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Three reasons why The Elder Scrolls Online might be a bad idea

Mike Bracken's picture

The Elder Scrolls Online Screenshot

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.

The Elder Scrolls Online Screenshot

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?

The Elder Scrolls Online Screenshot

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...

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3   PC  
Developer(s): Bethesda  
Series: The Elder Scrolls  
Genre(s): Role-Playing   Open World  
Articles: Editorials  
Topic(s): Business   Game Design & Dev  

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I concur wholeheartedly

My main issue with the TEScO-idea is not that much the bug-ridden mess it will be at launch, but the possible shift away from the traditional, player-focused TES experience.

One big appeal of TES was always the feeling of being the stalwart hero of the land and center of attention. Age of Conan tried that as first MMO to some extend with it's introductory quest where YOU are the chosen one. Then YOU chosen one come to the first city with other players and notice about 50.000 other chosen ones. That didn't really sell the whole MMO idea to me. Shouldn't MMO be about being part of something greater than yourself, teaming up with 40 other heroes to raid an evil overlords den?

I also read it being described somewhere as having WoW-style mechanics. I played way to much WoW in my life already, why should I play yet another WoW-alike? When I get a next generation MMO I want something that is not the same old WoW-clone.

The bugs are definitely the

The bugs are definitely the least of my worries too -- I mean, in theory, bugs can be found and corrected (well, except in Skyrim, apparently, but yeah...)

I'm mostly concerned about the potential change in identity for the series as a whole as it transitions from a solo experience where everything is catered to the individual player to a game where there's a community with diverse needs to be served. I'm not saying they can't make the transition, but I really wonder why they'd even bother, particularly if they're just going to make another game with minor deviations from the WoW formula.

There's few people in gaming

There's few people in gaming (media or otherwise) who I can say I'm on the same wavelength with (on at least 90% of gaming related topics), but you're definitely one of 'em, Mike. This article proves my belief completely.

The arguments you level at why Elder Scrolls online maybe won't work are similar to the things I said about Star Wars: The Old Republic. Surprisingly - although it definitely suffers from the flaws I expected - SW:TOR isn't half as bad as I was expecting, but the fact that it is basically another WoW clone with conversation/cutscene-lite elements probably explains the lacklustre subscription figures (a dwindling 3+ million may sound good, but compare that to 10+ million for a 7 year old game and it certainly puts things into perspective).

The core thing with TES is that you make your own adventure, and the game is designed to be played as you see fit; with other players, balance, loot, and such, all that is eliminated almost entirely. It took God knows how many millions to make SW:TOR even semi-competent, and years upon years of effort, and with Bethesda's track record of shoddy technical output I cannot see TES Online launching as an anywhere near playable and enjoyable MMORPG from start to finish.

I'm glad that it's another team making the game and not Bethesda Studios, since that means we can still get the proper experiences of TES and Fallout most expect; if Zenimax got Bethesda to make the MMORPG too then I'd be somewhat annoyed. If a TES MMORPG need exist - and it needn't, by the way - then I guess this is the best scenario for it to happen.

I'm flattered to hear anyone

I'm flattered to hear anyone agrees with me ever -- let alone that often. Thanks.

I think TOR is a great cautionary tale for anyone entering the market now -- you've got Bioware and Star Wars, which should equal a license to print money -- and that game currently sits at 1.3 million subscribers from what I've read. That's not a terrible figure, but WoW is way older and still has significantly more subscribers even after months and months of atrophy.

If you consider that, and the fact that reaction to the Elder Scrolls announcement was less than full enthusiasm (despite still being largely positive), I'd be pretty nervous if I were at Bethesda. These games aren't cheap to make and if they bomb hard, they're a huge financial burden. Just ask Square -- they're still dealing with FFXIV fallout.

yeah, zenimax online and

yeah, zenimax online and bethesda are both owned by the same people but that's irrelevant because they're entirely different teams. you might as well be worried about texture pop-in because id software is also 'under the same umbrella'. all bethesda is doing is 'advising' which mean's they're not actually contributing much beyond supplying lore, etc.

i do agree that the game looks unpromising, but then again i've never understood the appeal of MMOs in the first place.

They may be different teams,

They may be different teams, but even the director of Zenimax Online Studios discusses how it's a collaborative project between his team and Todd Howard's group. There's no way that everything in that game isn't being run through Howard and his team. I'd wager a lot of money that there's more than just lore stuff happening there. Elder Scrolls is a huge IP and Bethesda's baby -- I'm sure they're closely involved at every step of the way. Maybe Zenimax Online has better programmers, though.

And either way, they're both answering to the same parent company -- the one that is more concerned with making release dates and patching later than actually releasing a finished product on time. All MMOs release with bugs -- but when they're coming from a publisher with a history of releasing single player games that don't even work correctly, it's a cause for concern to me. That's a little different than the Id analogy.

