Ten things Elder Scrolls Online must do
With last week’s announcement that Elder Scrolls will be entering the MMO arena with Elder Scrolls Online, interested parties have been chimming in their thoughts on how the game will play and what route ZeniMax/Bethesda are going to go with it.
The truth is, no one really knows much about that yet. Instead, here are ten things we think Elder Scrolls Online needs to include (or, at least, seriously think about) to capture the attentions of the MMO community and Elder Scrolls fans alike.
By the time Elder Scrolls Online is released in 2013, the standard MMO-subscription model will surely have become less commonplace than it is now. Many of today’s biggest and most successful MMOs are at least experimenting with free-to-play models, and Elder Scrolls Online is going to have to be at the forefront of payment systems to compete with the genre’s big players.
The question then becomes: should it be completely free with micro-transactions, or should it take the Guild Wars 2 route of asking you to buy the game but not commit to a subscription? Given the probable development cost, and the fact that too many wholly free-to-play games are ruined by a buy-items-to-win mentality, the Guild Wars 2 route seems like the best choice for developer and player.
ZeniMax Media are not accustomed to this end of the videogames market, so any decision on payment options must be thought through with great care.
Retain single player elements
All previous Elder Scrolls games have been single player, without so much as a hint of multiplayer. To prevent alienating the series’ current audience before the game is even released, The Elder Scrolls Online would do well to remember the elements that have been integral to creating a franchise so successful that it has made an MMO spin-off possible at all.
In essence, Elder Scrolls Online needs to be as much RPG as it is MMO. That means the game must be as enjoyable and as engaging when playing by oneself as when playing in a party or as part of a guild. Playing solo should provide as much opportunity to impact the world (or, at least, feel as though you’ve impacted it) as playing in a group.
Make sure it’s different
Fantasy-based MMOs are a dime a dozen, and that means you’ve got to be different to make an impact. Sure, the Elder Scrolls name will take you so far and get you so many players in the opening months, but unless things are mixed up players are going to turn off. Just being Elder Scrolls is not enough for a genre designed to keep players hooked for years at a time.
Warhammer is a big name in the fantasy world, but the name wasn’t enough to keep that particular MMO going…
Be big on player agency
Actions must have consequences that alter your vision of the world, alter other players’ vision of you and make every decision a tough one. Moment to moment actions must feel important, and not just about levelling up your character or hunting for the next item. In short, the players should be running the world, the world shouldn’t be running the players.
In that regard, Elder Scrolls Online should be taking more cues from EVE Online than from World of Warcraft. Skyrim, Oblivion, Morrowind et al, are worlds that feel alive because of the way you interact and affect them, Elder Scrolls Online must do the same.
Open up the world
One of Elder Scrolls’ biggest and most meaningful joys is that, by and large, the entire world is open for you to explore almost from the very beginning. As those of you that play MMOs know, that is not the way the genre tends to operate. Reach level 10, open up this area. Reach level 20, open this area. That approach is not going to cut it with Elder Scrolls Online.
As an expansion of the player agency point; if you desire to be a hero of the mountain lands, you should be able to set out on that path from the start. You shouldn’t have to wait until you reach a certain level to do so. Part of giving players the freedom to define their own stories, is to give them freedom over travelling across the environment. Forcing all players to attain specific levels in specific areas does not sound like Elder Scrolls.
Mix up the levelling up
Like the environment, levelling up should be free and open to personal choice. Forget the rigid class system, just provide a wide open skill tree (or set of skill trees) that allows players to create the character they want.
The moment an Elder Scrolls fan sees the text “Unlock Frostbolt at level 10″ is the moment they switch off. Why should they have to wait to level 10? Why can’t they spend all of their points up to level 5 and unlock it then? If they want to neglect other abilities in a bid to specialise, they should be able to do so. By the same token, if players want an all-rounder who is master of nothing, that should also be an option.
Let you play in first-person
What would Elder Scrolls be if didn’t let you play in first-person? I don’t care what you say, first-person is the proper way to play any Elder Scrolls game. If you’re playing in third-person, you’re playing it wrong.
Like the majority of points on this list, the idea behind playing in first-person is centred around making the game feel like Elder Scrolls. It’s impossible to underestimate just how important that is to Elder Scrolls Online, if it doesn’t feel right it’s not going to be right.
Sure, give the option of third-person and allow people to play incorrectly if they wish. But don’t remove the first-person setup from the single-player games.
Flesh out the dialogue system
Star Wars: The Old Republic attempted to provide a deep and meaningful dialogue system. To some degree it succeeded, but largely it was too cut-and-dry and too easy to see through. Elder Scrolls Online must do a much better job of allowing you to express yourself and define your character through dialogue.
Most people believe that actions speak louder than words, but in Elder Scrolls that’s not always true.
Sort the bugs out
Some people argue that the plethora of bugs that have shipped with recent Elder Scrolls only serve to add to the game’s character and overall appeal. They’re wrong. The bugs are irritating, unwelcome and bring down what is otherwise an amazing experience.
The size and scale of MMOs mean that they usually ship with bugs and/or balancing issues, so some are to be expected. Key word: some. Having too many bugs is going to take the attention away from the game and frame Elder Scrolls Online as some sort of bug-ridden joke in an arena of already bug-ridden games.
A big part of the narrative draw of Elder Scrolls is the underlying political tensions and turmoil that serve as the stilts for much of the immediately visible plot. The factions, guilds, alliances and different races that make up the Elder Scrolls world lend themselves perfectly to themes of political in-fighting, backstabing and jockeying for position. The huge number of players in MMOs make the same thing possible.
By combining the two, Elder Scrolls Online has the potential to engage players over the long term with a constantly shifting political system that plays on the successes, failings and movements of its player base. Elected officials, political parties, guild vassals, separate kingdoms run by players that could evolve over time through wars and coups… that would make this a game worth sticking out for the long haul.