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    The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited, The traditionally single-player Elder Scrolls series last year made its multiplayer debut

    Mmos are dying. Despite the anomaly that is World Of Warcraft, there are few massively multiplayer online titles of recent years that had even a sliver of the success they were hoping for. Star Wars: The Old Republic quickly turned free-to-play; The Secret World rarely gets mentioned; Neverwinter was barely a blip; and even the commendable effort of WildStar has had to suffer the indignity of server merges so early in its life. All of them succeeded, in one form or another, to achieve their goals yet all of them were deemed insignificant by the attitude of the general public. Now The Elder Scrolls Online, less than a year since its original PC release, switches from a subscription model to pay-to-play; a one-off fee to enter the world of Tamriel alongside the many masses. A stigma attaches itself to such a shift, however; so many still compare the potential popularity of the genre to the monthly revenue that World Of Warcraft pulls in, but is that really all that fair?

    “Elder Scrolls games are well-known for their freedom,” says Matt Firor, president of ZeniMax Online Studios and the game director of Elder Scrolls Online, “and we decided to change the game’s revenue model to suit. This came about because of tons of player feedback. So we made lots of game changes based on that feedback, and then decided to extend that concept to payment as well. Players have the choice of subscribing or not, purchasing items inthe Crown Store or not but they all have to purchase the game inorder to play.” This new Crown Store coincided with the shift in subscription model, an in-game facility that allows for the purchasing of exclusive items and DLC. It’s typical of many MMOs, admittedly, but Firor is certain it’s the right thing to do for The Elder Scrolls Online . “I have not changed my mind at all. There is no one business model that “works”. Games can, are, and will be very successful on subscription-only, subscription-optional, B2P, F2P and any other acronym you want to throw at it! Again, it depends on the situation.”

    He’s right, of course; what might work for one game and its playerbase may not work for another. It’s worth considering, too, that TESO is also heading to consoles soon an audience that isn’t quite as receptive to the idea of a subscription model as PC players generally are. “Many MMOs have made revenue model transitions and have been far better off for it,” says Firor when considering the impact of the upcoming console launch and the game’s subscription fee. “We listen to fan feedback, but only when it is constructive. As each game, each studio and each time-frame is completely different per game, there is no universal reason for changing revenue models.” Let’s not forget Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn , the surprising phoenix- from-the-ashes that quite ably turned the original game’s fortunes around. Having a fanbase as active on PS3 and PS4 as PC, FF XIV: ARR has proven that when the game offers something players want it doesn’t always matter about the choice of subscription model. In fact, the steady stream of content both free and paid has both kept existing players interested and drawn many more in; the recent inclusion of the Golden Saucer and the Triple Triad card game, in particular, helped surge the number of subscribers.
    I have not changed my mind about launching with a subscription. There is no one business model that “works”
    That’s ultimately the most significant point for any MMO; content is the vicious cycle any online-only title falls victim to. Maintaining a steady playerbase needs new content, fail to achieve that quickly enough and the numbers will inevitably dwindle. The Elder Scrolls Online, with it still in its first year, has obviously not been lax in this department. Whether it’s updates to improve early concerns or new areas and quests for players to explore, the upkeep of TESO has been stellar. More than that, however, it’s been driven by the very players involved in the game. “Almost 100% of the game systems and content we’ve put into the game since launch was in response to player feedback,” claims Firor. “In fact, we liked some of the ideas so much, we definitely made sure that they made it into the game before console launch, so all TESO players could experience it for instance the Justice System and Champion System, and our combat animation and “feel” overhaul, especially.”

    The Champion System is a reworking of the post-level 50 endgame,a system of server-wide points that can be used to spend on passive bonuses not unlike Skyrim’s unlockable constellation system. You’ll only earn these after reaching maximum level, but the points are shared across all your characters on the server meaning even your pre-50 classes can benefit. It’s a neat way of rewarding continued play after the level cap has been reached, for certain. The Justice System is a little more intriguing, enabling the pickpocketing, item theft and even murder of NPCs a staple of the RPG series. Currently it’s PvE-only, ranking your nefarious deeds, affecting the bounty placed on your head and the aggression of the NPC guards that patrol the world. It’s an important addition to the game, and understandably one that ZeniMax Studios would like to see included in the game’s console release. In the future this Justice System will enable PvP, too, allowing for players to become an Enforcer, tracking down other criminal players and claiming that bounty. This same considered approach will continue to be placed on future content, too, with Firor promising “a mix of adding features where appropriate and fleshing out the map of Tamriel with new areas to explore”. It’s important that mix is handled well, though, since new content is always going to be significant not only for keeping the players involved but in drawing in newcomers too. “I think the community continually fluctuates in games of this type,” says Firor, “it’s to be expected. For those players who haven’t played in a while, the new content is being received so well by the existing community that they’re interested to see what’s going on.”

