An unfortunate fate tends to follow the RPGs we love. Game developers often see their big, successful franchises as opportunities to balloon them into massive multiplayer online games that could go on for years. This might be World of Warcraft disease (and honestly, it must sound so enticing to follow in that phenomenon’s footsteps), or it might be a simple desire to let fans romp around for years in a setting that constantly generates revenue, but it keeps happening. Cool RPGs are cool, but do the MMORPGs based on those franchises suffer?
Let’s write a quick list of the most recent candidates—Star Wars: The Old Republic, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, and finally—The Elder Scrolls Online, Zenimax Online Studio’s MMO take on Bethesda’s award-winning fantasy RPG franchise.
The statistics tend to agree: lots of people love Star Wars, Final Fantasy, and The Elder Scrolls. So obviously,the MMORPGs based on these licenses are pretty popular. Despite a rocky start, FFXIV (especially, this one — boy, oh boy, have they turned this one around) and SWTOR seem to be holding their own among their set franchise audiences, but ESO? That’s another story altogether.
The actual sub numbers may not look terrible for The Elder Scrolls Online (it’s all anyone’s guess for now — although some reports claim that the game had about 772.5K subscribers back in June), but I think it’s safe to say that most of the players still paying for a subscription are either diehard Elder Scrolls fans or huge fans of large-scale realm vs. realm (a.k.a. zerg-tastic) PvP.
But not all fans were immune to ESO‘s flaws on launch. The game is seriously lacking in its current state, and here’s the kicker: It wouldn’t have been lacking if it’d been a true Elder Scrolls sequel and not an MMORPG.
Comparing open world exploration in ESO to exploration in any single-player Elder Scrolls game is heartbreaking. The beautiful, rich zones are essentially barren after you’re done leveling due to the way the factions are phased.
Open world solo dungeons are so linear and simplified that it almost seems a shame to call them dungeons. In nearly every single solo dungeon, you run to the end, kill an easy mini-boss, and grab a Skyshard. It’s almost as if the developers didn’t even try to make these dungeons interesting.
Exploration? Ain’t no one got time for that. There are veteran ranks to be had– where we’ll follow the herd of people around as they mindlessly spam AoE (area of effect) attacks. Skyrim often gets praised for having an endless “endgame” of sorts where personal, horizontal goals outweigh any sense of tedium, but in ESO we have the complete opposite: vertical goals that give players direct power for gaining a bunch of veteran ranks that are most efficiently farmed by doing one thing over and over and over. Call me a harsh critic, but a spinning hamster wheel in the name of “endgame progression” is not Elder Scrolls.
The story? Decent in parts, severely lacking in others. You can generally tell that there was a good amount of care placed into writing the overall story arc encompassing the game, but it seems that at some point, the developers simply got rushed and had to start copying and pasting content together. Once the main story is complete, there’s little reason to continue questing. The individual zone storylines just aren’t that interesting. Also, despite some very good voice acting in the game, the same voices are repeated far too often between different NPCs.
Some of the side quests are engaging (especially the ones that bend the pattern a bit, like the ones featuring LGBT relationships), but after doing a couple of early zones, you’ll find the side quests are extremely formulaic in composition and request the same ol’ drivel of collecting items, killing dudes, and running errands.
The worst part may be the fact that despite all of the hours put into coding some of these quests, running them is a waste of time and kind of tedious in comparison to simply zooming between the world dungeons and Anchors whilst farming mad XP.
It seems as though the developers were caught between two worlds here– one where they really wanted to honor the tradition of Elder Scrolls and give us options, exploration, and ways to draw out our gaming experience as much as possible, but also one where development resources were limited and content had to be streamlined (and therefore hamster-wheeled) to allow for multiplayer capability.
Here’s the thing about RPGs: They’re role-playing games. Most of us who love RPGs love them because we can pretend to be someone and somewhere we’re not—to play the role of someone fictitious. We can embark on this quest to explore the world, save the world, have some fun, and most likely come out a hero or heroine in the end. The best RPGs—like Elder Scrolls, for example— allow us to fully immerse ourselves by giving us choices and a wide, open world to explore. But most importantly, they hide the hamster wheel.
Compared to its RPG counterparts, The Elder Scrolls Online feels stripped down. If you’re watching a bunch of cutscenes and fighting on-rail battles instead of exploring nooks and crannies and finding tough bosses out in the middle of nowhere, are you really playing an RPG? If you’re running around in a circle grinding the same three spawn points in Craglorn instead of discovering random, unique goodies out in the world, you’re not experiencing anything resembling Elder Scrolls. Is it possible to be immersed in a world where we’re so tightly constricted?
You can probably see where I’m going with this. The two just don’t mix well. Sandbox-y elements like ESO’s mostly-open class system help give an MMORPG more freedom, but it’s a simple fact that making a game massively multiplayer creates limits, especially once budgetary factors join the mix.
Developers of MMORPGs generally narrow down the rules of exploration and immersion due to necessity. Rewards are reigned in to prevent an unfair economy, gear and abilities are normalized due to balance issues, choice-based story becomes limited, and an “endgame” is usually contrived content that encourages players to stick around, meet people, and find some gnarly dragon to go after. MMORPGs need on-going development, after all, which means the studio needs an influx of cash.
Most of the best single-player gaming moments are also bottled inside group-based instances in an MMORPG. Since players tend to run this content repeatedly for rewards or endgame currencies, this forces developers to cut down on the story immersion drastically to make farming these places efficient, and also get rid of most story elements involving choice. Due to the vast differences between how various MMO gamers play, grouping has to be streamlined, equalized, and placed on a vertical ladder.
In a story-based MMORPG like ESO, where single player story elements are blended within the aforementioned MMORPG limitations, the result is exactly what we’ve seen — this kind of unstable confusion that creates a lack in both story and immersion.
Story is a central part of all RPGs. Without a good story, an RPG is toast. Creating story—especially with all the fancy voice acting and cutscenes found in games now—costs money. When gamers see that their favorite story-based RPG is now an MMORPG, they eagerly try it, thinking the story will be just as awesome as in a single-player game. They hope that the story will get continuous updates. Do those updates happen? Nope. Is the RPG-loving gamer disappointed? You bet.
And this is where the downward spiral tends to begin.
There’s no way that Zenimax can add huge, story-based content additions to ESO on a regular basis– especially when the developer was recently hit with layoffs. They’ll add in new dungeons, sure, and new zones with a few voice-acted quests and new piles of gear, achievements, veteran ranks, and optional features like the bounty feature. But those additions won’t expand the immersion factor of the game and make classic Elder Scrolls fans really feel as though they’re having unique experiences. Personally, I went straight back to Skyrim.
Do we need our favorite RPGs turned into MMORPGs? Is it worth the disappointment? That’s a question left up to each individual gamer, of course, but bottom line—developers need to be extra careful when it comes to beloved RPG franchises. If a developer wants to make an MMORPG based on a BIG RPG franchise, it needs to add to the game world already in place, not subtract from it.
How’s the saying go? “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all?” I’m changing it. Now it’s “If you can’t add something cool to my favorite geeky universe, go bugger off.” There we go.