The Elder Scrolls Online and the Rise of the Massively Single-Player Game

The Elder Scrolls Online
The Elder Scrolls Online

No game market is riskier to enter than the crowded and notoriously unstable world of Massively Multiplier Online games (MMO). Developers will always be tempted by the potential for profit, though – World of Warcraft, the highest-grossing game of all time, has over 7 million subscribers, each paying up to $14.99/£8.99 a month, and it’s been running for ten years.

The foundation of WoW’s success can probably be attributed to its status as a sequel to the influential Warcraft strategy game series, and many other developers have followed suit, trying to decrease risk by creating MMOs based on popular single-player franchises. Recent examples include The Elder Scrolls Online, Final Fantasy XIV and Star Wars: The Old Republic.

MMOs can be very different beasts from offline games, though. They are designed around interacting with other people, who can be seen in the game world even if the player has nothing to do with them. Several areas and enemies are simply too hard to tackle solo, meaning players have to form groups to take them on, and later in the game they often form large, permanent guilds to tackle dungeons. Trading is often the best way to get good items and players define the in-game economy. The jargon and unspoken rules of the game are usually created entirely by gamers. Other people’s presence is inescapable.

This poses an interesting challenge – how does a publisher convince fans of a single-player franchise to play its new MMO spinoff? More and more they seem to think that the solution is to make sure players can play these games alone if they want to. While traditionally single-player games are trying anything these days to fit in multiplayer modes (think Assassin’s Creed or Bioshock 2), the MMO genre is strangely heading in the opposite direction.

Lone Hero

First-person view is another staple of single-player Elder Scrolls games brought to Online despite its rarity in MMOs

The Elder Scrolls Online is the most recent high-profile MMO release, based on the unwaveringly single-player franchise that brought gamers Skyrim, Oblivion and Morrowind. It’s no surprise that it was met with heavy scepticism from fans of the series on announcement, and in a pre-release interview with Game Informer, Game Director Matt Firor was quick to point out that there is “a whole part of the game that is 100 per cent solo, which is the main story, where the world focuses on you – you are the hero, everything you do is solo and the world reacts to you that way”. It was a clear statement that seemed designed to reassure past Elder Scrolls players – he was, after all, basically describing the mechanics of every previous game in the series.

As a result, in TESO there’s a main storyline that players can complete entirely on their own, they see the game world differently from other players depending on how far they’ve progressed, and even the player-versus-player content includes solo quests. Players also automatically share experience from kills with others without needing to formally group up with them, meaning that their progress is not slowed if they prefer to play alone.

The problem is that this also removes the need to interact with other players at all. When I’m on the same quest as someone else in the area we’ll often be killing the enemies together without saying a word to each other. It’s even odder when the focus on a personal story means that NPCs keep telling me I’m the only one who can help them. It can feel like I’m just playing a single-player game that happens to have other people wandering around.

To TESO’s credit, though, it is at least a more sociable game than 2012’s Guild Wars 2, which featured many of the same game mechanics but gave players even less of a reason to interact with each other.

Whereas TESO offers bonus experience points for questing as a group Guild Wars 2 offers no such benefits. In fact it doesn’t even give players much need to group up in the first place – unlike in TESOGW2’s quests are mostly minor variations on the kill/collect model that are often too short, simple or easy to need any special group effort.

There is also a stronger focus on solo story quests in GW2 compared to TESO, all of which take place in ‘instances’ – areas that remove players from the multiplayer world altogether – making these quests particularly isolating.

Instances designed for one player were once unheard of in MMOs, where most quests can usually be completed by everyone in the game, and seem to go completely against the core principles of the genre.

Perhaps the first game to use them extensively was Bioware’s 2011 MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic, which is a spin-off of the company’s successful Knights of the Old Republic single-player RPGs. TOR seems to want to actively discourage players from interacting early in the game by instancing most of their quests and giving them AI-controlled partners to help with the rare hard enemy (these companions are the same for every player of a class, only adding to the feeling that this is a single-player game in disguise).

