The Elder Scrolls Online – Big Shoes

It’s been known for a while that Zenimax was creating an Elder Scrolls Massively Multiplayer Online RPG. Today they’ve announced some details about it in a rather interesting 9 minute video…

Before I talk about my thoughts on the subject… take a moment to watch the video, it can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KxJTsq2XeKY&feature=youtu.be

Now, I’m going to admit here something I never thought I’d say. I’m impressed. I was figuring that The Elder Scrolls Online would either end up being another failed WoW clone or would be way too much like Skyrim to have any hope at success in the MMO world. But it looks like they’re taking a middle ground here, and that’s a good thing.

The essential problem is that, and even most Elder Scrolls fans I know will attest to this, the gameplay in Elder Scrolls games is boring. Sorry, I should be more specific, the combat is boring. Since MMORPGs are built on their combat and gameplay… boring combat just won’t do. Nothing will drive an MMO into the ground faster than if people don’t feel engaged in the combat. The combat, from that video, looks like there is an element of Skyrim’s combat in there, but it also looks like they’ve realized they have to take more classic RPG elements and offer people more than just swinging their sword or shooting an arrow. People need to have things they can do with these weapons for an MMO – skills and abilities. When you watch that video, one of the characters has a sort of charge jump attack, and another has a special jumping attack. These are the types of things that make me suspect they’re making strides towards making the combat engaging like it never really was in Skyrim.

As far as bringing the MMO crowd in, you have to offer interesting grouping options as well as the ability to play on your own. TES has always been successful at the latter, so that’s not the problem they have to tackle, except maybe in making sure they don’t go too far in the other direction. No, what they really needed to incorporate – and what will be what largely determines the long term success of TES – is the group content. An MMO with very solid and well designed ‘late game’ or ‘end game’ group content… that’s an MMO people will give a chance. That is what destroyed SWTOR’s fanbase: once people started hitting max level, they ran out of stuff to do and went back to WoW (not to toot my own horn, but I totally called this one). Well, if they live up to what the video showed, it sounds like Zenimax is really putting a huge focus on this – not only by including extensive ‘heroic raid’ content, but also by adding some special max level zones called ‘adventure zones’ (which is vague, but sounds intriguing enough that I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt) but also through a dynamic and fascinating pvp option. They’ve dedicated an entire continent to pvp, and while it is open to those of lower levels as well, you and I both know that it will be predominately used by the top level players. This continent features a perpetual war that is fought by three factions over the capital of the empire. Apparently, if your faction is successful enough here you can even crown an Emperor. Zenimax, good job, curiosity peaked.

This video is setting some pretty high expectations, I mean, it’s even got me interested. I honestly didn’t expect myself to have any interest in this, but they’ve captured my curiosity. That being said, I think they might be going the same route as Rift and SWTOR… trying to do too much. Rift’s class system was dynamic and incredible; however, it was also infeasible to ever be properly balanced. SWTOR’s story content was undeniably some of the best storytelling in MMO history… but was a logistical problem. By putting so much effort into that, they just didn’t have the end game ready in time. Where TESO may well be overshooting is the customization. By bringing TES style ‘permanency’ into an MMO character development system, they may well be setting themselves up to fail.

My friends playing World of Warcraft… imagine if you played through the game as a priest to max level, and upon reaching max level, you found out that because you leveled your priest as Shadow, even if you went Holy your heals were inherently weaker than someone who leveled as a healer. And, since you were max level, this couldn’t be changed… that is my fear for TESO’s character system. Their progression is based off of what you equip, what you learn, and what you use. A concept that works well in a single player rpg because it not only allows that feeling of immersion, but it also encourages replayability – which is something single player rpgs often have a problem with. MMORPGs, on the other hand, typically don’t. And, furthermore, MMORPG players are often perfectionists, or min-maxers as they’re called. Creating a system that forces you to level a specific way in order to achieve an end result is going to result in frustration for those who are stuck playing the ‘slower’ styles – healer, tank, etc. This is speculation – they may not go quite that far. But this is a huge problem that could arise, and if they don’t see it coming and deal with it, it could destroy their core market. And as Richard Vogel of Bioware said at GDC, in an MMO you have to aim at your core first. They’re the ones who will give your game exposure and eventually bring in those casuals and keep the game profitable.

The other interesting, and innovative, aspect of this game is the concept they like to glorify with the lofty title of ‘Megaserver’ which is designed to remove the frustration of starting a character on a server only to find out that all of your friends have started elsewhere. It essentially makes the game ‘assign’ you to a server when you log in based off of your friends and guildmates and other factors. An interesting concept, and one that has even more potential for problems than Blizzard’s recently bungled “Cross-Realm Zones”. For those unfamiliar with World of Warcraft, CRZ was an attempt to populate the low level regions by blurring the lines between servers so that the world is more populous. A lofty and noble goal, but it has backfired on them in a number of ways that I won’t go completely into here. The two most frustrating were that it allowed high level people to pass the time ganking without repercussion since there was no way anyone could get help due to the random nature of what server you’d be assigned to when you enter a zone; and that it completely removed the concept of a ‘server community’.

Server community may not sound important, but it is a surprisingly driving factor, especially in games designed to encourage role playing and character identity. Back in my early days of World of Warcraft, my server had a person who was alliance but ran a crusade against Gnomes. It sounds silly, but he ended up having a guild formed in his name, and even after he stopped playing, his guild continued for months, if not years. It actually created not only an identity for him and his ‘cult’ but also helped to provide a measure of unity to the server. If you’ve played MMORPGs for any length of time, I bet you could provide your own anecdotes on this. Having no concept of ‘servers’ will make this type of thing not possible, and that might well be the part of the ‘megaserver’ that I worry the most about…

I sincerely hope for the best when it comes to The Elder Scrolls Online, because I think it has a lot of cool ideas and concepts that it can bring to the MMO space, and after watching this video I believe it has potential. But it won’t ever see that potential if it falls into the same traps that other recent MMORPGs have been hit so hard by. As long as they work long and hard on polish, focus on providing a solid set of end-game content at release, and focus on acquiring a new audience – not just stealing from World of Warcraft – I think they’ll do fine, and they might well be the first MMORPG to really stand a chance at doing well in a long time. But they have big shoes to fill, and here’s hoping they can wear them well.