Taking us for granted

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.

February 2014 addendum

Since fanboys keep necrospamming links to and fisking this article in some weird and incompetent attempt to show that it proves I have some deep bias against the Elder Scrolls franchise and therefore am intentionally tanking ESO on Massively because of some petty vendetta they imagine I have, I wanted to clarify for anyone with the intellect to actually read an article instead of just believing what the tinfoil hat crowd posts to Reddit. (Actually, I can’t even pick on Reddit because the first person to post this on Reddit was called a fool and downvoted. Score one for Reddit, what the heck.)

First, this blog post is almost two years old. Some of what it contains is outdated information. Gameinformer is actually Gamestop’s pet website, which actually makes sense in retrospect since Bethesda obviously has business dealings with a large console distributor like Gamestop. I didn’t know that at the time (and if I had, I would have mentioned it because it supports my hypothesis that ESO is first and foremost a console game for consolers, not an MMORPG for MMORPGers). As the current EIC of Massively, I am also responsible for overseeing all of our ESO coverage, and that includes the creation and staffing of our weekly Tamriel Infinium column, written by ESO fan Larry Everett. And since E3 2012 (when the above entry was written), Massively has been the beneficiary of many hands-on opportunities with ESO, most positive, which anyone who’s been following our site for the last couple of years already knows. Here are some of the bigger ones: the one about butts, the one about cabbages, a different one from that same E3, one from a special event right before E3, and this one and this one from PAX East last year.

If had some vendetta, I certainly wouldn’t have published any of those articles or that column, or for that matter, any of the neutral and positive articles from the last hands-on that accompanied our general preview by Eliot Lefebvre. I didn’t make Eliot write a negative preview any more than I make Larry write a positive column every single week. Our writers formulate their own opinions, and if I wanted to trash the game, I would have written something myself.

Second, this blog is completely public. “Exposing” it is no big feat since I have it linked prominently on my Massively profile, Twitter account, Steam account, etc. It is not a secret. This specific post was also referenced heavily in a much better article by my colleague on Massively itself. I have discussed the topic of ESO’s marketing campaign ad nauseam in dozens upon dozens of podcasts over the last few years as well as in several other articles on Massively since the business model announcement. My opinion of Bethesda’s marketing and its business model remains largely unchanged: I fully expect it to sell in the 3-4 million range by the time it hits consoles, and I fully expect it to lose subscriptions and go free-to-play, having learned nothing from SWTOR. I don’t believe Bethesda is really in tune with the MMO industry in terms of its marketing or gameplay. There is sadly nothing at all revolutionary in saying so, not when this blog came out or now. It is an opinion now shared broadly across the MMO industry.

Perhaps instead of fisking this ancient article, you ought to have read my more recent post on the TES franchise, the one encouraging people to play Morrowind in prep for the ESO launch and offering extensive mod advice to newbies. I wrote that because I am a hardcore Elder Scrolls franchise fanatic who’s been playing since Daggerfall. I have installs of Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim on my machines, and I have logged time in all three in the last month because I still love them. If anyone wants ESO to succeed, it’s me, because my job depends on this industry flourishing and because I don’t want ESO’s failure to herald the end of the franchise, but wanting something doesn’t make it so, and my job requires me to look past what I want to happen to chronicle what likely will and what does.

I realize this doesn’t suit the preconceptions of those folks who keep spamming me, who know so little about me and have such elite reasoning skills that they’re calling me a “faggot,” and who want to believe that anyone who says or publishes anything bad about a game must possess some nefarious hidden agenda. I don’t care. Just stop spamming your idiotic frothing fanboy posts.


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  2. Azzura says:

    I haven’t been excited at all about this MMO – and when I did finally take a peek at some video Massively had linked…it was sorta disappointing to see. I never played Morrowind – I tried, but at the time, I couldn’t go backward in graphics after playing Oblivion. I never did totally finish Oblivion either…I got pretty far though. I seemed to have gotten distracted by the construction kit.

