I want to believe. I want to believe that the rumors about an Elder Scrolls MMO announcement in May will result in one of the genre’s best games, but I find myself convinced that The Elder Scrolls series can’t introduce an MMORPG without losing its soul. I’m not saying that such a game couldn’t be good, I’m not saying that there’s not a chance for Bethesda to make millions upon millions, and I’m not even saying that the concept doesn’t geek me out at the core of my being. But I am saying that the conventions of the genre clash so strongly with the legacy of the series that I fear it would become something else entirely. At its worst, it would become “just another fantasy MMO,” and at its best its success might spell the end for any future single-player games in one of the world’s most beloved gaming franchises. Put it this way: when’s the last that any of you heard any news about Warcraft IV?
Kill 25 falmer and call me in the morning.
Not Looking For Group
The very idea of games like Oblivion and Skyrim seems at odds with an MMORPG. For one, the fame of the Elder Scrolls series rests on a level of immersion that just can’t survive in the genre. I still remember my worries about winning the Ashlanders over to my cause in Morrowind more than I remember the storylines of every raid in Rift, and I remain proud of my meticulously alphabetized library in Skyrim’s Markarth. At the very least, I liked the way shop owners would rush in to see what I was up to when I started to sneak around in their bedrooms. And since there weren’t a gazillion other heroes running around in both games, I could believe that the fate of the land depended on the success my actions. I love a good MMORPG, but the best of them thrive on the ad-hoc stories that we make with other players. The world itself is but a backdrop. In an Elder Scrolls game (without mods), nothing is so important as the world and its lore. Its story somewhat becomes our story, and as with other excellent RPGs, experiencing it about the closest we can come to having interactive fiction books.
Even if the Dark Brotherhood became a faction that players could grind reputation points for, I worry that it would lose its personality. All that immersion goes out the portcullis the second someone starts making Obama jokes and lewd puns about the Wabbajack in general chat channels. And even if Bethesda managed to make a leveling experience that approximated the experience of the series’ single-player games, endgame would run the danger of amounting to would-be heroes loitering around in the Imperial City asking if anyone wanted to group for a Murmilnir raid. Even if the Dark Brotherhood became a faction that players could grind reputation points for, I worry that it would lose its personality. Memorable figures like Nazir would devolve into bland nobodies that players retrieved quests from without reading the quest text. Assassination targets, if they existed at all, would respawn three minutes later. At least the Night Mother would be right at home sitting in place and never moving like King Varian Wrynn in World of Warcraft’s Stormwind, but players would lose the immersion of knowing that her whispers were meant for them alone.
This just wouldn’t be as cool in a raid.
The concerns surrounding the Elder Scrolls’ compatibility with MMOs go far deeper than quibbles about the conflicting philosophies of single-player versus multiplayer games. There’s also the series’ signature bland combat to worry about, with its sword fights that look only mildly more advanced than Minecraft’s and overpowered storm atronachs that pummel bosses while your mage chills out under the effects of an invisibility spell. It usually works in games like Skyrim because the story and environments usually make up for the combat’s shortcomings, but combat has always held priority over story in the best MMORPGs. To ensure the survival of an Elder Scrolls MMO, Bethesda would have to introduce an entirely different combat setup that will inevitably be labeled a TERA or a World of Warcraft clone to a large segment of players. And then again we have the issue of such a project feeling like a different franchise entirely.
The Need for a Dov-Orkin
Even if Bethesda manages to pull this off, there’s the issue of bugs. Over the years, the swarm of bugs at the launch of an Elder Scrolls game has become such a staple of the experience that much of the gaming community just embraces them as part of the series’ charm. After all, in most cases you can just revert to a previous save and the problem usually fixes itself. In an MMORPG setting–c’mon, admit it–players would crucify Bethesda for slips like this. Never mind that they’ve created some of the best games in gaming history, recent events with BioWare prove that we’d see hundreds of user reviews popping up on Metacritic calling Bethesda a “noob studio that never had a good game.” Remember the buggy Hunted: The Demon’s Forge and its frustrating issues with online cooperative play? Bethesda didn’t develop that, but they did publish it. An Elder Scrolls massively multiplayer game might suffer from those same issues on a massively maddening scale.
Now where did that building disappear to?
Finally, there are the visuals. Regardless of whatever form an MMO version of the Elder Scrolls series takes, I think it’s safe to say that you can forget about something approaching the photorealism of sites like Skyrim’s Bleak Falls Barrow. Even some of the genre’s better visuals (such as those in TERA and Guild Wars 2) lean toward a slightly cartoony or conceptual style in the name of wide accessibility that might turn off a large segment of players. Whatever form it takes, an Elder Scrolls MMO will likely feel and look vastly different than any other entry into the series to date, and then the question becomes one of whether an Elder Scrolls MMO could rightfully be called an Elder Scrolls game at all.
A Reckoning Is At Hand
I believe the better chance for MMO success lies with Kingdoms of Amalur, Ken Rolston’s bastard child of the Elder Scrolls franchise. I like to think of KoA: Reckoning as “Elder Scrolls Lite” because it comes close to approximating the experience of the Elder Scrolls series while ditching the more heady aspects of the franchise in the name of simple fun. That’s what the series needs to be successful as an MMO, but it’s important to remember that it ceases to be the Elder Scrolls in the process. Reckoning is also not without its problems–including a stupidly overpowered meteor spell and a hard mode that leaves you wondering if you have it on “casual”–but it better approximates experiences that would carry over to an MMO settings.
Better than fighting yet another dragon.
From an MMO player’s standpoint, Kingdoms of Amalur also has its priorities straight. There’s no need to sit through all that lore “fluff” if you want to enjoy Reckoning since the combat’s always the main attraction, and I’m sure that this tendency will carry over into the MMORPG version. I personally skipped through 90% of the story (to the point that I knew key characters only by such monikers as “that sexy elf” right up until the final boss fight) but I completed every last side quest out of sheer appreciation for what Reckoning does well. Even now, KoA: Reckoning is my “veg out” game of choice as nothing clears my mind more than logging on and slaughtering hordes of Tuatha with my magey rogue.
Skyrim’s five months of existence has only seen a barrage of bug fixes. So far, 38 Studios seems to have its act together. Reckoning has already seen a couple of content patches despite its February release, whereas Skyrim’s five months of existence has only seen a barrage of bug fixes. That will translate well when they release the massively multiplayer version. Its Fable-meets-WoW visual style (love it or hate it) already fits the genre well, and the design of its current instanced dungeons would make an easy import into an MMO. In fact, Kingdoms of Amalur faces almost the exact opposite situation as the Elder Scrolls series: Reckoning is a “good” RPG at best, but it has the potential to be a incredibly satisfying MMORPG.
Admit it, Fable never looked that good.
Even so, with World of Warcraft, TERA, Guild Wars 2, Rift, Lord of the Rings Online, EverQuest II, Final Fantasy XIV, and others fighting for attention of the same audience and spreading its population too thin, the appearance of either one of these games only begs the question: Do we really need another fantasy themed MMORPG at this point?