In 2014, ZeniMax Online Studios released The Elder Scrolls Online to the world, marking the company’s first real foray into the MMO world. And while initially the Elder Scrolls themed MMO would sell well, something was missing from the game itself - it felt like it was trying to be behold to two masters: the traditional MMO world and the single-player world the series was rooted in. While not the largest transformation of an MMO this decade (that title belongs to Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn), over the course of the last few years, The Elder Scrolls Online has undergone a transformation and solidified itself as one of the decades most steady and consistently good MMOs on the market.
The main disconnect at launch was that ESO tried to be too much. It was trying to be the traditional MMO in the vein of World of Warcraft, LotRO and others, yet still trying to be a single player experience. And unfortunately those two felt at constant odds with each other and if never felt like a whole experience. Instead, in the early days it felt you were playing two different games at times without anything that really bound the two together.
As a result the MMORPG felt lost, and as a result the game was mostly panned by Elder Scrolls purists, as well as by some critics.
While it didn’t receive poor reviews at the outset in 2014, there was clearly a disconnect between the game users thought they were receiving and the one ZeniMax delivered. Our own review, written by former Managing Editor Bill Murphy, said this back in 2014:
“Elder Scrolls Online may not be for everyone. But I’m happy and proud to say it’s a game I can stand behind and support with my wallet. It strives to be different from the usual theme-park MMORPG, and it also faithfully represents the Elder Scrolls universe through lore and gameplay. ESO is an excellent MMORPG, with a lot to offer fans of The Elder Scrolls. It does need a few key refinements, but I will be subscribing for a good time to come, and I can’t wait to see how the game improves over time. If you’re on the fence, give it a go, or at least be ready and willing when the inevitable free trial system shows up. You just might be glad you didn’t listen to the critics.”
In 2016, two years after the game hit PC, and a year after its console release The Elder Scrolls Online released its One Tamriel update, changing the MMO for the better. No longer would players be restricted by the faction they chose (except in Cyrodiil where the faction you chose matter in PvP), nor would they be restricted by level. The disconnect between the two different games was solved - now you could. Level requirements were removed, you could now go anywhere in Tamriel and quest to your hearts content. Even the main storyline, which is really good and worth playing, started to feel secondary. It felt like a true Elder Scrolls game in that regard.
It’s obviously still an MMO - you still need to group to finish some quests, raiding and obviously the massive world PvP that happens in Cyrodiil. But the MMO has felt like it’s moved farther from the MMO-side of things and embraced its Elder Scrolls heritage. As a result, in the last few years The Elder Scrolls Online has become one of the few consistently good MMOs every year. And the momentum doesn’t seem to have slowed down. The Morrowind, Summerset and most recently the Elsweyr expansions have all felt like proper Elder Scrolls stories, yet also felt like a proper MMOs as the world opens to you after each story.
At the time of its release, ESO was one of the most visually appealing MMOs on the market as well - and I was incredibly taken with its use of phasing in the game. While sometimes it made it hard to find your friends, the seamless phasing between moments in quests and story moments really made me feel like I was there.
Personally, too, The Elder Scrolls Online is a game that will always hold a place in my heart this decade - it’s the game that launched my writing career. I started writing about The Lord of the Rings Online back in 2012, but it was my involvement with an Elder Scrolls Online podcast that help launch my career as a freelancer.
I asked our writers to explain a bit why ESO was important to them and how it influenced them this decade, here are a few of the responses: Kevin “Xevrin” Chick
ESO released in a rather dull/boring state and yet managed to right the ship reasonably quickly for a AAA MMO. While combat in the game could still use some improvement, hopefully coming in early 2020, ESO has managed to embrace a number of elements that make a good Elder Scrolls game.
The ability to go anywhere and do anything is amazing, the main storylines are good, and many side storylines are great. While I do have some grips about the monetization and the direction it is slowly continuing to shift towards, being able to play for free is pretty decent compared to the other offerings from competitors.
For an MMO the game looks great, combines good to great story, and has somewhat decent combat. The only question now is can they shift course yet again as character growth/development at top end has become somewhat stagnate with the current champion point system cap.
I absolutely love ESO, though this wasn’t always the case at the launch of the game. Back then, I felt it was far too focused on being an MMO than being an Elder Scrolls game. It simply didn’t have the same magic and wonder that my beloved Oblivion or Skyrim had. However, with major overhauls in One Tamriel and Tamriel Unlimited, along with frankly excellent yearly Chapters, ESO finally feels like the game I always wanted it to be. It’s the single-player game I can play with my friends.
For me particularly, the sheer knowledge that I can now finally walk in virtually any direction and be able to traverse nearly all of Tamriel is intoxicating. I love exploring. I love ignoring quests for hours on end simply to take in the world. I can finally do that in ESO. The stories are brilliant. The quests are brilliant. The world boss hunting and dungeon running with my friends is brilliant. And with news of the next chapter being teased in Vegas in January, I am so excited to see what next adventure lies on my horizon.
What Shank hits on is one of the points where ESO has definitely helped influence other games to release after it this decade: MMOs don’t always have to be multiplayer affairs. Yes I know, counterintuitive considering the name of the genre. But giving players that choice, the agency to play their own way versus being forced into a specific playstyle is something we’re seeing more and more of as the decade went on. Whether ESO was the driving force, or simply one of the most high-profile examples of this depends on your perspective.
Whether you think this is a good thing or a bad thing really depends on your own personal playstyle. MMOs nowadays feel increasingly lonely to me, even if you’re surrounded by hundreds of other avatars. While I still play ESO in a group, it’s not hard to look up and see the way the MMO winds are blowing - the “multiplayer” part is now optional in many MMOs. I can’t remember the last time I grouped in games like Black Desert Online, or even older MMOs like The Lord of the Rings Online. This pervasive feeling that everything can be done solo is something I feel really caught hold of the genre thanks to the mainstream success of ESO, and while for a game rooted in a single player experience it makes sense, the influence that has had on the industry as a whole since then, whether direct or indirect, is definitely felt. This isn’t to say MMOs didn’t focus in on single player content earlier either - LotRO used to label quests as ones you could do solo or ones that really required a group for years for your own reference. However, since then the content has felt increasingly more single-player focused. I’m not sure I grouped up once to finish the bulk of the Epic Questline content - something I can’t say was the case early on in the Shadows of Angmar/Mines of Moria years.
Regardless, the shift from its launch state to the One Tamriel update and the focus on the player agency that makes the Elder Scrolls games so great has helped keep it one of the most played MMOs the past 5 years. And with the Skyrim teaser released last week (Todd Howard figured out another way to sell us all Skyrim again), it’ll be interesting to see what story the new expansion brings.
The barrier of entry is lower than many other MMOs on the market as well - simply buy the game and play. You don’t have to subscribe (though ESO Plus is worth it in my opinion simply for the crafting bag). And while MMOs on console aren’t new, it’s one of the few consistently good MMOs to get into if you only play on Xbox or Playstation and simply don’t have a lot of experience with the genre itself.
Whether you play ESO or simply watch it from afar, there’s no denying it’s presence as one of the top MMOs on the market to date. ZeniMax clearly hit on something that resonated with fans after its One Tamriel overhaul a few years ago (there is a reason it has won “Best MMO” a few years running now on MMORPG). Whether you find the story engaging, enjoy the faction PvP, or like the fact that the “Multiplayer” part of MMORPG is “optional,” ESO is here to stay and will continue to be a driving force in the industry.