Communities, not Games

The Old Republic takes several cues from Bioware's successful single-player RPGs
The Old Republic’s companion system is taken straight from developer Bioware’s successful single-player RPGs

This is not to say that any of these games are bad, just that they are lacking in what really makes MMOs special.

MMO developers are trying to increase their audience by catering to gamers who would usually want to play games alone. They are part of a trend among big-name developers of making games that appeal to as many people as possible, which can mainly be attributed to the increasing pressure from cheap and creative indie titles that often outperform their games in both sales and critical praise.

But these players probably aren’t interested in a traditionally multiplayer-only genre anyway. Meanwhile, focusing too much on solo content can harm the multiplayer elements that are an MMO’s true selling point and also put off the players who can make their communities truly thrive. Think of EVE Online – an almost entirely community-driven game that is relatively low-profile by most standards, but has remained enduringly popular thanks to some extremely dedicated fans.

It’s true that these communities can sometimes be a little unattractive for more casual players. I began enjoying World of Warcraft less and less when I realised that other player’s ideas about what made a ‘good’ player were restricting the sandbox nature of the game. At least that showed that the community mattered, though, and WoW still held my interest longer than almost any other game I’ve played.

The extra cost that usually comes with an MMO – whether that be through a subscription fee or an in-game shop – also means that a focus on solo play might make gamers feel that they are simply playing a more expensive version of single-player entries in the franchise, something that will only drive people away.

The Value of Multiplayer

Large group battles have always been a staple of World of Warcraft
Large group battles have always been a staple of World of Warcraft

It is of course possible for MMOs to become too reliant on interaction between players, resulting in many gamers finding it harder and harder to progress in the game without significant groups of other players. One of WoW’s early weaknesses was its over reliance on large group dungeons once players reached the level cap. These were among the only activities to do at the end of the game and one of the only ways to get the game’s best items, but they often required groups of up to forty people to complete, something only the most active players of the community usually had access to.

There is still value in single-player content, but it should be an option and not a philosophy to design the game around. It should never be in direct opposition to the ‘Multiplayer’ part of ‘Massively Multiplayer Online’, and it should always be better with other people if players have that option.

Not everyone plays MMOs with friends, but this is not a reason to isolate these players from others – it’s a reason for MMOs to strive to foster a community within their game worlds. Showing players the benefits of groups, guilds, trading and communication without forcing them – or making them purely functional – is important to this. In other words, gamers need to see the value multiplayer has in enhancing gameplay elements they like, rather than getting in the way of them.

Emphasising single-player elements is not the only way to attract people who usually only play solo games, because there’s more that attracts someone to a game than its player count. If gamers like The Elder Scrolls games because of their richly-detailed worlds and lore, then give them this in the MMO and instances or personal story quests won’t be necessary to bring them over.

TESO actually does this well, but it was fairly underplayed in a marketing campaign that focused mainly on game features like combat and character progression. The same can be said of the promotional strategies of most MMOs, but these games aren’t popular because of their gameplay – functionally, they usually don’t come anywhere near to the standard of the best new single-player releases. Instead, it’s the thousands of other people playing that make them interesting.

What’s the point of an MMO if gamers aren’t going to care about these people? Surely in an industry where AAA games are becoming more and more homogenous we should celebrate rather than suffocate the unique features of online games. Otherwise, players may one day give up on the genre altogether.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. It has the best character customization, best combat, best questing, best graphics, and easily best pvp (since DAOC). This game is easily worth 15 dollars a month, and I don’t see any MMO coming close to this game anytime in the near future. It is the best MMO on the market at this time.

    • I tend to agree with you, actually. I hope the article didn’t make it seem like I’m too negative about the game. I’m enjoying it more than most other MMOs I’ve played recently, mainly for the questing, PVP and character customisation. It just has a bit of an identity crisis, really.

