Elder Scrolls Online Beta Report: Another Predictable Theme Park MMO

I had the opportunity to have participated in two Elder Scrolls Online beta weekends. During the previous beta weekend I was able to devote some significant time to playing two characters where I got a good feel for the first 5 levels of the MMO.

The second beta weekend apparently just ended abruptly at 9 PM Pacific time — 3 hours ago as I am writing this. At least the previous weekend allowed players to play in the early hours of Monday morning but not this weekend. Throughout this beta weekend the ESO servers were plagued with problems that made playing the MMO pretty impossible. You would think that given all of the server problems that players experienced this weekend, Zenimax would have the good sense to extend the beta weekend like they did the previous time. Not this time.

Since I didn’t have much time to play the most recent beta which has put me in a foul mood, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts instead.

Before I begin, I would also like to briefly mention that MMO bloggers seem to get lost in the shuffle with big MMO companies these days. Special gaming press beta accounts and special press junkets are all reserved for the big gaming websites and YouTube gaming personalities while bloggers like myself are ignored. The gaming press and video game companies have an unhealthy symbiotic relationship where each of them needs each other. In most cases, sycophancy and boosterism has replaced honest critique. I plan on covering this and the decline of MMO blogging in a future article.

ESO Beta Weekend Impressions

Let me start this article by confessing that I have never really enjoyed any of the Elder Scrolls RPGs. The interface of those games always seemed rather odd and clunky to me. Almost overly minimalist as if to help suspend the users disbelief. It didn’t work for me. Utility should trump immersion. If you can’t navigate then you can’t play, if you can’t play you won’t stick around long enough to be immersed.

There may be another reason I didn’t like any of the previous games: I just don’t like video games much these days. If I’m going to play, I’d rather be doing it with other people.

Back to ESO. ESO opens up with a tutorial scenario where the hero *coughs* player locked in a prison. The player must escape the prison and go on to find out his destiny and save the world ™. We’ve seen this scenario in MMOs that have come before. The situation is tense with NPCs escaping with you. There is lots of scripted drama and artificial tension designed to captivate the player. However, it felt very similar to the RIFT newbie zones with a decidedly hurried pace as my character had to keep running and running some more to achieve objectives.

Of course the player is the “hero”. This is a tired contrivance that we’ve seen in countless MMOs of late. You know, I’m really sick and tired of being told I’m a hero in a virtual world and you should be too. MMO visionaries from Rob Pardo to Curt Schilling to Brad McQuaid have this misguided notion that a grown adult playing a MMORPG needs to feel like he’s a hero. Enough already with bestowing unearned heroism on players. Enough with developers defining heroism. Let players earn and define their heroism, don’t just give it away. Stop the manipulation and social engineering; it’s insulting to our intelligence.

The Tyranny of the Quest

From the beginning of ESO, the player is taught to follow the script and chase the quest-givers. It’s a terrible precedent that sets the tone for this disappointing MMO. The result is that ESO seems like just another theme park MMO in the school of WoW, RIFT, SWTOR and others.

Where are All the Enemy Mobs?

At least from levels 1 – 5, I noticed that the mobs are scarce compared to most MMORPGs.  I’m not sure if they are doing this to be more realistic or they are trying to emulate the same real wilderness feel of Oblivion and other Elder Scrolls single player video games.

The overland areas in particular seem to have an extremely low density of mobs — even the starting zones had very few mobs. I don’t believe I ever felt any danger or sense of urgency. I don’t think I even died once. Mobs are rarely found in pairs or in threes. A higher mob density would significantly add to the danger and excitement which is currently non-existent.

Another thing: the mobs die in a most unspectacular and unsatisfying way. No special animations or death rattle caught my attention. To their credit, Zenimax did add collision for mobs for this beta weekend which by all reports seemed to have improved the combat experience. Dodge seems pointless and more of a distraction and gimmick as you are far better off just mashing buttons to kill the enemies.


Crafting was so complex and cryptic that it could not figure out how to craft anything. The user interface for crafting needs a total overhaul.

User Interface: Targeting, looting and More

As someone who is used to tab targeting I found the mouse targeting system a chore. This MMO plays like a FPS than a MMO. Perhaps previous Elder Scrolls games play this way?

