Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Quest for Meaningful World PvP, Part III - World PvP as a Driver for Complex Storytelling

In the first post of this series I outlined a basic typology of PvP, differentiating between simple PvP, ladder/tournament PvP and world PvP. In the second I argued that asymmetry is a fundamental aspect of world PvP, and posited some reasons as to why rational, self-interested players are willing to tolerate these imbalances and play these types of games. This third post will attempt to examine modes of storytelling found within MMOs. I will argue that meaningful world PvP - defined as PvP encounters in a persistent world which allow players to shape the landscape of the virtual world itself – can be an excellent driver of complex, organic and emergent storytelling.

In my mind storytelling is divided into three basic archetypes:

i) Linear
ii) Branching
iii) Complex

Linear storytelling is the classic narrative, utilising a beginning, middle and end, and can be used to describe traditional forms of media such as books, TV shows and movies. Branching storytelling describes narratives which have divergent paths and alternative endings, and is commonly used in single-player games to great effect. Complex storytelling are narratives derived from the interplay of independent factors, and can be used to describe stories which emerge from classical pen and paper role-playing games, dramatic improvisation and player interactions within MMOs. The most important distinction between these three rudimentary types is that while linear and branching storytelling are derived from a single writer (or team of writers), the writers of complex narratives are the agents within the system itself. History itself is a type of complex narrative, as the story of humanity has no single author, but rather emerges as the product of the vast interplay of independent agents. Linear and branching storytelling is top-down, while complex storytelling is bottom-up.

Linear Storytelling

Linear storytelling is a staple of the RPG genre in both single and multi-player formats. It is characteristic of traditional forms of media such as books, TV and film, and like these formats what differentiates between the good and the bad is the quality of the story being told and how well it is presented. Linear stories can be utilised to good effect as a way of encouraging the player to advance the plot with gameplay. A game with a great story might be able to get away with mediocre gameplay if the player's desire to see how the story unfolds offsets their dissatisfaction with the core mechanics. Linear storytelling in MMOs isn't necessarily bad, but can be criticised on the grounds that it fails to take advantage of the interactivity inherent within gaming.

Branching Storytelling

Branching paths and alternate endings are the second step up in the hierarchy of game design, and contemporary RPGs such as The Witcher, Mass Effect and the Dragon Age series reflect this aesthetic. In subsequent iterations MMOs have created the illusion of impact via the use of phasing, which alters the game world around the player based on the quests they have completed but has no effect at all on the world perceived by other players. This has led to what some commentators derisively call the single player MMO – everyone is a hero, carrying around their own personal delusion of grandeur while in the persistent world the same NPC is asking another player to kill 10 more rats. In TESO, for example, the Prophet who frees you from Coldharbour is a mentor and guide to the player, the same way he is to the tens of thousands of other “Vestiges” working their way through the main quest. During my time in the TESO beta I was given a choice as to which group of NPCs I would assist. I chose one over the other, the others died, and those NPCs subsequently disappeared from my version of the world. I know I am being tricked by phasing slight-of-hand, but essentially this is what happens in branching stories in both the single and multi-player variants – your choices affect the game world you personally experience.

Choose your own adventure books! Ah, the nostalgia.

Fighting Fantasy books combined the branching plots of Choose Your Own Adventure books with roleplaying conventions and random elements (via dice, coin flipping or flipping the pages for a random number.


Complex Storytelling

The biggest criticism of the use of linear and branching types of storytelling within MMOs is that it fails to utilise the key ingredient which differentiates MMOs from single player games – the presence of other players. It can be argued that traditional storytelling is a type of dialogue between the author-designer and the reader-player. The only real agent within the system is the player, and the kinds of stories which emerge from these types of narratives will always be identical, or confined to a small sub-set of possibilities demarcated by the author-designer. If you've played through Deus Ex, Mass Effect or The Witcher I will know the general outline of the story you experienced (albeit changed in minor ways due to the decisions you took in making your way to the end) because the core story remains the same for everyone. Even branching narratives become decoded eventually as players follow the branches to their final destinations and get an overview of the underlying structure beneath. If linear games are supposed to be about completing the game, then branching games become more about achieving the “best” possible ending and/or experiencing the whole spectrum of endings on offer.

A Choose Your Own Adventure text decoded into its underlying structure.

