Sometimes an idea is so strong that even without any knowledge of the execution, it is hard to deny its appeal. Look at the concept behind a game like Batman: Arkham Asylum. Batman, all alone, trapped on an island teeming with Gotham’s worst criminals. Just thinking about the concept is enough to make people want to buy the game, even if they know nothing about the actual game.
Some concepts, however, cause immediate doubt and incredulity towards quality. In this case, the recently announced Elder Scrolls Online, a game which, even with only some sparse information having been leaked, has already caused me (and many others) to ask the question “is this really a good idea?” Of course, it is hard to judge a product based on a concept and a little bit of info alone, but unlike games with a winning premise, it’s hard to be optimistic when predicting how this will turn out. Read on to hear my thoughts on why my hopes aren’t set too high.
My biggest beef with TES Online is that despite the wishes of the occasional fawning fanboy, I never really felt that the Elder Scrolls deserved the MMO treatment. I never really looked at the solitary wastes of Skyrim’s northern tundras and thought “Damn, this place could really use more leet speak”.
For me, the Elder Scrolls games have always been individual journeys, where each game’s world needs to be discovered and explored by an individual, not a large group. Part of the beauty of these games was the fact that so many different gamers could have such vastly unique experiences and tales within the same game. These games were all about fully immersing the player in a foreign world; putting them in the shoes of some lone hero, who wanders the land and gets into grand adventures. Bethesda has in the past crafted marvelous sandboxes for a single player. It may sound selfish, but Tamriel is a playplace that shouldn’t be shared.
The Elder Scrolls games greatest strength has always undoubtedly been immersion, and designing a massive world tailored for millions will result in a far less immersive experience than a universe designed for just one player. The original games benefit from this – they are so compelling because the world reacts to the player’s actions and influence. NPC’s will react to how you treat them, or what you do to them (who hasn’t gone all serial killer on their least favorite village?). But MMO’s are designed with far different goals, it can’t be created with the same focus of a single player experience.
From the leaked Game Informer article, what we have seen is far from traditional Elder Scrolls territory. It doesn’t look like how anyone hoped – this isn’t shaping up to be Skyrim with online components, but a semi-generic looking MMO with some Elder Scrolls flavor. I don’t think anyone would expect the visuals to be on par with Skyrim, and even though the graphics can change before release, the game looks far from what it should. Instead of the Elder Scrolls grittier, more realism-based graphical style, the game appears to go with the cleaner, highly fantastical, pastel, washed out MMO look.
Worse yet is that the combat system is shaping up to look more like the standard MMO-skill-toolbar affair, as opposed to the parries, dodges, and real time spell casting of the original games. While having an action battle system in an MMO is very rare, it is still disappointing to see here.
Perhaps I’m still feeling a little burned by the Old Republic; a big disappointment made worse when I fantasize about how a third Old Republic game would have been if it was given TOR’s almost $200 million dollar budget. It’s not that I dislike MMO’s – I really am looking forward to Guild Wars 2. I also have faith in Zenimax Online, largely made up of Dark Age of Camelot devs (let’s ignore their most recent failure, Warhammer Online).
The problem is that despite World of Warcraft’s insane – if fading – success, the MMO genre is not proven to be a winner. While some games stand to make a profit, the market is littered with the corpses of failed games. An optimist might say that it means that there is plenty of room for new success, but a realist would say that it isn’t worth wasting the time and money on a risky game that no one really wants.
The biggest point here that makes me nervous is that non-Bethesda devs will be charting new Elder Scrolls territory. Chances are high that we will see some brand new regions, which would normally be a delight. I’d absolutely love to explore Elswyer, or the Black Marsh, but only if Bethesda makes it. I’m just not comfortable or happy with seeing some other dev team work on something that should strictly be the result of Betheda’s vision. To me, this is just as upsetting if someone replaced Christopher Nolan as the director for the Dark Knight Rises, or if Joss Whedon was replaced halfway through Buffy’s cycle. The person with the vision needs to be the one in control.
And because all pop-culture related pieces begin or end with an unrelated, yet thematically meaningful quote to sum up the thesis, I will post a few more thoughts about this developing game. It will be sad realizing that the player will no longer be a lone wanderer in Tamriel, or the prisoner seen in Uriel Septim’s dream, or will no longer be the Dragon born. Players will just be another avatar running around a crowded battlefield. It reminds me of a quote from, of all things, The Incredibles, which truly sums up why my heart couldn’t ever be in an Elder Scrolls MMO, despite its execution: “Everyone can be super. And when everyone’s super, no one will be.”