Should they or shouldn’t they

The MMO world was knocked on its butt last week, when rumors began percolating through media outlets that Zenimax Online, a new MMO studio created to be the online cousin of the renowned Bethesda Softworks, was working on an MMORPG based in the Elder Scrolls universe. Evidence seeming to support these claims followed not far behind. Zenimax Studios, the parent company of which both Bethesda and Zenimax Online are a part, received seed funding from Providence Equity Partners in mid-October to, “fund future growth, ramp up publishing and development, facilitate acquisitions, and finance MMOGs.” And, as if the writing on the wall wasn’t quite clear enough, sharp-eyed domain watchers spotted the acquisition of the URL, registered by Zenimax Studios on August 15. At this point it seems all but certain.

Until Zenimax decides the time is right to let the cat out of the bag, all we’re left to do is sit back, palm our copies of Oblivion and Morrowind, and play armchair quarterback. And probably the biggest question on our minds is whether it is in fact the right move for Bethesda to bring their beloved RPG franchise into the rough and tumble world of the massively multiplayer. Is it the right fit for the IP or is it a big mistake? There are strong arguments in either direction, and they’re all worth exploring.

Join me after the jump, won’t you?

+ The Elder Scrolls universe is massive already

One of the strongest arguments in favor of an Elder Scrolls MMO is that the game universe is so expansive already. Taking Oblivion as an example, the larger game world (i.e., the part outside of dungeons) was a whopping sixteen square miles in size, and chock full of things to explore in nearly every nook and cranny. And this represented just the region of Cyrodiil, the regions explored in the franchises other three games and their respective expansions could be just as large, saying nothing of unexplored continents and the like. There are a lot of directions the Zenimax Online crew could choose to take this game, but it seems clear at least from the outset that the Elder Scrolls universe is equipped to handle all their landmass needs.

– We liked it single player!

There are many who feel, perhaps rightly so, that much of the charm of the Elder Scrolls series lay in the fact that the player was given the unique opportunity to play a pivotal role in the lore. Playing as the Nerevarine or the Champion of Cyrodiil is a truly exhilarating experience, especially after having spent literally hundreds of hours completely immersed in the game world and its intricate story. Elder Scrolls is the kind of game that favors the careful, thoughtful traveler. Everywhere you go there are NPCs to flesh out the culture and context of a given city or region. Every building you walk into is shelved with books that have actual content in them. The game is deep.

To put it simply, an Elder Scrolls MMO just doesn’t seem to fit the lore. Do we really want to have five thousand Champions of Cyrodiil running around with daedric swords and glass armor walloping the hell out of each other? Doesn’t that degrade the narrative that Bethesda has worked so hard to construct up to this point? Moreover, wouldn’t we be risking part of what made the series so great – the ability for the player to be the axis on which the plot turns? These are the risks taken when a game goes massive.

+ Real-time combat adds new challenge

Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, as the latest representative of the Elder Scrolls series to be released, just happens to have one of the best combat systems of any RPG in recent memory. Set in the first or over-the-shoulder third person perspective, combat relies not only on the equipment and traits of your avatar, but also your ability to time attacks, evade enemies, and aim arrows and magic spells. Combat is much more visceral when it feels like you’re the one swinging the sword or deflecting a blow with your shield. The very thought of bringing Elder Scrolls’ hands-on action into a genre plagued by “click to attack” games makes me giddy.

– Deathmatch, the RPG?

On the other hand, games like World of Warcraft can be twitchy as it is, requiring precisely timed attacks to yield the best output for players with any aspirations for high DPS. Latency, something that traditional RPG systems account for with casting times and cooldowns, suddenly returns to the forefront of player consciousness. While the actual aiming and firing of an arrow, taking into account wind speed and the arc of the shot, is certainly a lot more intuitive than simply pressing a button, it’s also subject to the strength of the player’s connection. MMORPGs aren’t supposed to be about who has the faster connection, they’re supposed to be about immersing yourself in a world.. And the larger Elder Scrolls series is not about besting opponents, nor should it be considered a fantasy shooter. There’s a very genuine risk that development could stray that way if the next Elder Scrolls game goes online.

+ They’ve got the pedigree

Zenimax Online is current headed by Matt Firor, former Dark Age of Camelot producer and designer at Mythic Entertainment. It’s not hyperbole or dramatic overstatement when I say that he’s exactly the sort of guy that can pull this off — he’s got the experience within the MMO sphere that a new studio is going to need to take an existing, and already wildly popular property, from the single-player arena and take it massive. Just check out how he handles questions in interviews — he has a firm grip on what it takes to generate sales in the current market, with all its pitfalls and nuance, and he has a strong sense of what’s demanded of a development team in order to generate a success. And to top it off, they can always pick the brains of the Bethesda Elder Scrolls vets working in relatively close proximity. This is no half-assed start-up we’re talking about, they’ve got a good thing going.

– Great, more elves!

While I love the Elder Scrolls lore as much as the next guy, the superficial aspects of the franchise do seem rather redundant when compared to the myriad of other fantasy MMOs currently saturating the market. You hate to be the one to say it, but isn’t it about time we had a game that moved beyond the whole orcs and elves fantasy shtick? Aren’t there other universes that Zenimax could explore? Surely they could devote their considerable creative talents to the development of something truly original — something that would actually stand out on store shelves instead of just blending into the general miasma?

So is it a good idea or a bad one? If I had my way, they would introduce some online elements to the franchise, maybe some instanced zones that players can tackle together, but I would probably stop short of throwing the franchise full bore into the MMO sphere. But it’s hard to imagine Zenimax or Bethesda listening to little ol’ me. Alas in the meantime, all we can do is watch, wait, and speculate.

So what do you think?

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