Revision History: The Future

There was news a couple days ago regarding TES VI and its release date. Not actual news, of course, just a lot of misleading unsubstantiated clickbait on an apparently slow news day. This one seemed to be the most responsible of the various articles I saw. The unabashed speculation is 2019. I think that may be optimistic, and my unabashed speculation on why is at the bottom.

From the release of the Champion System in March of last year to the debut of Wrothgar last November, ESO underwent an extraordinary evolution. Whatever reservations one may have about the Crown Store and its contents, it’s proven to be an acceptable trade-off thus far. ESO has gone from a game about which I was very pessimistic to a game which is a jewel of the TES franchise. Zenimax has walked some slippery slopes trying to appease the various factions of the community while also figuring out their business model, and I think they did a wonderful job overall in 2015.

PvP is always going to need tweaking, but I believe they’ve demonstrated their ability to adapt and address extant issues. It remains playable and entertaining, with more improvements planned. PvE has plenty of content. Persistent bugs are getting addressed. I have complaints, but on balance, I think ESO was saved in 2015. And 2016 promises to make it even better, as discussed by Matt Firor in The Year Ahead. Yes, spell-crafting and a PvP Justice System are getting shelved, but I, for one, was never optimistic about them. The way is clear for new and better things … plus console text chat.

As far as I can tell, ESO is thriving in the face of increasing competition. Maybe they’re channeling a smaller population into fewer instances or something like that, I wouldn’t know, but it seems in my personal experience that people continue to scamper around in the most unlikely places, and the typical congregation spots are still packed. Merchants are still practically standing on each other in various banks. Pixel violence is still being plotted in Belkarth or the Imperial Sewers. Drunken gamblers are still blasting terrible music over area chat in Wayrest. I’ve heard a few anecdotes that ESO was “dead” for a couple days after Fallout 4 was released, but most people have trickled back, and new blood comes in. Guilds rise and fall. Daggerfall Covenant is pretty stressed in PvP, but what else is new. The game goes on. And in 2016, it will go on with the Dark Brotherhood, Thieves Guild, Gold Coast, Clockwork City, PvP duels, etc. They mentioned in the last ESO Live that they’re working on Tamrielic holidays, and I nearly had a stroke. The current economy is threadbare, but it sounds like they have plans to revitalize that, too.

Anyway, in 2016, ESO will continue to get better by leaps and bounds, and Elder Scrolls Legends will be out … sometime. Maybe eleven months from now, maybe five minutes ago, who knows. I just hope the UESP is well-situated to cover it when it drops. Bethesda just opened a new studio in Montreal in December, and based on the Studio Director’s resume, it will likely be focused on mobile gaming. It’s presumably related to Legends, or possibly additional projects.

Idling in Wrothgar

Wrothgar has quickly become my favorite sliver of Tamriel in ESO. Virtually all of the critiques I expressed in my last blog are blown out of the water when it comes to this region. It is both huge and impressively crammed with lore. When I started, it was the Land of Black Quest Markers, and each quest had some illuminating, sometimes thought-provoking facet to it. They come together to give a sort of dynamic vision of how life works in this time and place. And I don’t think I’ve even finished getting booty for the House of Orsimer Glories. Which is not a whorehouse. You gather artifacts, not prostitutes. Still awesome, though.

Wrothgar is not perfect, of course. It suffers a bit from a condition I can only describe as Warcraft Cooties. It may be the unavoidable result of the genre, I guess. While the voice acting is a cut above average compared to the overall game, it’s also occasionally cringe-worthy. King Kurog in particular makes exclamations which are so hammy that they might be easter eggs referencing some classic Doctor Who caricature. And I always wish they would do more to buck traditional fantasy conventions. The Orcs are depicted as more … conventionally refined than I’d imagine them. They’re disappointingly comprehensible, is the best way I can think of putting it. But, again, that may be just the constraints of the game. And the bottom line is that the Orcs, which have long been the least interesting race to me, have been turned into one of my favorites. They’re a people with one foot trapped in barbarism, and they know it. They are struggling to achieve modernity and respect, but they’re not sure how to do so while preserving their identity. Everyone in our modern age should be able to relate to that.