Complex storytelling, on the other hand, could be said to be the narrative of events which occurs when varying actors and agents interact with each other. I use the word complex in the scientific sense of the word, meaning arising from the interaction of comparatively simpler elements. While complex stories can be something as simple as three player characters walking into a bar, it is considered “complex” because it arose from the independent actions of different agents, as opposed to something which is scripted by a singular author-developer. It is a spontaneous and emergent property. Complex stories are player anecdotes, tall stories, reminiscences and pseudo-histories of events which occur within a system. Classic pen and paper role playing games are an example of complex storytelling. The game master (GM) sets the stage, the world and the overarching plot, while the players are characters adventuring in the world presented before them. While the player characters are completely free to follow the narrative trail laid out by the GM, they are also free to wander off it. Good GMs are considered to be those who allow their players the freedom to deviate from the path laid out before them, and in these situations both the player and the GM improvise together to create a new story. Improvisation in drama and theatre can also be considered a type of complex storytelling. In improvisation the actors are given their motivations, goals and settings, and then asked to play out a scene with fellow actors without the script. This type of exercise is useful in drama because deviating from the script often brings out new interpretations which had not been previously considered. As a young undergraduate I dabbled in some really bad student theatre and I always enjoyed standing on an empty stage when no one was around. For me the stage was an empty space rife with infinite possibilities – comedy, tragedy and everything in between could and were made manifest within its boundaries. Similarly I view MMO worlds as a stage for which all sorts of player driven narratives can emerge.

A model of complex adaptive behaviour. This model can also be used to describe the rise of complex stories in MMOs. Substitute "Complex Narratives" for "Complex Adaptive Behaviour", and you have a perfectly adequate model of how stories "emerge" from the interactions of the players. Note too that the types of stories produced by these interactions can have a positive or negative feedback effect on the players, creating a type of causal loop which affects the direction of future emergent narratives. In other words, players create the stories and the stories affect the players which then affects future player-generated stories. Furthermore, the system is not closed but accepts information from outside - i.e. how the game and world is designed, the player's own subjective experiences and tastes - as well as outputting information - i.e. blogs, critical reviews, paradigms of game design. Everything is connected. Whoa. Dude.

As far as I'm concerned the only MMO games which have achieved the status of organic, emergent sandboxes are world PvP games like Darkfall and EVE. EVE has spawned alliances, mega-coalitions, heroes, villains, outcasts, mercenaries, trade cartels, industrialists, universities, and massive, record-breaking wars both in terms of player participation and real life monetary cost – all of which are unscripted, emergent and organic. The biggest MMO battle of all time took place in Fountain in July 2013 in EVE, when over 5000 players from CFC and TEST squared off the space opera version of the charge of the light brigade. EVE also has the record for the most expensive battle in MMO history when the CFC and the Russians teamed up to take on N3 and Pandemic Legion in B-R5RB in January 2014. This battle was estimated to have cost between $300,000 to $500,000 in real terms. CCP did not create any of these features – they evolved organically from the interactions of the players themselves. EVE arguably has the best meta-game out of all MMOs to date. William Arcturus wrote an excellent and tongue-in-cheek account of the state of null-sec politics here, but his account has been dated by recent developments. This short history written by James315 describes the current state of null sec in EVE, and it is a very interesting account which rivals real-life historical narratives. It is made even more remarkable by the fact that it was generated by thousands of player characters interacting with each other through conflict and/or cooperation, and not by any single author or teams of authors.

One of my favourite anecdotes regarding EVE is an incident which occurred 2-3 weeks ago. In a nutshell, RvB (according to Gevlon, a catspaw of the Goons, who are the leaders of the CFC), on their way to capture a structure owned by Gevlon (who has been hiring mercenaries to destroy and capture Goon assets in high sec), were interdicted by a group called No Holes Barred, who offered their allegiance to either side for the price of a song. Gevlon declined on principle (or offered to pay ISK instead and was rebuffed, depending on who you believe), RvB agreed to terms, and after hastily assembling a make-shift choir on voice communications and warbling out “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” across the ether, RvB were allowed to pass. To have this type of encounter occur as part of a script is clever writing. To have it happen organically and spontaneously is a thing of beauty. The anecdote is told by at least three different sources - Gevlon, No Holes Barred and RvB - and the real story of what happened in that event depends on who you believe. That is the part of the charm of complex narratives - there is no canon, there is no lore, there is only human nature and interpretation. Just like real history, the battle for the truth is sometimes bigger than the actual battle itself.

