An Elder Scrolls console MMORPG? Matt Firor, executive producer of ZeniMax, seemed convinced it could work during a recent chat with him, and despite my lingering concerns with other aspects of ESO, I’m prepared to believe him. I’m aware that I may be in the minority. When the news broke during E3 that ESO would be coming to both the PS4 and Xbox One along with the PC, many onlookers reacted as if the Oblivion crisis were at hand. Either a console transition would sacrifice some vague notion of complexity, it was believed, or it would fall flat on its face in the absence of “essential” PC elements such as modding capabilities. I beg to differ. ZeniMax has an ace up its sleeve: if it stays true to the series’ roots, it has a better chance of success than all console MMO efforts that have come before it.
I’d be a fool if I didn’t think some concern was justified. After all, console MMORPGs have consistently failed despite numerous attempts to give them legitimacy. Heck, most of them have never even made it to store shelves on the Xbox 360 in particular. Not only are they subject to the lifespans of console generations, but they’re usually designed with the ability-bloated templates of EverQuest and World of Warcraft in mind. That just doesn’t work with consoles. Elder Scrolls Online was designed differently, however, and Firor claims it was a happy accident of the process. “We were committed to an Elder Scrolls MMO long before we made the decision to go to console, so even on the PC, players have a very minimal interface and a small button bar,” he said. “By doing this early in the project, it makes designing for a gamepad much easier.”
But if Elder Scrolls Online has an undeniable advantage over the pile of failed console MMORPGs of years past, it’s that the Elder Scrolls series itself already has a strong console heritage stretching all the way back to Morrowind in 2002. That’s how I’ve personally experienced the series since Oblivion, partly out of a need to play new content as it appeared, and I haven’t really regretted it despite the absence of the PC community’s many brilliant mods. Quite the contrary; I found a visceral satisfaction in using triggers to swing weapons and draw bows on a gamepad that I never found on keyboards, and I like the immersion of not being able to run to the command console every time a quest didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to. And so it goes with Elder Scrolls Online.
Which brings us to the combat. Put lightly, the Elder Scrolls series has never been known for intense or visually interesting combat,but there’s a gritty realism about its simple slashes that’s well suited to gamepad-driven gameplay. The first time I played, I remember how much it “felt” like Elder Scrolls in this regard — the use of left and right mouse buttons to block and attack, the optional near-absence of a UI — and I recall wanting to hook a gamepad up so I could see how well it performed. That feeling extended to the progression of the combat, which is limited to a mere six button slots on both PC and consoles. As Firor explained, “As you use abilities (class, weapon, guild, other), they get better, and eventually you can morph them into more powerful versions of the base ability,” he said. “There’s plenty of choice — and remember, your base attack, heavy attack, and block abilities are performed with the mouse buttons or gamepad, not with the ability bar.” Standard Elder Scrolls gameplay, then — familiar to both PC and console players.
And therein lies a possible key to the Elder Scrolls’ future success: In Firor’s words, “we’re an Elder Scrolls game, first and foremost, and if we deliver the Elder Scrolls experience that gamers are looking for, we’ll be fine.” That means we’re not looking at something so drastic as pulling characters from a real-time strategy game and dumping them into an MMO (as in Warcraft), but rather an attempt to make “Skyrim with friends.”
“We definitely wanted to make the game very accessible to Elder Scrolls (RPG) players, and make sure that ESO doesn’t hit you with too much jargon, interface, or options in the beginning,” Firor continued. “Experienced MMO players will find most of the gameplay they are used to, but it is definitely filtered through an Elder Scrolls-type interface and experience. And yes, the more that the game feels like Elder Scrolls, the better we’ve reached our goal.” So long as ZeniMax keeps that simple and lofty goal in mind, the concept has tremendous potential; indeed, it might be doing itself a disservice by marketing itself as an MMORPG. It helps, too, that ESO takes up the current drive toward single-player play in MMORPGs with zeal, leaving most quests outside of instances perfectly soloable.
But let’s be honest. There’s not much point in playing an MMORPG if you’re going to go it alone; much of the appeal of the genre lies in the way it lets you tackle a challenge with a group of other people, and with better results than what you find in most office meetings. This will be the biggest hurdle for ZeniMax, particularly since grouping in console MMORPGs involves unwieldy alternations between gamepads and keyboards or (at worst) enduring immersion-breaking epithets in voice chat. Firor himself admits that ZeniMax is still searching for a solution. “We’re in the middle of designing these [social] systems now,” he said. “We’ll have much more detail on them in the coming months.”
It’s the other systems that worry me. Player levels and the associated lack of a reason to return to starter zones, ESO’s overreliance on instanced zones, and a general feeling of crampedness — all these aspects clash with the signature open-world Elder Scrolls experience. Even now, 250 hours into my Skyrim playthrough, I still enjoy questing and fighting around the humble river town my character first saw at level 2, and I want to find that feeling in ESO. Other RPGs might have legitimate claims to better combat or storylines, but few if any succeed so well in creating the sense of traveling through a living world. That, I believe, is what we all want to see in an Elder Scrolls MMORPG, and that’s what ZeniMax really needs to deliver. As for gamepad integration? Eh, don’t worry about it. The Elder Scrolls has had that down for years.