Imagine Skyrim had an extra hold full of Orcs off to the west, and you’ve essentially got ESO’s Wrothgar. The climate, flora, and geology are all strongly reminiscent of Skyrim, in both style and detail. However, the society and fauna are wonderfully different. It is more engaging to me than other regions, and not just because I might gallop right off a cliff if I’m not paying attention. Wrothgar feels like it is the culmination of a great deal of attention and care. I have several reasons to suspect that at least some of the stories it introduces have been brewing for very long time. Just look at the Pocket Guide to the Empire, Third Edition, which appeared as a companion to Oblivion a decade ago:

The only troubling sign for Orsinium is a religious conflict that has brewed over the last ten years. Traditionally, the Orcs have worshiped the Daedra Malacath (Mauloch) as their patron deity. Gortwog, however, has established a new priesthood devoted to the worship of Trinimac, the ancient hero of the Orcs, who legend has it was devoured by Boethia and became the Daedra Malacath. The Orc King’s belief that Trinimac still lives and that Malacath is a separate entity, a demon whose aim was to keep the Orsimer pariah folk forever, is the official position of the shaman priests of Orsinium. A minority of traditionalists within the territory, and the majority of Orcs without, view this as heresy.

This is more or less the political scene as you enter Wrothgar for the first time – about 747 in-game years before the events of Oblivion. To me, King Kurog is clearly a stand-in for King Gortwog. Orsinium never got a showing in Oblivion, but more lore about it came out in the Greg Keyes novels. A teasing little loading screen message in Skyrim stated the kingdom had been rebuilt along Skyrim’s border, which got many fans predicting an Orsinium expansion which never materialized (possibly due to the problems Bethesda faced with PS3 DLC). I think Bethesda plotted much of Wrothgar’s story a long time ago, but couldn’t fit it in as DLC for Oblivion or Skyrim, and ESO thus became the lucky game which got to tell us this story in the land of the Orcs.

The quests seem to be more consistently well-crafted and diverse than in any other part of ESO’s Tamriel. Between interesting quests and a landscape which is fun to explore, Wrothgar provides the best solo gameplay yet. If you’re a Skyrim fan, do yourself a favor and play Wrothgar, even if you’re not fond of ESO. It is everything you could have wanted from that illusory Orsinium DLC.

Thoughts Half-boiled Speculation on the Future
I hate to use this phrase, but clearly, they’re trying to grow the Elder Scrolls brand like never before. Besides ESO and Legends, there are the printed lore book anthologies, and they’re still taking job applications at Bethesda. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they authorize someone to take another crack at a proper TES novel series. We also shouldn’t forget last year’s attempt to monetize Skyrim mods, even though it has failed for the time being. I took that, in part, as a sign that they were trying to squeeze some extra longevity out of the game. They’re cashing in big time on TES, and just getting started. But where is all this heading?

What I want for the next TES game is limitless. I want a game the size of Daggerfall, with the exotic detail and lore quality of Morrowind, the quests of Oblivion, and the polish and dynamic combat of Skyrim. But most of all, I do not want the series to stagnate. I want the next game to do what the series has always done: push boundaries.

The next TES game could be in a lot of different places. I would personally love to see Argonia, and I think that would make a lot of sense for the next setting, but Valenwood also has merit, and Elsweyr is not out of the question, among others. The field of candidates is thick, and no principle in trying to single one out seems reliable at this time. That’s why I don’t think anyone will be able to look back and say, “Of course, it was so obvious!” Maybe a person could predict that Cyrodiil would be the next game setting after the Morrowind expansions, based on hints in the lore. That, in retrospect, seems obvious. Maybe you could predict Solstheim would be a Skyrim DLC, because nostalgia (and that’s virtually the only thing I’ve ever managed to predict about these games). But right now, no one can pretend to read the tea leaves on the setting of TES VI.

