In the red corner, Wildstar.
In the blue, The Elder Scrolls Online, commonly abbreviated as either TESO or ESO.
Two up and coming subscriber-based MMOs with aspirations of greatness. Or at least, a decent market share. The former is banking on a zany sci-fi aesthetic, a telegraph combat system, player housing and an appeal to old school attunement raiding as its foundations for victory. The latter is riding on the coattails of a beloved IP and comes on the heels of one of the most popular single-player games of all time. Skyrim was voted by Australia as its most popular game in a recent poll conducted by ABC's Good Game television series, and TESO has attempted to leverage this popularity to attract subscribers to it, with mixed results.
At ringside sits the champion, a massive panda puffing on a fat cigar. His greatness is unquestioned by all, regardless of whether they love him or loathe him. He'll be in the Hall of Fame one day, and his records (12 million at his peak, and over 7 million currently) may never be broken. But for now he is taking a respite from training, and watching these two contenders slug it out in the ring before him. He is unimpressed with either – his contempt for his competitors is evident by his long lay-off, and his refusal to release his new expansion until November this year, more than two years after Mists of Pandaria. He knew new contenders were coming in the interim – he just didn't care. But now he is back, and if you look closely enough, you can see his fur giving way to green skin and rippling muscle. Warlords of Draenor is coming.
|Final Fantasy 14.|
If you scan the ringside a few more prominent figures emerge into focus from the smoky, raucous gloom. Final Fantasy 14 is dressed in classical Japanese “cool” - a mixture of denim, leather, fur and dark shades. His crazy hair style belies the gaunt face and the glittering eyes – he is a respected fighter, having garnered more than two million subscribers in his early career. His mixed heritage – Western and Japanese subscribers on PCs and consoles – give him an exotic look. Behind him sits an older woman of Scandinavian descent in a form fitting bodysuit adorned with tech. Cold blue eyes peer out behind a face streaked with implants and silver geodes, and combined with her reputation for hostility, ensures that no one comes near her without an explicit invitation. EVE Online is old, formidable, and unique. Her 500,000 followers come from all walks of life, but it is her acolytes in null sec that garner the most attention from the press and the outside world with their massive, record-breaking bloc wars. Her attention is not directed at the fight, but with two up and coming amateurs sitting across the ring from her. Star Citizen and Elite Dangerous will be making their pro debuts next year, and she will be their chief rival.
There are others too, not belonging to the subscriber-school of fighting, who have chosen to grace ringside with their presence. Guild Wars 2, Marvel Heroes, Lord of the Rings Online and Star Trek Online stand clustered together in the aisle, laughing loudly at some shared joke, while The Secret World sits with his back to the wall in the far recesses of the stands, eyes never still. These F2P fighters, free agents without recurring monthly payments, were once derided as has-beens, over-the-hill fighters trying to hold onto their glory days, no better than hawkers and used car salesmen in their frantic attempts to peddle off whatever content they had left. No longer. Star Wars: The Old Republic looks hale and whole in a simple brown and white cloak commonly worn by the Jedi. Described as one of the greatest failures in MMO history, her clear brown eyes show only calm and detachment. She made a spectacular debut, racing to over 1 million subscribers in the first three days of her release. This was followed by a more spectacular fall from grace, a transition to a hybrid F2P model, and predictions about her eventual demise. She has shocked them all by her resilience and heart. Since switching to F2P she has recouped her costs, and generates a steady income stream for her manager, Electronic Arts. But the stigma remains, and the fight tonight, while not necessarily meaning the end for either TESO or Wildstar, is in many ways one for prestige. Critics of both fighters have harangued loudly about their eventual demise to F2P. Only time will tell if these critics were right.
But back to the fight.
The two contenders pace in their respective corners and receive their last minute instructions as the ringside announcer finishes the last vestiges of pre-fight pageantry. There is a moment's silence for the fallen – Warhammer Online and Vanguard are honoured and remembered - and then the fighters are introduced to tumultuous acclaim. The referee gives them their final instructions, and then steps back.
TESO came out swinging first, having been released on 4 April. Almost immediately it was sent reeling back under a storm of criticism. Scorn and derision were piled on the title, and the knees buckled and bent, but did not fall. Forbes went ahead and predicted that it would be “the biggest video game disaster of 2014.” The Errant Penman wrote A Farewell to TESO, a beautifully written elegy to the the game TESO never became. Review after review lashed it, bloodied its face, gashed its skin, and broke its nose. Comparisons to the great Skyrim invariably led to damning reviews. Worse still, it became apparent to all at ringside that TESO was not fight ready. Crashes, bugs and glitches marred its performance. People who were willing to try the game left in disgust. TESO also debut with an ill-conceived Imperial edition, locking an entire race behind a paywall and giving its critics more ammunition to crucify the title.
