When the development of The Elder Scrolls Online was officially confirmed back in 2012, it was one of the most exciting MMORPG announcements ever. The enormous popularity of the single-player franchise on both PC and consoles meant it had a huge core target audience, and the world of Tamriel had a strong inter-faction conflict element that would transition easily. Unfortunately, it seems pretty safe to say that the game has fallen short of the potential it initially seemed to have.
In retrospect, the first signs this might happen were there to see even before the announcement - or rather, not to see. The studio, ZeniMax Online, had been established in 2007, which suggests that a fair amount of preliminary / early development work had already been done. Either way, five years seemed a rather long time just to reach the stage of revealing what the game would be. Even after factoring in that it was almost certainly a mega-budget project, I couldn't help but feel a slight twinge of doubt mixed in with my natural curiosity.
TESO was unveiled in May of 2012. In December 2013, we were given a release date of April 4, 2014 for the PC version, while console gamers would have to wait a couple of months longer. Frankly, I've never reliably heard why the decision was made to aim for this brief gap instead of launching simultaneously. As we know, the former target was met while the latter was subject to a 12-month delay, during which time numerous changes and improvements were implemented, not the least of which was shifting the business model. Looking both backward and forward, quite a few pointed questions come to mind about this high-profile endeavour.
Why was the development period so long?
Building the kind of sizable team it takes to design and develop a huge, fully featured MMORPG like TESO is a huge task. That said, it's something that happens over time. People are added as the project progresses through stages that require more and more artists, coders, designers et al. Still, even taking this into account, does the PC version that went live last year feel to you like it should have taken seven years to make? We can also ask kind of the reverse. Given that it did take that long, were the amount of content and the overall quality of the game what you'd expect after this time?
It's easy enough to understand that the console versions required an additional year instead of the originally projected two months. There was no real point to releasing them in the midst of making all the changes, improvements and fixes that were deemed necessary for the PC. Neither does it address the question of how the latter, after seven years in development, went live in the state it did.
I have no inside information on what happened during TESO's development, which leaves me completely free to guess that it didn't go very smoothly. It's hard to imagine that founding the studio and funding the project were done with a seven-year timeline to launch in mind. That's a long while to budget for increasing costs before receiving any revenue. So I suspect the expectation was no more than five. It seems unlikely we'll know what it actually was or what happened during development that made it take so long, at least not soon. But unless and until we do, I'll remain very curious.
Did the team think the game was ready when it was released?
Obviously, I don't know. Accordingly, I can only guess based on what I saw and read as an outside observer. In this regard, I never visited ZeniMax Online or communicated off the record with anyone there during development, so while I got a few credible tidbits from third parties, I basically formed my opinion on the same information as any MMORPG fan. While I'm only able to speak for myself, I don't think I was alone in having serious doubts during the beta period and the final months leading up to launch as to how well TESO would play and also how it would be received.
To be clear, I didn't think it would be bad. Rather, I got the impression it would be less than excellent, especially in terms of polish. For what it's worth, this was fairly unusual since I'm generally optimistic by nature. Sadly, the game didn't surprise me. Overall, the reception from both reviewers and gamers was largely in line with what I didn't want to expect but did. To its credit, the team was quite quick to implement fixes and improvements. That said, even after allowing for a modest level of bugs and other issues, I think TESO needed more time and work before it launched.
I'll grant that my expectations were higher than they would have been for a lesser endeavor. But this doesn't seem in any way wrong. What's more, I'm of the belief that major projects should be held – and should hold themselves – to a higher standard. In this light, while I don't know if the studio's decision makers felt TESO was ready for prime time when it went live last spring, I don't know which scenario is more disappointing, that they didn't or that they did and launched anyway.