However, I think ESO’s success can tell us a lot about the release of the next game, if not the setting. I know, “ESO is not a replacement for single-player Elder Scrolls games”, or something to that effect. But while it may not be a replacement … it is effectively replacing the single-player TES experience. C’mon. See the Wrothgar gushing above. Try telling a single-player Warcraft fan that WoW has not affected the release schedule of the next single player game of that franchise. I mean, if Fallout 4 made ESO anecdotally “dead” for a couple days, imagine what kind of metaphorical morbidity will ensue when TES VI drops. Maybe ESO will have gone the way of the dodo by 2019, but I wouldn’t take bets on that. And if ESO remains profitable, Bethesda and their parent company will have a disincentive to sabotage that revenue stream by sticking to a tight release schedule for TES VI. Combined with previous Bethesda statements about not wanting to go back and forth between creating Fallout and Elder Scrolls, and I think it’s likely that single-player TES fans are going to have to be very patient for the next installment. A 2019 release for the next installment of the main series seems a little optimistic to me. But keep in mind, I’m a natural-born buzzkiller.

I am nowhere near an expert on the gaming industry. I’m as tech savvy as an Amish mule. Maybe late 2019 is feasible. But I think that assumes the next installment of the main series will be simply a further refinement of the TES formula, a “Skyrim Plus” in a new region. It also assumes that Fallout 4 DLC development, as well as any interim game (or games) between Fallout 4 and TES VI, will be accomplished on a pretty tight schedule, not to mention TES VI itself. So I think 2020 or 2021 seems more realistic. Possibly later, if the next installment is unconventional.

By “unconventional”, I mean the Elder Scrolls is going to get on the bandwagon for virtual reality, augmented vision, what-have-you. It’s just a matter of time. A matter of when the tech and the market will be mature enough to satisfy bean-counters about commercial prospects. Now, is that tipping point two years away, or more like 10 years away? If it’s 10 years away, by all means, give us Skyrim Plus ASAP! But if it’s, say, five years away, that’s something else. And I’ve been seeing more and more articles lately, such as this one, which indicate that the VR gaming revolution is reaching an exciting new level of sophistication. Will the Elder Scrolls head full-bore into a VR experience with TES VI? Or will it be TES VII? Or VIII?

If I can play Skyrim Plus in three or four years, that would be mind-boggling. I’m an Elder Scrolls junkie, after all; give me my fix! And I’m sure that would make for another gaming masterpiece, even for non-junkies. But what if, by waiting a bit longer, we could have an Elder Scrolls game which takes things to a whole different level? I think TES is the eminent fantasy simulator series in gaming, and has been for a while now. But the greatest external threat to that status is if Bethesda drags their heels in joining the next revolution of entertainment.

I became hooked on this series with Morrowind. As Todd Howard acknowledged a couple years ago, Morrowind saved TES and Bethesda. I believe one of the big reasons the game developed such a large and loyal following was because it was easy to see at the time, whether you were a gaming experts or a filthy casual like me, that Morrowind pushed the limits. Perhaps I’m just a fanboy spinning a negative into a positive, but I think the chronic bugs Morrowind exhibited were symptomatic of the incredible ambition of the project. I think ambition may be the most defining characteristic of the series as a whole, in fact, but that seems less apparent in recent installments. You can easily see how each game has become more technologically sophisticated than the last, but I think it’s fair to say that the leaps and bounds have been getting shorter over the years. The gameplay in Morrowind was extraordinarily advanced compared to Arena, but the difference between Morrowind and Skyrim is less pronounced. Not to say that Skyrim was unambitious; it was extraordinarily ambitious. But they didn’t bite off (much) more than they could chew. They made sure the core of the game was very polished, they made a great combat simulator, but they didn’t build as much TES around it as I would’ve liked. The game-to-game trend of diminishing landmass and lore continued. It feels like they shot for the stars with Daggerfall and Morrowind, and landed on the moon. Then they landed on the moon again with Oblivion. And again in Skyrim. The moon is great, and I’d kill to go back several more times, but let’s not forget, the stars are still out there, too!

All I’m really saying is, I hope the recent efforts to cash in on the Elder Scrolls brand are building to something great in the next game. Something which ambitiously pursues immersion, in the spirit of what made the brand great. Though I admit, I would happily celebrate whatever advancements Peter Hines would deem “noteworthy”; just give me my fix. And if you stuck around through this whole wall of text, you are a real trooper.

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