Elder Scrolls Online
Since we are drawing close to the end of the year, I feel like it is probably time to start making sweeping posts to summarize my feelings about the year. The one today is a bit of a touchy one for me, but I feel like I still need to make it. Mostly I feel like by posting the “bad” one first it will be like ripping off a band aid and I can end the year on a more positive note. As such lets get on with the ripping and talk about my biggest disappointment of the year. For that dubious honor we have to give it to Elder Scrolls Online, and during the rest of this post I intend to explain myself a bit more. I feel like in part this is a case of extremely high expectations that were impossible to meet. When I first heard about this game, it was the end of an extremely long session of subterfuge where my friend who was in fact working on the game refused to give us any information about what he was actually working on. He kept us in the dark until the official announcement, but given we knew who he worked for… and the fact that it seemed like it was a fantasy based game he was working on… many of us had put two and two together and gotten four.
When the friends and family alpha started, I was lucky enough to be in that first wave. From tell of the community team I was among the top 1% of bug note reporters, and I never stopped doing it. I took it up like a mantle to try and help Zenimax create the best game possible. The problem is the direction of the game kept veering into a place I thought was going to be bad for the game. We gave copious amounts of feedback on the forum, most of which seemed to be unheeded. The early UI was a glorious thing, that felt just about perfect. It let me set up the game work the way I wanted it to, and could see all the players swarming around me. The problem is things took a turn towards deep minimalism that never quite worked. Even in alpha the game developed this “alone in a crowd” feel that never quite was remedied. By the time the game was launched I had been playing it for roughly a year at that point, and retread the early content more times than I can count through constant character resets.
What Went Wrong
I feel the games Achilles heel is that it became entirely too hard to group with your friends. For starters because of the super minimalistic user interface it was impossible to identify the people you knew when they were roaming around the world with you. You could of course form a group, but the group size was rather limited to only four players. I have way more than four friends that I wanted to be able to keep tabs on in the world around me. The Mega Server was a triumph of stability but it also destroyed the quaint familiarity that a server infrastructure has. On a traditional server when you go to the blacksmithing trainer… you see the same people there day in and day out. After awhile you end up striking up a conversation with someone sharing the forge… because after all you are doing the same thing over and over. This sort of interaction was completely absent. Every person in the world is a nameless faceless entity, and as such the only ties you really make are through public chat channels or the folks you brought into the game with you.
Functionally it became extremely difficult to group with people at all since there was a very tight range in which you could gain experience together. I believe it was something like a four level difference meant you were just running it and not going to get any benefit from it. This meant that unless you were leveling in a strict duo that was not going to play other than as a pair… it became nearly impossible to try and stay in sync with other players. We mentioned this numerous times during the testing process, that the game was badly in need of a mentoring system. It seemed since they had the tech to “bolster” players to 50 for the purpose of pvp content, that surely they could do the reverse and make it work for dungeons. So far the best game I have played that does this is FFXIV in that it auto lowers your level to that of the dungeon when you zone in. Content remains evergreen, and this game was definitely in need of something like this because it had really great group content… that was completely inaccessible because getting in that level sweet spot was difficult.
Alone in a Crowd
The biggest problem that we personally had was the fact that we had folks of all level ranges wanting to do content together. That meant that our only option at all was to go out into Cyrodil. The problem with this is that most of us wanted to play this game because of its amazing PVE storyline… but Cyrodil became the consolation prize that I simply got tired of opening. I am not a PVP player in my heart, and while there is plenty to do out there that does not involve PVP… it is not that engaging. The big problem is that we would bring 20+ people out into Cyrodil with on or maybe two of us actually being veteran rank players. When we encountered actual PVP… a single VR2 player could easily take down 20 folks faux leveled up to 50. The veteran levels just made too much of a disparity between survival of the level 50 folks and the non 50 folks making it sheer futility to do anything out in Cyrodil other than Skyshard farming…. and there really is a finite amount of that you can do.
The answer to the enigma of the game seemed to be to rush through the PVE content solo, because it was nearly impossible to try and actually do on level content with your friends. Then maybe just maybe at level 50 you could actually participate in content together again… but only then if you did all of the content for your faction and manages to “beat” the game allowing you to progress into the Veteran ranks. This was too long range of an outlook for most of the people we brought into the game. At launch House Stalwart had over 100 players of different play styles and differing amounts of play time. The one constant was that the majority of us were social gamers… knowing each other from existing guilds or social media. We wanted to group up and experience content together, and this was just something we could not do. Within a month our numbers had dwindled down to about 20… and by the time Wildstar launched the guild was almost completely empty.
What Went Right
This game is a pinnacle for me of quest content. The story is amazing and they managed to make it feel exactly like playing an Elder Scrolls Game for me. I felt like I was in the same settings that I have known and loved over the years. In testing I got to experience all of the starter zones, and each of them had a unique feel but at the same time felt like you were very much in Tamriel. There was a loving attention to detail that you just don’t see in most games. There are still several quests that I will remember and hold up against any quest content out there. I loved the “single player” experience of the game and I managed to get through all of the Daggerfall campaign and part of the way through the Aldmeri Dominion. All of it made me want to keep playing, and were it not for the launch of Wildstar I probably would have kept playing it. The problem was that I just didn’t feel like I had anyone to play with.. and it became increasingly harder to justify a subscription fee for what was in essence a single player game to me.
In spite of me declaring that Elder Scrolls Online was my biggest disappointment of the year… I still feel like I parted with this game on good terms. The disappointment comes from the fact that I had really hoped this game would be the new permanent home for me, when I have so desperately wanted a game that I would want to play for more than a few months at a time. I have longed for the next “WoW” not in terms of feature set, but in terms of gravity and ability to keep players stuck in its orbit. Elder Scrolls Online sadly was not that game, and likely never will be. That said I absolutely intend on playing it again when it comes out on the console and transferring my characters over to it. This game from the start felt like a game that would be better served with a controller, and I look forward to being able to play it remotely through my Vita on my PS4. I will always have love in my heart for this game… I just stopped wanting to play it. I felt like I beat the game, and will return again when there are new experiences to be had.