PvE as a Driver of Organic Storytelling

It would seem then that if creating complex narratives are the goal then the job of an author-designer lies not in creating overarching narratives and handing them from above to be experienced in virtually the same manner by everyone who plays the game, but rather in creating the actors in the system as best they can and letting the system itself generate the stories. I alluded to good GMs earlier, and part of what makes a good GM is their willingness to relinquish some of their control over to the player characters. The focus should perhaps be on designing the features of the system which will interact with other elements of the system, with the chief of these being the world itself. Complex stories do not arise ex nihilio – GMs have their campaign notes and setting, while actors have character outlines, motivations and interpretations. Similarly sandbox MMOs require a world to serve not as a passive scenic backdrop to the actions of the players, but as an active agent in it of itself. This requires dynamic NPCs with their own agendas, factions which can grow or be eliminated, meaningful weather, seasonal and day/night cycles, and detail, detail, detail. Syncaine and Wolfshead have penned some models for an MMO PvE sandbox, and they are linked here and here respectively. Both writers advocate the creation of AI elements which actively pursue an individual and factional agenda, rather than sitting around idly day and night in the same spot giving out the same quest to everyone they meet.

"I have been standing in this same spot for almost 10 bloody years, day and night, rain or shine, giving the same crappy quest to every idiot who thinks he's some kind of damned hero. Kill me someone, please. Bring on those griefers. And bollocks to respawning."

The best example I can cite of PvE elements creating organic content is, oddly enough, in a single player game. My attempts to run away from a randomly spawning dragon in Skyrim led me to aggroing a troll, a sabre cat, and ultimately bumping into a patrol of Imperial legionnaires fighting a group of bandits. At this point of the game each of the antagonists found someone or something to fight other than me, and I found myself standing in the middle of a large melee, sword in hand with no enemy to fight. Each of these AI elements have their own pre-determined responses and behavioural patterns, but the addition of the player is variable which can lead to some unforeseen results. Skyrim is not a sandbox – the quests themselves still belong to the linear/branched school of game design – but the ability to choose what order to complete these quests, as well as the independent elements moving within the game bumping and interacting with each other gives it an organic and sandbox feel. The fact that the NPCs had their own day/night schedules, had limited scripts to interact with each other, and moved around dynamically added greatly to the illusion of a living, breathing virtual world. What gave the world weight in Skyrim was the amount of details which first appear extraneous, but actually comprise interactive elements which add further layers to the world. Watching a table adorned by various drinks, foodstuffs and cutlery get scattered during a melee is its own reward, as is the search for that one item that got lost during the scuffle. What other game made you pull away dead bodies and sort through fallen bottles and plates in order to find the quest item you needed? Add to that the player's ability to steal from, murder, and even marry non-essential NPCs, and it is no wonder why this game has been hailed as a triumph of player agency and has gone on to sell over 20 million copies world wide. And while the AI utilised in Skyrim is still quite primitive and predictable, there is no reason why these independent AI elements won't become much more sophisticated in the future, leading to some amazing and unforeseen emergent content.

PvP as a Driver of Organic Storytelling

For someone of my background (I am an unapologetic PvPer), it seems like such an MMO is doing things the hard way. Why go to all the trouble of creating what amounts to being a pale simulacrum of human agency (i.e. NPCs mimicking human behaviour in an MMO) when you can just use the real thing? Limit the amount of resources in a game, and watch the players emulate their own version of world history when they fight and squabble for them. This is exactly what happens in EVE and Darkfall. Meaningful PvP is defined as player combat which has a significant effect upon the persistent world which it inhabits. The degree in which PvP can be considered meaningful is proportional to the effect the player's actions have on the persistent world it is rooted in. In other words, how much the player's actions can shape the world determines how “meaningful” it is. I like “meaningful” world PvP because the simple factor of allowing the players to re-shape the world by their actions creates organic, complex and interesting content. It gives rise to player associations, meta-game politics, strategic considerations and game playing possibilities which are not possible in “balanced” PvP settings. The entire history of humankind is empirical evidence of how conflict drives scientific innovation as well as the development of social, political and economic institutions. Conflict also drives the production of literary content, as is evidenced by the vast tracts of prose, poetry, books, TV and films made about war. Similarly, I believe that meaningful world PvP can create lots of interesting player-driven narratives with the added bonus that no one is actually hurt (except for a few bruised egos here and there) and there are no casualties.