The health/mana/energy bars are confusing and operate in an expanding and contracting fashion which is a huge departure from most MMOs. Why reinvent the wheel if it’s not needed?

Stylistically ESO uses a modern Arial type font to convey everything which is really a shame since this is supposed to be a fantasy world. Again this is more of the clinical bland “feel” that they have imported from previous ES games.

To speak to a friendly NPC or to interact with an item found in the world you have to be close enough and facing the object and press “E”. Finding the right proximity and position can be a hassle and really makes playing ESO a frustrating experience. The devs really need to loosen up on the proximity and target facing requirements.

Other Observations worth Noting

There’s a sense of blandness and sameness that permeates what I’ve seen so far of ESO. Part of the problem is the big assortment of humanoid races that seem to all look the same and seem to be about the same height. Races should be radically different and recognizable.

Another issue is that I found it really hard to get into the story-line and care about people and the places due to the generic one-size-fits-all starting zone. I would have preferred to see the player starting off in a small settlement in their own racial lands. I always felt somewhat out-of-place and out of sorts in ESO. Perhaps not having played the previous Elder Scrolls games penalized me as I knew nothing about the lore which seem to whiz by me with a barrage of names and places I couldn’t hope to absorb.

As mentioned earlier, the starting zones didn’t really make a good impression as the pacing was too fast and frenetic. Just as you got to one town, the quest givers had you moving on to the next town. Note to Zenimax devs: don’t be afraid to slow things down and let players who are new to your world acclimatize and explore. Not every MMO has to start like God of War. Let them look forward to that in later levels.

What worries me about ESO and most new MMOs is that you don’t really need other players anymore to progress and explore. Community means nothing. It really feels like a single player video game where other players are nothing more than flavor NPCs. In my journeys encountering other players was like two ships passing in the night.

The forced quest system left a bad taste in my mouth. I felt like a Fed Ex delivery guy high on too many Red Bulls. The content I experienced was doing tasks at a needlessly relentless pace, when all I really wanted to do was kill some mobs and take their stuff.

Misc. Annoyances

The default user interface is hardcore minimalist. Most MMO players coming from WoW might feel lost without being able to see basic things like enemy NPC names and health bars. Sure you can turn those elements back on but it was a hassle to find them and even then there were very small and too minimalist to even make a difference.

Some of the minor annoyances seems to revolve around the bad habit of current MMO developers offering the player too many conveniences. For example:

  • The mailbox system uses the same system that Guild Wars 2 does. So your character can magically get mail anytime he needs. What a cop-out.
  • There is a transportation system that allows players to teleport instantly once you’ve unlocked a location. Another Guild Wars 2 inspired feature. This makes for a small world. Yet another cop-out.

What I Liked about ESO

One of the things I enjoyed about ESO was the dark and foreboding atmosphere of some of the zones — a refreshing antidote to the cartoon environments of WoW.  The voice acting was an unexpected nice touch.

I also appreciated the character class system that lets players evolve their class based on how they play with weapon choices and so forth. The combat abilities were interesting and they have a nice feature that allows you to morph abilities which was nice. This is a nice counterpoint to the character ability bloat that infests most MMO user interfaces. Even Blizzard has realized this and will be simplifying and consolidating character abilities with the upcoming World of Warcraft expansion: Warlords of Draenor.

It’s good that players can interact with bookshelves, barrels, chests and other items. My only beef with this is that after a while I felt like a common thief. I can’t believe there is no penalty for stealing in ESO!

I also like the constant feedback that the client gives you when you have raised an ability.

Final Thoughts

I remember back in the good old days of MMO development when beta meant beta. Now we have the monstrosity of “beta weekends”. These are clever promotional gimmicks where the MMO studio coordinates with gaming websites to generate buzz. In this paradigm, beta testers are mere samplers instead of bona fide testers. With the ticking clock of the finite beta weekend handing over your head, the player never really gets to fully test the MMO and the result is the observations I am sharing with you in this article. If I could have actually tested and experienced ESO more fully this review may have been quite different. This one’s on you Zenimax.

All and all I can’t think of anything that really stood out that makes this MMO something I want to spend my precious time with and that is the crux of the problem. There seems to be no compelling reason to be a part of this virtual world.  There are no revolutionary features here that excite me. The lack of social cohesion, challenge, danger and dynamic content is also troubling. Even if ESO had no real new features, they could still make a great MMO but instead they have opted to pander to the WoW generation of self-absorbed gamers who are addicted to a sense of entitlement and all the conveniences of a single-player video game.