Wildstar came out two months after TESO on 3 June. In contrast to TESO it received glowing reviews and accolades from the blogsphere. In many ways it was the Chosen One – the anointed successor, the greatest thing since sliced bread, the game which would re-invent a tiring, ailing genre. Just as TESO was made a pariah Wildstar was embraced and loved and elevated by the blogsphere. Most games would envy the critical reception Wildstar received upon release.
In fighting however, it's not what the critics say, but what the fighters do that matters.
TESO gave its subscribers five extra days of free time as an apology for its extremely rough release. It moved its maintenance days from Tuesday and Friday to Monday and Thursday so that Oceanic players could play the game on Friday evenings. It migrated its European servers from the US to Europe in order to reduce the latency of European players. It clamped down hard on the gold sellers which plagued its release, so much so that they have virtually disappeared from Tamriel. It consolidated the various PvP campaigns in order to minimise the effect of Emperor-farming, a deplorable practice which essentially stripped the title of any meaning. It pre-loaded weapon swapping animations to give more responsiveness to combat. And the quick and efficient responses to customer tickets have impressed both me and my gaming circle, and have done much to offset our initial disappointment at the shoddy state of the game upon release. Iteration by iteration, TESO is getting its feet back under it. Staggered and wobbled in the first round, it is beginning to fight back. In June it had over 750,000 subscribers, which made it third behind WoW and Final Fantasy 14.
Wildstar, on the other hand, is living and dying by its decision to make old school raiding the centrepiece of its endgame. For all the critical claim it has garnered, it has managed to scrape together a paltry 450,000 subscribers in the first month of its life. And now the news that Carbine is consolidating their servers ALREADY, barely three months after their release. If MMOs truly were fighters, then Wildstar is what we would call a front-runner – dangerous early, but prone to gassing out and withering away in the later rounds.
The most disappointing thing has been the lack of heart shown by Wildstar's early supporters. As Wildstar falters, and new, younger fighters appear on the horizon, these fair-weather supporters are abandoning the bandwagon in droves, citing a general ennui with MMOs as a genre as an excuse for turning their back on their chosen champion. In a time where Wildstar needs more subs than ever, they are cancelling, quitting, and showing their true colours. Like a swarm of locusts they are already gathering around Archeage, ready to pick it apart and consume it before moving on to their next meal. The remaining hold-outs, those who genuinely love the game and continue to support it regardless of its faltering popularity, have my respect. I know how they feel.
So Wildstar battles on, increasingly bereft of friends, his movements growing less graceful and more laboured as the fight moves into the middle rounds. But TESO doesn't look that hearty either. In its last update TESO had to make a plea for more players on the public test server, and the number of PvP campaigns do not seem to reflect a population measuring over three quarters of a million players. Furthermore, the news that Zenimax has laid off a number of its staff bodes ominously for the future of the game. Wildstar might go to F2P earlier than TESO, but that would be cold comfort if TESO tumbles soon after.
At ringside, a gossamer of emotion flickers across SWTOR's face. She has seen and experienced this all before, and perhaps her thoughts are with both fighters as they struggle to establish themselves. Then again they are her opponents and rivals, and there is little room for sentiment in their profession. Final Fantasy 14 remains alert and attentive, carefully watching TESO. As number two and number three on the rankings, they will jealously guard their positions in anticipation for an inevitable clash. As for the champion, the great panda has already turned away from the fight and is chatting amiably with his cousins Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm. He doesn't care who wins – neither of the fighters are a threat to him. But several rows back, another fighter watches the fight with an intensity belied by her fair complexion and youthful looks. Archeage boasts a Korean heritage, a claim of sandbox based play, open world PvP, and a player-driven economy reminiscent of EVE. She will make her professional debut next week. Unlike the two fighters slugging it out in the ring, however, she has eschewed the subscriber path, and will begin her career as a F2P fighter. New age, or old guard? Will the disciples of F2P triumph, or do the fighters of old school subscription still have a part to play in this sport of ours?
As for me, sitting in the stands far from the action, my money remains firmly on TESO outlasting Wildstar as a subscription-based title. I don't even like TESO that much – the only part I really like is the Alliance War, and that was a style pioneered by one of the early greats of the bare knuckle era, Dark Age of Camelot. The rest I have seen before, albeit without the voice acting and with worse graphics. But nothing would please me more than to see TESO prosper and do well, especially after all the scorn, derision and criticism that was heaped upon it during its release. Every month it remains non-F2P is another month which illustrates how wrong many of these learned commentators are, and how worthless their opinion is when it comes to the trends which rule the MMO market. My opinion is equally worthless, but nonetheless I did make the prediction in March that TESO would not go F2P in a year's time, and thus I feel obliged to put my money where my mouth is by remaining a subscriber. The introduction of the Imperial City, a possible Arena mode as well as a future justice system to enable open world PvP are future features which interest a player of my own peculiar tastes. The transition to consoles in December may also give the game a much needed shot in the arm. Final Fantasy 14 has shown that there is a market for MMOs in consoles. Perhaps TESO can parlay this and leverage it to create a sustainable base from which to build upon. As a supporter and subscriber of the game, I can only hope.