EVE is the gold standard by which all world PvP games must measure themselves against. In EVE players are free to create their own factions and coalitions – they can build their own structures – they continually reshape the map of New Eden with their battles over sovereignty. The world PvP in Darkfall also falls in this category. Open world PvP in WoW, by contrast, is meaningless because regardless of whatever the players do, the world of Azeroth remains largely changeless and immutable. The world PvP in TESO straddles a middle ground between these extremes, as does its antecedent, Dark Age of Camelot (DAOC), by artificially dividing the player base into three factions but nonetheless allowing the factions to shape the persistent world to a greater or lesser degree. As someone who got his PvP legs in the meaningless open world PvP of WoW, the PvP system on offer in TESO is a real breath of fresh air. Cyrodiil is instanced, yes. But if the word instanced brings up images of dungeons, raids and battle grounds then the word does not do Cyrodiil justice. Cyrodiil is instanced in the same way whole servers in Dark Age of Camelot are instanced. Cyrodiil is instanced in the same way that the realm versus realm in Guild Wars 2 is instanced. Cyrodiil is an instance, but it is a massive, and more importantly, a persistent instance, rife with possibilities. It is a canvas upon which player action on a large scale shapes the landscape of the world. Keeps can be captured by siege actions, Elder Scrolls stolen, bridges held, ambushes sprung and skirmishes aplenty fought on the peripheries of the major battles. It is a place where meaningful open world PvP can happen, and stories can be made, experienced and told.

Bottom-Up Storytelling Encourages Community

If complex stories are derived from the interaction of players and the world, then it follows that the players bear some responsibility for the narrative content of the world. The complex approach requires the player to engage the world (and other players) to some degree in order to create the interaction which produces the events that become the stories. If you are a passive type of person then perhaps such narratives will not be to your tastes, and you are better served by staying with more traditional modes of storytelling. People who like linear/branching narratives belong to the school of “tell me a story”, while people who like complex narratives subscribe to the maxim of “I want to be part of a story”. Complex narratives can be as varied in quality as linear/branching ones, and as a matter of fact they are usually banal, repetitive and depressingly predictable. The appeal of the sandbox lies in the potential, and the modicum of agency retained by the player in shaping these narratives. The most hypocritical approach I have found is embodied in players who laud the concepts of “sandbox” and “emergent content” but are unwilling to make the effort to network, socialise or otherwise interact with the people found within MMOs. If you want to be the centre of the story then these types of stories are not for you. None of these formats are inherently better than each other, and the format you like all comes down to personal preference. However, massive multi-player games are well-suited to take advantage of the complex mode of storytelling, and it seems like a waste to continue using formats which are better utilised in more traditional forms of media. This is not to say that linear/branching stories can't be done well in MMOs, or that complex storytelling is guaranteed to produce memorable content. It's all about selecting the right tool for the job, and the MMO format is an amazing tool for creating player-generated stories.

In the upcoming TESO game I will chronicle the fortunes of the Cyrodiil campaign I find myself in, regardless of whether my faction dominates or is dominated. I'm a big fan of historical narratives and emergent game play – TESO will allow me to indulge in both by giving me the chance to write pseudo-history while simultaneously taking part in it. One of my goals is to create a fictional documentary of the civil war in TESO along the same lines as Ken Burn's classic series on the American Civil War, complete with maps of the battles, the names of the major players and guilds, mock testimonials and the history of the player-Emperors during the Interregnum. I was a role-player back in the day, and I'm looking forward to immersing myself in the coming civil war with my friends and family. I have made the resolution that I will not consult any out of game guides for the duration of the first campaign of the game (the first three months). TESO will only be new once, and I'd hate to ruin it in a frenzied orgy of min-maxing. The first three months will give me enough time to get a feel for the lay of the land, the geography of Cyrodiil as well as the major players and guilds on my faction and my enemies. It's not WoW PvP, where all you need are your team mates, and the rest of the community is just competition. It's good old-fashioned factional PvP where numbers can tip the tide of battle, the people in your faction count, and social cohesion is an advantage. I haven't decided what faction I will be playing yet, since we're going to put it to a vote in a week or two (I'm going to be an Imperial) but I look forward to having a reason to get to know the people on my side, becoming part of a community again, and swapping some war stories.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Letters from Tamriel, Part I - Prophets, Prognosticators and Party-Poopers

