Last week was almost too unreal for words. Mere minutes before we were set to record the latest edition of the PWNcast, we were made aware of the existence of The Elder Scrolls Online. So mind-blowing was this long-awaited reveal that I forgot how to communicate for a good few minutes, with Jon and Matt convinced I was in some sort of coma. It was a feeling I honestly haven’t had for a very long time; genuine excitement at the unknown possibilities that lay ahead. With only a title and a logo to go on we had little else to do but wonder.
Oh, what dreams they were. “Finally, a chance to have an experience in The Elder Scrolls with my friends” I thought, “a chance to explore whichever area of Tamriel we were given in a similar manner to the single player games, and experience a story on a more personal level.” The minds of the Dealspwn staff wandered so far that we actually delayed recording the podcast until we knew more. With reports that we would be getting more information within the following 24 hours, cooler heads prevailed and we waited for the news to start trickling in.
And what a good job it was that we did, because I'm now highly conflicted by what could materalise.
All of a sudden the familiar template made popular by Everquest, and perhaps more relevantly World of Warcraft, began to appear in the reports, and suddenly the rug of excitement was pulled from under me, causing me to hit reality with a bump. We weren’t going to get the Elder Scrolls MMO we were wishing for, but something much more familiar. Let’s clear something up first though; this familiarity to genre behemoth World of Warcraft isn’t automatically a bad thing. While subscriptions are down from last year it still retains 10 million players worldwide, and it continues to be a played by gamers of varying levels. However, the problem is that we’ve seen many other MMOs deploy the template before.
More specifically, many other medieval & fantasy MMOs.
Warhammer Online, Lord Of the Rings Online, Aeon, Dungeons & Dragons Online, and Rift are but a few of the titles that have proclaimed themselves the next big thing, and have either held a set amount of players with no real growth, or fallen to the Free-To-Play side of things (or worse.) Even Star Wars: The Old Republic went with this template for its base mechanics, and despite the Star Wars franchise power behind it currently finds itself in a make-or-break period which will ultimately decide its fate. Its class-specific storylines have not enough to hold onto its initial player base, and now it is really starting to feel the pressure. For TESO to stand out and rise to become a true MMO contender it needs to provide something different to compliment the brand recognition, but everything that makes The Elder Scrolls RPGs what they are won’t be found in TESO.
No free-form character creation means set archetype classes which, while understandable in terms of balance, means players will need to pick a role for the character and stick with it. No player homes and romances could ultimately means a lack of sandbox and / or roleplay options, forcing the player to focus on combat. A key component that will be allegedly staying is the theme of exploration, but by the time TESO comes out it will not be a unique aspect from an MMO standpoint. Guild Wars 2 actively encourages players to explore the world to collect skill points, and WildStar, which has exploration as an optional layer to its gameplay, may well be out around the same time.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the lack of First Person real-time action, but latency issues are almost certainly (and understandably) the reason for this. As those who attempt to play FPS games online on servers from another country, the result is usually one that ends with rubber-banding and frustrated trigger fingers. With PvP as large as they are planning, it would be a nightmare to compensate for the variety of connections (especially here in the UK.) All of these points on their own would have been dismissable to a certain degree, but adding them all together makes the situation more precarious.
After all, I for one don't want yet another loot-emphasised end-game in an MMO.
The harsh truth is being different is often dangerous in the MMO realm. Just look at APB: All Points Bulletin, a game that dared to be different but admittedly failed due to poor execution (it does live on as APB Reloaded though.) Final Fantasy XIV ended up having to give away free game time and provide something more familiar in terms of mechanics just to keep its existing player base. Star Wars Galaxies even went as far as removing a large portion of what made it unique (and in my opinion, an excellent MMO) to cater to the WoW template, and ended up unable to please anyone . EVE Online, despite its steady numbers, has never really seen huge growth because of the hardcore approach of its sandbox. The sad reality is that the majority of players just want to play, and when that’s clearly where the money is the developers have to fall in line or accept that a smaller, less profitable niche audience is all they will be able to capture.
So are there any redeeming features to negate the deflated expectations?
Absolutely. The Player Vs Player system has the potential to be fantastic, thanks to TESO being led by MMO veteran Matt Firor. His work on Dark Ages of Camelot, a title that arguably provides some of the best PvP the genre has produced, means that TESO has the potential to provide some fantastic online battles. The idea of placing the player on top of the leaderboard as Emperor gives not only a sense of competition between the three factions, but possibly within them as well, which could provide us with interesting online drama. The ability to join guilds such as the Dark Brotherhood will also prove tantalising for some, but how they will impact the game has yet to be revealed. The fact we will be able to explore all areas of Tamriel is incredibly exciting, although the news that certain areas will be locked to provide expansion content is disappointing. All of this will of course take place in an universe that is filled with rich lore, which should provide an insightful look into the history of Tamriel.
It is important to note that these are early days, and we still have much to learn about Zenimax Online Studio’s upcoming MMO. The initial impression is that the developers have missed a golden opportunity to provide something ground breaking and different, and thus creating a credible threat to the WoW dominance of the genre, but what we’re seeing is a far-too-familar formula being used as a way for people to stay in the world of Tamriel whilst we wait for The Elder Scrolls VI. That said, what we currently know could end up being very different to the final product, and there is plenty of time to go for us to be surprised. For all we know, the gameplay mechanics could be so excellently crafted and balanced that we forget about the overused template. As fans of the franchise we here at Dealspwn are certainly going to be keeping an eye on this one, but we’re classifying our interest as “cautiously intrigued” for now.