BioWare, meet ZeniMax; ZeniMax, this is BioWare
Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week’s writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you’re afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.
Once upon a time, a group of decision-makers at a big AAA studio set out to brave the wilds of the MMORPG. This studio had several hugely successful single-player RPGs under its belt, and it also had quite a bit of consumer goodwill in the bank thanks to its pre-MMORPG efforts.
The studio spent a ton, and I do mean a ton, of money recreating an MMO that already existed in dozens of different games. It also spent a ton of money trying to convince gamers and gaming press that it wasn’t making a retread and was instead adding another pillar of awesome to the standard MMO formula.
This studio was, of course, BioWare. Unfortunately for Elder Scrolls fans, it’s also ZeniMax.
OK, now that the angry Star Wars: The Old Republic lynch mob has read the opening paragraph and moved on to the comment section, you and I can discuss the unfortunate way that ZeniMax is developing and publicizing The Elder Scrolls Online. Hey, while we’re at it, let’s talk about the way ZeniMax is appropriating BioWare’s culture of MMO indifference.
When I went to E3 last month, I stopped by the giant Bethesda booth. I sat (well, actually I stood) through Matt Firor’s yawn-inducing 30-minute demo, which included some combat footage and a bunch of marketing friendly talking points. And after that was over, I sought out the ZeniMax and Bethesda reps in attendance in the hopes of scoring a one-on-one interview that might cut through the layer of stubborn PR that has surrounded this title since its announcement.
I was denied, of course, because as Massively managing editor Bree Royce opined a few weeks ago, ZeniMax isn’t really targeting our audience in its TESO marketing push. Our readership basically consists of pre-existing MMORPG fans, while TESO seems to be aimed at folks who think Elder Scrolls sounds cool but who don’t really have the time to play a sprawling, non-linear sandbox.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because a similar tactic was employed by BioWare during the run-up to SWTOR’s launch. BioWare spent absurd amounts of time and money to create what is essentially a sequel to Knights of the Old Republic (or 10 sequels, whatever). It tacked on some PvP, a handful of dungeons, and a sub fee, and it marketed the resulting concoction as an MMO.
Nearly two million consumers bought it hook, line, and sinker, while those of us who openly wondered about BioWare’s inclination or ability to deliver a virtual world and grandiose post-launch content promises are still wondering almost eight months later.
ZeniMax is treading this same path with TESO, and while at first I chalked it up to tone-deaf developers, I’ve since realized that it’s more like business-related common sense. I don’t envy TESO’s devs, let me tell you. As I’ve said before, the game probably seemed like a good idea back in 2007. Now, though, the reason it’s being met with eyerolls, yawns, and outright hostility in the MMO community is because we’ve seen all this before, both the product and the marketing tactics.
The same was true of SWTOR, but most of us overlooked that because, you know, Star Wars. BioWare had a certain arrogance about it all through the lead-up to TOR’s launch. We know what people want, the company intimated, and this was really code for “we have a can’t-miss IP that will sell no matter what we do.” And so the firm chose the easiest path and attempted to make that fact more palatable with voiceovers and multiple you-are-the-one storylines. ZeniMax is following suit, albeit with a bit more obstinance.
Witness Firor’s “making an MMO is making an MMO” comments as well as his myopic we’re-unapologetic-about-our-MMO refrain.
This is how you make one kind of MMO, certainly. As SWTOR is showing us, though, it’s not necessarily how you make an MMO that has staying power. MMORPGs are in fact much more ambitious than quest grinders with 200-player PvP. MMORPGs are worlds. They have real economies. They grow and change based on player action (and by player action, I don’t mean capture objectives that continually reset or get passed around more often than a hookah in a Big State University dorm room).
MMOs are home to millions of gamers who want something besides a single-player story ported over from a single-player franchise for the purposes of recurring revenue. They want something worth logging into for years at a time, not something they can already get in offline games that don’t feature continual costs.
So it’s no accident that ZeniMax is aping BioWare by steering its marketing efforts away from MMO players — MMO players generally know what’s up when it comes to retreads and wasted potential. Single-player gamers don’t necessarily know anything about MMOs, and ZeniMax is counting heavily on that to sell copies of TESO.
Why do you think that the company revealed TESO to the world on a gaming site that isn’t known for its MMO expertise? And why do you think ZeniMax hasn’t exactly jumped at the chance to talk to actual MMO press outlets? Could it be, as Bree hypothesized, that the marketing types think they already have us in the bag? That may be part of it, but I think they also know that some of us won’t necessarily buy what they’re selling, and so the return on their advertising campaign investment is better spent going after a new audience.
Ultimately, it is still early, and we won’t be able to draw any definitive conclusions about TESO until ZeniMax deigns to actually show us some extended gameplay. But what the company has shown us, and what it has said in the process, is indicative of yet another MMO studio bent on spinning regression as forward progress.