  2. A good friend of mine bought me a copy of ESO so i’m going to give it a month at least. I’ve been an MMO and Elder scrolls fan for well over a decade and this game has me conflicted like no other in recent memory. On one hand, it really does feel and mostly play like an Elder Scrolls game. On the other, and i can’t really put my finger on why, it’s one of the dullest games i’ve played in a long time. Maybe because of the online nature of it i just don’t feel the same connection to the world as in a single player Elder Scrolls. I don’t know, it just feels like something is missing. Hopefully it will pick up as i progress, but as of now i’m not sure i’ll play beyond the first month.

    • I agree about not feeling a connection to the world. Like I said in the article, it might be better if there weren’t other players running around reminding you that your actions have no consequence for them. It exists in a weird place between Elder Scrolls game and MMO, never quite feeling exactly like you’re playing either, despite all the previews seeming to say ‘It’s an MMO in disguise as an Elder Scrolls game’ or ‘It’s an Elder Scrolls game in disguise as an MMO!’. You’ve got to almost train your mind to stop trying to think of it as either.

      As with all MMOs, though, it will only improve with time as more content is added. Perhaps that will add the missing something you talk about. I’m personally very excited for them to introduce thieving and the Dark Brotherhood.

    • This isn’t Elder Scrolls. That’s why it feels like something is missing. This is a generic MMO with an attempt of an Elder Scrolls skin.

  3. The game is not very good. I am a veteran MMO player since EQ launched and never have I been less excited to log in and play. Maybe Lineage 2 or AC2 would be close. I just found the combat super slow and boring and there were even a few quest bosses that I could not solo and it would not allow me to bring in friends, that is not acceptable in an MMO. Doshia I think it was and I even leveled past her level by 2, enchanted all my gear and I still couldnt take her down as a sorcerer, screw that.

    • Honestly, I don’t think the game is designed for veteran MMO players. That seems to be what Wildstar is shooting for, but ESO is very much aimed at Elder Scrolls and PvP fans, for better or worse.

      (P.S. I was stuck on Doshia for ages too. You have to hit her healing orbs to beat her 🙂 )

    • So much for being a veteran MMO player if you can’t figure out a generic boss simple tactic…
      I see your entire post as invalid now, sorry.

  4. This game is successful because it is a good game. MMO players might not find this easy enough for them as typically MMO players are used to the quick walk through and not having to worry about dying or losing gear etc. People like the challenge and the vast storyline of the game without having to deal with all the other crap typically associated with an MMO.

  5. Monique

    I’ve played TES games since I bought Arena in 1994, and rather obsessively made mods for Morrowind for the better part of ten years. I’ve played WoW and other MMOs, but don’t currently have home internet so haven’t tried TES online yet. Some MMO communities are difficult and abrasive, and I don’t usually play video games for social reasons, which means I rarely experience the upper end of MMO games. This article answers a lot of questions I had about format and game play. Thanks!

