Posted Sun, Feb 09, 2014 by gunky
The Elder Scrolls Online is really a hybrid game - part epic single-player RPG, part MMO. As such, it simply wouldn't do to compare it outright to any one game - most other games are either-or, not both. Instead, when looking at the constituent parts of the Elder Scrolls Online, it may be more beneficial to compare and contrast them against the competition.
Competition: Other Elder Scrolls games
Elder Scrolls games have traditionally been skill-based rather than class-based, and that's essentially the same path that Elder Scrolls Online has taken. In most previous Elder Scrolls games, selecting or creating a character class meant choosing a set of skills that started at higher values and improved faster than others. TES V: Skyrim broke away from that mold and presented us with an essentially class-free, skill-based advancement system. Almost.
Really, Skyrim only presented us with one "character class": the Dovahkiin. The Dovahkiin can use any armor or weapon or magic spell in the game, and the more he uses them, the better he gets with them. But he comes packaged with a unique skill set not shared by other characters - the Thu'ums. In the MMO sense, the Dovahkiin's shouts are essentially class skills for the only class in the game.
The Elder Scrolls Online offers 4 different classes, but they are closer to Dovahkiin than to the older Elder Scrolls classes for which they are named, or to traditional on-rails MMO classes. Like the Dovahkiin, each class comes with a particular and unique set of skills, but can wear any armor and use any weapon in the game. For the most part, class only loosely defines a character's combat role (except for the role of Healer - in the current beta, only Templars have healing abilities). Mage-tanks are perfectly viable, as are heavy-plate archers.
Competition: Star Wars: The Old Republic
There are two core conflicts at play in the Elder Scrolls Online - the three-way contention for the Emerald Throne in Cyrodiil, and the battle against Molag Ball as he attempts to drag all of Nirn into his own private hell of Coldharbor. We know absolutely how these events play out over the course of history - all other Elder Scrolls games are set far into the future, and contain historical references to the setting of ESO. Eventually, Molag Bal is shut down and denied, and an Imperial named Tiber Septim steps up and takes control of the Cyrodiilic Empire.
Tiber Septim doesn't come along for a few hundred years or so, so we can guess that the three-way power struggle kind of rages on more or less indefinitely. But the battle against Molag Bal is more immediate, and likely reaches a decisive resolution within the story arc of the game.
Star Wars: The Old Republic works in a similar way. The conflict between the Republic and the Sith Empire will rage on well into the future, and we know that eventually Darth Bane will come up with his Rule of Two, driving the Sith underground, the Republic will come to be the dominant political force in the galaxy, and will be supplanted by a wily Darth Sidious, who transforms the Republic into the Galactic Empire. These events are all basically set in stone. But there are eight other story arcs at work in SWTOR - one for each base character class - which come to a firm resolution at around level cap. The stories are brilliant and engaging, and they're all fully voice-acted, but they come to an eventual conclusion.
The style of interaction is slightly different, though: SWTOR's stories feature little dramatic scenes with multiple camera angles and character movement and voiced dialogue by the player character, like a bunch of little movies. ESO's stories are fully voiced, but stay focused on one animated-mannequin NPC the whole time, the same as pretty much any other Elder Scrolls game but with more NPC body animation. Guild Wars 2 works in a similar way, with animated but static cut scenes, but uses them only for main story cut scenes. ESO, like SWTOR, uses them for practically every quest.
Both SWTOR and ESO have branching story options reflecting the character's morality. SWTOR has far more of these, of course, but that just makes ESO's branched options feel more significant.
In a way, the brilliant storytelling was one factor that contributed to SWTOR's rapid decline as a subscription-based MMO. Elaborate storytelling was one of the main attractions of the game, and remains so now. And it should, because they spent a crap-load of money on it. But once the story is played out, players are left with gear-grind group runs, end-game PvP or rolling a new character and playing a different story, pretty much the same as in every other MMO. To be perfectly honest, I'm still more or less happy with that arrangement because I haven't played through all the class stories yet. But loads of players did play them all through, pretty much right away, vastly exceeding BioWare's expectations of how quickly content is consumed by avid players. And then those players got burned out by a lack of engaging endgame content and left. Continued development funded by an emergency F2P conversion pulled some of those former players back into the game, but for a while there, things looked pretty shaky. This has to be a major worry for ZeniMax Online, and we can only hope that they have a back-door F2P recovery plan in place just in case things don't work out with their subscription model like they are surely hoping. The escape plan helped SWTOR - and many other subscription games before it - bounce back and re-grow.
Competition: DC Universe Online
The Elder Scrolls series has been multi-platform ever since TES III: Morrowind. I still have my ancient Xbox version, and my ancient Xbox to play it on - though I had it for PC first, the Xbox version is the one I actually played all the way through. TES IV: Oblivion was also multi-platform, and the console versions outsold the PC versions. And a lot more people played Skyrim than played either previous title, but most of those players did so with a controller rather than a mouse and keyboard. Releasing the Elder Scrolls Online as a multi-platform title therefore makes a great deal of sense. Players know the brand name now, and they know it as a console title. Even though it's a MMO with a monthly subscription.
When DC Universe Online launched as a multi-platform MMO, it was also subscription-based. That didn't last for long, though - within 10 months, they had to convert to a "Freemium" hybrid F2P model with a cash shop and optional subscription plan, for both the PC version and the console version. Not because it is a terrible game - it's actually pretty awesome, with engaging gameplay and a killer IP, and it allows UberGunky to keep the citizens of Metropolis safe and be bros with Superman - but because that's how the market works.
Like DCUO, ZeniMax is keeping console players and PC players on their own separate servers. Also like DCUO, and like the last couple of Elder Scrolls games, the console versions will probably way outsell the PC versions, despite the earlier launch for PC. It remains to be seen of the Elder Scrolls Online can break the mold and maintain a subscription-paying player base for more than 10 months.