The Elder Scrolls goes Online

The Elder Scrolls jumps into the online marketplace. This post was originally written before TES Online came out. So far reviews are overall positive. I hope I’m wrong about it, but we’ll see.

Such a deal I have for you: One MMO, standard design, slightly used.

There’s a pretty big question hanging over the Elder Scrolls Online, but the question isn’t actually “Can it make money?” It can surely make money, although turning a real profit is a bigger challenge. No, the major question is “Why?”

Let’s be upfront about it: An MMO Elder Scrolls game just about the last thing anyone was calling for, just after Diablo Dance Revolution and a gritty Mario FPS reboot. While many players did consider the idea and even voiced their desire on some kind of online component, I certainly missed the giant chorus calling for a giant-er MMO. And the reason is simple: Elder Scrolls games have principally been about putting your mark on a game world. The scale of the world is nice and an excellent testament to the intent of the developers over the years to really push the boundaries of technology and storytelling. But I would argue the core of the experience is about playing your character the way your want to play, and seeing what comes from that. Hence multiplayer works against the grain of the core experience.

This is quite similar to how Fallout worked and still works, which is why it’s no surprise Bethesda purchased that property and quickly turned out a new game using the technology and design fundamentals from Oblivion.

What doesn’t that description resemble? A Themepark-style MMO. Which is basically what Bethesda has done. (Or Zenimax, it’s a little unclear how the hierarchy works here, but we do know it’s not the same team as Skyrim.) Now, you can certainly make a reasonable argument for a Sandbox-style game a la’ Eve Online – but much more accessible with a less unpleasant/hardcore spacetuff wannabe fanbase. It might or might not work, but it’d be different and interesting and get a lot of attention from people who wouldn’t feel interested in plunking down a lot for an MMO.

Even odder, they’re making a Themepark MMO and then trying to hype mass PvP as the major selling point. This has several major issues.

First, Themepark MMO’s are excruciatingly well-covered already. To the point of glutting the market, and most require either no upfront money or are completely free-to-play. You can argue for quality all you like, but the fact is that there’s an ocean out there for players to swim in. Odds are they’re going to like something well enough to play instead. And if someone wants competitive PvP, they’ve only got a bajillion choices including a wide array of specialty products that focus just on that core experience.

Second, World of Warcraft has picked its teeth with the bones of smarter, more energetic competitors with fatter wallets than Bethesda. It has immense amounts of polish and still exerts a strong pull on a huge slice of the MMO market. It may have lost some ground in the last year, but let’s not kid ourselves: WoW isn’t going anywhere in the short term, and Elder Scrolls Online needs a strong start. Were I an eager MMO investor and somebody came to me trying to compete directly with WoW, I’d kick them out the door so fast their siblings would get the imprint of my boot on their asses.

Third, it doesn’t take advantage of the IP’s strengths. Elder Scrolls isn’t a title which screams “mass PvP combat!” to anyone. At all. In fact, even people who wanted some level of multiplayer mostly were thinking about creating a party or team with whom to go adventuring, or perhaps have a couple gladiatorial duels. I know a few people who did dream about a giant world to go exploring in, but they were principally thinking that because it was a pie-in-the-sky idea, not because it was intrinsically awesome. Writing “Sheogorath Suck Eggs” with fifty million paintbrushes is funny in your game. It’s incredibly obnoxious in everyone’s game – so it won’t be allowed.

Let me expand a bit on my concerns about this and why I don’t think it was a smart business move. Elder Scrolls has traditionally been very lore-heavy. It makes sense, because that gives players context and rationale for their actions. In Skyrim, the background of the Civil War allows players to take a moral stance on which side they stand with, or if they prefer to remain aloof. The background doesn’t determine your actions, but it does allow you to decide for yourself based on actual, sensible reasons. If the makers present the lore well, players end up making some pretty big decisions about how they view the world and how they believe it should change.

This, naturally, does not happen within the bounds of an MMO, where your loyalties are determined on the character selection screen. Instead, Bethsoft decided that what the game really needed was special armor for whichever random player with too much time on his hands ended up “becoming Emperor,” a status with no actual authority and which only lasts until the next PvP tournament, with roughly the same people and battlefields. You can get access to some special skill tree, but that’s about it. If you don’t really want it, then PvP has few rewards to offer you.

In which case, I ask you a question: If you love competitive PvP play, why would you choose Elder Scrolls Online? What does it actually bring to the table that games like WoW don’t? What does it do that more in-depth, highly specialized PvP games such as Chivalry don’t? What features is it bringing that aren’t found in Guild Wars 2 pvp? Frankly, the answer in all these cases appears to be “not much.” There’s no killer app here and the only hook it has seems to be the actual Elder Scrolls IP.

