The Elder Scrolls Online and the Future of The Franchise

Could ESO be Bethesda's arrow in the knee? A look at Elder Scrolls Online and the future of The Elder Scrolls series.
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Three and a half months after its initial release for PC, The Elder Scrolls Online made its way to Steam (at half price) late last week. Now that some of the hype from the beta testing and PC release has died down, and with a while to go before we see the game on console, it’s a good time to take a closer look at The Elder Scrolls Online and the impact it may have on the Elder Scrolls franchise.

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Right out of the gate, Elder Scrolls Online received mixed reviews. Even during the closed beta, people were quick to take sides–you either loved the game, or you hated it. A quick glance at the game’s scores on Metacritic seems to back this up. While the critics mostly gave ESO mixed and positive reviews, the user reviews weren’t so kind. Nearly half of the total user reviews are positive, but almost forty percent are negative. The number of actual mixed user reviews doesn’t even reach triple digits. Steam’s user reviews seem to be following the same trend, racking up an almost impressive number of negative responses.

It seems like a lot of ESO’s negative reviews aren’t coming from new players, but from those who are already familiar with the Elder Scrolls series, or who have at least played Skyrim. A lot of us – myself included – have been with Bethesda since Morrowind. And, they have never failed to deliver.

With such a strong reputation, we expected a lot out of The Elder Scrolls Online.

And what did we get?

Some players would say we still got a hell of a game. Others say we got a too-buggy-even-for-Bethesda flop that fails as both an MMO and an RPG. And, a game that seems to ignore the visual themes, rich character development, and intricate lore that was well-established in previous Elder Scrolls installments.

Wouldn't the lore have mentioned giant anchors?

But wait – Is ESO really an Elder Scrolls Game?

Aside from technical quibbles, one of the most common ESO complaints I’ve encountered is that it simply doesn’t “feel” like an Elder Scrolls game, and I have to agree. Maybe we could forgive some of its other shortcomings (I’m looking at you, glitches) if it still had that Elder Scrolls feel we’ve come to know and love. So what went wrong?

Back in 2007, when The Elder Scrolls Online first went into development, Bethesda created ZeniMax Online Studios to handle the project while Bethesda worked on other games. While this may not sound like a huge factor, a brand-new team may have seriously impacted The Elder Scrolls Online. Bethesda has an impressive number of returning team members from game to game. A quick comparison of the development credits for Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim shows that those in leading design, writing, and production positions tend to work on the series for at least two games, if not more. And those who have worked on an Elder Scrolls game previously tend to resurface in leadership positions. Bethesda’s executive producer, Todd Howard, has worked on the series since Arena (1994).

ZeniMax Online Studios came with new hands and fresh faces. Even the lead producer’s credit was passed from Todd Howard to Matt Firor, who previously produced several Dark Age of Camelot installments. The rest of the development positions were passed on too, it seems. Most of the key developers credited for The Elder Scrolls Online have not been previously credited with development of an Elder Scrolls game. A new perspective is hardly ever a bad thing, but perhaps that’s part of the reason that The Elder Scrolls Online was lacking in Elder Scrolls atmosphere.

Somewhere in all that shiny newness – new team, new plot, new platform – the elements that made the RPGs so distinctive just got lost. And with few to no returning development members, who could tell ZeniMax Online that something just didn’t feel right?

So What Does This Mean For The Elder Scrolls Franchise?

Fans are beginning to wonder where the next Elder Scrolls RPG installment is. With five years between Oblivion and Skyrim, it’s about time for Bethesda to start mumbling about The Elder Scrolls VI. Currently, Bethesda seems to be focusing most of its energy on its Wolfenstein and DOOM installments, as well as its upcoming survival horror game, The Evil Within, set for release in October 2014.

A recent job opening posted on ZeniMax’s website has stirred up the Elder Scrolls fan base. Bethesda is searching for new game developers, and fans are wondering what game we’ll be seeing next. Most bets are on Fallout 4, but executive producer Todd Howard says it will be a while before Bethesda makes any formal announcements.

There’s speculation that The Elder Scrolls Online is going to be the proverbial arrow in the series’ knee. Fans seem concerned that ESO will follow in the footsteps of World of Warcraft. It’s been nine years since we’ve seen an RTS Warcraft game and not mere expansions for the MMO. Could ZeniMax Online choose do the same thing to our beloved Elder Scrolls series? Many fans believe that ESO alone isn’t successful enough to carry the franchise without another RPG, but others aren’t entirely convinced.

Until Bethesda tells us otherwise, we’re holding our breath.

Or perhaps we can ask M’aiq the Liar. I hear he knows many things.

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Auverin Morrow
Resident SMITE fangirl.