So Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) is coming out, as we all know. When they first announced it I was so excited, then I stopped to think about it . . . and there are a ton of pitfalls to overcome before this becomes a good idea. Over the past few months I've been doing more and more digging to see what they are fixing and what they aren't, what they're trying to avoid and what they might walk right into. So I'd like to now take you on a shortened version of my journey of discovery, if you'd be so kind as to sit back and enjoy the rant!
Let's start with the company. Bethesda Softworks has been making Elder Scrolls games for twenty years or more, now . . . and they've been doing one helluva job! These are games that pushed limits, tore apart the boxes they were thinking in, and have set countless industry standards. From the first true seamless combat system (albeit still based on background dice rolls) in Morrowind to the lack of a classic class system in Skyrim. From the sheer size of the worlds and daunting storylines all across the series to proving that there's no reason an RPG can't look strikingly amazing while having that story. However, Zenimax Online - one of the sister companies under the same umbrella - is spearheading ESO. I always fear having a new company start working on a well established license, even one under the same parent company. This could prove horrible if not played correctly. Now Bethesda is having their Loremaster work directly with the Zenimax team, and Bethesda is constantly in contact with Zenimax Online to answer questions and proffer suggestions. Does that make it okay? I don't know. It sets my mind at ease a little, especially when you consider that Zenimax is working backwards in order to allow Bethesda to keep working forward uninterrupted by the ESO storyline.
Elder Scrolls Online . . . an MMORPG . . . it just has to be another WoW remake with different content, right? That's one thing eveyone seems to be worried about. According to the pre-alpha information that simply isn't the case. Controls and NPC interaction are two things that jump out as what aren't WoW rehashes. The bloggers and vloggers that went to pre-alpha are all saying that NPCs are 100% voice acted, and the enemies you face are actually intelligent. That means they'll be using an AI system akin to, but improved upon, Skyrim. Think about the way you act when you go up against a group of enemies, you plan for their attacks based on class and you use different abilities based on what classes are in the group with you, this is exactly what the enemy AI are set up to do. Hundreds of variables calculated and weighted in order to make a unique combat experience that won't be the same next time you come through. Sounds promising!
Guilds are still a little iffy, there's a lot of information and misinformation out there based on speculation. They have said that you'll be able to join more than one guild, but what does that even mean? Can I join more than player-created guild? Can I even join player-created guilds? Can I join all the NPC guilds (Fighter, Mage, etc.) and only one player-created? The questions are endless, with the answers few and far between. I do know that major guild leaders from all around the world, representing all different games were invited to the pre-alpha. I also know that the game devs were asking for their opinions on things and for ideas as to what makes a guild system good. This bodes well for player-created guilds, so long as they take the good advice, but it doesn't really answer the questions at hand.
Platform availability was my next big concern. For starters, my girlfriend owns a Macbook, and loves it. She played WoW with me and my friends for a while, but most games don't have Mac or Linux compatible clients. ESO, on the other hand, announced that they will not only be releasing for PC and Mac, but are including the two major next-gen consoles as well. The only bummer out of this is that we won't see each other when we all play, as each console will have their own dedicated server, and then a third for PC and Mac players. This is sad, as I have friends who still play games on consoles and I was really hoping to run around Tamriel with them. Oh well, all is well, I suppose, we can't have everything.
