Something I struggle with as a gamer is what to make of certain publishers. Knowing a publisher, or having faith in a publisher, or knowing to stay away from a publisher, can be the litmus test for determining whether a certain game is worth playing. Sometimes reputation alone sells a game or buries a game. Yet, despite many releases, Bethesda remains an enigma to me. For whatever reason, one of the most successful RPG makers ever is a company that somehow manages to make landmark games that I never find the time to play. Despite their many successes with Elder Scrolls and Fallout, I still struggle to understand whether I should trust them.
Today I am going to explore the nether regions of my soul in an attempt to figure out what I should think of them, why it is probably wrong, and then try to comprehend my reactions to their recent announcement that Elder Scrolls was being made into an MMO.
This past year has been a very turbulent one for me. I am once more going through massive withdrawal over games I have no time to play. The list already became offensive when the third Uncharted game remained unplayed. Since then I have been forced to add, among others, Skyrim, to that list. Odds are that game would have made it off my backlog had Diablo III not worked its way onto the launching pad. Between getting multiple viewings of the game via a friend and watching Game of Thrones this game has rocketed to the top of the list of games that need to be played (you know, once current commitments are resolved). Perhaps the best way to deal with this is to wait for a Steam sale or a Game of the Year edition to hop aboard the train.
Unfortunately, this game has suffered the same fate for me as other Bethesda releases. It is always the same old story – the things you want most in life you make the time for. If I really made this a top priority there would not be any excuses. As time rolls on I feel more and more guilty about it, which tells me that my inner gamer is getting ready to revolt on the matter. I want to play Skyrim and explore an open and expansive world. Exploring a world at my own pace is exactly what I want right now. If I did have an unhealthy obsession with Star Wars games this problem would not exist for me (or so I tell myself).
The recent announcement of an online Elder Scrolls game has forced me to deal with this conundrum once again. I do not have the suspicion that this is going to mark the end of the great line of Elder Scrolls games. I say this not just because I don't have the standard knee-jerk "sell-out!" reaction that many people do, especially when MMO titles are involved, but because another development house is going to be handling the work on the game. Creating an expansive world is already part of Bethesda's formula. While this is hardly the most important part of creating a successful MMO, I feel like the franchise is suited to being an online game. It is a natural progression.
Now, what can I say about a franchise whose games I have never completed? Well, I have dabbled a little with their games, so I do have some basis for the thoughts running around in my head. The biggest hurdle in these games is that there is never any real guidance with any of them. If I am given the choice to follow the road of the main quest or go off and explore, I am always going to choose the latter. It just makes sense to me that way. I am always way too paranoid about missing out on quests. This is precisely what gets you into trouble in Elder Scrolls – randomly wandering off the beaten path.
In a certain sense, companies like Bethesda are the reason why game guides are still in existence. How would anyone figure out ways to navigate such a huge world and see everything without using the knowledge of those who traveled down the road already? How would you know all the places to explore, doors to open, books to pull off of shelves, and so on unless you spent a lot of time reading what other people have found? I do not consider this a bad thing – it is just a serious time investment for someone who hates missing out on the good stuff.
I realize that guides are not the only choice here. Interacting with the online community is one of the other ways to do this. As I have gotten older staying in contact with people who play these games becomes more challenging. Back in the days when I had to deal with homework I most easily made friends with those who played these types of games. Someone always found a quest that nobody else did. Someone always figured out how to gain a really special spell, weapon, character, or whatever and that evening was always about finding whatever someone else figured out (you know, right after you got your homework done).
This interaction with other people happened with games that were far less involved than Bethesda games. Back when I was first exploring video games Final Fantasy II on the SNES was a complicated game. Zelda: Ocarina of Time was as probably as complicated as it got. I know I never found everything, but that was part of what made replay value so high and games so much fun. Going back and playing the game one more time to find more buried treasure was a very highly motivating factor. This is one more thing that the Internet changed – finding everything became a whole lot easier.
Developers have had to become very clever in burying really good treasure in games. In many cases this was always for the better, but there were always special cases that require exile into video game hell (see: Final Fantasy 9, Excalibur II). Bethesda appears to do a lot of good with giving people a lot to explore and play with. Everyone I know who plays these games always plays them more than once. This is a testament to what can only be described as high praise and success in not only making a game worth of being seen more than once, but also making a game where there is almost always something more to find. That being said, part of me feels like they are still skirting the line of trying too hard.
The core mechanic behind ever Elder Scrolls game is that the more you use a skill, the better you become at it. This makes a lot of sense and is, in many respects, a secondary leveling up mechanic. For whatever reason I felt like the game unfairly punished magic users because their abilities never seemed to be strong enough early on to allow the player to succeed. The way I wanted to play always seemed to be a punishment. As such, I learned that going the route of magical pursuits a player still had to be strong with the sword. More than that, Final Fantasy and Elder Scrolls were near polar opposites in terms of how those games are meant to be played.