I actually like MMOs, but a this point it's sort of like "if you've played WoW, you've played them all." That's a genre in desperate need of someone with vision willing to take risks and reinvent the wheel.

Thanks for commenting.


I agree Mike. While I'm tepid, I would be excited if I thought the MMO would be one giant continent with the detail and depth of a Morrowind, Skyrim what have you. The reality is, that's highly unlikely. Unless it 'feels' like elder scrolls on the ground playing, then what's the point?

That's actually a great

That's actually a great point, Chris.

One of the cool things about the single-player Elder Scrolls games is that they allow you to go anywhere in their open world from the start pretty much. An online MMO will ruin that -- it'll feature "zones" based on levels and a relatively linear progression through said zones to reach level cap and endgame content. Sure, there'll be multiple different starting zones to explore, but I doubt players will be able to just travel across a seamless continent from the first moments of the game.

I totally agree with you.

I totally agree with you. There s so many pitfalls. First and foremost is the bethesda lazy coding standart as you said. Comunity fix such quickly, but in a MMO, tale changes.
Second is the total lazyness of bethesda, the company usyally do lay a more or less woven blanket and the comunity goldplate it by patches and heavy modding, in a MMO Bethesda won t have such facility.
Being a lazy company with mediocre gaming ideas (Skyrim and Oblivion changes) i hardly see how bethesda will be able to strenght out of WOW(due to weariness of style and play), GW2, CONAN, KTOR and general MMO failures: Repetitive and stupid quest leading to massive grinding, botting, farming, and cheating as an unique evil, massive raids grinders etc. And beside all there s anought F2P medieval fantasy games to fill gamers desires, i feel(and hope to be wrong, but i won t be MMO customer until MMO get over their more of the same syndrome) Bethesda think it worth more than it is really worth.
OTOH comes GFX, bethesda has a long story of being merely reasonable and with PC eating console for breakfast again, you can bet (as it already show) GFX will be subpar for PC market.
This project is the reap of Oblivion, Skyrim and fallout sucess but it can backlash the company to the point it can fell all altoghether.

IMHO bethesda would have hit the spot is they had realeased a solid solo + 2 up to 4 players coop game thats what most people want anyway. Having bored people, bunning hoping, screamin "rlz" "lolz" and the like, and groups lurking to kill you on a 6 to 1 ratio isn t something most define as fun. Nor are getting 45 redberry pies and kill 200 green bugs and come back to get some obsolete reward..

Your both right. The whole

Your both right. The whole basis was to create a world where you can be what you like your way as stated in the game manual of Morrowind. These games made their name from intimate single player experience not as online like you said Mike. I've spent hundreds of hours playing these games, they are part of my life. No limits and all to ourselves that's what made it special. Online will ultimately destroy the soul of sneaking into someone's house and looting all their possessions.

Good argument

Whilst reading through this I started with the thought of 'This game will be the best ever.' Now I still think this, however the issues put forward here are very real. Especially the problem with Elder Scrolls experience being tarnished by this game. I disagree with the saturated market issue however. The gaming community doesn't work like a refrigerator. You don't buy a new one when the old one is knackered. With fantasy gaming this is extra. Bethesda and Zenimax are not releasing this game to 'make people happy,' they're doing it to make money. People have been asking for an MMO of the Elder Scrolls for years. With the effort put into this game, it may be popular for years to come.

Why This Review Isn't Fair - To Mr. Bracken

First off, no I'm not a hardcore gamer who's played many MMOs nor am I a mindless fanboy of TES, but I am a big fan of the series. Now I can get started.

I've read several articles on TESO that state you have the options at the beginning of and during the game to include (or exclude) any kind of or amount of actual people from your experience. You can even limit it to ONLY you and your chosen friends, or just yourself if you'd like. This makes your article somewhat pointless. Except for the fact that bugs could very well be a problem, but Zenimax is indeed the developer here. So who knows? But, I just want others to see this comment and understand the full situation and not be repelled from the game by your loosely informed (but very well written)review. - Jesse

Hi Jesse, Sorry for the slow

Hi Jesse,

Sorry for the slow response -- I just noticed this comment yesterday. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond.

Your comments are certainly valid -- the only problem is that this op-ed piece was written when TESO was first revealed, so no one knew about the features you're mentioning. If that stuff really works as you're describing it, great -- then one of my concerns has been addressed. I'm going to just assume someone in the dev team read this piece and said "Hey, that Bracken guy is right -- we need to address this before release" and then took my concerns to heart. :p

So, again, this wasn't a "loosely informed" opinion piece -- it was a speculative piece written before anyone knew any of the details about the game other than it would involve the TES license. Thanks for the kind words about the writing quality, though. I appreciate that.

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