Now with the announcement about consoles, and with them all being released at once, this can help us better determine my next major point of contention; business model! Anyone that plays MMOs has played a subscription based game, and if you're like me you started to hate it. For some reason, companies that have a steady flow of income from all their players, plus the occassional add-on sales from other things, seem to think they can do whatever they want to a game and people will stay. The problem is, they're not far from the truth. Just because a game (WoW) has the largest number of subscribers and everyone else is just making games copied off their model, people seem to not want to leave. Granted WoW didn't start to really suck until after I had four max level characters, two in full raid gear, one in full PvP, four years of my life tucked away in that game somewhere, and the Light only knows how many pets, cool daggers, awesome mounts, suspended items that nobody can get anymore in my bags, and so on and so on . . . so it's hard to step away from something like that. I get it, it was hard for me, too. I quit WoW probably five times in the past two years or so. Everytime getting suckered in to the idea or notion that they just might be fixing what they promised, they just might deliver the game I remember falling in love with, but it never happened. What's more, it never will. However, nowadays we have a lot of games that are under the better business models (free to play and buy to play) that are actually pretty good. I played Guild Wars for a while, and enjoyed it, but I eventually fell back to WoW when the game became too repetitive - ironic given the grind that Cata and Mists turned into for WoW. Now, though, we have Neverwinter Online (free to play) and Defiance (buy to play) that make me wonder why anyone would ever bother with a sub-based game again?!
Allow me to explain for just a moment what that means. You have three primary business models for MMOs, subscription (or sub-based), free to play (F2P), and buy to play (B2P). Under the F2P model you also have Pay to Win, but that isn't something I'll be talking about here. In all three models these days we see something called a microtransaction, this was made popular by the F2P games and quickly picked up by the B2P games. Sub-based games later started using it as subscribers began falling off and they needed a way to supliment their income (e.g.: the Blizzard Pet Store). Defiance is a multi-platform game using the B2P business model and has microtransactions to purchase cool looking items (armor, helmets, sunglasses, vehicles) as well as some temporary perks to earning XP (for yourself, your group or your clan). None of these items are truly game-changing or game-breaking, and you can earn similar items within the game, they just look different. Neverwinter Online is F2P with similar microtransactions, these things don't break the game so it doesn't get qualified as Pay to Win. Now obviously ESO can't be free to play since it's coming out on consoles and Zenimax Studios will want Zenimax Online to get a good amount of revenue to cover the massive overhead that is sure to come from this game. This means it will either be sub-based of B2P. The smart money is on buy to play just because of the figures announced for overall income from companies that use that model over a monthly subscription. Plus, I don't think ESO wants to go the way of Final Fantasy back on the PS2.
There is also the issue of space, how much room are we talking about being able to move around in? Well, all of Tamriel, so to speak. A later announcement revealed that not all of the land will be open at launch. Part of me understands this, but part of me is saddened by it all the same. I long to see the reaches of the borders, dip my toes in the water at all the ends of the continent! Something to keep in mind, they did say at launch. That could mean more later, there's always expansions!
Mega-server! I feel like that could end this point all together, but there's more! Not only will we all be on one server (per major platform), but the server will intelligently choose what phases (or instance of the server) we are in. Meaning that I'll most often be put into the same instance as my friends, not only based on group or guild, but based on a questionair I fill out before I start playing. This means I won't be forced to listen to the hardcore PvP junkies if I don't want to, or the epic, end-game content only kind of people. If I want to only ever talk to people my age, about crafting and exploring, that live in or just one-off my time zone, then the smart, mega server will try it's best to make that happen!
One final point, PvP. I love that they aren't focussing on worl PvP, Blizzard itself said that trying to balance the world of PvE with the world of PvP is what made that game so difficult to update. They claimed it to be thier biggest mistake (in my opinion it was only up until they let Activision buy them out). Having a living, breathing, dedicated PvP zone where everyone can join in and we aren't limited by our in-game level is pure brilliance! I can't wait to see how this plays out.
ESO is making headway and I think Zenimx will do the franchise proud. They should have no problem keeping the tradition of pushing the limits and setting new industry standards. Thank the Nine they have Bethesda to look to as an example of what a game from TES should be, and be extra thankful that we have this chance to be part of what will hopefully reset the whole viewpoint on MMOs for the entire gaming community. We need something new, we need something better, we deserve it! Just don't screw it up, Zenimax . . . I have a feeling that there is no middle ground on this game. From what the community has been crying out, this is going to be pass/fail, I'm rooting for you!