Which kinda brings us back to that original issue, doesn’t it?

I should also point out that the team designing this basically did a paint-by-numbers of Dark Age of Camelot. Which is not exactly a great point in its favor. Let me put this very straight: I liked DAoC. I don’t claim to have been a great or very long-term player but they had some interesting ideas and implemented them well. At the same time, DAoC went nowhere, and for very good reason. Most of the gameworld was completely pointless, and basically just existed as a thin timesink until you hit the endgame PvP. It also wasn’t very well polished, and had very little to appeal to people who didn’t want large-scale competitive pvp or repeatedly running the same shoddy dungeons. Unfortunately, they’re practically boasting about basing ESO on DAoC, which does not inspire confidence. Certainly the design team’s public statements sound as though that is the big feature they really want to push, and even the basic setup of the game is a DaoC clone.

Which brings me to perhaps the most important point: there’s no rule this game can’t completely fail, even if it’s done fairly well. We’ve seen in recent years that well-funded games by major publishers can have crippling defects that cast significant doubt on the financial viability of entire franchises, let alone individual games. EA’s Battlefield 4 problems have even led to the possibility of shareholder lawsuits simply due to reckless pre-release boasting and moronic executive decisions. And that’s not some “different-genre risky quasi-sequel” as Elder Scrolls Online is, but sequels with substantial fanbase with an eager and active market.

But let’s look back a couple other games that have significant bearing on Elder Scrolls Online. We’ll examine Star Wars: The Old Republic and Warhammer Online.

SWtOR, much like Elder Scrolls Online, featured a lore-heavy MMO universe built on an existing RPG license. It was created, not without some flaws, with ample financial backing from EA and a wealth of talent from Bioware. It features extremely high-quality writing and voice-acting for an MMO game. Its designers proudly announced they wouldn’t be using a Free-to-Play model. Except within six months they were forced to backtrack and change everything about the game in an attempt to keep it going. It survives in a very limited form only.

Why? Because they misunderstood their market. The Old Republic was basically a WoW-clone, and a good WoW-clone but still a clone, in a market with piles of WoW-clones. The game completely failed to appeal to players of the Old Republic series, partly because those releases were some time ago and more significantly because it was a totally different kind of game. So in short, a knight went up against a dragon and found that he had a nerf sword and paper-mache armor.

SWtOR wasn’t a bad game – but it also wasn’t a truly great game, and it needed to stand at that level in order to accomplish what it set out to accomplish. I played it before it went FtP, and aside from empty servers, it just didn’t have anything really special about it. The atmosphere was nice but not excellent from a visual point of view. The combat was OK, but derivative and grindy. The game communicated critical information poorly. The stories were nice but often completely out of place and gate-kept critical content behind group-required activities.

The overall sense of the game was simply that the dev team tried to go a step too far – they tried to do something they weren’t properly equipped or experienced enough for, while relying on gimmicks rather than developed a gaming paradigm that suited the game they wanted to make. Compared to WoW, it was unpolished and lacked numerous obvious features, and was filled with too many similar environments. The spirit may have been willing, but it’s clear that gigantic piles of money can’t buy success in the MMO market. Even WoW, though large for its time, started out relatively small and grew by being and staying the very best at what it wanted to do and be. SWtOR didn’t know what it wanted except to make lots of money, and it shows.

It’s also noteworthy that SWtOR probably didn’t make money in the end. Oh sure, it’s “profitable”, but the very begrudgingness of this term means that it’s likely covering only variable costs, but not the huge investment made in the game. I’ve tried to research the financials behind this, but haven’t been able to get a reliable picture, but estimates range from $200 million up to over $500 million to get SWtOR off the ground. And note the low-end estimates are the ones EA will admit to, which puts them in some doubt. To succeed on that scale, you don’t need money – you need GTA money or Call of Duty money. And while it’s not clear what kind of investment Bethesda put into ESO, it’s probably not far off.

Now let’s look at Warhammer Online. Like ESO, it’s a fantasy MMO with a strong, well-known IP (probably better-known than Elder Scrolls) and a focus on end-game Realm-v-realm pvp. It’s also going under, despite a strong investment and marketing campaign. The game simply failed to thrive. It had solid graphics, a fun premise, and a skilled dev team but went nowhere. Hell, note that this game was developed by Mythic Entertainment… also known as the group which *created* Dark Age of Camelot. If they can’t make it work, there’s a real question about whether this is a viable enterprise for an MMO, particularly since ESO rips off DAoC to an insane degree. Warhammer Online also reached a great many subs for its day… just as it was posting massive losses amidst the crown and laurels being offered by an adoring gaminig press. But losses they had, and no praise-filled review could change that.

