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.