In a way, every major MMO is kind of a Frankenstein's monster, cobbled together from assorted parts exhumed from other games or wired together in strange new ways. Usually, we can tell what kind of monster it's going to be during the development stage - the marketing gives us a glimpse at the final form by skewing towards a specific type of player. For example, if the game is being built with hardcore gamers in mind, the marketing will focus on the lore of the setting, building up a world that these players will want to immerse themselves in. If the game is being marketed to a more casual or young crowd, the marketing will focus on stuff that can be enjoyed in short, infrequent sessions (like PvP matches). If the game is being sold to MMO players, the marketing will focus on the social aspects of the game.
The marketing for The Elder Scrolls Online, however, is all over the map. It seems to be trying to appeal to everyone at once - hardcores, casuals and MMO'ers. This is kind of confusing from a company like Zenimax Online, which usually knows exactly who is buying its games. On the other hand, according to Game Director Matt Firor in their YouTube video, An Introduction to The Elder Scrolls Online, it may be intentional. "We're bringing two different groups of players together," he says. "We've got the Elder Scrolls crowd, which is used to great games like Skyrim and Oblivion and Morrowind and the older games, and then we've got the MMO crowd which is used to all the great MMOs from the last 15 years."
The Elder Scrolls series has had an interesting history. The first game, Arena, was clearly marketed at the hardcore gamer crowd - it was difficult enough that many new players had a hard time surviving through the introductory dungeon. Daggerfall stayed on that same track, giving players a super-massive game world to explore paired with an incredibly detailed character skill system that included languages and other non-combat skills. Morrowind, the first in the series to be available on consoles, eased back a bit on the difficulty in favor of ramped-up visuals, and this trend continued with Oblivion and Skyrim. Each game looked better than the last, and the UI and character system became more console-y.
Much of ESO's official press so far has been filling out the setting. The "Ask Us Anything" feature on the official site has been largely focused on the three player factions. In their Development news section, every article so far has been lore-based. This is a fairly clear appeal to the hardcore fans of the Elder Scrolls series - Zenimax Online is letting us know that this is, after all, an Elder Scrolls game, and the lore will be consistent. The setting will be familiar to those of us who have immersed ourselves in the previous games, who have read the hundreds of books we "accidentally stole" from bookshelves in NPC homes.
To be fair, the single-player RPGs in the series have been outstanding, and the underlying lore is vast. There's a reason that the "Elder Scrolls Crowd" is as large and devout as it is, and a reason why their expectations for ESO are sky-high. The promise that ESO will have everything the other games had is a big one.
There will be one rather significant thing missing from TESO that has been a constant draw for the series' previous titles: user-generated content. The Elder Scrolls Construction Set, which allowed players to mod or create pretty much anything in the single-player games, is not likely to be an option for a massive MMO. This is going to be a disappointment for some - particularly the fans of the H-Cup lingerie mods of the single-player games - but it makes sense. Single-player games need mods to extend the gameplay, but MMOs by their very nature do not, really. In a single-player game, you run a dungeon once, kill the boss, get the loot and it's done. In a MMO, you can run the same dungeon a dozen times and each time is slightly different.
The MMO Crowd is being lured in by the proposed integration of social networking websites. Players will be able to create a guild page on Facebook, have their friends and guildies join up there, and then import it directly into the game when it launches. Twitter and Google+ will also be integrated into the game. This will mean that guilds can be managed without third-party websites that do essentially the same job - leaders can schedule events on Facebook, tweet important announcements, share awesome screenshots on Tumblr and who knows what else. Basically, anything you can do on your average pre-made guild website will be seamlessly integrated through the social media sites that everybody already uses - no more signing up for the umpteenth account, forgetting URLs and passwords and all the other hassle of adding another new website to your long list.
In keeping with the social-networking theme, the use of the "mega-server" means casual players won't have to scour through lists of game servers and shards to find their buddies. Everyone gets pooled into one giant server and area populations are kept manageable via instanced zones - the game will place players in zones according to their friends lists, guilds and play history. In addition, players will be able to fill out some kind of questionnaire or survey to help determine their play style, and the game will use that information to place the player in zones with others who share his play style. Loners get matched with other loners, PvPers get matched with other PvPers and so on.
This sort of conflicts with the lore-heavy spin we've been getting from the official site. The social aspect of the game appeals to a very different crowd than does the knowledge that Bosmer cannibalism will play a subtle role within the Aldmeri Dominion. There are two kinds of people in the world: those for whom Bosmer cannibalism and how it will be potrayed in future games is a subject of scholarly interest (like me), and those with bustling social lives. Very rarely do these two interests converge.
The PvP aspect of the game has also been the subject of much discussion. Because of the Megaserver technology, this is not World-vs-World or Realm-vs-Realm, but Alliance-vs-Alliance. And it's not the Rock-Paper-Scissors style of 3-sided PvP that we find in other games, because all three alliances have the same character classes (and classes are essentially meaningless anyway), and if history is any indication, racial bonuses won't provide a particularly significant advantage. It will be a game of Rock-Rock-Rock.
PvP is going to center around control of Cyrodiil, and will range from open-world grand-scale battles to limited skirmishes between small groups. Large full-raid-size groups can battle over control of keeps, but small farms can be conquered by small 3 to 5-man groups. Players will be able to control siege weapons to destroy castle walls, and rebuild them later when the keep has been captured and controlled. Supposedly, players can even become Emperor of Cyrodiil, thought the details on what happens then are not currently available.
The open-endedness of the game will be familiar to the Elder Scrolls crowd, but probably pretty strange to players accustomed to the "cookie-cutter" template-style character classes that are part of so many other MMOs. In other games, we can say "mage tank" to elicit a sardonic giggle, but a mage tank is completely viable in the Elder Scrolls. Character classes are a starting point, and gear is not class-limited. Heavily-armored fireball-chucking mobile artillery will be just as common as stealthy ninja-healers and shirtless dudes or busty amazons with giant two-hander swords. The MMO Holy Trinity of Tank, Healer and DPS will surely exist in the Elder Scrolls Online, but it is likely to take on some surprising and creative forms.
The Elder Scrolls single-player RPGs have carved out a legacy that leaves us with very high expectations for any new title in the series, but there is simply no way that a massively multiplayer game could ever be "Skyrim II." The experiences are just too different.
In the single player game, the player is the only hero running around shaping the world, and is singularly responsible for the events of the epic story. Once a dungeon is conquered, it basically stays conquered - the mobs might respawn after a few hours, but the key loot stays looted. In a MMO, there are thousands of heroes running around doing the exact same thing. The world is not typically reshaped by their actions, though TESO's phasing might change that aspect of it. Dungeons never stay conquered, but are run over and over again for key loot, which always respawns.
In a single-player game, you don't need to resort to devious creativity to give your character a name with the F-word in it, and no one will report you for doing so. And if you're the sort of person that is bothered by people trying to get away with a stupid, offensive name, you never have to see one. You don't need to worry about having hundreds of other people going after the same six quest mobs as you, and having to queue up to kill a boss or other rare spawn. Introducing these complications to an Elder Scrolls game is likely to reduce the experience of deep immersion that these games have given players over the years.
It's hard to see what direction the game will take in its final form, but that hardly matters at this point. It's an Elder Scrolls game, and that's going to draw the Elder Scrolls crowd, and it's a "Triple-A" MMO, and that's going to draw the MMO crowd. But at the moment, Frankenstein's monster is still being sewn together. Only time will tell if the parts will fit as promised, or if the beast will live up to the mad doctor's reputation.