There was something that bugged me about yesterday's press release and, having slept on it, I now think I know what it is. Reading through Zenimax Online's announcement that The Elder Scrolls Online would be dropping the subscription and going buy-to-play, it hit me that aside from the vague allusion in the first to TESO being an "award-winning multiplayer roleplaying game" at no point to the letters MMO pop up in sequence. The whole thing reads like Bethesda are desperately trying to frame the experience as the thing many of us wanted in the first place -- a game that's basically a bigger version of Skyrim with friends.
"For the first time in history, players will explore the legendary world of Tamriel with their friends on console," reads the official blurb. "In the latest and biggest Elder Scrolls game ever made, players will be able to adventure alone, quest with friends, or join an army of hundreds in epic player vs. player battles as they explore and discover the secrets of a persistent Tamriel."
Along with the constant reiteration of phrases like "one-time purchase" (even when describing the Premium subscription, which is still an option, the language used tells of a "single monthly charge" in an attempt to soften the blow) there's a clear drive to play down the MMO-ness of TESO for its console release.
The abdication of the cancerous subscription model has been a long time coming. We were already taking bets on how long it would take Zenimax to drop the creaking infrastructure after seeing monthly payments swiftly abandoned by pretty much every new MMO in the last few years, and now we have a date of March 17th.
It means more on consoles, mind. Single-game subscriptions rarely work on consoles, and console-based MMOs tend to be regarded with no small amount of scepticism. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is an exception, obviously, but it took Square several stabs to get that one right. In the end, given their massive corporate restructuring, and the choice between recycling the game or cutting losses, it was a gamble that paid off. Yet Final Fantasy is an IP inextricably linked to the PlayStation platform, and a brand-based fanaticism amongst consumers that rather surpasses most other IPs outside of Nintendo platforms.
A Realm Reborn managed to attract both MMO fans and more traditional Final Fantasy players, something that TESO also hoped to achieve within the fanbase for The Elder Scrolls. Skyrim was huge on consoles, and so the marketing moves to reflect that, leveraging the award-winning heritage of The Elder Scrolls in an attempt to bind TESO more closely with its singleplayer-oriented forebears.
But it's a risky move, and impressions are absolutely influenced by built-up expectations. If you've been engineered to consider a game from a certain perspective and judge it according to some rather specific framing, it can be more difficult to appreciate in other fashions if it falls short of those original, prescribed expectations. As much as we like to talk about trying to take things at face value and play the games that are in front of us, the reality is that publishers spend millions of dollars on marketing budgets to get the games into our hands, including conditioning consumers to see the games in question how the companies that produce them want those titles to be seen. Separating the reality from the hype takes a little time, but when your game is built upon a subscription model, you can't afford that separation.
But that's not a problem that TESO: Tamriel Unlimited will have on consoles.
To be fair to TESO, I haven't played it in months, having swiftly cancelled my subscription because it didn't, and possibly couldn't deliver the "Skyrim with friends" experience that I'd been hoping for. Here's what I said last spring in my review:
The Elder Scrolls Online is a brave attempt at combining two seemingly polar opposites, but it ultimately fails to build a continuously compelling world, compromising too much on either side. It's an MMO that can't hold a candle to likes of Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World, and an Elder Scrolls game that can't hope to be as deep and rich in content and solo experience as Morrowind and Skyrim. The allure of an online Tamriel is strong, and when the game's disparate parts align, it really is a bit special, but those moments are too few and far between to recommend for a game with this much of an inflated price point.
See, the price was only ever part of the problem. Immersion-breaking occurrences at every turn, the pitfalls of trying to bring two opposing gameplay styles together, clunky systems, awful grouping, and a complete lack of progression or reward for anything other than questing in a series that has always had exploration as one of its fundamental gameplay pillars -- these were all things that prevented TESO from being satisfying as an MMO or as a hardcore Elder Scrolls title.
It's fine for Zenimax to try and shift the balance towards the latter, trying to attract the attention of those console players who enjoyed Skyrim, because the audience on console is likely to be made up far more of those sorts of players than long-time MMO fans. But although Zenimax are touting enormous, sweeping changes to the core experience, whether or not those changes actually make much of a difference remains to be seen.
"We know that Elder Scrolls fans want choice when it comes to how they play and how they pay, and that is what they will get," said game director Matt Firor. "We have made numerous changes to the game over the past year, and are confident this is a game that Elder Scrolls fans will love to play. Players can explore Tamriel with friends, battle creatures, craft, fish, steal, or siege. The choice is theirs. The game offers hundreds of hours of gameplay with unlimited adventures with one single game purchase."
It's clear that they're angling more towards Elder Scrolls fans than MMO fans, but we'll have to wait a couple of months to see if that's something reflected in the game itself or just a relatively empty proclamation that every prospective pre-ordering fan wants to hear.