    The thing I loved about Oblivion and now Skyrim was the graphics…the realism. Running through the woods…listening to the birds and animals. The video sample for Elder Scrolls MMO definitely takes a hit to the graphics due to needing to function with 100s of people at a time and streaming to my computer. I DONT WANT THAT. While I would love to pop into a friends game now and then like Diablo 3 lets you do… I don’t want people running up and stealing my flowers or mining nodes. I don’t want to see gold spam and power leveling messages…I don’t want to have general chat full of immature assholes.

    I do believe the MMO step will ruin the IP and I highly doubt they are working on another single player version. It is sad that they decided not to let one of the best MMO news sources get info the proper ways, but I don’t think us MMO people are all that hyped for this. These types of games are our escape period from MMOs.

  3. […] since very interesting discussions sparked. One which caught my attention was the opinion of a few bloggers expressing their concern on soullessness of some games. Implicitly stands the idea that, […]

  4. Zax19 says:

    In a nutshell, if you don’t care much for A and B, you want more than just another C. In my past I had major problems with the way Bioware handles paraphrasing, the dialogue wheel, the good/evil points, the UI (Mass Effect 1 and 2 has probably the worst UI I’ve even seen in a triple A title). I don’t jump at the sight of every dialogue if the writing isn’t good enough for me. So if I think the TES games are mediocre at best, why the hell would I play a mediocre TES MMO?

    I understand that as someone who likes the TES you want the MMO to be more than just mediocre. I used to spend a lot of time arguing about SWTOR and what should be changed before the game released. Now I just shrug my shoulders and say “meh, maybe next time”. In all honesty, all this internet coverage of games in production is killing me, I need to learn how to stop caring because there is no way developers will do exactly what I want.

    PS: Just today I found out about Artemis which is a low budget version of what I wanted STO to be like, so I should probably support the game as much as I can instead of going on about STO’s flaws.

  5. Zax19 says:

    //Somehow my previous post is missing the start:
    Considering what I think about the TES I wouldn’t hesitate to say the developers are just plain stupid. Supposing they aren’t I think they’re asking themselves “how do we make the huge TES fanbase convert to an MMO” rather than “how do we make a good MMO”. It’s similar to what I think about SWTOR, which has:

    A) The “Bioware” type of story, dialogue and light/dark side division (the good and the bad aspects of it)
    B) The Star Wars IP (I’d dare to say done pretty well, not like STO or other games)
    C) The tried and true elements of a typical themepark MMO

  6. Mass says:

    Sounds to me like you are taking companies like Blizzard and Zenimax for granted. You want a story don’t expect it to fall in your lap, try to go out there and get an exclusive. You are not entitled to this information because you are a “MMO website” Game Informer might have been working for a exclusive for months, so to even suggest something like “family” connection is a little amateur.

    • Bree says:

      So at first I wasn’t going to approve this comment, but I thought it would be a good chance to explain how things work to Mass and other readers who plainly don’t work in games journalism or understand how it works.

      Breaking a news story or exclusive like this isn’t something you can just “go out there and get” in this industry, nor is it something you work on for months (unless you mean it takes months for the check to clear). This isn’t like flying to a war-torn country and reporting on war crimes as they unfold in front of your eyes. This isn’t like infiltrating the prison system and writing an expose after three years of posing as a guard. The game companies control access to everything. When journos asked, for example, for information about TESO before it was announced, Bethesda’s representatives lied to everyone and said the company wasn’t even working on an MMO. Barring hacking computers or knowing someone on the inside, you physically cannot get to that information.

      This means that no matter how nicely or aggressively you ask for interviews and exclusives, they can simply say no or ignore your phone calls and emails. They choose who gets what. It’s a bargaining game. And what do you think game journos have to trade? Yeah, exactly.

      So what very often occurs is mutual back-scratching. Studios say, we’ll give you an exclusive on the game you want to cover if you also run a story praising our other game that you don’t care about at all. Give us a good review on this game and we’ll give you beta access to the next game. It’s shady as hell.

      Not every game studio is like this; neither is every game site. Joystiq and Massively are expressly forbidden from accepting anything that can be construed as a bribe. We can’t take gifts. We can’t accept stipends to fly in to conventions or studio visits. We can’t accept hotel stays or fancy dinners. This means we get left out of a lot of coverage when we can’t ourselves afford to go. I accept this because it means we have a clean conscience. Other sites simply do not. Massively doesn’t even write reviews or control advertising, so that’s one less thing we have to “trade.”

