Game Informer today confirmed the not-so-secret existence of an an already-in-development Elder Scrolls Online MMO. Porting the highly successful single-player Elder Scrolls franchise to a massively-multiplayer environment is a high risk, high reward move for ZeniMax Studios. On one hand, already having a huge fan base to draw on means that the studio can count on a fair amount of revenue up front on release as long as they deliver a working game. On the other hand, those same fans are going to demand the kind of game experience that they’ve come to expect from other games in the franchise: a rich open world where players decide how they want to play. Translating that single-player experience into a multi-player environment may not be simple, so ZeniMax will have to come up with some fairly creative solutions to bring the Elder Scrolls alive in a way that mediates the demands of the MMO genre with expectations of their players.
While ZeniMax probably won’t give away too many details about specific game mechanics this far out from release, we can probably expect to hear soon about overarching design concepts and major game features. When Game Informer releases an exclusive trailer tomorrow, my biggest fear is that we’ll see a game that resembles another attempt to piggy-back off World of Warcraft. While this approach has arguably worked for some MMO franchises (e.g. Rift and SWTOR), it also tends to draw a lot of criticism from MMO players and probably cut hard into those franchises’s potential growth than if they’d tried a different approach. Don’t get me wrong, WoW is a great game even seven years after release – but if I want to play it, I’ll play Blizzard’s version and I believe many other players feel the same way. Blizzard had seven years to flesh out what is, at its core, a very structured MMO experience. Even a great emulation of that style of game play, especially without those seven extra years of development, is probably going to pale in comparison to precedent set by the open worlds of previous Elder Scrolls game.
Tomorrow, if we’re comparing ZeniMax’s Elder Scrolls MMO to any other game on the market, I hope we’re talking about EVE Online. While I do not want ZeniMax to copy EVE wholesale, for many of the same reasons I do not want want them to copy WoW, there are definitely lessons to be learned and some features which may be too useful to pass up when moving Tamriel to the internet. EVE is probably the best implementation of a massive open online world where players can have direct impact on the world itself. Instead of picking classes as in other more structured MMOs, EVE’s players choose how to develop their character using an expansive skill-tree system. They can specialize or diversify across skills that impact various aspects of the game’s social, economic, and combat systems, gaining more depth the longer they play. This flexibility in game play and character development are the same reasons why everyone I know enjoyed Skyrim. As the last Elder Scrolls game to be released, players will almost definitely expect similar flexibility in the Elder Scrolls Online.
As I said earlier, what works in a single player game may not work in an MMO, but the reverse is also true. Trying to give players an open world like EVE’s without losing the richness of content and story is a challenge in itself. It’s a lot easier to account for one player’s actions in a game world than it is for thousands, and if it’s a true open world, that’s thousands of opportunities for players to undo any work developers put into the game. Game Informer’s tease about The Elder Scrolls says that ZeniMax has already decided structure the player versus player aspect the game with three set factions. This design is not entirely surprising given that ZeniMax’s president used to work on Dark Ages of Camelot, which also featured a three-faction PvP system. It remains to be seen, however, if the studio will cede more freedom to players in other aspects of the Elder Scrolls Online experience.
If nothing else, the next year will be interesting to see how ZeniMax chooses to balance these competing forces.