  6. Phil Alexander

    Why you DON’T want ESO to fail. (If you’re a fan of Bethesda/Zenimax) – Bethesda Softworks: In all honesty if you have an issue with ESO’s current state of affairs when it comes to the imperial edition, the blocked race and the fact that the game was released too early and that they put out a hard release date so now the game has some bugs. Then this is probably who should take a big part of the blame. This is where the marketing department sits, and the CPA’s and the accounting department. Essentially from what I understand this is the head honcho. The branch of the company who decides what projects their money is going to be allocated into and sets the time frames and payment methods. – Bethesda Game Studios: If you’re a fan of Fallout, Elder Scrolls and Wolfenstein then these are the guys ass’s you should be kissing. They’re the ones who are developing the single player games we all know and love. The inner workings of their gaming genre has changed over the years but they still put out fantastic games that always seemed to be pushed out ahead of time and riddled with bugs because that certain branch of the company that I mentioned above. I can pretty much promise you that Zenimax and Bethesda Game studios were in close cahoots through out the development of ESO. -Zenimax Online Studios: This company was essentially invested into (and i’m not entirely sure if created by) Bethesda Softworks. Essentially Bethesda wanted to make an MMO because if done correctly they can be extremely profitable but they faced a bit of a problem. Bethesda Game Studios doesn’t know MMO’s from a potato and an orange. This is where Matt Firor came into play because Doac (Dark Ages of Camelot) and Elder Scrolls really are an extremely good fit. So they invested their money into the Zenimax team to develop ESO. And personally just based off the game itself and not the subscription fee, not the imperial race and not the bugs I think they did a pretty fantastic job. So why did Bethesda Softworks decide to invest into an MMO with a subscription based payment method? Because if done correctly not only can a subscription based payment model prolong a games existence both through maintenance and later game content, but also because the money that was invested can be redeemed not only quickly but at an inflated rate. But here’s where I personally feel they screwed up. That company that I mentioned at the top of the tier up there? Well they followed suit with companies like EA, Activision and NCSoft. Sure perhaps Zenimax is moderately independent company but until their investors are paid they are underneath Bethesda Softworks shoe. Hence the Imperial Race. Hence the game probably being pushed out a bit too early resulting in bugs. If you really want to blame someone i’d blame A) The marketing department and B) Matt Firor for not putting his foot down more often. So why should you pay for a subscription and hope the game doesn’t go F2P? It’s pretty simple really. Where do you think a big majority of that profit that was going to be gained from ESO was going to go? That’s right to Bethesda Softworks who then would have taken that money and invested it into Bethesda Gaming Studios who then could have potentially hired more developmental staff who then could have turned out better games with less bugs and at a quicker rate. It all comes full circle. Personally I am enjoying the game a great deal but I also understand this, which makes it easier to cope with the bugs and the Imperial Race. I can also see where they want this game to potentially go. And there’s a ton of potential here. Sorry for my rant but I’m getting pretty sick of people wishing and preying for a games downfall. And not just ESO but several games.

    • I’ve played enough sub-par free-to-play games with annoyingly necessary in-game shops that I’m actually glad that the subscription fee is back in fashion. Final Fantasy XIV, Wildstar and ESO are all bucking the trend, with Final Fantasy showing that it can still be successful. For me, it gives me more confidence that an MMO will have the money to consistently improve quality down the line.

      That said, I’m glad that there are loads of free-to-play games around now because it gives players a lot more choice than there was in the WoW era. That’s what I like about Guild Wars 2 – I can go back to it at any time, no pressure, particularly when I don’t have any other MMOs to play.

      • Jonathon Wilson

        I have little experience with the Elder Scrolls series, and only marginally more with the MMO genre, but the F2P option (and a bonkers love for all Middle earth) was what initially brought me into LOTRO. Eventually, after realizing that there was really on so far you could go without becoming a paying member, I coughed up the money and really had a good time with the game until I simply got too busy to play anymore. But to you point about the solo/group dichotomy in MMO. I spent the majority of the time I played LOTRO playing by myself and rarely hooked up with other players. As I said, I just love the world period and wanted to experience it in a different manner than I had already. With that said, I did find a certain sense of satisfaction when I did hook up with a group, or even just one other individual, to complete a quest or grind through certain areas. I think that camaraderie that is formed even in that digital setting is quite interesting and certainly did add another element to the game that I really enjoyed.

  7. limatwa

    I excpected this not to be as awesome as people would want ofc, but still it dissapointed me very much. The quests are rather dull, the maps and surroundings, while beatiful are empty and void of feeling, and even more so in those “huge battles” they are empty and break immersion. Not to mention that playing this with friends is a chore.
    Considering that I wanted pretty much skyrim but with raids and instances, pvp and a bit bigger world, new story and the ability to play with friends, this is a dissapointment, a poor effort. I hate to say this but it deffinately does not live up to the expectations.

