The Elder Scrolls Online and Massively Multiplayer Gaming.

So I've been playing this game fairly regularly for more than a year, and I'm a bit of a veteran of the genre as a whole. I picked up my first Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (an abysmal name henceforth shortened to 'MMO') sometime in 1999 and have had at least one such game in some semblance of regular play ever since. That's somewhere in the region of sixteen years, if you're wondering, though I can't give you to-the-month accuracy.

I also think this is something of a waning genre, in spite of total player numbers globally being higher than ever before. The genre is tired, lacks any real innovation and endlessly copies itself. What we currently think of as an MMO probably won't see another decade, except for those few hangers on still popular enough to keep the lights on and those handfull of games that already stand out as unique. That's my claim chowder, but in my analysis of Elder Scrolls Online (henceforth 'ESO') I can give you some reasons for that and perhaps convince you that this inevitable decline is destined to lead to better things. Consider this part review, part retrospective and part commentary on this particular sector of the gaming market.

This isn't all about the genre or the industry, however. This is a critique of a game that capitalises on one of my favourite gaming franchises. I have logged some 500-plus hours on its immediate precursor, Skyrim, which is easily one of my favourite games of all time, and which, together with its most recent prequels Oblivion and Morrowind (there are earlier games also, but these three are the most relevant), form the basis for some of my opinions. It's also going to be important to establish some of the comventions and constraints in MMO design. While I am not a professional game designer, I do have some experience to draw on. Keep this in mind as we proceed.

The Elder Scrolls

The Elder Scrolls series of games each begin with your formless character as a prisoner, and as the introductory dialog and cinematics progress, you're directed to build your character from a selection of fantasy races which parallel their familiar Tolkien-esque archetypes, for the most part, but are divergent enough to feel unique. You're given a lot of control over your character's appearance, and in the titles prior to Skyrim you were also directed to make choices that would affect your character's mechanical performance. Once you made it through character design and the game's prelude you were dropped into the world with a suggestion of where to go next, but absolutely no requirement to do so.

This is probably the factor that enthralled the majority of Elder Scrolls fans. From this point you could follow the nudge you'd been given, which would eventually lead to playing your role in saving the world. Alternatively, you could turn left and keep walking until you found something interesting to look at (or big and ugly enough to tear you into gobbets). The games are vast. They're populated with actors and dungeons and landmarks to explore. There are quests that will lead you around some of them but you're equally entitled to idly explore until you've exhausted them all. Every conceivable activity that the game world offers beyond the introduction is optional. It's a very elegant way to give complete agency to the player on the understanding that most will go on to experience the content organically from that point. Others will entertain themselves literally for weeks purposely avoiding it. Both approaches are rewarded.

From Morrowind onwards game development tools have been made available to the player community for the purpose of modding the game, either to change the dynamics and mechanical systems, or to add new content. It also grants invaluable insight into the game design philosophy: the games have a set of rules by which the world itself operates (things such as gravity, hit points, etc) which you might expect, but beyond this every agent that the player can interact with is self-contained with its own defined set of unique behaviours and triggers. A quest that involves speaking to a sequence of townsfolk operates by the completion of one dialog setting the trigger that the next townsperson's behaviours are looking for. It's possible to define an almost infinitely complex set of behaviours this way.

It means that you can murder a townsperson weeks before discovering that they were essential to progressing the storyline you were following. It also means that a great deal of the game content is organically discoverable, and your actions can lead to triggers which activate behaviours that you might not realise are related, or that might exclude one set of behaviours that you would need to experience on another character that makes different choices.

Having some understanding of the game's construction illuminates how some of the game's broad gameplay paradigms operate. I'm going to focus on the two most prominent: questing or narrative progression, and exploration.

Questing and Narrative Progression

There are two clear categories of quest in Elder Scrolls games: those that form a chain and are based on a narrative sequence of events and incidental quests (often called side-quests). When you exit the introductory phase of the game you have a single quest in your journal. That is the first step in the quest that progresses the game's primary narrative and inevitably leads to you saving the world (or dying trying). There are numerous sources of such quest lines and they are each essentially exclusive of each other. Notably, the origins of some of these quest lines are repeated in each game; the Thieves' Guild and the Dark Brotherhood recur in each title, with a new story for the player to participate in. They all build to a climactic end that sees the player rise to a position of authority within the organisation and achieve some grand scheme or avert some great disaster.

Incidental quests are more mundane. Completing them often rewards you with gold or items. Sometimes it changes the way that the population in an area behave towards your character (the triggers I mentioned before).

