Saturday, October 6, 2012

No Bethesda! Don’t Do It!

Or: The Elder Scrolls Must Never Be an MMO

by J. Adams

Back in May of this year, Bethesda Softworks announced the first massively multiplayer online (MMO) installment of the popular and venerable Elder Scrolls series. The reveal was played up by Game Informer, which dedicated the cover and a substantial section of the magazine to the announcement and a preview. 

I really wish Bethesda had left well enough alone and kept the series a single-player only or, at most, a two- to four-player cooperative game. 

If you’re not familiar with the Elder Scrolls series, it started back in 1994 with the release of The Elder Scrolls: Arena, which set the series up as an open world role-playing game where you could choose to completely ignore the main plot while you simply explored the world presented killing monsters, hunting for treasure, or murdering innocent people and livestock for fun and profit. Not that I’ve ever done that sort of thing. I actually became aware of the series after the third installment, The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind was released in 2002. It was my first experience in a truly open-ended , open world RPG and, in all honesty, I found it extremely overwhelming at first. Rather than being guided almost with a leash as in other “traditional” RPGs with which I was more familiar, I had some pretty sketchy instructions from a non-player character (NPC) to go someplace and… that was about it.

In addition to the fairly sketchy guideposts, the world was huge and very easy to get lost in. The island of Vvardenfell (the setting of Morrowind) was revealed to be approximately ten square miles – in scale, of course, but without the usual “go here, now go here,” and the addition of “I’ll follow this road until…oooh a cave with loot (maybe)!” I found myself doing everything except advancing the story, which was completely fine by me because I felt no real compulsion to do anything but what I wanted to do.

Eventually I did finally get around to completing all the quests in the main story, then all the quests in the two expansions that eventually came out, Tribunal and Bloodmoon. I kept playing the game on and off for a few years even once I’d “finished” it because I just had so much fun with it. When The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion came out in 2006 with its 16 square miles to explore and additional expansions Knights of the Nine and Shivering Isles, I got to be excited about the open world all over again and spent many hundreds of blissful hours wandering around looting houses. Last year, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim was released with a world around the same size as Oblivion, but packed with even more caves, monsters, loot, innocent victims, etc. Also, dragons. That carry even more loot.

Anyway, the point is that all these games, large as they are, were concerned with the single-player experience. In each of these three games, the player’s character was central to the story. In Morrowind, you were the reincarnation of a Dark Elf hero, Nerevar. In Oblivion, you were the pawn of a prophecy that would ensure that the Big Baddie (Molag Bal – sort of like a demon) was sent back to that universe’s version of Hell. In Skyrim, you are the Dragonborn (Dovahkiin in the game’s dragon language), the only person with enough power to defeat the evil Alduin and save the world.

Based on all these major plots that concern one particular person, the player, I just don’t see how they’ll be able to translate that sort of adventure into something where interaction with other “special” people on a regular basis will make much sense. I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed just playing and exploring on my own. I can see adding the ability to invite a friend or two to adventure with me if I really wanted to, though I don’t think that I, personally, would ever exercise the option.

There’s also another camp of people who disagree with me completely. The worlds are always huge, there’s always a lot going on, so it’s almost made–to-order for large scale multiplayer – I get that. I just don’t agree with it.

Another issue I have is what effect an MMO with its own canon story is going to have on the rest of the games – The Elder Scrolls has a rich history for its world of Tamriel, and each of the games in the series has included an almost ridiculous number of in-game books (Morrowind literature was calculated to take up 1241 standard-size sheets of real-world paper) that run the gamut from literature of the world, the history, and even some smut (written tongue-in-cheek and in hilariously suggestive  language. With the MMO taking place in part of the history of the world that already exists through the books found in these games already released and the MMO having an original plot, will all the stories still reconcile and create a coherent whole?

Bethesda/ZeniMax have done great things with The Elder Scrolls and with the post-apocalyptic RPG series Fallout since they acquired the rights from Interplay Media, so I have faith that the project won’t turn out to just be flat-out terrible, but I have plenty of reservations that aren’t so easy to forget. With the game slated for release sometime in 2013, there’s plenty of time for further development – not to mention that it will most likely be pushed back a few times, as is Bethesda’s normal mode of operation.

I only hope that any future single-player installments aren’t going to be delayed due to the MMO. Skyrim is amazing, so I can’t wait to see what they’re going to do with The Elder Scrolls VI.  
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