Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Elder Scrolls Online

For those that missed it, this past week Zenimax Online, the parent of Bethesda Softworks announced that they were bringing the popular Elder Scrolls to the MMO audience. Elder Scrolls has long been a popular single player RPG, and has a massive following, so one might suspect that this announcement would be greated with cheers so players could explore the world with friends, instead the announcement has been met with derision, and has many fans of both The Elder Scrolls and MMO's up in arms. I'm tempted to say that this is the worst reception to an announcement of a "beloved" IP that I've ever seen, and I think it is happening for a couple of reasons.

In addition to the announcement, there was info on a leaked article in the June issue of Game Informer. Knowing how beloved the IP is, the fact that Matt Firor, the Dark Age of Camelot Producer is at the helm, and promises a three faction game that many disenfranchised fans seem to want, where have things gone wrong?

Loss of identity

I think it all starts with a loss of identity. Fans of The Elder Scrolls enjoy the series deliver a fairly open sandbox for you to play in. Going back in time, to where I was introduced to the series, Daggerfall, boasted an impressive 487,000 sq km to explore, which is nearly twice the size of Great Britian, and this was merely two provinces of Tamriel. Daggerfall had 15,000 towns, villages and dungeons for a player to visit along with 750,000 NPC's. Those are impressive numbers, even if they were randomly generated. Putting it in perspective, Oblivion had a mere 41.4 sq km to explore. Daggerfall is available for a free download and granted it is a 16 year old DOS game, it is a true classic, especially for those of us who want worlds to explore.

The Elder Scrolls has deep roots in giving players a huge sandbox where your main quest may be directed, but you are encouraged to go off the beaten path and explore the world and everything that there is to do in the world. First person combat, a political and guild system, the ability to buy property, and act as you wish. Dont like the person across the street? Shoot him in the ear with an arrow, but reap the consequences if you are seen. Where a developer like Bioware usually gives a story to experience, Bethesda gives players a place to create their own story. Imagine Bioware doing Call of Duty, and understand why fans feel that Zenimax is taking the IP in a different direction.

So where is all of this going? Well, in the leaked article, Zenimax appears to be developing a game that lacks many of the traits that made The Elder Scrolls successful and popular. It will be a class based game, with a fairly traditional leveling system, no housing and generally is giving the feeling of another re-skinned themepark experience, which are available by the boat load today. The only difference is that it is taking place in the world of Tamriel.

Where were you in 2008?

The second part of the equation, as I see it, is the World of Warcraft effect. Back in November of 2008, they announced that they had 11.5 million subscribers, and were the benchmark game in the industry. The model that every developer wanted to meet and exceed was the one that WoW had earned. For a general frame of reference, most AAA MMO's seem to take between 4-6 years of development, so to understand what TES is announcing today, we need to go back 4 years to understand why they set out to make what they did.

I think it is fairly obvious that WoW was the 300lb gorilla, and games like SWTOR, Rift, and TES were heavily influenced by that model. Granted each of them may be trying to put a unique stamp on their game, and on the genre, story, dynamic events, return of 3-faction PvP, but they have all failed to accurately perceive the changing tastes of the genre's fanbase thru their crystal balls. While the first two titles met with initial box sale success, they have failed to dethrone the heavy weight, and have had their own issues with jaded fans, especially when compared to a game that has been around for 7+ years and has 7+ years of development and content available.

These days games like The Secret World and Guild Wars 2 are both trying to break away from some typical conventions of the genre, but having spent some time in GW2, I realize that there are only so many ways you can hide a quest to go kill 10 spiders. Dont get me wrong I like GW2 quite a bit, but it doesnt completely break the chains and doesnt offer a completely new experience. I have not seen TSW, but my hunch is that it'll give some new takes on current ideas, but wont be an entirely new experience either.

Really, TES should bring back a true 3-faction PvP game and do it in the world of Tamriel, which is enough for someone like me, but I hazzard a guess that people will be even more burnt out, and more jaded, and you can see it in the reception TES is getting today. People do want something different, they want games to break ground, or at least stay true to their roots. The problem is that game development cycles are not short, and when Blizzard was boasting yearly about how many new subscriptions they were earning, it was far easier for developers to push a tried a true path for their own titles.  With Blizzard admitting that they have seen a subscriber decrease in the past year or so, it may not be until 2014 or 2015 when we start to see the impact on titles in development.

I geuninely believe that many titles in late development now are going to leave people feeling disappointed because they cannot and will not entirely break the current WoW inspired MMO formula. I can only hope that in a few years we'll start to see more companies willing to take some chances and go in new directions.

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