Here are two examples to show you how my opinion on Bethesda has been colored by small events. Let us start with Morrowind. In this game, very early on I, unfortunately, became famous for obtaining Swamp Fever within the first half an hour of playing. What I don't think the Elder Scrolls game had yet was any real notion of figuring how to handle this or any of the other diseases that could plague the player. The game itself was solid, but the interface into understanding it was severely lacking. In other words, the game suffered from a complete lack of immersion.
This trend continued for me in Oblivion. Learning the lessons of past games I was able to progress many hours (about 40) before the game wore on me. Immersion completely failed once more, this time in the form of dialog. The dialog with NPC's was barely passable as it was, but the conversation wedge mechanic made life beyond irritating. Playing the same minigame with everyone you meet just to figure out what quests you could go on was an incredibly stupid idea. I wanted to get sucked in, but the game once more would not let me.
At this point in my life what I know about Bethesda games are based on is mostly from what people tell me. I am told numerous times that Fallout 3 is one of the best experiences ever, but the post-apocalyptic world of radiation just does not do anything for me. I chose to wait for Fallout: New Vegas to come along to give the franchise a fair shake, but all I heard about was how buggy the game was and that it was a step down from its predecessor. With any game the size of the ones Bethesda pumps out it should hardly be a surprise to anyone that there are going to be issues with them.
As is true with any industry, a company's reputation is hard to shake once it becomes popular opinion (whether it be true or false). What I have been able to glean over the years is that Bethesda makes deep games with high replay value... and a lot of bugs. While I have not seen this games first-hand to comment on how serious these issues can be, it does scare me a little every time a new game comes out. What I wonder is that if this gives these games an advantage for me as my paradigm for picking up new games changes.
The ability to get a game at launch has gone down the tubes dramatically within the last year. The new rule appears to be keep a running backlog of games and pick from those as opposed to waiting for new games to launch. This allows the obsession to remain relatively cheap and to filter out the big games that launch and fall flat on their face. Dragon Age 2, while a game I would still wind up playing anyway, would not have been as high a priority as it was when it launched. For what it is worth, I still defend that game as a good one and that, once again, a company's reputation does matter when it is releases a game. The best developers have a lot more to live up to. Dragon Age 2 was a B/B+ game. Skyrim, near as I can tell, is an A/A+ game.
If you do not think that this reputation matters, let me squash that misconception for you right now. Id Software used to be king of the mountain and created the most influential shooters ever (Wolfenstein, Doom, Doom II, Quake). Today all they are known for are solid engines and boring games. Naughty Dog has become an ever bigger powerhouse with their Uncharted series (their previous successes being Jak and Daxter and Crash Bandicoot). Square was at one point the unquestioned lord and master of the universe, but not long after Ned Flanders took over that title they went into the tank. Bethesda has built a great reputation with Elder Scrolls games and Fallout.
Bethesda has had a lot to live up to. There is a reason people were pumped about Skyrim long before the game launched – it was because their previous games were monster hits and all of a sudden the in game graphics appeared to be taking a massive leap forward. Gamers love them almost unconditionally because their games have not been deviating from their tried and true formula of single- player RPG's in an expansive world. What could possibly break that momentum?
Cue up the announcement of the Elder Scrolls MMO! We are years away from this announcement meaning anything, yet people do not receive this announcement the same way they would view an announcement of a Skyrim expansion or a new Fallout game. 'MMO' has inherited the same type of stigma that 'DLC' has, and I hardly believe that is fair. Many gamers appear to believe that MMO is a cash-out or some form of lowest common denominator for the industry. The fact is that years of experience have shown that the PC market, with a few exceptions, lives and dies with this type of game. World of WarCraft a long time ago went from a game that was cool to play to a game that was cool to hate. Perhaps that game itself poisoned the MMO genre in many people's minds. Still, subscription numbers do not lie and publishers have known for a while which games sell and which don't.
What does all this make me think of playing Skyrim? I know that sooner or later my interest in The Old Republic will wane. Despite my love of that game and my desire to see the story of every class I know that eventually I will have to move on from it. I say this not just because games like Skyrim on my backlog desperately need to be experienced, but because its entire line is something I will miss out on if I wait too long. Not just because too many other games will be coming along to pay attention to, but games of this magnitude almost require community support to fully enjoy. More than that, could I really enjoy the MMO if I never play the single player version of the game? You would think that my current MMO experience would provide me that answer but it does not.
Skyrim was a huge success. Millions bought it and still play it. That should be enough for fans of not just Elder Scrolls but all single player RPG's. It proves that there is still a good market for this type of game and that as long as Bethesda continues to work their magic then Elder Scrolls will live on - no matter which direction one of their games might take.