Opinions and Predictions

The release of TESO is nigh, and I thought that this might be a good time to collate some of the vast and wildly varying opinions about the game under one roof. I intend this post to be a time capsule of sorts, so that in a year's time I can look back and see who the most prescient and far-sighted writers were, and who were just flat-out wrong. There are many claims of looming epic failure – chief amongst them the article written by Paul Fuckface in Forbes, in which he grandiosely claims that TESO will be the “biggest video game disaster of 2014” - but I wish to keep this civil, and refrain from stooping to personal insults and childish name calling to get my point across. I'm an unapologetic TESO fan boy, but I firmly believe that this has not diluted my objectivity by one iota, as it patently clear to all who have eyes that TESO IS THE GREATEST GAME OF ALL TIME. Everything I have seen and read tells me that this is a game I will like, so obviously on a personal level the game has already been a success. As for everyone else – well, take a look.

Quick disclaimer - all opinions and predictions have been pulled from blogs, websites or on comments on blogs, and have been linked to their source, as well as the author's blog. All errors, misrepresentations and out-of-context readings are my sole responsibility. For a better and more considered presentation of each author's perspective I urge the reader to follow the links to their site, and not take anything that is expressed on this post at face value.

Screenshot by Araxes over at the Rat Warlock.




Name

Blog/Website

Opinions

Decisions/Predictions

Source
Andrew Ross
Massively website
This is the very feature that is perplexing me about The Elder Scrolls Online: Multiplayer at this early stage seems irrelevant.

...the few choice I've made (when given an option) didn't seem to change anything, in contrast to my experience with SWTOR's conversation trees and dice roll-offs that created reasons to repeat quests, both alone and in groups.
Like many people, I fully expect the game to go either free-to-play or buy-to-play eventually, and I've felt that "founder burn" from other single-player-with-multiplayer-options RPG before. The question of how much the game will be worth after a conversion is too strong in my mind to ignore. I just don't think the value is there right now for an MMO player like me, and I don't see an easy fix, with or without PvP. Website 14 Feb 2014
Araxes
The Rat Warlock
TESO is a gorgeous, gorgeous game. It’s undoubtedly the most beautiful MMO I’ve played to date, and it rivals many single-player games, as well. The visuals are as good as anything in Skyrim. In some cases, better.


It's not out to break the mold and it’s not going to redefine anything in the genre, but it’s a lot of fun. If you enjoy a good, solid MMO with linear PVE, faction-based PVP in restricted areas, gorgeous scenery, interesting classes with unique ways to grow your character, you’ll be right at home. Blog 17 Feb 2014
Belghast
Tales of the Aggronaut
At its core this is in fact The Elder Scrolls… Online. This game lives and breathes the Elder Scrolls Lore and settings, and is immediately recognizable the first time you see a creature made famous by the series out in the wild.

I am not normally a fan of player versus player in any game. However Elder Scrolls has me more than a bit excited to be honest. We are finally returning to the most successful PvP set up that any game has had… the Frontiers of Dark Age of Camelot.
This is the type of game that grows on you over time. The biggest problem is you cannot go into playing it with the expectations of it being something else. I feel like this game is trying to start its own little genre. There is more than enough meat on its bones to allow players to happily explore it for hundreds and hundreds of hours.
Blog 15 Feb 2014
Bhagpuss
Inventory Full
I don't have any residual affection for the IP so if it ends up appealing to me even in the slightest I'll be both surprised and delighted. Plenty of other people, however, are very heavily invested indeed and when an MMO gets made from an IP that people love it doesn't often seem to go down as well as either the developers or the fans might hope or expect. LotRO might be the exception although even that's had its ups and downs, but the commercial and/or artistic history of the rest - SWG, SW:ToR, Warhammer, AoC, STO, DDO, Lego Universe, to name just a few of the better-known - well, it doesn't make pretty reading. TESO...looks set to disappoint just about everyone.
Blog 30 Dec 2013
Clockwork
Out of Beta
Steak-Flavored Tofu.

