The Elder Scrolls Online: Can Bethesda break the MMO Stalemate?

In 2004, Blizzard released what has probably been their most prolific and most successful game to date, it is of course none other than the fantasy MMORPG World of Warcraft. Love it or hate it, the impact that the game has had on the MMO scene has been astronomical, not only pushing its predecessor titles into irrelevance, but managing to rack up an absolutely massive eleven million subscribers at its peak.

Even nine years after its release, WoW continues to dominate thanks to a steady content stream from developer Blizzard Entertainment, which has proven successful in keeping the fans satiated, and more importantly, paying.

This isn’t to say that the MMORPG space is a one-attraction show, however; EVE Online‘s immensely deep and brutal approach to the sci-fi sandbox has managed to hold its own substantial base of players, whilst British studio Jagex has racked up their own cult following with the surprisingly popular free-to-play RuneScape.

Each game has managed to stay alive in an increasingly competitive video games market, and this would primarily be down to their ability to hold a player-base: RuneScape‘s low system requirements and friendly image seem to have appealed to the more wide-ranging casual player, EVE‘s vast universe and intricate economic systems have allured a much more hardcore gamer sect, whilst World Of Warcraft seems to be able to provide an equally wide appeal to both areas.

With these titles holding generally steady subscriber counts and not a great deal in the way of competition, it would seem that the MMORPG genre has no room to spare for new arrivals. Some, however, would seem to disagree…

The WoW Factor

However, before we have a look at this new contender, it is important to look at why World of Warcraft has been so successful, and why many attempted competitors have failed to unseat it. In essence the game isn’t hugely unique or innovative by today’s standards, and the same was generally true at its release – the game mechanics are mostly formulaic, the world serves as little more than a static movie set, and quests are mostly a ‘kill twenty boars’ series of affairs.

Indeed, it wasn’t such a different approach from its ubiquitous predecessor Everquest, but for some reason, World of Warcraft managed to garner an unprecedented level of critical and commercial acclaim that previous titles simply hadn’t managed to achieve.

Expansions such as Mists of Pandaria have helped World of Warcraft retain its gargantuan subscriber base.

So how did it become such a hit? The most important factor would arguably be its series history – being a spin-off of a highly popular series of RTS games produced by one of the most prolific developers in the industry, coupled with the fact that this was a hugely bold new direction for the Warcraft universe, all undoubtedly served as an attention-grabbing hook for a large number of Blizzard fans.

Not only did Blizzard have the fanbase ensure popularity, they also had the resources to make it both a stunningly well-polished game, and also one that was treated with a generous amount of marketing. Indeed, popularity with both the casual and competitive player bases, as well as the critics, meant that World of Warcraft‘s paid subscriber count is undoubtedly the highest of any other MMORPG about.

In summary: it had an existing fan base before it was even released, and it did not take any risks with the traditional MMO formula. With an unflinching stream of content in the form of both patches and paid expansions, the hefty subscriber base has been more or less maintained.

Unhealthy Competition

However, this isn’t to say that there hasn’t been any attempt at competition. Since the release of World of Warcraft there have been numerous other large-scale MMO releases from both big-name developers and from smaller studios, all inevitably pitted against the current crown-holder as a benchmark.

These have included the Korean titles TERA and AION, as well as the much-anticipated releases of Guild Wars 2 and Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic. Whilst such releases have generally been well-reviewed by critics, they have all borne the same fatal shortcomimng: they are all simply ‘WoW clones’ as opposed to the ‘WoW killers’ they were hyped as being.

Numerous free-to-play ‘WoW-Killers’ such as AION have popped up in recent years. Whilst they hit all the same marks that World of Warcraft has, for that very reason they have remained in the shadows.

Had they gotten there first, this wouldn’t have been an issue, but at this stage simply making another well-produced and rounded MMORPG has evidently not been enough to do more than gain a bit of pre-launch hype, and then fade into irrelevance shortly afterwards. Blizzard’s champion title has stayed in the eye of the gaming press almost constantly since launch, and looks set to stay that way unless something can truly offer some potent opposition.

