Even after writing this post, I still question whether or not I should press the publish button. Leaving a game you care for is hard, but explaining it to others without coming off poorly is much, much harder. My intent here is not to bash the game, its creators, or to lobby for change, but some of that will inevitably happen if I am to be truthful. I have come to accept that this is not the game for me, and will be taking my leave of it sans malice. I am well aware that this post will invite upon myself bashing from the remaining TESO community, but I want to stress that these are simply my personal reasons which I am expressing for those who are interested. I know that my profile is high enough in the TESO community that many people will want to know why I’m leaving, and I feel obligated to address my reasoning for the former fellows in fandom which I will leave behind. My goal is not to turn players away from the game. If you disagree, I wish you the best and hope that you find the game to your liking. I have made my decision, and share this only so that those who value my opinion can understand it when making their own.
Leaving Tamriel Behind
It’s important to start by saying that I have had a lot of fun playing on the PTS, and that new players entering the game will more than likely be able to get their money’s worth out of the product. If you have enjoyed yourself in the beta weekends, the content you saw there is representative of what you will continue to see on your path to VR10, as noted in my comprehensive review, behind which I still fully stand. My issue with the game is not so much its current offering – concerning as the numerous bugs and balance issues may be, but with the the future of the game under ZeniMax’s guidance. I see very little cause to believe that the game will survive as a subscription game, and I see no point in purchasing entrance to observe a free-to-play transition which I feel is both inevitable, and planned. Below lie my reasons for leaving, in no particular order. Keep in mind that I don’t consider any one of these issues to be a deal-breaker in and of their own right, but it is the sum of them that has turned me away from the game I once loved.
A lousy exterminator
The Elder Scrolls Online is a very buggy game. Each patch has introduced more bugs than it has solved, and while this is expected several months prior to launch, it is very troubling when it continues to transpire a week from it. While a miracle patch may be in the works for the game, I have seen no evidence to suggest that ZeniMax is capable of producing one, let alone that one is coming. As we all know, a smooth launch is crucial to the success of a modern MMO – the market will not provide you a second chance. Despite what some consider to be risible assurances to the contrary, I cannot foresee the upcoming weeks going well for TESO. Being buggy is a minor complaint, but it fits well with my other concerns questioning the likelihood of a prosperous future for the game.
Design vision for The Elder Scrolls Online has long been at odds with itself, as the development team carefully navigates the chasm between an Elder Scrolls experience, and what makes up an MMORPG. In the beginning, TESO was an MMORPG, and one with few elements on the TES side of the equation as well. As alpha and beta testing continued, many standard MMO features have simply been removed to mask the game’s true nature, adding a thin facade of TES to the game at the expense of its functionality as an MMO. These changes have not all been bad; as the game has progressed, I have come to embrace the change from a mini-map to a compass, the lack of nameplates, and the exploratory nature of the game’s solo experience.
However, several core features have been removed without adequate replacements, in an unsettling move eerily reminiscent of Guild Wars 2‘s design. The most recent and impactful of these regards the lack of information in the game’s stock UI. Many core testers, including myself, have spent the last year providing feedback that this was inadequate, but in a puzzling move, ZeniMax responded by relegating this functionality to the add-on community to develop. At the time many of us argued that this would create problems down the line by making add-ons near mandatory for competitive play, a concern which the public echoed once they become aware of the gap in functionality between the base UI and a modded one. In response, ZeniMax gutted the game’s API, reneging on promises to its fans and the add-on developers they had deliberately recruited.
The main issue presented by this sudden change is that the game has always been designed around the now unavailable information being available to players. TESO has a huge emphasis on managing status effects on yourself and enemies, with cleanse and purge mechanics both having an important place in high end play. Buff and debuff icons were both included in early iterations of the MMO’s stock UI, and while the level of information available on these statuses has been dramatically reduced, the reliance on the mechanics involving them has remained unchanged. If ZeniMax had made a truly different MMO, the removal of these features would have been of no consequence, but as they took the standard MMO formula and simply removed a lot of the tools that make it usable, the enjoyability and competitiveness of the game’s play has taken a large hit from these changes, with players reduced to guessing which effects are active and for how much longer. This is where the Guild Wars 2 analogy comes into play; though many of their features are very different, both games adopted the standard themepark MMO formula, only to remove certain core features without redesigning the mechanics they support.