My interest in TESO…has been lukewarm at best and stirred to a ball of incoherent rage at worst.

…linear, end-game focused monstrosity.
An MMO is where a franchise goes to die.
Blog 11 Feb 2014
Doone
T.R. Red Skies / XP Chronicles
  …the open world aspect of the single player game are its heart. If Zenimax ignores this to opt for the theme park, they'll be drying their tears on their shirts, not with the c-notes they think they'll rake in by developing the game in this way.The beta has been thoroughly underwhelming. My expectations for this game are non-existent.
Out of Beta 11 Feb 2014 (comment dated 16 Feb 2014)
Duke of O
Null Signifier
TWO THUMBS UP!!!

I've tried other MMOs. But this one is the best!

Before I played TESO no girl would look twice at me. Now I have to beat them off with a stick! Thank you TESO!

TESO will lower your blood cholesterol and keep you regular! It will also keep your skin smooth as silk, while removing disfiguring acne and blemishes.

Better than SEX!
Will add fuel to the F2P/Sub debate for months to come.

Skyrim purists will hate the game.

MMO purists will hate the game.

Tobold will straddle the middle ground, and then ask meekly, “Should I play this game?” while having no intent to do so as a way to drum up blogging traffic. He will also initiate more flame wars with Richard Bartle by calling him “self-referential” rather than “narcissistic”.

Hackers will find a way to fly with the Elder Scrolls, prompting hundreds of awed player to flood fan sites with requests as to where this particular skill can be found.

Gold sellers will spam Cyrodiil general chat with discount gold and power levelling services, proving once again, that in the end, the gold farmers always win.

The first Emperor will be someone either pre-pubescent or unemployed. Hail the Emperor!

The second Emperor will be found dead in an Internet cafe, having tragically overdosed on Red Bull, instant noodles and Burger Rings. The Aldmeri Dominion will try to hold a solemn in-game funeral but the ceremony will be crashed by Ebonheart Pact forces who got lost on their way to an objective due to Team Speak issues. Much hand-wringing and forum flaming ensues. In the meantime, the Daggerfall Covenant takes advantage of all the commotion and crowns the third Emperor.

The third Emperor will be a Korean WCS Starcraft 2 player on a sabbatical, and he illustrates the gulf between normal players and tournament players by killing everyone in Cyrodiil. On a non-gaming mouse. Left handed.

Gevlon will declare TESO solely for morons and slackers and continue to push for harsher death penalties in EVE Online as a way of increasing subs and welcoming newbies to New Eden.

The most popular names will be Nerevar or Dovakhiin, or derivatives thereof. Coming a close second will be LeetPvP, Ipwnubitches or Noobslayer.

A character named James will be banned for using a name that doesn't conform to role-playing conventions.

An overzealous feminist writer will get offended at the representation of the Khajit, declaring indignantly that “pussies don’t wear armour like that.”

Male misogynists will counter “Oh hell yes they do” and then spam comments on the feminists website, using the rationale that if they use enough gibberish no one will be able to engage in any real debate.

PvErs will demand that Cyrodiil be turned into a voluntary flagging area because they hate PvP.

PvPers will demand that that the starting areas be turned into PvP zones because they hate PvE.

Zenimax will ignore both parties, then release a new Malukah video as a way of soothing the unruly mob. “Beware, beware, the Dragonborn comes…”

WoW will shamelessly rip off the Cyrodiil idea in their own world PvP zone come the next expansion and show that when it comes to keeping the money flowing in, they are the undisputed masters of the MMO genre.

Belghast wants TESO to succeed because he loves the MMO genre.

Scree wants TESO to fail because he loves the MMO genre.

My cat took a piss because it loves the MMO genre.

THE DAGGERFALL COVENANT WILL PWN ALL. The Aldmeri Dominion and the Ebonheart Pact will try but fail miserably. Yeah, bitches. Sup.
Blog 11 Mar 2014
Eliot Lefebvre
Massively website
I've always had a profound antipathy toward the Elder Scrolls franchise.       
      
