E3 has made me realize that The Elder Scrolls Online thinks it already owns us.
When TESO was first announced, all — and I do mean all — of the exclusives went to GameInformer. What’s GameInformer? It’s not a no-name site, but it’s not really on the radar of MMO players. I rarely find anything there of value for our readers, and I can’t remember a time when it’s earned a source credit before its TESO coverage. That’s often true of the more general gaming sites like PC Gamer and Kotaku; they just don’t field a deep enough team to cover MMOs at the level of detail expected by traditional MMO fans. Also, most of them think MMOs are stupid. At best, they are only humoring us for hits.
So it was weird that GameInformer was getting exclusive after exclusive while all the other sites were getting nothing, but I figured there was a financial or family connection there. No biggie, right?
Except that this PR policy seems to have been carried into E3. ZeniMax didn’t grant many interviews, and those it gave went to big, generalist gaming sites, which often ask all the wrong questions and make MMO gamers facepalm. None of the big MMO sites landed anything but a seat at the open developer presentation, which revealed absolutely nothing new to those of us who have been following the game for the last few weeks. You know — MMO players.
So maybe I’ve been thinking about this all wrong. Maybe it’s not favoritism or ignorance (I know they know we exist). Maybe the real issue is that ZeniMax isn’t pandering to MMO players on purpose because it thinks it’s already got us in the bag. Maybe it thinks it needs to entice the thronging masses who made Skyrim game of the year, to sell them on an Elder Scrolls MMO, since surely MMO zealots will buy the game regardless.
Except no. If ZeniMax were paying attention, it’d know that vocal MMO gamers are deeply unhappy with the game as its been presented so far, and not for the same reasons as Bobby the Console Bro. Subtract out all the usual “MMOs sux” and “don’t ruin my favorite IP” and “where’s the innovation” angst and you’ll see there’s still considerable concern for the game, even among MMO players who consider themselves die-hard TES fans.
The chief complaint is that the game’s setting and mechanics are bland and generic. The videos and screenshots illustrate a fantasy world we’ve already seen in countless other games. The game does the lore no justice. The Elder Scrolls has a base layer of stock fantasy tropes with orcs and elves; it should be working toward pushing past that and highlighting what sets its world apart from all the others. Tucked away in the lore are tinges of Imperial Rome and Britain, a dash of feudal Japan, monkeymen beyond the sea, an interesting take on the Moors, a pantheon of chaotic and meddlesome daedric princes, and on and on. As a commenter reminded me, the games are actually deceptively twisted. The lore has an absurd and bizarre Alice-in-Wonderland quality to it.
All of that appears to be lost in the MMO version of the game, or at least in its marketing to this point, and I wonder whether that isn’t just one more step in the evolution of the series. After all, fans have been lamenting the games’ vanilla flavor ever since Oblivion launched and failed to outshine Morrowind’s unique setting. Sure, it’s hard to follow as original a game world as Morrowind’s, but Oblivion didn’t even try, and neither did Skyrim (they possess mechanics improvements, but the settings are dull as dishwater). Let’s face it: ZeniMax and Bethesda have been trying to mainstream the series since 2007. They were already trying to make the weird and wonderful lore more stock and palatable to Bobby the Bro. The MMO is a successor to those games, not to Morrowind.
And that’s exactly why ZeniMax must stop neglecting actual MMO players and news outlets. Even Blizzard reaches out to fan sites now! It’s part of the PR machine in this age of fierce AAA MMO competition. Right now, we’re all just stewing in mutual distrust for IP-driven games and a general suspicion that ZeniMax doesn’t give a crap about MMOs or MMO gamers because that’s how it appears when you pander to everyone but us in both your game design and your press partnerships. You need to sell your game to us, and we’re not sold right now. Those console frat boys will only make you cocky, just as happened with Star Wars: The Old Republic. This industry doesn’t need another big IP MMO that sells big to Bobby the Bro and then loses a few hundred thousand subscriptions in just a few months because the game had no soul and nothing of substance that would endear it to dedicated MMO gamers in the long run.
Please, learn from BioWare’s mistakes. Don’t take us for granted.