  8. Not the type of guy to bash anything but after my friend irl got banned because of trading with someone for exploiting the infinite Gold glitch which he knew NOTHING about i wouldn’t go near this bug ridden mess at all and anyone saying this game is the best is only kidding themselves IMO

    • Effie Li

      I love this if this is true actually. Companies that aren’t afraid to drop the ban hammer have much better communities. Even if someone gets banned wrongfully on occasion. Especially on pay to play since initial game cost usually turns out to be a very small percentage of the cost to the player. IMO that is a big reason for that monthly sub, to keep the community clean of that kind of exploitation.

      • At the end of the day it probably is better if the developers are too strict and sometimes ban players wrongfully than if they’re too lenient and let too many people get away with it. On most MMOs you’re able to protest bans anyway.

  9. Ainsworth

    hope the bugs will be fixed for when it comes out for the PS4. I have the collectors edition pre ordered and plan on wasteing more time on this game then I did on Morrowind, oblivion, and skyrim combined.

  10. With any new release, especially with a massive undertaking such as TESO there is going to be a lot of bugs. The great thing about MMO’s is that the company is constantly monitoring and working to fix these bugs though, unlike single player games where patches are much longer coming and less extensive. I really liked the article. I also think it would be cool to talk a bit about how single player games have been trying to incorporate community elements. A great example of this kind of idea was Red Dead Redemption multiplayer mode. While in practice their ideas didn’t work out as expected, they had some very interesting ideas on how to take a traditionally single-player game and add some community elements. Maybe look at the upcoming game, Destiny, for some interesting new ideas on multiplayer. Bungie has always had very good community elements, Halo for example, and Destiny will probably be no different in that aspect. I really liked the article overall though!

    • Wow, I’ve never seen such divisive views for a game! Perhaps it has something to do with it being an extension of such a well-loved franchise – people either had high expectations that weren’t met, and are therefore disappointed, or are much more willing to defend it than they would be for a new IP.

      ESO seemed to get a lot of negative buzz before its release because of this, and I worry that a lot of it has stuck around unjustifiably. It’s a good game, and I’ve never encountered any of the bugs people seem to be focusing on. It has a lot of room to improve, yes, and as my article said it makes some weird gameplay decisions, but it’s in no worse a state than most other MMOs at launch, and it’s a fair bit more ambitious than a lot of them too.

  11. I can’t wait until it releases on Xbox One, the collector’s edition is sweet.

  12. I liked your article, though I didn’t agree with everything. I agree that we should celebrate unique features rather than suffocate them. I’ve only ever really extensively one MMO (GW2) but I enjoyed the beta for TESO. Might buy it later.

  13. Amanda

    I really value this article. I have been hesitant on getting the game for the main reason that I know almost all MMO’s are buggy when first released, as I witnessed with many of the Nexon games like Vindictus or Mabinogi. I think I’m going to wait a while to allow many of the bugs to be fixed before delving into the game. I feel like I want to allow Bethesda the chance to present the game fully formed and fully tested, because the state they released it in was not that. And thank God MMO’s make frequent updates and changes possible. I really want to try it out, but I think I’ll hold off for 6-8 months and play other games til most of the bugs have been fixed.

    • While I haven’t found ESO to be as buggy as everyone thinks, I think it’s always worth waiting a few months after launch to get any MMO, because that’s when the developers transition from putting in content they had to have to make it worth the money to content they just want to put in because it will be cool. I’m annoyed that things like the Dark Brotherhood, Thieves Guild and Imperial City aren’t in ESO at launch. It would’ve been great to start my character with them around.

  14. Sean Buckley

    One example of the poor shift from single-player to MMO would be the adaptation of Knights of the Old Republic, a game in the pantheon of the RPG genre, to The Old Republic. As someone who went out of my way for the midnight releases of both (I was 11 for KOTOR), The Old Republic was a colossal disappointment. The interface was too complicated, especially for someone who was new to the MMO genre, but most importantly the story was lacking. Having six different story lines for each character works only if the player is committed to having different characters for each class.

