Only now, at what feels like the conclusion of more than a decade of Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Gaming am I starting to get a sense of how strange and grand these games really are. Watching their inexorable decline makes me think of the elves of Middle Earth preparing for their journey west. In some ways, I feel like we never really understood their mysteries.
I’m not saying we don’t understand how these games work. Quite the contrary. Creating “the one chosen hero” and then grinding levels while making friends with all the other chosen heroes is old hat.
I mean to say that where these games fit in our lives is still an evolving question. A question that gaming companies have lost quite of bit a money attempting to answer.
One of the most interesting modern examples is where The Elder Scrolls Online comes in. With a rumored budget of $200,000,000 (sometimes you need to write out all the zeroes) the game is quite possibly the last attempt a game studio will make at a AAA MMORPG. During TESO beta testing before the April launch, I gave the game a whirl. After my excursions in the newest iteration of Tamriel, I was left with one question. Will this be the biggest gaming disaster of 2014?
More importantly, is this the last roar of the genre?
Yes, there will still be other MMOs in one form or another, but I don’t think they’ll be massive the way we’ve understood it. At its height, World of Warcraft had somewhere between 10 and 12 million subscribers paying them $15 a month. That’s a truly insane amount of money. So much regular cash, in fact, that WoW spawned satellite industries. At one point, thanks to resource farming, WoW gold was worth more in US dollars than the Mexican peso. Even today it has a better exchange rate than some world currencies.
And since that wild, and completely unforeseen success, challenger after challenger after challenger has attempted to be the “WoW killer.” But in the 10 years that WoW has dominated the market not a single game has come close to topping it’s player base.
The cards are stacked against TESO.
I had the opportunity to give the game a try, and I think I walked away with some valuable lessons. In theory this game could operate a lot like Skyrim, but with other players. The graphics are almost on par with Skyrim and, to the game’s credit, it is quite beautiful. And at the end of the day, Skyrim is a whole lot like a single-player MMO. You get quests from individual NPCs and then you go out and complete them. So you should get all the stuff you loved with Skyrim while enjoying the company of many other players.
And I think Zenimax is playing it that way. The voice cast for the game is positively ridiculous for any game, much less an MMO.
I mean, come on! John Cleese? Kate Beckinsale? Those are some serious guns for MMO dialogue, which we can expect only a portion of the players to get if they are faction specific.
But TESO still feels like an MMO. And all the MMOs since WoW have had one key problem: they are all basically WoW. Having button bars on the bottom of the screen and grinding quests through different zones is something we’ve seen before. It feels like the same game I’ve played before, with a different skin. As a matter of fact, most MMOs I’ve played, with the exception of EVE, have felt like variations on the same game.
And that’s really what I’m getting at. I’m not looking to snipe TESO. Honestly, I haven’t even kept track of the game’s success since its launch. But I do wonder if this massive investment in cash signifies a change in the dynamic.