I was very excited about Elder Scrolls Online. I had even pre-ordered the collectors edition with the figurine but after the first beta weekend I cancelled it as I could not reconcile paying $120 for another unambitious, predictable MMO theme park. It’s a pity that due to my play schedule, server instability and a needlessly truncated beta weekend that I didn’t have more time to sample the game play. I hope Zenimax will address some of my concerns and improve ESO.

I really wanted to like this MMORPG as more competition and choice are healthy for this industry. If ESO fails it could be another nail in the coffin of the entire MMO genre which means we are stuck with the dominance of Blizzard’s WoW for the unforeseen future.



19 thoughts on “Elder Scrolls Online Beta Report: Another Predictable Theme Park MMO

  1. Just some random points,

    In Morrowind and Obvlion you start off as a prisoner but they *never* tells you that you are a hero. It’s with Skyrim that they sort of started to tell you that you are “special”. Having said that, I have played well over 200 hours of Skyrim and never did the main quest so I never got to find out even in Skyrim that I am a hero! So it’s kind of sad to see in ESO that you are pretty much the “hero” right from the start. Signs of times I guess.

    I loved the UI and the best UI in MMO ever! I got up to level 12 and only did the first group dungeon and it seems fine and I had all the info I needed. Immersion always is greater than utility and I don’t really care if “players coming from WoW might feel lost” (lol really?) Anyway they support ui addon and I have already seen UIs where they cover everything on the screen!

    In the single player games you have to target the mob with the mouse and sort of plays like FPS. However in ESO, you can sort of tab target (their names are select white I think) and your spells will home in on your tab target. I like both FPS (action combat?) and MMO style (EQ2, WoW style?) combats and this don’t bother me personally. In fact, I actually found the cool down free combat in ESO quite refreshing. I never had to look at my hot bars to monitor cool downs and that made the combat even more immersive.

    You can get the digital imperial edition for about $64 right now on GMG but no figurine though!
    Anyway I agree with pretty much everything you say. It’s really a single player game where you can play with other people if you feel like it. It doesn’t bring any ideas (even bad ones!) to the table. The game doesn’t support or encourages any social ties so I don’t see people playing it for years to come like people did with older MMOs. Having said that I will still buy and play ESO mainly because some of my friends will be playing it, I am an Elder Scrolls fan and ESO still better than wasting time watching TV!

    • Thanks for the clarifications and the informative post. I readily admit I don’t know much about previous Elder Scrolls games and Skyrim. You make some great points about the combat too.

      I just hope that Zenimax make some improvements and actually encourages more social cohesion via group interdependency. That is what will make this MMO survive and thrive in the long run.

      I would like to see more challenge as well. The phenomenon of Dark Souls shows that video game players are craving for more challenges.

  2. Just because you couldn’t figure out the crafting system doesn’t mean its UI needs an overhaul. Look at your own failings first. The system is great and if you didn’t skip the brief tutorial messages each tab of the crafting system provides maybe you’d have better understood how to use it.

    It’s really not that complex. You want to make something?
    What do you want to make? What lvl do you want it to be? What style would you like it to be fashioned in? What benefits would you like the item to possess? That’s it…

    You have useless items, break them down.
    You have raw resources, extract them.
    You have useless items with traits, break them down to research their trait. You want your common item to be green / blue / purple / orange… so be it, improve their quality.

    • Thanks for the comment. You make a valid point. I didn’t even realize there was a tutorial on crafting. I suppose I should have gone to YouTube to find a “How to craft in ESO” video but then on the other hand a MMO mechanic should not be that complicated to understand that you need to watch a video to figure it out.

      The thing is that over the years MMOs have become more intuitive. Most players should be able to open up a crafting user interface item and figure out how to craft without a tutorial. Blizzard’s WoW crafting interface is easy to understand and use.

      I wonder if Zenimax should have included crafting quests so that people can figure out how to craft and what the purpose of crafting is.

  3. Having put hundreds of hours into both Skyrim and many MMOs over the years, the ESO experience was odd for me. At times, it felt like an Elder Scrolls game (what do you mean, there’s no mini-map?). At times, it felt like an MMO (players standing around waiting for a mob to spawn so they could kill it and get on with their quests).