Scrolls Up

It’s clear that we’re long past due for some serious variety in the online roleplaying space, and those of you familiar with Bethesda’s long-running Elder Scrolls series of RPG’s may well know what they have planned next. It is indeed The Elder Scrolls Online, and this, unlike the other supposed WoW-Killers before it, is something really interesting.

Judging by the critical and commercial success of Skyrim, people aren’t going to get bored of The Elder Scrolls series anytime soon.

There are a variety of factors that will set The Elder Scrolls Online apart from the other MMO’s that we’ve seen in recent years, and will (hopefully) make it a killer title. Not least of these is the fact that Bethesda have the same ‘home advantage’ now that Blizzard had (and still have) when World of Warcraft first launched, namely basing their title off of an existing franchise, which itself is extremely popular.

On top of this is the fact that Bethesda are generally a company trusted to make great RPG experiences – Skyrim, the latest instalment of The Elder Scrolls series, was a huge success with both the critics, the majority of Bethesda’s fan base and even a significant proportion of the ‘non-gamer’ population. Put simply, the series is at a high point, and this means that TESO will most likely enjoy some excellent sales provided it isn’t an utterly rubbish game.

Dragons Ahead

And by all accounts, so far, it looks like that this will be far from the case. Almost everything we’ve seen about The Elder Scrolls Online seems to be very compelling, not least of which is a twitch-based combat system described as being very similar to that seen in current Elder Scrolls games.

This will have the double-edged benefit of both adding a different facet of skill requirements to combat, as well as creating an interesting new use for terrain. Indeed, no longer will the online game world function mostly as a functionless movie set, instead becoming a crucial tool of combat itself and preventing combat from becoming a purely numbers-based ‘spreadsheet battle’. Physical cover will become a practical part of combat, and hopefully this will contribute to a world which generally feels more alive and more functional than those of previous MMORPG’s.

We can expect to see the same enthralling combat that has been a hallmark of The Elder Scrolls series, and by the looks of it, we’ll be treated to a versatile menagerie of strange beasts and monsters.

Another area of TESO’s gameplay which has me intrigued is the fact that a three-faction system has been opted for over the generally more common two-side matchup. It may not seem like such a massive deal, but this is a system that will importantly allow for a much more dynamic range of interaction between player groups: instead of it simply being ‘one side against the other’, we now have the flexibility for more complex inter-party diplomacy to be conducted, which will by definition be a great deal more intriguing.

The Elder Scrolls series always managed to invoke an excellently immersing sense of adventure, hopefully the transition to the online space won’t damage it.

What’s more, we will no longer be restricted to one of the many subdivisions of Tamriel in which to adventure, instead, we’ll be (eventually) treated to the absolute entirety of the world of the Elder Scrolls, with a meaty 80% of it confirmed to be accessible at the game’s launch.

That, and if the screenshots we’ve seen so far are any indication, it is well set to look absolutely magnificent, with a huge variety of different environments to traverse in all their glory. We will also be treated to the typical Elder Scrolls focus on balance between combat and non-combat, with skills such as mining, forging and speechcraft coming to play as much a part in player accomplishment as combat itself.

The Argonians, along with the Nords and Dunmer, will form the ‘Ebonheart Pact’ faction.

Closing Thoughts

So, after all of these undoubtedly impressive heralds, can it be said with confidence that The Elder Scrolls Online will finally knock World of Warcraft off its plinth of success, and replace it as the premiere MMO of today? Whilst I can’t say for certain, I would bet a lot on this being the most serious competition Blizzard have faced, or will face in the online RPG sphere for a long time.

Being part of a series that has already proved popular with both the casual and enthusiast gamer bases, as well as looking to serve up a veritable array of the features have come to love in the Elder Scrolls series in a persistent, single-shard game world which will leave server switching a woe of the past, The Elder Scrolls Online looks set to make a big impression. I’m not usually one for hype, but I’m getting excited.