I've also never seen anything that's reached out and grabbed me, no inspiring bits of lore, no systems that particularly grab my interest, just the promise that "you can do anything you want" without a great deal of encouragement.
Unless you're an enormous fan of the Elder Scrolls franchise, there's not much to recommend ESO right now. It's another generic fantasy MMO in a field already filled with them. And I just don't get it.


Website 7 Feb 2014
Jaedia
Jaedia's Menagerie
I mean it’s Elder Scrolls in an MMO setting, I’m bound to adore it. I love fantasy. I love MMOs. I love exploration. It’s right up my street. But I’m not happy, guys…I just can’t justify spending £50 on a game that I’d then have to pay £8.99 per month on on top of that.I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this game doesn’t do as well as they seem to be expecting…putting a price tag on everything is not the way to win loyalty, which is really what’s at stake here.
Blog 30 Jan 2014
Joseph Skyrim
JVT Workshop
It is pretty cool and fantastically beautiful.

...the instances were very "phase" heavy. If I was playing with a friend and I happened to finish a quest before or differently as to how he did in an area then we wouldn't see each other despite standing in the same spot. This is to keep with our individual immersion I guess, but I can see how that will be problematic later.
In the state I experienced the game at, I'm forced to only score it 2 dragons out of 5. Hopefully Zenimax fixes up all the broken pieces before release because this would easily double its score. Will I pay to play it though? That's a silly question. Of course not.

   


Blog 16 Feb 2014
J3w3l
Healing the Masses
Tamriel is just beautiful. That's B-e-a-utiful.
  
Sometimes the breadth of all this story and lore is a little overwhelming to me.   
  
I didn’t feel as strangled by the design when questing through ESO which is an amazing feeling. I could go as fast or slow as I wanted. I could stay on the path or venture out and there was a lot out there to find if I wanted story, experience, gear or other rewards and I felt like I had more time to just experience my surroundings.
...do we even think this is a fair fight? (between TESO and Wildstar)







Blog 8 Mar 2014
Paul Tassi
Forbes Online
MMOs as a genre may not be dead yet, but the monthly subscription model certainly is for new entries, and Bethesday/ZeniMax were foolish not to have the foresight to realize this.
In short, Bethesda and Zenimax spend an ungodly amount of money developing a game for an audience that may not even exist.

We’ve seen a number of high profile online launch disasters recently, and The Elder Scrolls Online seems like a prime candidate for a similar meltdown.

The biggest video game disaster of 2014.
Website 2 Jan 2014
Scree
The Cynic Dialogues
(talking about Wildstar)

What's a bigger testament for a game's success and justification for your passion for a title than to see it succeed and its gaming population flourish.
(talking about TESO)

 
I am entirely opposed to this game succeeding.
Blog 5 Mar 2014
Syl
MMO Gypsy
My admittedly short beta testings were a painfully disappointing experience and while they might not be completely fair or balanced, they are lacking in ways that cannot be made up by playing the game longer or praying for the unlikely wonders of another two months of final polishing. My issues with the game are of no subtle nature – they are fundamental.I don’t intend on buying at launch, in fact I am not sure I’m gonna buy at all for as long as there is also a monthly subscription.
Blog 16 Feb 2014
Syncaine
Hardcore Casual
…the first area is 100% linear, the second feels like a typical themepark zone, and the third feels like a comfortable cross between a full open world and an MMO themepark.
Pre-ordered the digital collectors edition, in part because I think the game will be a good time, and also in part because the genre blows outside of spaceships.

If ESO has less than 500k subs across all platforms after the first 6 months, the game will be a failure. I don’t believe that will be the case.
Blog 14 Feb 2014
Syp
Bio Break
I’m not a fan of the game world, but more than that, the game itself looks so incredibly dull. There’s precious little innovation here and I’m deeply concerned that ZeniMax/Bethesda doesn’t really understand the MMO industry and is perhaps stubbornly ignoring lessons of the past by assuming that ESO will succeed by the virtue of its name alone.I wouldn’t have chosen ESO to be such an ambassador, not with how it’s being made and positioned, but I don’t have a say in that matter. So instead, I’m hoping for all of our sake that it does well enough to avoid the type of downfall and backlash that some love to perpetuate.
Blog 6 Mar 2014
Tremayne
Tremayne's Law
I had an absolute blast that was both reminiscent of my favourite DAoC memories and included some fun new twists.