The clear solution stared the company in the face all along – to provide the optional functionality to understand the game in its base UI so that all had access to it without add-ons, but instead, they have removed a much needed functionality from the game entirely. This change has also crippled the ability for testers to provide feedback, a highly unfortunate change to a game where so many abilities are completely unbalanced, or, in the case of many passives, literally do nothing at all.
At this point, someone typically interjects with a banal comment implying that what players in favor of an informative UI want is World of Warcraft. This is not the case. No one is asking for Deadly Boss Mods or other add-ons to clutter your entire screen with; no, we simply want to have the minimum amount of tools possible to analyze the game, within the confines of TESO‘s minimalist UI (which, current issues withstanding, I actually see as one of the greatest successes of the game). I am not anti-immersion or pro-clutter. I am anti-ignorance and pro-information. I just want the same functionality provided in the stock UI of every other MMORPG, and could do without add-ons entirely if it were offered.
There is still a chance that some of these changes will be reverted, and I hope that they are, but for me, it will be too little too late. Many of the decisions we have seen coming out of the development team leave much to be desired, and bring into serious question their ability to create and maintain a quality product. Repeatedly, we have seen the game change as its developers turn their priorities on a dime, eager to compromise it to pander to whatever wheel happens to be squeaking at that moment. Many have defended the changes to the game’s API as a way for the developers to stay true to their vision, but can anyone who has followed the game over the past year truly believe that they still have one? The Elder Scrolls Online began as a very traditional MMO more than a little reminiscent of World of Warcraft, and came fit with all the trappings of one. Due to feedback, it has been drastically changed to be closer in appearance to Skyrim than its MMO peers, yet retained the mechanics of an MMO. A more TES-like combat system, first person view, a re-work of the class system to be more open, the port to consoles, the decimation of any semblance of UI functionality, the removal of faction restrictions, optional starter zones, and more have all followed as the developers adjusted their game further and further away from its now unrecognizable original form. Many of these changes have greatly improved the game, but to claim that the developers are making any changes to adhere to an uncompromising vision seems more than a little far fetched.
That, in and of itself, is the crushing flaw at the core of The Elder Scrolls Online. There is no vision. In the end, ZeniMax has created a mediocre MMO with a TES feel, and a poor TES game. Their refusal to embrace one over the other, unfortunately, may be the single largest contributor to the downfall of the game. If, in the final week before the game’s launch they have discovered a vision, I can only hope that this will lead to a better game for the audience they are targeting, and accept that it is not me.
Mo’ money mo’ problems
Many months ago, The Elder Scrolls Online announced it would be releasing with a subscription model, a move which I applauded at the time. I have long been a fan of this model for the persistent community it can foster, and the steady addition in content it helps to facilitate without the addition of paywalls and micro-transactions. Unfortunately, we now also have paywalls and micro-transactions.
The paywall comes in the form of the Imperial Edition – a collector’s edition which grants access to the Imperials as a playable race. While many people, including myself, were not completely turned off by this digital bonus, it seems that even among those who were accepting of it, a lot of people were uneasy about it, as it pushed the boundaries of what they feel is acceptable. The problem is accentuated by the Imperial Edition being purchasable post-launch as a $20 account upgrade, meaning that there will almost certainly be a pop-up asking for currency when a non-owner attempts to select Imperial as a race.
[See correction at bottom] This is the very definition of a paywall, something we were directly promised by ZeniMax would not be in game. In just this brief article, this is the second time ZeniMax has lied to its community (the first being that add-ons would allow us access to a functional UI).
Before the announcement of the Imperial Edition, it surfaced that TESO would be launching with a cash shop which would sell services and ‘fun stuff’. In response to the outrage that followed, Paul Sage spoke to Elder Scrolls off the Record to clarify that this was not, in fact, a cash shop, and that we would not see anything that would normally be found in the game, repeatedly stating that these offerings would be services like name changes. In the last few days, this has emerged apparent as lie number three, as the game will now be launching with a mount in the cash shop, as well as future plans for vanity pets that may or may not be added. Again, this alone is not enough to turn me off from the game, as these are nowhere near pay-to-win or otherwise unacceptable, but all of these instances of the company going back on its word do not inspire confidence.