Exploration

Exploration is fairly self explanatory in that you traverse the landscape until you find something of interest. The thing that I love about this type of gameplay is that your motivation is never handed to you. There's no actor selling you a tale of woe and promising a reward. You can be a monster hunter, or a treasure hunter, or a seeker of ancient knowledge. Exploration isn't entirely about physical locations, much of the game's storyline details can only be truly filled out by finding things that you are never prompted to look for. The items held on a long-dead corpse or the note on the politician's dresser. Books full of lore (and the game contains dosens of novels worth of text accessible only by reading books) that were originally included in prequels can be relevant to events occuring in the storyline that you're experiencing. It says a lot about the game that you are never actively directed to find much of the tale it is telling.

Exploration allows the game to reward you for taking the time to experience the world. There's more here than just monsters to slay for experience and treasure to carry away for profit.

Game Design

The majority of western gamers are probably familiar with World of Warcraft; probably the most successful game of its generation in the MMO camp. It wasn't the first of its kind--in fact it offered nothing truly new--but it was a distillation of the genre's best features, which it has continued to expand upon. World of Warcraft not only serves as a benchmark for MMOs that have followed it, but its success has also cursed them with the compulsion to emulate it and capture the attention of its ten-and-up million fans in the Americas and Europe. I could give you an entire list of titles for which the design brief must have been "Make it like Warcraft!"

We can't just blame Warcraft's popularity however.

There are some realities of MMO design that push games in that direction even without World of Warcraft's shining example, not least of which is the need to keep players playing. MMOs are almost unique in the requirement that players need to remain engaged day-to-day for periods of months and, ideally, years. All monetisation systems from subscriptions to microtransactions are reliant on the long-term participation of the playerbase.

Other games you can play through in 30 hours or less and you've seen the meat of the gameplay and storyline. You paid your £30, you got your £30 worth (hopefully). An MMO needs to you make regular smaller investments for a far, far longer period. It's not enough for you to play for 10 hours over a couple of evenings and then walk away for a month any more than it's enough for you to watch 10 minutes of a movie one night a week. Maintaining the attention of fickle gamers is an art form, and one not to be underestimated.

MMOs have to be inexhaustible. They have to give you a reason to log in every night when you could do something else instead. The actual content of a game is finite, and quality content can only be produced at a certain rate that will always, always be outstripped by the player's capacity to consume it. MMOs therefore turn to two basic principles:

  1. Personal progression and character development
  2. Repetition

Experience, levelling up, new magical items, bigger space ships, better guns, skill points — there are an enormous number of ways to provide continued character development. Each of these relies on repeating a subset of the game content to build up whichever resource is required to advance. When this is done well player will come back week after week excited to repeat whatever challenge they have been working on for their point of progression. When it's done badly players go back to World of Warcraft.

ESO is a marriage of these two gaming styles. It's an Elder Scrolls game that is forced to make consessions to the needs of an MMO. That is the perspective from which I'm going to examine the successes and failures of its game design.

Freedom and Exploration

My own favourite aspect of the Elder Scrolls series of games has been the ability to create emergent gameplay through exploration. I say 'emergent' because while much of the content is static or scripted you aren't lead to it, necessarily, and so the developing narrative of your game is unique, and may not even include the discoveries and experiences of the next player. Where there are experiences in common their context is more or less guaranteed to be novel. In this sense the freedom to explore makes the game somewhat more organic, and allows the relatively simple mechanics of the underlying game logic to produce a far more compelling experience than the sequential, entirely plot-driven style of contemporary role playing games.

The Elder Scrolls games capitalise on exploration gameplay by providing the player with a huge open world, the equivalent of many miles across, tens of square miles in total simply in terms of the overland map. There are towns and natural landmarks, towers and ruins, hidden groves and (of course) dungeons. The game will direct you to some of them if you opt to follow the larger narrative quest lines but each of those locations is independently discoverable and can be investigated at a whim.

Elder Scrolls Online captures some of this exploration gameplay, but in making consessions to common MMO paradigms also sacrifices much to more formulaic gameplay, intended to advance the player through content. The open world is gone and replaced with large but seperate districts isolated by loading screens as the player is transported between them. This may be in part a technical requirement, allowing player demands on the server hardware to be better balanced but it also facilitates something known as the Theme Park Model. Each district is designed to be progressed through in sequence; the challenges in each zone getting progressively tougher in line with the player's advancement in power. It's similar to touring the themed zones in an amusement park one by one. The metaphor is even more granular: within each zone is a route along which you are lead to location after location intended to ensure you are directed to all the content in the zone.

