Translating The Elder Scrolls Online dev speak

The Elder Scrolls Online - Giant orchid monster thing

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.

Language is a pretty fascinating thing, and studying a second one is something I’ve long intended to do. Aside from entertaining thoughts of learning Korean to play ArcheAge, though (seriously, I looked into it), I haven’t gotten around to much beyond college-level Deutsch.

But as I watched last week’s interview with The Elder Scrolls Online creative director Paul Sage, I realized that I already have some pretty good second-language skills. I’m fluent in both English and MMO dev-speak, so as a public service, I’m going to translate some of what Sage said into the former.

The Elder Scrolls Online - quest dispenser

First, the source text:

“We have to make our own game. We want to make a good game first. Not a good MMO, not a good Elder Scrolls game, we want to make a good game first, a great experience for the player.”

And now, the translation:

“We have to make our own game.”

We don’t really care what TES fans want.

“We want to make a good game first.”

We’ll be launching sans several essential MMORPG features.

“… not a good MMO…”

Recurring revenue is our raison d’etre, so we’d call this thing an MMO even if it were to be some sort of browser-based lobby shooter with four preset avatars. For future reference, would you guys buy a browser-based lobby shooter with four preset avatars if we called it Elder Scrolls?

“… not a good Elder Scrolls game…”

TESO will be Elder Scrolls in name only. See “we have to make our own game” above.

“… we want to make a good game first, a great experience for the player.”

We want to make a great experience for a certain type of player — namely, the type who doesn’t have time for an actual MMORPG (or an actual Elder Scrolls game) but does have disposable income. This player bought Skyrim, or at least watched a let’s play, but he likely doesn’t know much about Oblivion and has probably never even heard of Morrowind or Daggerfall. Arena? Oh yeah, I love Quake!

The Elder Scrolls Online - combat screenshot

All kidding aside, it pains me to be pessimistic about The Elder Scrolls Online. Last week’s Game Informer reveal should have been another great day in the fantastic MMO-centric year that 2012 has been to this point.

I mean, yikes, Guild Wars 2, The Secret World, TERA… there are some gems here, and more forthcoming, all of which would’ve paled in comparison to a proper Elder Scrolls MMO.

I’m worried that it’s going to quite improper, though, both because of Sage’s deflection-laced dev-speak and because of the details that leaked out of the Game Informer article (details that aren’t really malleable, like hotbar combat and the same tired themepark mechanics). Come on, ZeniMax, really? Don’t give us kill 10 Redguards, dudes; there’s enough of that crap out there already (and it belongs in an Elder Scrolls game about as much as Justin Bieber belongs in the same room with Jeremy Soule).

Yeah, there’s the three-faction bit, which is making Dark Age of Camelot fans wet themselves for some reason that my PvP-apathetic mind will probably never understand. And there’s the fact that ZeniMax seems to be working with an open-world design mentality that eschews the heavy instancing popularized over the last few years.

And that’s pretty much the sum total of the positives.

The Elder Scrolls Online - character duo

Elder Scrolls combat? Gone. Elder Scrolls non-combat activities? Not looking good. Elder Scrolls gritty, grimy fantasy graphics? Eh, well… not unless the Game Informer pics are miles off target with respect to the final product.

The other thing worth noting is that this title has apparently been in the works since 2007. If that’s true, stop and think about how much has changed in this genre over the last five years. In 2007, making a big IP-powered AAA competitor to World of Warcraft probably seemed like the thing to do. The term “WoW clone” hadn’t yet become the cliche that it is today, and games like Lord of the Rings Online, Warhammer Online, Age of Conan, and Vanguard were either very early in their launch phases or hadn’t launched at all.

In other words, 2007 was a great time to release yet another fantasy themepark. 2013? Not so much. Like BioWare, though, ZeniMax has a money-printing IP on its hands, one that basically guarantees that anything the company puts out there will ride its name recognition and brand loyalty to a certain number of sales.

The Elder Scrolls Online - another quest dispenser?

If there’s one silver lining in TESO, it’s the involvement of Lee Hammock. Who’s Lee Hammock? He’s a designer known for being the primary creative force behind Fallen Earth. If you’ve never played it, here’s the skinny: The game is a curious and ultimately quite pleasant mash-up of open-world sandbox and quest-driven themepark elements.

There’s leveling, but there’s also plenty of skill-based advancement. There’s a ginormous instance-free world that invites you to dispense with the usual quest hub to quest hub grind unless you’re in the mood for it. There’s absurdly deep crafting that is both essential to getting the most out of the game and completely avoidable by players who’d rather be typical MMO serial killers.

If Hammock, or any of TESO’s other designers, can bring some of that sauce to the table and drown out the turgid themepark stew that Sage attempts to sugar-coat in that interview, ZeniMax might end up with a palatable dish on its hands. That’s my hope, at any rate.

This article will probably be denounced by some as piling on the “hate” bandwagon. The reality, though, is that I’m not so much pissed off about TESO’s presumed direction as I am disappointed with how predictable it is. Ultimately, the world of The Elder Scrolls is simply not conducive to 4,000 heroes per server, no matter how hard ZeniMax tries to convince us otherwise (to say nothing of the fact that none of those “heroes” will be doing anything heroic).

I remember thinking that Bethesda’s Todd Howard sounded like a grumpy old man when he said that his team simply wasn’t interested in an Elder Scrolls MMO. Now that I’ve gotten an inkling of what the game’s probably going to play like, I can’t say that I’m very interested in it either.

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