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As Month Six Approaches, an Eye on ESO

By Christina Gonzalez on September 17, 2014 | Columns | Comments

As Month Six Approaches, an Eye on ESO

When it comes to MMORPGs, their status as ever-changing, live worlds is part of the whole experience. With The Elder Scrolls Online just having received a new major update this week, one that will carry the game into its sixth month of release, it seemed like a good time to reflect upon where the game has come to this point, as well as a couple of wishes for the future. While there have been mistakes, promises, and changes, the game continues to evolve as it seems to have found its audience and development gets closer to a console version. After all of this, ESO heads into its sixth month on a few solid notes.

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I feel that the team is utilizing its resources well in bringing both major changes and incremental ones including aesthetic and immersion such as more messages for hirelings added in this patch, and things like better animations and lighting. Things that make the game feel more realistic, such as being able to steal items, and to pick up some items in the world and utilize them, are all good examples of giving ESO more flavor and making it feel more alive and more ‘Elder Scrolls’.  Promises of things to come, like Thieves Guild, Dark Brotherhood, and the justice system are all good. With any MMO, there are usually different teams working on different aspects of the game, so that’s why it can seem like things aren’t being addressed for a while, while at the same time there are improvements and additions, large and small all around. Fellow Nightblade lovers, a full overhaul hasn’t arrived just yet, but we’ve gotten a few steps forward and a couple of steps in place.  Yet, overall, the updates have been mostly well rounded. Sure, it would’ve been nice to have a few faster overhauls on certain aspects, but the major points of contention have been or are being addressed on an ongoing basis.

In translating The Elder Scrolls into an MMO, it’s clear that there were some mistakes made and some learning going on through community feedback and beyond. I’ve been vocal about the abundance of phasing and other ways grouped players could be separated from one another, but I’m pretty impressed that efforts to help address this problem have come steadily and to a satisfying degree. This has been happening in stages, but with the latest patch, it finally feels like these changes are significant. The patch that hit live this week was a major phase of this transition. Two dozen different quest lines which were set to receive some changes to reduce separation between party members and to lower the number of solo instances.

In an RPG, there are a lot of layers and in a single player game, you can make moral choices and decisions that are your own. One of the reasons The Elder Scrolls series’ is so great is that, even with an overarching story, how you approach the game overall can be pretty unique. It’s kind of difficult for two players to have the same gameplay experience if they don't collude beforehand. A gameplay experience can really be your own. When making an MMORPG, there are some obvious concessions that need to be made, which include how story dynamics work. Yet there should at least be ways to do that without separating players.  In SWTOR, moral decisions made when playing as a group are saved and recorded individually per character (as in ESO) but there too was a degree of separation as, unless everyone was the same class, there’d be instances for story missions.

ESO does something similar, except instead of doors in a generally safe area, it started out as a game that would send you into different phases without warning. Little changes, like telling you something is a solo instance, and the option to teleport to group leader, were the beginning of changes, and now that quests are being overhauled in bulk to reduce layers and solo play for those of us who prefer our MMORPG time grouped up, these have gone a long way in earning confidence from me. SWTOR’s doors are a fine way of handling things for the separate class stories involved in that game (which is another that has become better over time, IMO). One significant distinction was that even within your instances, you could have friends in your group come assist you. ESO’s immersion-heavy way of going from one leg of a quest to another without big green story doors is more fun to me, so now that the major part of the changes are happening, I’m looking forward to diving into this restructured content and hoping it’s as smooth as its potential.

In many respects, ESO is doing well  with its population (according to unofficial figures) and seems to have found its core. I think that having the team say ‘Hey, we screwed up on a few things. But we’re listening’ helped refocus, but only because ZeniMax is following through.

With the launch troubles, the mistakes, and all the free to play talk that came even before launch, it might have been easy to write the game for a while. But now, I think that’s much harder to do.

We even had some speculation in this space last week about that particular question. I would tend to agree with Ryan’s assessment in its current state. Right now, every player is a paid player and the game opens pretty much everything to you. Going free to play or buy to play would deliver an incomplete game for anyone not subbing, as well as lead to resources being spent elsewhere. If the numbers are as high as reported, or even a more modest half a million, that’s millions of dollars in assured income right now. Cash shop only games are considered successful if only 10% of their players spend money at any given time. Tiered models like that of SWTOR would, at this time, almost certainly result in some sort of drop  right now, because time spent breaking the game and gating it to monetize certain elements would require money spent, and then a drop in subscriptions means going from 100% of players are paid and being able to count on a certain amount for at least a month ahead, more irregular numbers. While going buy to play helped save The Secret World, if you buy just the box you’re getting an incomplete experience.

This is relevant in the six month discussion to me because we’re looking where the game has been, where it is now, and where it’s going, and the payment model discussion just isn’t going away. Personally, I was a little skeptical about the overhauls coming for phasing, builds, Provisioning, and Enchanting and didn’t expect to see them roll out so quickly. Sure, there are still some cynics, some with talking points that haven’t been relevant since the weeks after launch. And that’s not counting those who simply dislike the game as it is.  Hey, not every game works for every player. But heading into its sixth month, some might complain it feels like the PC release is an extended beta test for the upcoming console versions, but others can focus on the variety of changes, good and bad, as well as promises actively being kept. Those are good signs, and if the population counts are anywhere near rumored figures, probably speaks well of continued confidence and more kept promises.

Christina Gonzalez / Christina is a freelancer and contributor to MMORPG.com, where she writes the community-focused Social Hub column.
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