And now, the not-so-good...
1. Consoles and Content are the Key
Bethesda is taking on a rather daunting challenge with Elder Scrolls Online. While the PC release of Skyrim is the definitive version of the game, with its superior sound and mod capabilities, it only accounts for 14% of the total game sales, with the Xbox 360 version dominating sales charts. The difference this time around is that there are only about 7 million new-generation consoles in the hands of gamers. The fact is, not every single new generation console owner will be buying Elder Scrolls Online. Those who buy the game are also not guaranteed long term subscribers. Basic math dictates that it's unlikely Bethesda will be making the kind of money from Elder Scrolls Online that Skyrim brought in (1.29 billion dollars in revenue in the two years since release).
Aside from needing a significant amount of console sales to be successful, the key to the survival of the game is long term subscribers. World of Warcraft subscriptions have accounted for 2.3 billion dollars of revenue for Blizzard, and it's the consistent stream of new content and expansions that keeps the game earning, even so many years after its release. Bethesda will need to keep the content fresh and exciting to retain subscribers, especially in a world where other top-tier MMOs have transitioned into a Free-To-Play model and maintained or increased revenue. The fact is, in these economically conscious times, it's going to take something special to warrant $225 for the first year of play, something which thus far the game doesn't quite have yet. If a poor nerdy bastard like myself had to choose between a year of ESO or Watchdogs...and Destiny...and Wolfenstein...and three tickets to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier in IMAX...the choice would be clear.
2. The Ground Hasn't Been Broken Yet
Those anticipating Elder Scrolls Online changing the dynamics for all MMO games will be sorely disappointed come April 4th. While the game is certainly different when compared to the click-happy Warcraft in terms of style and gameplay, the game unfortunately follows many of the MMO cliches to a tee. An overwhelming amount of the quests you will embark on are cookie cutter clones that could have been lifted from any MMO. You'll often find yourself accepting a quest, travelling five minutes in each direction to collect required items, then returning them to the quest originator for a reward. In my time experiencing the beta, it took hours of mundane questing to progress the story along, with the main quest finally becoming interesting after my character had reached level 7, approximately 10 hours into playing.
Frankly, there are more ground breaking MMO games out there. While being incredibly similar to WoW, Star Wars: The Old Republic spiced things up with its morality system, starship combat and the superb Flashpoint system. At this point, Elder Scrolls Online too often feels like the duller portions of its predecessor. More risks are going to need to be taken to make this product stand out like The Old Republic, and of course we all know what happened to that one.
3. PvP May Be What Shatters MMO Conventions
Based on descriptions and trailers, the Player vs Player portion could be the driving force behind Elder Scrolls Online. Alliance War, the name for ESO's PvP portion, pits three rival factions against each other for domination of Imperial City, and you're a member of one of these factions. Dominating Imperial City is important, as certain aspects of the game will be limited to the faction currently sitting on the Ruby Throne of Cyrodiil.
While most MMO games require a ton of time and dedication to be able to survive long periods in PvP zones, ESO is going to allow even casual players a fighting chance by level balancing characters. Your character's attributes will be boosted to more competitive levels while in Cyrodiil, though your skills, perks and abilities will still be tied to your actual level. This means theoretically you could take your level 20 character toe to toe with a level 50 character, and statistically have a chance at winning.
The risks are minimized in ESO's PvP component as well. If defeated, you thankfully will not suffer both the teabagging and looting of your eviscerated corpse. Instead, deaths in the game merely cause wear on your equipment rather than the instantaneous usurping of all of your accomplishments, making it more likely that players new to both MMOs and Player vs. Player gameplay will be willing to fight and die for their faction rather than stick to the PvE aspect of the game. Based on my time in the standard ESO environment, I get the distinct feeling that some of the most compelling moments of the game will take place in PvP.
4. Not Enough Bang for My Buck...Yet
In the moments when Elder Scrolls Online was at its finest, I was drawn in almost inescapably. Once the story picked up, a planned two-hour play session quickly turned into five eyeball-bleeding hours of adventure bliss. The moments of tedium were quickly completed and replaced with compelling sequences that advanced the story and my excitement. The problem is, the number of those tedious moments were far greater in the beginning of the story, enough that the game became flat-out boring for a time until I progressed far enough. Were I someone who plays games more casually, I would have likely put down ESO rather quickly instead of paying my dues long enough to get to the meat and potatoes of the game. On the other hand, there is enough to do in Tamriel that fans of the grind will not be disappointed. It's finding that balance that is going to be key moving forward, and it's not quite there yet.
That being said, there is absolutely limitless potential moving forward. The high production values, the quality of the action, the depth of the gameplay are all fantastic signs of the shape of things to come, if the game can survive enough to become fully realized. Add to that the potential of reaching millions of console gamers, and Elder Scrolls Online could very well eclipse Warcraft. Remember, the WoW of today has evolved significantly since its inception. It's a daunting task, but from the time I spent in the game, I think it could be done.
After a sleepless, Red Bull fueled weekend of frat boy-style binge gaming, I've seen the amazing amount of potential Elder Scrolls Online has (or maybe it was just exhaustion-induced hallucinations). At this point in development, the game isn't worth blowing my marriage and career on, though I wouldn't mind ditching work for a long run through Tamriel. Thankfully, with two more months before release, Bethesda has time to step up their game, pun totally intended. Until then, I'll be following its development closely, likely from a treadmill as I try to work off the copious amounts of junk food that have made my ass bigger than the plot holes in Prometheus. Oh wait, that PvP beta started. I'd better check it out...for journalism!
Previously by Jason Helton