For the last few years, I’ve made it a point to spend some time with just about every high profile MMORPG that’s come out. Often, it’s because I’m writing reviews of them, which was the case with “Star Wars: The Old Republic,” “The Secret World,” and “Guild Wars 2.” Other times it’s simply because I’m a fan of the genre and want to see what’s new.
Because of that, I’m anxiously awaiting the April launch of “The Elder Scrolls Online,” as I’ll definitely be trying it out. It’s got the pontential to be something really cool. But I’m equally nervous, fearing what it’ll mean for MMORPGs in general if the game ends up bombing.
Let’s get something out of the way so it’s not even part of any further discussion: I’m not expecting “TESO” to be a “‘WoW’-killer,” and I’d be happy if I never heard that phrase again. A portion of the broader gaming community has reached the point where it’s defined the success of any new MMORPG in terms of whether or not it can topple “World of Warcraft” from its perch. By that standard, every game has failed. It’s a ridiculous state of affairs (something the GameSided crew was discussing on Twitter just last night), and one that I really wish would change.
That being said, we need some way to quantify if “TESO” is a success, some target for which it can realistically shoot. It’s tough to do because publishers can throw all kinds of numbers at us: total number of accounts, total number of subscribers (for games that have a subscription option), average number of monthly players, etc. An argument could certainly be made as to which of these is most telling, but since “TESO” is launching on a paid subscription model, and this is my column, I’m just making the unilateral decision that if it has the second-most paid players to “WoW,” it’s a hit.
To get there, “TESO” is going to need to satisfy both longtime fans of “The Elder Scrolls” and general MMORPG aficionados. As a quick spin through any number of forums and other internet sites can show you, not everyone in that first group is thrilled to see one of the most highly regarded single-player RPG experiences turned into something multiplayer, so their participation is not guaranteed. But my guess is most of them will at least give the game a shot to win them over.
The second group is probably more critical, since many MMORPGers are on an eternal hunt for the next big thing and have no qualms about judging a product quickly and moving on if it’s found wanting. I’m in this category myself, though in its most patient subset, having played “Rift” since it was in beta and continuing to pay to play “SWTOR.”
A lot of recent attention has focused on the elephant that’s been in the room ever since ZeniMax and Bethesda announced it, which is the fact that they’re going to be charging us $60 to buy “TESO” and then $15/month to play. There have been some pretty eloquent examinations about why this is a mistake, perhaps a big enough one to doom the game to failure. Some prospective players have used less polite language about their outrage to the subscription plan, because who does those these days?
The thing is, I think we, the MMORPG players of the world, are at least partially to blame. Even with free-to-play games becoming more and more common, there’s still a stigma against them in some corners (not so much for one-purchase games like “GW2,” but those are very rare). I’d argue that part of the hardcore crowd would have turned up its nose at “TESO” if it didn’t launch with subscriptions, as crazy as that sounds. The game can and will go F2P down the road if necessary.
“SWTOR” stands out as the very large, very obvious cautionary tale, but ZeniMax and Bethesda have hopefully had plenty of time to learn from the missteps of BioWare and EA. They should know that no matter how confident they are in the strength of their IP—and they seem plenty self-assured on that front—they need to deliver on gameplay and on the types and amount of content while still maintaining the essential “Elder Scrolls” flavor.
Here’s where we get to my nervousness. I trust both the developer and the publisher, but for them, the stakes are limited to money and reputations. For players like me, it’s quite possible the very concept of the big budget, big name MMORPG is on the line. If you view “SWTOR” as a failure (I don’t, but plenty of people do) and “TESO” ends up a mess, that’s two strikes. What company is going to take a chance on another one after that?
There are other genre games I’m looking forward to in 2014, some even more than “TESO” (*looks toward “WildStar”*), but if those end up as duds, they’re just disappointing games, and those come and go. There’s so much riding on “The Elder Scrolls Online,” my gut tells me it needs to be a hit, even if my brain tells me the likelihood of that happening is probably a coin flip at best.