The release process of modern MMOs seems to have settled into a normative pattern: Game X gets announced, pre-purchase packs go on sale, closed betas are marketed, and open beta marks the informal launch. These phases are followed by a more official kickoff down the road, which may or may not include a rebranding as free-to-play after a certain amount of time.
Most of our readers will be intimately familiar with this cycle, which can be frustrating if one follows the pre-launch marketing closely. In an unfortunate majority of MMO releases, the moniker of open beta is used to allow for the use of real money purchases while providing a buffer for game systems still in construction and all manner of bugs. The result is that we’re often playing unfinished games for a while, supporting them until they’re feature complete.
Other games that have relied less on the open beta marketing device have still released too early for most of our tastes, taking a year or more to evolve into what the developers and communities have envisioned since their announcements. The Lord of the Rings Online had very little 40-50 content when it first released, Age of Conan has come a spectacularly long way since its why-is-none-of-this-as-good-as-Tortage days, and Star Wars: The Old Republic is only just becoming the cinematic storyteller it was supposed to have been. I don’t think I need to remind anyone of Final Fantasy XIV’s initial launch, and WildStar is still working on negotiating itself into the free-to-play market. Heck, anyone who played vanilla World of Warcraft will agree that that game was something akin to a hot mess at first.
A positive spin on this pattern would be to say that MMOs are constantly evolving and changing for the better, but that’s a bit of a hard sell if you’ve already shelled out sixty bucks or more for a founder’s pack. A more pragmatic statement would be to point out that developers need to determine a more realistic timeline and budget for their games, rather than depending upon early adopters to fund bug fixes and feature additions post-open beta. Downloadable content and expansions should be reserved for new content and systems that build upon existing gameplay, not features that should have been in the game at launch.
What’s gotten a bee in my bonnet about this topic? This week, it’s The Elder Scrolls Online. I gave it a fair shake during open beta and launch last year, and while it was certainly playable, there were a variety of aspects that felt unfinished or buggy. Most importantly, the game was locked behind a box price and subscription fee, which didn’t feel justified at the time. As a long-time Elder Scrolls fan, I found the ESO launch to be a frustrating experience, where there seemed to be a good gameplay experience in there somewhere, buried under some rough systems and hidden behind a paywall.
Suffice the story to say that I played through the game time that came with the box price, and put it on the shelf, already waiting for it to go free-to-play. When the inevitable conversion to Tamriel Unlimited took place in March of this year, I jumped in to see what had changed, but Zenimax and Bethesda’s MMO just didn’t grab me until I tried it again recently.
I’m pleasantly surprised to say that over a year and a free-to-play transition after release, The Elder Scrolls Online finally feels like a complete launch title, at least on PC. It has a level of polish that was lacking at its official release, and its cash shop has had time to cook since the Tamriel Unlimited re-branding. I really appreciate the addition of the Justice system, although something as integral to the Elder Scrolls experience should have been included from the get-go. Most importantly, ESO feels like an Elder Scrolls game, with its open world exploration, epic storylines, dry sense of humor, and sometimes awkward character animations and combat.
I’m excited for what the transformations of The Elder Scrolls Online and games like it mean for the potential of other MMOs whose release products appear to be less than what’s expected from their pre-launch hype. The current version of ESO is by no means perfect, and still lacks some balancing and features (Thieves Guild questline being chief among them), but it’s coming along. The game serves as a reminder of why we periodically do re-reviews of MMORPGs, and why waiting until an MMO finds its legs before you invest may be becoming the rule, rather than the exception.
What are some games that you’re playing that are way better now than when they launched?