Over the past console generation, Bethesda established the Elder Scrolls series as one of the biggest RPG franchises in gaming. The series always had a loyal following, but it was the success of Oblivion and Skyrim that propelled The Elder Scrolls franchise to the next level of popularity. With the amazing success the series has experienced, it’s no surprise that Zenimax has chosen to expand The Elder Scrolls into the realm of massively multiplayer games. As someone that has spent over 500 hours with the series since the release of Oblivion, I am very interested to see how The Elder Scrolls Online turns out, but I have to wonder if the MMO format can capture the core of what makes the series so compelling.
Both Oblivion and Skyrim have this almost unquantifiable quality to compel me to play hundreds of hours and be completely absorbed in the experience. If you look at the various aspects of these games, not much about them seems extraordinary, but they are engaging nonetheless. The combat isn’t particularly deep or interesting, the dialogue and narrative elements are pretty standard, and the characters are almost devoid of personality. With that list of less-than-stellar features, what is it about the series that keeps me and so many others playing for hours on end? Let’s take a look.
When I think about why I love Oblivion and Skyrim so much, the two main reasons that come to my mind are freedom and exploration. Whatever your feelings on the quality of other aspects of these games, there’s no denying that Bethesda are among the best in the industry at crafting a game world that feels both dense and alive. Just exploring the environment in these games is immensely enjoyable, and the sheer size and number locations stuffed into these worlds ensures you always feel like you are discovering new things. It’s really amazing the amount of detail packed into the environments of these games, especially considering games even a tenth the size are rarely this detailed.
It’s not just the size and attention to detail that make these games so compelling, but the freedom you as the player are given to experience the game your way. Not only do you have an absurd amount of control over your character’s physical attributes and skill progression, but the quests and storylines are designed in such a way as to allow you to experience any aspect of the game whenever you want. So many role playing games give you side quests here and there as you make your way through the main story, but Elder Scrolls games just drop you in the world and let you go anywhere and engage in or ignore any quests you want. This feeling of not knowing what you’ll come across next or what quest chain the next town may have in store for you is an extremely enticing reason to continue playing.
So the question remains: Will The Elder Scrolls Online be able to recreate these elements in a massively multiplayer setting? I think there is a great chance the game will have everything people love about the Elder Scrolls series, but there are certainly some key aspects of the MMO experience that may get in the way of what makes Elder Scrolls games so compelling. The first of these being that lingering knowledge that there are hundreds or thousands of people in the world doing the same things you are.
In typical Elder Scrolls games, you as the player end up being the most important being in the game world. By the end of the game you have saved the world, risen to the top ranks in every major guild, and traversed the land vanquishing the toughest monsters and warlords. It’s a little goofy that your character is basically in charge of every major organization in the world, but little things like NPCs acknowledging your status make you feel like you’ve left a mark.
This is something that can’t really be recreated in a environment where there are thousands of individuals just like you. The feeling of exploring the land and bringing change wherever you go will be inherently less compelling when you know there are other people in the server doing the exact same quest as you at that very moment. Of course, this could create an opportunity to address the inherent ridiculousness of your character becoming the legendary hero five times over throughout the course of the game. If The Elder Scrolls Online uses its nature as a multiplayer game to make you feel like just a small part of a greater world as opposed to the center of it, that may actually wind up being more interesting. However, if the story and quests are treated the same way the are in the single player game except with more people, that will only highlight the absurdity even more.
Another core element of the series that could be lessened by being a massively multiplayer game is the exploration. The developers have already stated that the game world will be divided amongst the three factions, which is certainly a disappointment. I was extremely excited to hear that the game will feature not just a single province, but the entire continent of Tamriel. However, if you have to make three different characters in order to see the whole game world that will be a real shame. Of course, it is possible that over the course of the story you will travel the whole land, but that’s still not the same as being able to go anywhere at any time. Being told to go somewhere is very different from choosing to go somewhere, and that is something the single player games are so good at.
The very idea of this being a game and game world that has to be balanced for thousands of players at a time means the traditional style of exploration we’re used to in Elder Scrolls games simply won’t be possible. Setting aside the idea of faction locking specific areas, there is also the issue of level zoning. In typical Elder Scrolls games there is level scaling to allow you go anywhere at any time and not be totally rocked by the enemies. I am not a huge fan of level scaling in RPGs, but at least in the case of open world games it allows you to explore without the fear of stumbling into an area where you aren’t supposed to be. MMO areas are typically zoned for specific level ranges, meaning you won’t be able to explore without the risk of going somewhere you aren’t equipped to deal with yet. It’s possible the developers have some solution for this issue, but I have no idea how they would do it.
Those are some concerns about The Elder Scrolls Online coming from a huge fan of the series. I think the bit about not being the center of the story could actually be a good thing if it’s done well, but my concerns about exploration are another matter. When it comes right down to it, an Elder Scrolls game without that sense of wonder and discovery is simply not an Elder Scrolls game in my mind. So much of my enjoyment of the series is tied into the freedom to explore and experience the content in whatever order I want, and I just don’t see how The Elder Scrolls Online can capture that same Elder Scrolls magic. It’s entirely possible the developers have found some way to make an MMO with that sense of exploration and discovery the series is known for, but I’ll believe it when I see it.