I can’t claim to have played it personally so my view on this game represents a bit of a distance, but there’s nothing more which I could reasonably say which the ample reviews didn’t. It’s a very good game but virtually nobody really wanted to play it. Which, now that I think of it, seems like a rather huge hurdle to overcome but what do I know? Obviously EA disagreed because they saw a giant sinkhole, named it “Star Wars” and decided to start scooping truckloads of dollar bills into it out of a futile hope that somehow this would form a foundation of their new golden palace. The problem with this idea is that, like Mythic did with Warhammer Online, EA with The Old Republic didn’t really understand that re-making World of Warcraft with less polish and an irrelevant hook didn’t actually represent a bold step forward sure to attract a legion of people with to much time or money on their hands.

Let’s boil it down this way: had Mythic made a much tighter and focused game revolving entirely around the PvP, it would likely have made much more profit. Even if it didn’t sell as well up-front, the ability to appeal directly to a specific set of players would mean it’d have lower costs. Plus WO would have cost several million bucks less. Likewise, had SWtOR been a much tighter game revolving around the story elements and narrowed the giant world and combat to something suited to those stories, you could have built in a sizable multiplayer component that would be quite fun but still support the overall adventures. The game could then focus closely to the distinctive elements of characterization and storytelling and slowly growing in power rather than trying to shoehorn those into a mediocre WoW-ripoff but with about three years’ less polish.

On a related tangent, let’s look another big challenge for Elder Scrolls Online: Guild Wars 2, because that represents a key lesson in how to do the same work, but properly. It has very good graphics, and ones with a strong imaginative bent to them help player’s immediately identify the character of the world they’re supposed to save. The PvP battles actually have a point to them, in that they give world-wide bonuses and are rather fun, but aren’t divorced from the mechanics of impromptu party formation and exploration found in the rest of the game.

Shockingly, this display of realistic vision, competent execution, and a hook that players asked for plus strong ongoing support and regular social events coming out every 2-3 weeks means GW2 developed a substantial existing playerbase, including a well-supported PvP base. That also supports massive battles which are frankly more interesting than the flashy-but-meaningless trailers ESO seems to think are something to brag on about. If WoW is the 800-pound gorilla, Guild Wars 2 is an agile ferret, sprinting around with grace and agility, which puts ESO in the awkward position of trying to be everything to everyone and already looking rather scuffed around the soles.

GW2 also happens to be vastly, vastly cheaper than ESO. Elder Scrolls Online will apparently require an up-front payment, along with a subscription fee. GW2 just requires a one-time payment and no additional money, although of course players are encouraged to shop in the store for knick-knacks and aesthetic gear. (ESO will also have a cash shop) Hence, GW2 is much, much better deal, especially if you don’t know whether you’ll like the game’s mechanics or the local culture. You can also effectively get involved with end-game PvP at level 1 and bypass the entire lore-filled game world if you prefer, because that world is just a fun backdrop to explore and have cool battles inside. At the same time, “single-player” events are actually decent training for PvP-style conflicts because they allow for massive, automatic alliances just as the PvP combat does.

In short, Elder Scrolls Online can’t just be decent. It needs to be really great, and the best I can figure shows the company trying to go all-in on a pair of sixes that might actually turn out to be UNO cards.

I’d point out that Elder Scrolls Online would probably love to be as successful as Diablo 3 – it was the best-selling PC game in all of 2012 and made enough money to be given a Knighthood by Queen Elizabeth the 2nd. I’ve heard rumors that Blizzard will purchase the entire country of Peru with the profits.

The critical reception (quite warm at first, with some criticism coming later), the game sold very well indeed and Blizzard indeed made a slightly larger vast-normously disgusting pile of money. Frankly, Bethesda and Zenimax’s CEO’s would sell their organs to have that kind of success.

The issue is that ESO most likely can’t get that level of success. They can’t stop with providing an up-front product; they have the collect their money over a considerable period to recoup the investment (plus opportunity cost). And that’s a much bigger hurdle which Diablo 3 didn’t have. Further, there was and is no real competition to D3. Apart from a small company putting out Torchlight 2 (it’s OK; not great), there’s very few places you could go for an alternative to Diablo 3. Not the case in the MMO market, which as we discussed has seen multiple generations of competition in and out.

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