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How Skyrim Forecasts The Failure Of The Elder Scrolls Online

Though I tend to quit playing a game as soon as I'm good and bored of it, there's a few games I keep coming back to.  Going by the sheer number of entries on this blog alone, the lead culprits are Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (25 entries) Minecraft (26 entries), and City of Heroes (a whopping 78 entries, mostly about how I can't seem to commit to playing just one hero).

Well, I can't play City of Heroes anymore, not since NCSoft shut it down, but take one guess at what I've been playing over the past few days?  That's right: Skyrim and Minecraft.  What a revolting creature of habit I turned out to be.  Still, it's been awhile since I last played these games and, having re-approached them with a relatively fresh mind, I can't help thinking to myself, "Egads, these games are massive time sinks."  http://www.quickmeme.com/meme/35bud0

I've already talked about how Minecraft wastes my time but, at least after an extended period of playing Minecraft, you could show off some halfway-viable fruits of your procrastination.  You will have built yourself a nice little castle, or whatever, to live in.  You will have fenced off a nice safe area to prevent Creepers from blowing you up at their whim.  Maybe you'll have created a 50-foot tall phallus out of cobblestone.  You know, it really doesn't matter what you have created in Minecraft, the important thing is you actually created something.

Skyrim is a game where you visit places, kill the hostile inhabitants, sell everything that isn't nailed down, and repeat.  Clear out a dungeon and wait long enough, and the dungeon will become repopulated anyway, you haven't created anything.  About the only tangible thing you will have completed that stays completed are the quests, although even a few of those are just dynamically generated on the fly.  Aside from that, the only fruits of your procrastination that Skyrim gives you are standard RPG rewards and housing, and that's got nothing on Minecraft.

But the self-limiting nature of a static world is just a description of the failure of most computer RPGs in general, as well as the general failure of Theme Park MMORPGs, from which Everquest Next gives us some hope because it might be breaking out of that mold by inheriting a lot from Minecraft.  What I've said so far has nothing to do with why Skyrim forecasts the failure of The Elder Scrolls Online in particular.  No, that part follows.

Keep playing Skyrim, and the game just breaks; there is no upper-level balance to Skyrim, it just falls apart underneath the stress of a few good items you end up crafting yourself, and investing in buying a home is little more than a speed bump for your overflowing coffers.  Play long enough and you may come to realize that, in just about every game mechanic Skyrim has, they could have done it a lot better.

However, I can see two things in particular that might have rescued Skyrim's end game experience:
  • Implement a far narrower balance of progression

    Currently, player characters can become virtual demigods who kill dragons with a single blow.  Equally problematic, enemies start out far too dangerous (sabre cats and trolls are particularly annoying for most pre-level-10 builds) but end up ragdolling pathetically under a single swat from higher level characters.

    Why are they even still there?  Because players of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion clamored that having enemies scale with player character level was too immersion breaking.  Consequently, Skyrim became a game where enemies are re-used at all levels regardless of how much a challenge it is to face them.

    There's a simple solution to this, and that is to balance combat on a much narrower progression curve.  This could be done in such a way that even the most humble of skeleton could be a problem for a higher-level character in certain circumstances, while dragons remain extremely challenging from start to end but higher level characters won't have to struggle quite as much. 

    Though not a lot of computer roleplaying games are balanced this way, I've played a few that have, and it works just fine.  A couple of prominent examples being most games in The Legend Of Zelda and Fable series: even the weakest enemies remain a viable challenge in the end game, but character progression will have afforded you a larger margin of error.  You could even argue Skyrim does this, but only in the earlier game if you are lucky enough to encounter the right enemies.

    Though the Creation Kit only has a partial means to address the underlying problem, what someone could do is a massive sweep of every single monster, NPC, item, enchantment, skill, and other effects in the game and its expansions in order to achieve this idea of a narrower, more cohesive balance.   However, this is a dauntingly large work load, you won't be paid a dime for it, and many players may opt to skip using such a plugin knowing that it would likely disrupt the balance of their other plugins.
  • Undergo significant improvement to the radiant story mechanism that introduces powerful dynamic content mechanisms to the NPCs.

    Why is this needed?  A common complaint of players whose Skyrim characters have had hundreds of hours put into them is that everybody is dead.  Random attacks from vampires and dragons, involvement in the civil war arc, and possibly even the player's own predations will inevitably result in a world where the towns are largely just inhabited by invincible children.  On top of that, it seems odd to clean out dungeons, keeps, camps, and other such locations when they're just going to respawn anyway.

    So here's a thought: what if Skyrim actually went through the trouble of simulating an ambient NPC population that re-inhabited vacancies in a more realistic manner?   Ideally, the player character's actions would have all that much more significance because you could actually shape which factions of NPCs thrive or are wiped out.