One brutal, close-quarters fight later we had lost but the general consensus in chat was “That’s awesome, let’s do it again!” When the gamers on the LOSING side say that, there’s something very right with the game. Blog 5 Mar 2014
Wilhelm Arcturus
The Ancient Gaming Noob
I can say the game feels like Skyrim…The intro is very linear, as with Skyrim, and everybody is extremely patient while you get your bearings and try to find your way out… as with Skyrim.

While I still think a Borderlands 2 4-player co-op model with plenty of post launch DLC was the winning move for an Elder Scrolls game, the MMO version still works.
And will I be pre-ordering it and playing the game at launch? No. Not because I do not like the game...I just don’t need another MMO to play and nobody with whom I play with regularly is interested in the game at this point. So I will be sticking with WoW and EVE Online for now.
Blog 17 Feb 2014
WolfsheadWolfshead Online
There seems to be no compelling reason to be a part of this virtual world. There are no revolutionary features here that excite me. The lack of social cohesion, challenge, danger and dynamic content is also troubling.I was very excited about Elder Scrolls Online. I had even pre-ordered the collectors edition with the figurine but after the first beta weekend I cancelled it as I could not reconcile paying $120 for another unambitious, predictable MMO theme park.Blog 5 Mar 2014


Another screenshot by Araxes.

Non-Facetious Predictions

On a more serious note, here are my non-facetious predictions for TESO based on the following questions:
  1. Will the game be free to play in a year's time (4 April 2015)?
  2. How many subscribers will the game have in a year's time?
  3. What Metacritic score will the game receive on release (measured at the end of April 2014)?
  4. How many subscribers will TESO have at its peak?
My responses are as follows: 
  1. The game will NOT go free-to-play in a year's time. Residual love for the single player IP, a robust but accessible PvP end game reminiscent of DAOC, and sufficient differential from the WoW model will ensure that TESO will carve out its own comfortable niche.
  2. Subscriptions will stabilize between 500,000 to 1 million players. Whether you consider this to be a success or not will depend on which of the remaining hold-outs of subscription based MMOs you are comparing this figure to, whether that be WoW (7.8 million), Final Fantasy 14 (1.8 million - thank you, Bhagpuss), EVE Online (500,000) or Darkfall 2 (20,000). I don't believe comparisons to free-to-play titles like Guild Wars 2 (460,000 concurrent users at its peak) or SWTOR (350,000 concurrent users at its peak) are valid because F2P pay models allow a more generous user count, but the numbers are included there just for a reference.
  3. The game will receive a Metacritic Critics score of over 80 (measured at the end of April 2014). When it comes to personal opinions two quotes come to mind – i) there's no accounting for taste, and ii) opinions are like assholes – everyone has one. My purpose with this prediction is not to advocate the primacy of one opinion over another, but to create an easily measurable metric of success or failure, even if that metric lies in the hands of a handful of journalists in established publications. If TESO scores over 80 then it will have been a “critical” success. It won't make a difference to me if the world likes TESO or not (I'll still play it), but I am interested in finding out whether my preference lies in the majority or the minority, and whether or not the lukewarm reception TESO received in beta has morphed into a more positive spin.
  4. TESO will peak at 1.5 million subscribers. This is a tough one and I have no idea what to base my numbers on, except perhaps on the position of the tea leaves in my morning cuppa, and the alignment of the planets in the solar system. All I know are the peak numbers of past MMOs, which are perhaps as relevant to TESO's future success as the price of tea in China during the days of Marco Polo. Nonetheless, here they are – SWTOR (1.7 million at its peak), Warhammer Online (800,000 at peak) and Dark Age of Camelot (250,000 at peak). I should also add that Skyrim has sold over 20 million copies world wide to date, Oblivion between 3-5 million, and Morrowind over 1 million. How the single player success of Skyrim and its ilk will affect the sales of its MMO half-brother remains to be seen.
For better or worse, those are my projections. Care should be taken with the numbers I quote there, as they're all pulled from the Internet and therefore dodgy as hell. Nonetheless, will time prove me a prophet among prophets, or another blogger with too much time on his hands? Shall I be savouring the fruits of victory, choking on the grapes of another blogger's wrath, or eating a vast serving of humble pie garnished with crow's feet? Only time will tell.

Roll up, roll up, diviners, seers and would-be prognosticators! Care to take a wager?