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The trouble with ‘The Elder Scrolls Online’

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This is The Elder Scrolls...

Picture it: you're deep within an ancient Dwarven ruin, trusty blade in hand, your flickering torch casting ominous shadows on the mysterious steampunk architecture.  Squinting into the semi-darkness, you make out movement ahead.  Tensing, you creep forward, and behold…

…a half-dozen wood elves jumping up and down like Adderall-deprived 8-year-olds, with big glowing names like GRINDURBONZE and MOMMAZBOY, yelling things like 'LOL, bards R overpowered' and 'hey d00d wanna duel?'

Kills the mood a bit, doesn't it?  This is the nightmare scenario some fans of The Elder Scrolls — one of the last truly great single-player role-playing series — are dreading with the recently-announced The Elder Scrolls Online, the franchise's first foray into the world of massively-multiplayer online gaming.

Gamers have always forgiven The Elder Scrolls for its vast quantities of bugs, its game imbalances, and its clumsy combat system, because it gives us something that transcends all that.  It immerses us in another world as completely as any game has ever managed to do. But MMOs, however lovely their graphics, aren't really about immersion.  They're about hanging out with your buddies, checking in at the auction house, and becoming part of a finely-honed button-pressing, boss-killing machine.  Their pleasures are undeniably real, but very, very different.

Of course there's always the chance that the team at ZeniMax Online Studios will come up with something truly special — a way to meet the needs of an MMO without becoming just another Warcraft wannabe.  But with the enormous budgets poured into big-box MMOs, developers tend to err on the side of conservatism.  They go with what works, rather than breaking new ground.  Early information leaked from Game Informer's June cover story about the game seems to confirm these fears, at least in part.

Third-person camera perspective?  Check.  Hotbar to activate player skills?  Check.  Multi-faction player-versus-player action a la Dark Age of Camelot or World of Warcraft?  Check.  Tried-and-true — and unspectacular -- graphics engine?  Check (the game will use Star Wars: The Old Republic's Hero Engine).

Single-player Elder Scrolls staples like player housing, lycanthropy, vampirism, romance, marriage, and radiant AI?  Nope.

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...and this is an MMO.

Even if the deep, complex Elder Scrolls lore is still there, it's unlikely to permeate the gameplay experience as it does in a single-player game.  Single-player games move at their own pace; there's time to admire the architecture of a dungeon or thumb through a book of poetry lying neglected on the bookshelf in a rogue wizard's bedroom.  MMOs, precisely because they're social experiences, tend to move at a much faster clip. You don't want to keep your buddies waiting.  You may run the same dungeon a hundred times in search of better loot, barely noticing the surroundings as you ceaselessly monitor your skill buttons and health bar.  A ferociously-maintained balance among all classes and races will iron out the kookier spells, abilities and idiosyncrasies.

Of course, I can't begrudge the makers of the Elder Scrolls games for wanting to make more money.  And the MMO release doesn't necessarily mean there won't be more games released in the single-player series.  Downloadable content for Skyrim is coming soon, after all.

But here's the thing.  Where The Elder Scrolls reigns supreme among modern, single-player fantasy RPGs, in the MMO world it'll be one of many.  How will it stand out in a field littered with 'me-too' fantasy MMOs like Warcraft, Dungeons & Dragons Online, Rift, and The Lord of the Rings Online, to name just a few of the biggest and newest?  Suddenly its elves and dragons and orcs and Khajit cat people -- finely detailed in the context of a game experience that gives you time and reason to explore its history — could look sadly generic.

I'd love to be proven wrong, of course. I'd love for The Elder Scrolls Online to retain its singular sense of atmosphere and immersion, and stake out a place for itself in the massively-crowded world of the massively-multiplayer. I'd love for it to break new ground while holding on to the very things that make me such a fan of the franchise to begin with.

But I'm not holding my breath.

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