    One of the most underrated aspects of a game today is that it tells a coherent and interesting story, not just mindless orders and explosions. The fact that KOTOR was able to blend action and suspense into a 100-hour story in an already cluttered and diverse universe like Star Wars’ shows that having too great of a blueprint can be a problem. Xbox One users can only hope such does not happen to TESO, as both Oblivion and Skyrim set very high bars for story-telling in a video game.

  15. I always get really excited when I here about a new mmo coming out and am invariably disappointed when I get a chance to actually dig in. It seems as though I like the idea of mmo’s far more than the actual experience.

  16. Good read. It’s clear you know your topic well. The thing that intrigues me about MMO’s having Single-Player style features is the Lore and your character’s place in the world. In the case of TESO, if like in the other Elder Scrolls Games your character is the “chosen one” of sorts, how can it make sense that all of these chosen ones are walking around interacting? I havent played any of TESO so i don’t know if this is the case, but if you are going to be a “chosen one” that should be kept single player. MMO’s should, at least in my opinion, be more about the world and the environment, and you trying to get ahead in it and establish yourself with those around you, than being the Ultimate Hero stomping out evildoers. I think all of the problems discusses in your article could have been aided by Bethesda realesing The Elder Scrolls 6 alongside or at least around TESO to give the single player fans what they want, and have TESO be for the more multi-player geared, or for those who enjoy both.

    • TESO has a strong focus on ‘chosen one’ style storylines. Basically every quest has people saying that you’re the only one who can help them, even when there are five other people running around doing the same thing. It kind of ruins your suspension of disbelief sometimes – but then, I don’t even like playing the single player Elder Scrolls games as ‘The Chosen One’. I just think it’s more realistic to be the mysterious wandering adventurer kind, not someone who everyone in every city recognises, as weird as that sounds.

      And to be fair, even WoW had about ten different people killing the main bad guy every week, which was then announced by the NPCs in the capital. I’d love to see an MMO where, like you said, being a famous person in the gameworld was more about what you did yourself in that world, not just NPCs telling you that you’re amazing.

  17. RobinYourgrave

    I think a really important discussion–especially with TESO in mind–is that fact that this isn’t just a PC title. What are the implications for a game like this being marketed to consoles as well? Is the focus on the single-player experience a direct result of this? Further, with the fact that the game has now been delayed six more months for the console release, will the $15/month fee in conjunction with PSN and Xbox Live memberships be a deterrent in the success of this game? This is old and tried and true with PC MMOs, but the console market for these games is relatively new. I know that after the delay, I cancelled my pre-order for the game and I am sure that many others did the same. I was just curious if you thought that similar disillusionment with this game would befall many other gamers as well.

    • I think I read that you no longer need to pay an Xbox live subscription to play ESO, but I’m not sure about PSN. I was actually talking to my PS4-owning friend about this the other day. He played Skyrim on console and was looking forward to getting ESO. He was shocked when I told him he needed to pay for it every month. That kind of thing is alien to console gamers, and if a lot of people like him assume that ESO is just another entry in the Elder Scrolls franchise and not more of a spin-off I can see there being a lot of disappointment.

  18. ayami302

    I’ve been wanting to get into gaming, and heard mixed reviews on this game, so it’s good to see someone covering this topic. However, it disappointed me when I realized that you can’t get it for a Mac (I tried). Someone else also mentioned Mabinogi, and I freaking loved that game. However, again, when I switched to a Mac after my PC died, I couldn’t play it anymore. I think what this big game companies should do like Bethesda is make the game more compatible with the different operating systems of different laptops. Maybe then people would give it a chance.

  19. I bought ESO just About 6 months ago. And to be honest I was a little disappointed. I fell in love with Oblivion and sunk many..many hours into Skyrim so the idea of questing with friends was like a dream. Now partially because I do not have a great computer I felt slightly cheated but I feel there is some great ideas being thrown around there and with some polishing and a good team. It has the prospects of making a come back

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