It is important to note that while developers like Paul Sage are the mouth-pieces we see going back on their words, they in actuality have little to do with decisions involving monetization of the game. These developers are busy creating the game; the way the company makes money off of it will be handled by another department. I don’t want readers to come away with the impression that the developers are lying, because they most likely aren’t – they’re just the unlucky messengers of their employer’s untruthfulness. It is the company itself that is responsible for this pattern of dishonesty, and it is the company for which I have zero faith. Unfortunately, the company is also the one ultimately running the game.
The expansion of the game’s micro-transaction system gives the impression that the game is preparing for a free-to-play conversion, most likely spurred by the problems mentioned earlier in this post. I do not believe the game can survive as a subscription MMO in its current state, and these changes lead me to believe that the company doesn’t either. I have never seen a subscription based Western MMO launch with a cash shop without a free-to-play transition happening shortly after launch; watching TESO follow the same pattern has been unsettling. I hope my intuitions are wrong, but all the hallmarks of a cash-in MMO with a planned free-to-play transition are in place. I don’t begrudge the ZeniMax team for having a back-up plan. In fact, it’s probably the smart option. I just don’t want to be a part of it.
This is merely a feeling that I have, and is not intended to be perceived as factual. However, this article is an explanation of my reasons for leaving – a realm where feelings and intuition are undeniably relevant.
All things considered, I do still feel that players who enjoyed the game in the beta weekends will be more than able to get their money’s worth from the content that is already in game, though I do consider waiting for free-to-play to be viable path as well. Many people will enjoy this game, and if you suspect you may be one of them, I encourage you to try the game out anyway – just because I do not enjoy it does not mean you will not. The concerns I have raised lie purely with the longevity of the game and its ability to succeed as a subscription MMO, which I honestly do not believe that it can do. In the past few weeks, I have found myself uninterested and unwilling to log into the PTS – even before the evisceration of the API or the addition of the cash shop. My excitement for the current game had died; those changes merely solidified it in a barrow of mistrust for its future.
Every MMO player has experienced the biting disappointment of the failure of a game they once loved, and the remorse of its purchase that follows it two months out when the population begins to dwindle. With as many times as I have been burned by MMOs that I was truly excited for, it is impossible for me to go into one where that excitement is already gone, and I see no alternative in its future to failure. Abandoning a game for which I have spent innumerable hours obsessing over, creating content for, and helping to foster a community in was no easy task, and I assure you that the decision to do so was a difficult one that weighs heavily on me. I hope with every fiber of my being that I am proven wrong, as I would love for this game to do well. If it does, I will happily play the fool and once again journey into the brilliant godrays of ZeniMax’s Tamriel.
For my final word on The Elder Scrolls Online, I would like to urge readers who agree with me to not cause trouble for the ZeniMax team. Though the company has at times frustrated me, its community managers are all excellent people doing their job to the best of their ability. Nothing will be gained by making their jobs harder or their days worse. We must accept that this game was not made for us, and continue on to the next thing which might.
Moving forward to the Next adventure
While disappointing beyond words, this hardly marks my exit from the genre, and I look forward to being excited and subsequently let down by new MMOs as time marches on. I am currently revisiting the great disappointment SWTOR with my TESOCast co-host Road (who also hosts TOROCast), and have found that it was just as bad as I remembered, but am still mildly entertained by a casual play through of its class stories with friends. I will return to Sanctuary with Diablo 3‘s Reaper of Souls expansion, which looks to make many improvements on the flawed game we are well aware of.
These games are only temporary though, and while I play them, I will set my eyes firmly on the sandbox MMOs of the future – ArcheAge, Everquest: Next, The Repopulation, and CCP’s hopefully not vaporware World of Darkness MMO – maybe even Star Citizen. Will one of these be my next big MMO home? I hope we can find out together, on The Errant Penman.
[Correction] Reddit user /u/priaptic has directed me to comments by Zenimax Community Manager Jessica Folsom on Reddit confirming that The Imperial Edition upgrade after launch will only be available to those who have pre-ordered the game. While my concerns about locking a race behind an account upgrade remain, this does make the race exclusivity a lot more bearable, and mitigates concerns about the possible existence of paywalls.
[Update] Contrary to the statement mentioned above, the Imperial Edition was indeed purchasable by anyone as an upgrade post-launch. The original text of this post was correct, even if ZOS specifically said that this would not be the case.