    It’s Impossible to overlook the change in platforms for The Elder Scrolls Online, however. The move from PC to consoles is an opportunity very few games of this ilk are afforded, often courtesy of their complicated systems, menus and numerous key presses. Considering the recent heritage and unequivocal success that the Elder Scrolls series has maintained on consoles, it’s perhaps no surprise that its MMO equivalent will have no problems making the transition to controller with minimal complaints at least in a mechanical sense. How has ZeniMax Studios been approaching the move to consoles? Firor claims above all else it was important to ensure it remains the same game, platform parity from PC to console with the only difference being the means of input. “Developers approach situations like this in a couple of different ways,” he says. “Our going-in position for console was to make sure that the game on the console is exactly the same as the game on PC. No changes. From that point, we then identified the things that had to change based on the controller/TV experience and went from there. What has resulted is a version of TESO that has exactly the same content and gameplay as PC with all the updates and new content added since the PC launch but has a completely rebuilt user interface; we had to do this to fully support controller gameplay. We also had to add a voice chat system to replace the old text entry interface used by PC players.”

    The sad truth is that TESO did launch on PC to an air of negativity. Its critical reception praised the developer’s ability to bring the Elder Scrolls format into the MMO space, but it was replete with faults that ruined the experience for many. Bugs and an awkward phasing system, in particular, led to many becoming disillusioned with the vanilla release of the game. Now, with TESO heading over to console complete with fixes from the PC version, ZeniMax Studios has a rare second chance at a first impression but does the studio see it that way? “I see it more of a ‘making the game available to the rest of the gamers who want to play it’ situation,” says Firor. “Much of the Elder Scrolls’ vast success has come on consoles, so it’s to be expected that many gamers will wait to play it on the platform of their choice. And yes, we have worked very hard over the last year to fix problems in response to feedback and criticism we’ve been very open about this and to get that work done before console launch so we can provide the best gaming experience from the beginning on those platforms.” Now, with those early issues ironed out, TESO can make the strongest impact possible for console gamers a bunch who, despite the option to port PC characters over to PS4 or Xbox One, may not have had any experience with the MMO at all. It is a fresh start for the game.
    We definitely made sure that the updates and changes made it into the game before console launch
    “As it has been out for almost a year at this point, I think gamers will know what to expect,” says Firor, disagreeing that console gamers could be unaware of what to expect from TESO. “There are thousands of Twitch and YouTube videos to watch showing gameplay of all types in TESO. It should not come as a shock that you will see other players in Tamriel when you adventure in TESO.” That is true, but The Elder Scrolls Online does handle the way it tells its story and quests in a subtly different manner to the series could there be a worry that gamers who have traditionally played the series on console might not be prepared? “We’ll make sure that everyone hears about our DLC through community outreach and marketing,” Firor says, unconcerned. “Obviously players who are in-game will see players with new armour and mounts and will ask them where they got them and will learn about DLC and store items organically that way.”

    In Speaking with Firor, it’s clear that the console release isn’t concerning for the team. It is important, undoubtedly, but ZeniMax Studios has at the very least considered its approach well, even in light of the current market. The problem, however, is understanding that market. When the likes of Destiny refuses to acknowledge the term ‘MMO’, where Elite: Dangerous offers the same ever-changing, always-online dynamic of EVE Online without the social taboo that comes with the phrase or how persistently connected games such as DayZ and H1Z1 create completely new attitudes towards online worlds how can TESO survive when it is still being apparently tainted by the acronym ‘MMO’? “I don’t even use the term “MMO” to refer to TESO,” admits Firor, “I call it an “Online RPG”, as the term MMO now applies to so many different types of games, many of which have very little in common except for connected gameplay.” There was a time where an MMO needed to include a specific type of gameplay if it was to succeed. Now, as a history of oversaturation tells us, it’s all any developer can do to step away from these typical conventions. The question, then, isn’t what does that mean for The Elder Scrolls Online, but instead what does it mean for MMOs? “I think we need some better terminology,” says Firor, “because when you look at Destiny, Minecraft and TESO, all are online, all are connected and all are completely different.”

    When the concept of persistent connectedness all link the likes of Destiny, Elite: Dangerous and TESO all completely different in styles of gameplay the difference between the three doesn’t seem quite so apparent. What does it mean to be ‘always-online’ when so many games handle it so differently? “That’s something we’ve all been thinking a lot about,” poses Firor. “Connected gameplay has become so mainstream these days on so many different types of devices that it is changing online gaming rapidly. Years ago, MMOs were the original social networks you logged into the games just as much to chat with friends as you did to play them this is in the days long before Facebook or Twitter.”

    With our ever-connected lives it’s hard to deny Firor’s logic; gaming isn’t so much about opportunities to socialise anymore just look at the distinct lack of local multiplayer as a key example as it is about simply connecting with like-minded people in a format you all enjoy. “Now that all your social connections are reachable from your phone,” adds Firor, “gamers are concentrating less on socialising and more on playing, and games are changing because of it more fast-paced, less downtime, rewards on a far faster cadence. Compare Destiny to original EverQuest where it could take upwards of 30 minutes to recharge your spellcasting ability to full and you’ll see what I mean. Even comparing WOW circa 2005 to WOW circa 2015 and you’ll see vast changes in the game to react to changing player expectations and demands.” So the once iconic MMO is dying, then, but in its place we’re given a whole world of opportunities. Whether it’s the smaller form of evolving stories found in Destiny, or the grander connected universe of Elite: Dangerous, the word ‘MMO’ just isn’t useful any more. The evolving nature of The Elder Scrolls Online only helps to punctuate that point, the archetypal modern online RPG that proves evolving and improving is every bit as important as creating new content. With the game’s console launch on the horizon we’re left not concerned for an ailing genre, but instead excited for the future of Tamriel.

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