When the Elder Scrolls Online launches sometime later this year, it will face a number of challenges. The cutthroat MMO market has little allowance for weaksauce, so any new game coming out will have to make itself stand out there. But with ESO, there's the additional challenge of meeting the expectations of the legions of Elder Scrolls fans who will want to check it out.
With this in mind, here's a rundown of five major points that Zenimax Online is going to need to focus on if they want their game to stand out from the hordes of wannabes and also-rans.
Believe it or not, the story is still important for some MMO players. It's not enough to carry a game all by itself, but it's one of the main reasons why some games continue to be successful long after their graphics and game mechanics have grown outdated and stale - players keep coming back for the story.
And story is essential for the fans of the franchise. Elder Scrolls fans have high expectations in this department - the stories for the single-player games have always been outstanding, immersive and engaging.
Fortunately, Elder Scrolls Online seems to be off on a good start on the story front already. Power struggles, political intrigue and a demon-lord dragging the world into his own private Hell all make for awesome story points. The magic, however, will come out in the telling of these stories, in the way that player characters involve themselves in the epic events unfolding around them.
Look and Feel
MMOs have to walk a careful line between looking amazing and being accessible to a wide audience. Often, developers try to do more with less - it would be easy enough, for example, to add some kind of visual effect for every equippable item a character could wear, but it's an entirely different matter when the game needs to stream all that information to every other player in the area. Bandwidth gets choked and players with slow connections (like me) suffer from horrible game performance because of lag. The answer is usually to dumb the visuals down so that less information needs to be transmitted. This is why most games have either headgear or hair, but rarely ever both at the same time.
Single-player games, on the other hand, can push their visuals to the bleeding edge of technology. If it's a solid title from a venerated franchise, players will upgrade their machines to play it. These games don't need to push player-data from a bunch of different sources down restrictive pipelines, so characters can have hair underneath their helmets, and shiny rings on each finger, and capes that flutter in the breeze, and little swirls of dust around their feet when they walk. They can make one character look as amazingly realistic as the technology allows.
Elder Scrolls Online is going to have to find that balance. Since the game will use just one "mega-server" to host all of its players, this potentially means that certain areas in the game could get very crowded, and crowded areas mean a huge data stream for every player present. ESO can't come out of the gate looking as amazingly gritty and detailed as Skyrim did, but it can't dumb things down to World of Warcraft levels, either. The screenshots and videos that we've seen so far look pretty good for a MMO, but it's clear that the developers are carefully counting the polygons on their character and monster models, and not worrying over much about ultra-smooth animations. We won't be fighting creepers and square zombies, but the character and monster models we've seen in the gameplay videos are definitely much simpler than they would be in a single-player game.
Player Vs. Player
Since the developers have talked a big game about their PvP already, it will need to deliver in a big way. Even to someone (like me) who doesn't much care for PvP, it sounds pretty outstanding - a massive central region, open-world fighting with small- and large-scale objectives, and even the ability for players to earn the rank of Emperor by taking the throne. But, on paper, there were a lot of PvP ideas that sounded great and then failed to live up to player expectations.
For example, Star Wars: The Old Republic had Ilum. It was a level 50 planet with full-on open-world PvP. On paper, it was a place where you could travel to when you hit level 50 and expect a rollicking good donnybrook against the enemy faction. Instead, it became a quagmire of griefers and exploiters (even by PvP server standards) and boring objective-swapping; people stopped going there and the developers switched a lot of it off, and bring it up every now and then when they are talking about things they want to overhaul and redesign. On paper, it sounded like an awesome idea. But in practice, not so much.
With the entire central region of Cyrodiil serving as ESO's player-versus-player arena, we can only hope that it doesn't turn into a similar situation. The three-faction balance and broad range of objectives should prevent another Ilum scenario from playing out.
Gameplay is obviously crucial, but so is how the company sells it to its customers. We still don't know how Zenimax Online is going to market Elder Scrolls Online, but they're going to have to be innovative in their approach.
They could go the route of Guild Wars 2, with a box-price to buy the game and an in-game cash shop to earn revenue over time. But there's a risk there - under-sell the cash shop and you make very little money from it. Over-sell it and you come across as low-rent, and players start to wish for some kind of ad-block plugin. Plastering store icons on every square millimeter of available UI space is as annoying as those website auto-play flash video ads for dish detergent, but access to the cash shop does need some visibility. Somewhere along that bell-curve, there's a peak point where the availability of the store equals the perceived value of the items sold in it and the players' desire to use it.
Lots of developers try to create an artificial demand for store-bought items - keys for loot boxes, for example - but this can backfire if the demand becomes "spammy." Loot boxes are the best example of this - in games like Star Trek Online, these loot boxes are sort of annoying. You have a chance of getting some awesome purple loot from them, but more likely you end up discarding the boxes rather than buying more keys, because the damned things have no vendor value and mostly contain worthless trash. In other games, they drop far less frequently, or have a higher chance of generating desirable loot, and buying a key here and there feels a lot less like flushing money down the drain.
A game studio can hire the best writers, artists and combat-designers in the world, and still crash in an alarmingly-short timeframe if there is no endgame. It's not enough to draw players in with story and graphics - the goal is to keep those players there for the long term, and to keep them spending money.
This is not so much the case with single-player games, but going into a MMO with a single-player mindset is what nearly killed SWTOR. BioWare didn't anticipate that MMO players (especially ones who were Star Wars fans) would be spending 6+ hours a day on their game on average. When the game launched and the hardcore guys raced to level cap in a matter of days, they found they had very little to do when they got there, and moved on to other games after a lot of loud griping. It's a lot better now, but those first few months were a rude awakening.
Elder Scrolls Online is going to need to ship with this in mind, and with endgame content in place on Day 1. A couple of high-level dungeons won't be enough - endgame is where the hardcore players live. The Elder Scrolls series has its own dedicated, passionate fans - the kind who take time off of work when a new title launches just so they can play a days-long marathon. Players are going to spend an average of 6+ hours a day on it, and will reach level cap within the first few days of launch - possibly in a matter of hours. The game will need to launch with multiple raids and other group-content in place, or they risk a massive crash as the endgame population bleeds away.
The developers are certainly aware of this particular need, and addressed it in their introduction video. Endgame content will come in the form of solo, small- and large-group content, as well as PvP.
These factors are not specific just to the Elder Scrolls Online, either. Any new game will need to consider these things as well. If you feel there are other factors that Zenimax Online will need to consider for the Elder Scrolls Online, share the discussion in our comments below!