    This is also implements a potential money sink of consequence for the player, as you could then introduce a means for the player character to invest gold in helping communities to recover and thrive.  Ideally, I would like to see the players able to run their own keep, hiring retainers, arming guards, and so on.  The lack of this sort of feels like a massive omission to a game of Skyrim's scope, does it not?

    Basically, I'm talking about importing some of the best elements of Mount and Blade to Skyrim.  How hard can it be for a major juggernaut like Bethesda Softworks to do when Mount and Blade was developed by a far smaller Indy team?

    Funny enough, Skyrim actually has some capability to do this even in its unmodified form, as NPCs are very much capable of being dynamically spawned and assigned schedules that will take them pretty much anywhere in the game: that's most of the heavy lifting right there!  However, it's still a daunting preposition to do with the Creation Kit because you would essentially be wading through the spaghetti code that resulted from the clutter of every single piece of existing content in the game being designed to work with a far-more-static population of NPCs.  It's doable but, once again, painstaking, tedious work that you won't be paid a dime for.
I think the next time I play Skyrim, I should stick to exhausting the main storyline content because, the more you get sidetracked, the more Skyrim breaks... and sidetracking the player is what Skyrim does best!  Both of these solutions try to remedy that problem, the first revamping progression to be reasonably self-contained, and the latter by preserving the NPC population in an intelligent manner while introducing a worthwhile gold sink.  If that kind of attention were built into the game, maybe Skyrim could actually survive being the open-ended game it was intended to be.

Skyrim is a curious case.  It's a phenomenally successful game that is certainly worth playing but, simultaneously, it probably could have used another year or two of somebody actually balancing it in such a way that the upper level gameplay did not completely disintegrate.   However, it's not like the rest of the Elder Scroll games had a really great balance mechanic, either.  In fact, in terms of having a comprehensive RPG mechanic, Skyrim is the best Elder Scroll game yet, but that mechanic is far from I would expect from a smartly-designed RPG.

So here's my point: despite all the success that Bethesda has enjoyed from The Elder Scrolls series and the newer Fallout game, it seems to me that Bethesda simply does not know how to create a good role playing game.  What they do know how to create are fantastic environments and the powerful engines that drive them, and that's a large part of what we want to see in a role-playing game, which is why they have gotten away with it so far.  However, Bethesda's notoriously hackneyed approach to balance really wouldn't cut it any environment where balance matters, such as an MMORPG... 

...and that's probably why The Elder Scrolls Online is currently on the fast track to be a colossal failure.  Not the subscription fees on release (which are a boneheaded move that can only steal its thunder) but rather because The Elder Scrolls series were never very concrete as RPGs, and consequently Zenimax Online Studios is making a mistake by trying to mold a game in the same image.
AngryJoe is usually pretty spot-on in his observations, too.

This news might surprise you, but I think it's pretty much a pretty safe conclusion: The Elder Scrolls Online is going to hit the MMORPG scene like a bird hitting a window.  For a good explanation as to why, if you have not read the Rock Paper Shotgun perspective on how The Elder Scrolls Online plays, I recommend doing so.  I've played the beta, I understand the NDA is lifted now, and I can tell you that my feelings can be summarized in one easy sentence: The Elder Scrolls Online just a really poorly-done theme park MMORPG, and creating such a game is historically proven to be pretty much just handing your head to World of Warcraft on a platter.  Only The Elder Scrolls name brand is going to infuse it with many players, and this is probably going to cause a great deal of brand damage.

I think the main mistake was in trying to make an MMORPG that stayed reasonably faithful to the Elder Scrolls game mechanics to begin with.
  • First, because the massively multiplayer technical overhead greatly limits the strength of the action mechanic they can implement, and the Elder Scrolls series has already relied on its action mechanic to supplement the poor RPG mechanics underneath ever since the beginning.  
  • Second, because MMORPGs are games in which players have no choice but to be in it for the long haul and, considering the long haul in Skyrim leads straight off a cliff, it's looking like the Elder Scrolls game mechanic is not going to retain a whole lot of subscriptions.  (Granted, character progression in The Elder Scrolls online is nothing like Skyrim... it's quite a bit worse, in my opinion.)  
  • Third, because if you are going to make an MMORPG, for the love of God, don't make it yet another theme park MMORPG, that genre is so over-saturated that you might as well just accept you're never making your money back.  (This isn't exactly an Elder Scrolls inheritance problem, because if they had opted for the world-building approach of Daggerfall, they might actually have had a chance, but ever since Redguard The Elder Scrolls series has indeed been confined to theme parks.)
I'm sure I could come up with even more reasons than that.  In any case, it's looking like Bethesda's neglect in sowing the seeds of a quality RPG mechanic design are about to catch on to them, to the tune of a mean reaping of a $200M whirlwind for it.  That's a Hell of a lot of wind, and I can only hope everybody is going to land on their feet after this one blows over.

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