Each zone is filled with landmarks where a number of quests can be found and pursued in the vicinity. These hubs are sequenced by additional quests that you recieve when the hub you are at is exhausted, which direct you to the next hub. In addition, there are a predictable number of landmarks in each zone that grant character upgrades, and the player is not lead to these. There is also a predictable number of discoverable dungeons. The predictability and hand-holding do not lend themselves to discovery. There are few or no quests available that are not telegraphed by an obvious landmark, or that you aren't lead directly to. Each zone becomes a grid of locations that you work your way across methodically until you have exhausted them (and in the process the zone's primary narrative). While the gamification of landmarks and dungeons as collectible (they also grant achievements) does support limited exploration gameplay, for the most part the freedom of wandering towards the horizon is replaced with the chore of running to the next quest hub. Exploration is an impediment to efficient progress and not its own rewarding adventure. I'm not sure there's an easy way to resolve the loss of explorative freedom without a fundamentally different approach to the rest of the fantasy MMO genre, so it cannot be said that Zenimax have simply not been adventurous with their gameplay style.

To rub a little salt into the wounds the zones are not sufficiently large to avoid other players for more than a few moments, so there is no persistent sense of isolation or solitude which often provides needed tension in other Elder Scrolls titles. For me, this was the greatest sacrifice made in the design of Elder Scrolls Online, and the one factor that has prevented the game from devouring hundreds of hours of my life in the way that Skyrim was so easily able to do.

Narrative and Questing

Quests are the staple 'to-do' of the RPG genre in general and this has been refined to a science in MMORPGs. There are a handful of basic quest types, such as killing monsters or collecting items. The number of quest types is surprisingly small, there are maybe four or five basic tasks (I'm sure there are probably research papers out there about this — but it's a discussion for another time) and they are differentiated by the obfuscations of context and storyline. Obviously performing the same handful of tasks over and over will rapidly bore most people and so it's a testament to writers and designers when we are able to engage in such repetitive behaviour without really noticing too much. The more well integrated into a narrative these tasks are the less likely we are to see through the set dressing and realise the banal mechanical reality. Consistent quality is the king of great RPG design but it's also expensive, and seemingly the first thing to be sacrificed as deadlines loom.

Quests are the primary reward mechanism for most RPGs. You fulfill your task and upon completion are granted wealth, possessions and advancement in whichever form is appropriate for the game. Most players will be familiar with gold, magical items and experience points.

Quests are where I feel Elder Scrolls Online really makes its mark on an overcrowded and tired MMORPG landscape. ESOs quests are all voice-acted (and reasonably well), and maintain a consistent and generally above-average quality in terms of writing. Fully voice acted games of this size are relatively new, but have been part of the series since Oblivion (2006). Artwork has traditionally been the largest component of any video game and now audio is similarly demanding on disc space — and for an online game it's only recently that average internet speeds have been sufficient to support that kind of download requirement. Voice acting dramatically improves the sense of immersion in the world. Quests are generally relevant to their immediate setting, and tie together zone by zone to build a layered narrative full of interesting small details for the observant. Each zone has its own storyline with plot twists and interesting characters. Each storyline culminates in an epic confrontation that adds a satisfying crescendo to the cadence of the game's progression. You're made to feel heroic without the writers falling back to a cast of sycophantic support characters that serve to remind you of how important you are. Your actions really lead your sense of achievement — you don't need to be told.

While I have always found the grinding, methodical and exhaustive nature of the Theme Park Model to be a chore elsewhere, in ESO I enjoyed playing through all of the game's quest content. It may be the first game where I haven't skipped quests out of boredom--and there is an awful lot of quest content in this game.

Character Development

For me, the hook of MMO games has always been the sense of identification and improvement you get from building a unique character and watching them develop as you discover their story through the choices you make. Some of this is artificial in the sense that every character will have broadly the same experiences in a Theme Park MMO (which compounds the loss of exploration gameplay), but this is offset by the inclusion of other players. Every challenge faced alongside other players is a unique experience and while many are fairly mundane some have literally stuck with me for years after I stopped playing the game responsible for the memories.

The Elder Scrolls games have always offered exceptional freedom in the creation of your character, from the construction of their physical appearance to the equipment you choose to use and the magic you choose (or not) to practice. Characters then grow in abilities and resources as you invest your time in them. They occupy a space somewhere between being an extension of your own psyche, a persona through which you have real interpersonal interactions, a mechanical avatar through which you learn and resolve challenges, and a doll that you dress up and customise to express your sense of style and self. The more you invest the more rewarding they become.

The only aspect in which ESO falls short of other games in the series is in freedom to learn and practice different abilities. Where other Elder Scrolls games give you complete freedom of playstyle and all characters have equal access to all abilities, ESO requires that you choose a character class. There are four which broadly translate to the warrior, mage, rogue and healer tropes of other games, each with a set of signature abilities. However, the majority of the abilities the game offers are available to all characters, and although you might expect that each class fulfils a specific party role, this isn't actually the case. You can fulfill any role in the typical RPG adventuring group, with each class bringing its own unique spin to the job. A Nightblade (the rogue-like class) actually makes an adept healer, employing vampire-like health draining abilities to support their party. Of course, they also excel at sneaky, back-stabbing gameplay.