      I definitely don’t take game studios for granted. I love their product, and I appreciate the relationships we do have with the companies that don’t play dirty pool. I also don’t expect anything to fall in our lap; cultivating relationships when you are trading only in honest, quality writing is challenging. But the point of the article is that what works for single-player games doesn’t work for MMOs, and Zeni/Beth isn’t doing anything right now but piss off MMO players by ignoring us. Regardless of whether they ever give anything to the blog I work for, they’re still making mistakes.

  7. […] was denied, of course, because as Massively managing editor Bree Royce opined a few weeks ago, ZeniMax isn’t really targeting our audience in its TESO marketing push. Our readership […]

  8. bubble says:

    “it’s hard to follow as original a game world as Morrowind’s, but Oblivion didn’t even try, and neither did Skyrim”

    I think that’s true of Oblivion – which completely threw away the opportunity to riff on the Imperial Rome theme – but Skyrim fits the Nords perfectly imo. I think the problem is simply that Norse style culture has become a commonplace as almost every mmo Dwarf faction uses that cultural model meaning it could never compare to the alien awesomeness of Morrowind. In TES terms i think Bretons (standard euro medieval) and Nord (standard Norse) always had the least scope for Morrowind style weirdness but all the other races have lots of potential if Bethesda so choose.

    • Bree says:

      I’m admittedly biased because I cannot stand Nordic/dwarf/viking themes in video games. I just hate them, and it seems as if all the games I happen to play have been inundated with the theme in the last five years (WOTLK and EOTN one after another, and then Skyrim… uggg! Why does “snow zone” have to equal “vikings”?!). Even then, I think the Roman Empire is far more overused, even more ingrained in our culture than Nordic fantasy so that we don’t even notice it. Even in GW2, there’s architecture and sculpture inspired by Rome, even though we wouldn’t really consider any culture there to be Roman Empire fantasy!

      But anyway, tangent aside, I so agree with you. I would love another trip to Hammerfell, personally, because the Redguard culture just really sings to me out of all of the human groups. I would have loved to see Elsweyr or Black Marsh or Valenwood too, but I’m afraid I’ll have to settle for mods because we’re never going to see an Elder Scrolls game that details the struggles of orcs and lizardmen in Black Marsh. By comparison to that, Morrowind, with its genre-spanning and popular dark elves, looks positively stock. :D

      I have a little fear that the MMO will address the more interesting provinces only lightly and will cut their most unique characteristics. Other bloggers have noticed that Valenwood, for example, is already losing its moving tree city, no doubt because it’s too hard to implement.

      • Rockwell says:

        The folklore of Germanic culture from which the Vikings and Norse made up a significant part is the basis of almost all modern high fantasy. I mean honestly, look at the works of J.R.R. Tolkien whose novels have influenced practically everything within today’s fantasy genres. His works are entirely based around Anglo-Saxon/Anglo-Frisian, Old Norse, and some Celtic lore. And if anyone thinks that the Nords and, to an extent, the Bretons are the only races in The Elder Scrolls franchise rooted in Germanic folklore, well they are sadly mistaken. Elves, orcs, goblins, trolls, giants, etc. are all derived from Germanic mythology. Now I’m not necessarily attacking your bias, but I would just like to point out that trying to find a fantasy-based videogame with no Germanic/Viking influence, whether it is a newly released game or from the early ’90s, is like finding a needle in a haystack. If the mythology of Germanic tribes, specifically the Norse, never came into play then modern fantasy would not exist.

  9. Bishok says:

    Just read your addendum and to be honest, I didn’t even think you needed to write it. People don’t seem to be capable of understanding that everyone has different opinions, that Massively is above all an opinion based website, with weekly columns and such.

    If people just want news about their game they can just RSS the official website for their game of choice, if one wants opinions and discussion about a game, then that’s what Massively is there for (again I my opinion).

    I also find it hilarious that they all think that there’s some kind of conspiracy and/or vendetta against ESO.

    Again keep up the good work, I won’t stop going to Massively just because I might disagree with an person’s opinion (I’m looking at you Jef and you’re Star Citizen hype hehe)

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