stuff. If I’m being honest, that video could have been anything fantasy related. Throw in a shot a fraction of a second long of a guy slipping on a ring and you wouldn’t be out of order for assuming it was a story set in an uncharted zone of Middle Earth – or perhaps Upper or Lower. If it didn’t at some point say The Elder Scrolls Online in it, there’s a pretty high risk that I wouldn’t have known it was TESO at all. Which is sad because the franchise does have a very unique design aesthetic – an air that allows it to stand apart from all other fantasy and I fear that that is slowly but surely being lost along the way.
Another fear is in the amount it seems budget is influencing decisions. The defiant stance on subscription is not only a deterrent for many who are already subbed to so many things they’ve lost count but also a means of explaining to shareholders how they will make the money they’re blowing back. To make matters worse it looks like an opposition to progress when taken into account how successful a well thought out free to play system can be. Riot games, developers and publishers of League Of Legends, for instance, took an un-established franchise, a genre that was essentially a dusty old mod, put together a good game based on fun and not finance and look at them now. They’re rolling in finance. Every MOBA that comes along is – you guessed it – compared to LoL.*
Zenimax and Bethesda seem to be taking an “If you build it they will come” approach and throwing money at this thing left right and centre in the hopes that franchise recognition, a heavy marketing push and the faith in subscriptions being as financially fulsome as they have in the past, will be cause for snag-free recuperation. But MMO’s have snags, big ugly green ones dripping with infections that a lot of great companies are ill-equipped for, even Blizzard would tell you that.
The recent reveal of the casting seems only to support my assumptions. Don’t get me wrong, I love the voices and big names support the previous efforts have had like Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean in Oblivion. When I found out who Charles Martinet was and the fact that he played Paarthunax, it was a proud day to be a gamer, to be a part of this new form of legend building. However, with names like John Cleese, Bill Nighy, Kate Beckinsale, Alfred Molina, Michael Gambon, Malcolm McDowell and Lynda Carter on the credit reel, they’ve got some big ass pay-cheques to cover. That’s only a handful of the voice actors, not all of them and not the only thing that’s costing money here. The problem I see is, what if people don’t respond kindly to the subscriptions? What if people cotton onto my theory that Elder Scrolls is, at it’s core, a selfish I-must-be-the-only-hero kind of game?
I hope there is no misunderstanding when I say I am not preemptively lamenting this game as a failure, nor do I want to see it fail. I sincerely hope it doesn’t but reticence makes me worry that if this goes wrong, hideously wrong, it could mean bad things for Zenimax and Bethesda and, really, who wants that?
*For the record, I know there is a divide on where people come down on the semantics of the superior MOBA between LoL and DotA2 but there should be little argument in the fact that LoL brought the genre back, came from humble beginnings in doing so and enjoy their current success from that.