The real issue that I have with the game's implementation of a class system is that it doesn't feel at all like an Elder Scrolls approach. Freedom of character development is one of the most prominent features of the series and being locked out of three sets of character abilities really does run contrary to this. It is offset by the breadth of options available, but it doesn't feel right. It's also possible to choose combinations of abilities that aren't terribly effective, inadvertently making the game more difficult for yourself. The internet hosts many community resources that offer advice on this matter but you have to want to look for it first.

In terms of being able to physically craft your character's appearance, the game truly excels. The granular control over body and facial meshes is possibly even better than other games in the series. You even get to choose from a series of voices so that your character's laughter, howls of pain and grunts of excertion all fit the individual you are creating. Each of the fantasy races from the earlier games is available, but may be restricted by your choices of faction and the version of the game you purchased (in the case of Imperial humans).

Beyond the appearance of your character, the game offers further customization. The range of equipment styles available, especially later in the game, is vast. Each of the game's prominent cultures has its own distinctive style, available to everyone, and there are a number of other styles which increase periodically as new content is added. Equipment can be crafted or looted from the corpses of your foes, and using some of the rarer or less popular motifs can really make a character stand out from the crowds in the game's busy cities. There are also a number of distinctive mounts and vanity pets that you can collect and use/display — something popularized significantly by World of Warcraft over the course of the last decade.

I have a second issue with how character development works in ESO, pertaining specifically to 'end-game' content (that is, the generally repeatable content designed to challenge and entertain players that have reached the maximum level). Another crutch of the Theme Park Model is an advancing level cap. Your character's level, a numerical basis for your character's power in comparison to the game's challenges, is central to the game's mechanics. The higher your level, the stronger you are, and there is a finite limit to the level you can achieve. All of the great loot you gather from the most challenging game content is tied to your level, and so when newer end-game content is added the level cap is increased. This has the effect of wiping out the things you've worked for; the hard-earned items are no longer competitive once you advance to the new maximum level.

This does provide a motivation to repeat the process and gain the latest, greatest, new stuff, but it's also a somewhat cynical and lazy trick. Character advancement benefits more from a continuing expansion of options, a broadening of ways to customise and build your avatar. Instead, the easy approach is to simply nuke and pave over what was with what's new. ESO has suffered from this somewhat, but with only minor content expansions (and level cap increases) to date there is still the opportunity to buck this trend.

The Future

The Elder Scrolls Online does not bring anything truly new to the MMO gaming landscape, which at something approaching twenty years old (even older if you want to count early multiplayer text-based games) has had an awfully long time to mature. I love it, partly because of my attachment to the whole series of games but also because it — mostly — successfully merges great RPG gameplay with an immersive multiplayer experience. There's much more to the game than I've addressed here, I've picked the points that are prominent to me.

It isn't the first game in the last few years to be launched to these kinds of criticisms. There's quite a list, with each one copying the more successful games that preceeded it and almost all being compared to the elephant in the room that is World of Warcraft. The people investing in game development are risk averse, and the formula is successful but it's tired. We can't keep playing the same game with a different skin forever. While I'm enjoying ESO, and could be playing it for years yet, I'd dearly like for it to be the last of its kind. It isn't going to be, and I can think of a couple of games making all the same mistakes that are currently in development.

The market for fantasy MMOs is a busy one that offers players a lot of superficial choice and fosters little loyalty. Games differentiate primarily by theme, flavour, and artwork — it's very shallow. However very few of the games available have the consistent quality, especially in writing, that ESO has to offer. It's rare that a game can keep my attention for 18 hours these days, never mind 18 months. The game seems to have a healthy development roadmap and I'm hoping that I am still able to recommend the game this time next year. It's the game that replaces ESO for me that I am hoping will be different; that will have cast aside the safe old formula and found something new to offer that doesn't rely on the same time-sinks.

Some of the things I love about Elder Scrolls Online have been the same things that drove away other fans of the Elder Scrolls series. I'm unable to say which experience is most typical, but I'm happy that the hype and excitement that built up to its release more or less panned out for me. I have done less and less gaming year on year for some years now, and having something that I can reliably pick up and enjoy is important to me.

This isn't some doom and gloom prediction though; in all things endings empower change. This is as true from commerce and industries as it is for biological life. It's not as if the players will vanish; when the NES got long in the tooth Nintendo moved on to new things, better things with broader possibilities. We're still holding on to gameplay that came to prominence before iPhones, before Occulus Rifts, and before ubiquitous high-speed internet (I played my first MMO on 56k dial up). The environment in which gaming exists has evolved but it feels to me as though games broadly speaking have held on to what's safe due to simple risk aversion. I'm hoping that the online experiences, the epic battles, and the exploration of some of the most imaginitive worlds ever written that I've been able to share with close friends (many that I've never met) will leap to catch up. I think they have to.