    Being a veteran crafter in every MMO I’ve ever played, I found that I enjoy complex crafting systems that offer a feeling of realism or at least accomplishment. Crafting in MMOs can get pretty bizarre sometimes How many bolts of fabric are needed to make a robe? Do these people have the slightest clue how much fabric is in a bolt? Or that fabric itself is not cobbled together from scraps like a quilt? Or that 250 ingots to make a ring is kind of ridiculous? So I like that crafting in ESO means something and that there will be a place at the table for master crafters. I take your point about crafting in WoW being easy to do, but for this MMO veteran, that level of ease is just boring. Of course, go too far the other way, and crafting becomes a tedious grind. It’s a tough line to walk.

    The only thing I disliked about it was that it takes inordinately long to raise up blacksmithing compared to other disciplines, especially compared to provisioning, which skyrockets thanks to all the lootable ingredients in the environment.

    Anyway, I appreciate a review that isn’t another spit-spraying Elder Scrolls fanboy acting like ESO is either the Second Coming of Talos or the Apocalypse.

    • Michael, thanks for the post and the kind comments!

      I too would appreciate a crafting system that is more complex than what is currently available with MMO’s like WoW. I think it’s still possible to have both: an easy to comprehend user interface as well as a complex crafting system.

      I played a few hours in the latest ESO beta weekend and I had a lot more enjoyment this time around. Once you get out of the cities the countryside seems more exciting and challenging. Zenimax needs to find ways to get players into the action much faster instead of having them play FedEx delivery guy in the towns.

  4. Hi Wolfy!

    Any reason why comments are turned off on your Landmark post? Was going to comment there but for some reason I can’t. Just a heads up in case you didn’t intentionally do that (and feel free to kill this comment for being off topic – just a curiosity – I never see locked down posts here!)

  5. Wolfshead nails it. As usual.

    I was one of the privileged few to have played MMOs back in what some would call the “Golden age” with you. Nearly everything you say I agree with. I have some disagreements, namely with the classes and holy trinity (I was brought up in AC where it was skill based so we had many hybrids).

    But the basics still hold true today. How sad the state of the industry has become. Players are expected to run around like robots doing mindless “quests”, all about the theorycraft, the numbers, the Gear Score in order to do “uber raids”. Its just awful. No death penalty = no excitement, nothing changing, lifeless cities, fast transportation makes all the hard work on the world building for nothing, the list goes on and on.

    No sense of community. Instead the community is driven by dogmatic number crunchers, calculating your worth by how much you have “farmed”. What ever happened to actually exploring, adventuring?

    You are right – since players can solo, no one groups anymore. The only grouping necessary are for raid bosses, so its all guilds – power guilds have taken over. Its all about the guilds, guilds guilds and the number crunchers. Logging onto WoW to what, do another raid day in and day out sounds more like a second job if you ask me. Shameful, absolutely shameful what has happened to an amazing genre. This kind of structure actually encouraged this kind of “community”, full of self absorbed, narcissistic and downright cold people only concerned about their calculations. This may seem harsh, but it is the truth.

    I fondly remember playing DAOC, where grouping actually mattered. Though I wasnt a huge fan of the class system, I enjoyed myself. Though it didnt offer the full adventure experience of EQ, just the semblance of having to group with people made it all the more enjoyable. You made friends there. Even sitting around and farming, what we did, was more enjoyable than anything. We’d just…farm and chat, and things would go from there.

    Oh Wolfshead – do you know, I fell asleep in a WoW BG once? No joke, I nodded off for about 3 minutes. It was just so boring. And this was back in 2006. After that, I unsubscribed.

    There are so many other things that can be addressed. The ultimate irony is that from playing these amazing games, I have become “immune” in a sense, to all of these WoW clones. Here we had so many people becoming addicted to this drivel, with its carrot on a stick structure, that it just didnt appeal to me. I had better. I knew better existed. And I saw the forest for the trees.

    Now finally the industry is imploding under its own weight and staleness. We’re talking about a decade of failed, mindless static worlds, but finally, the players seem to be “getting it. ” We can do better.

    We need to bring back the “virtual world”. I’m putting it out there right now: The next big hit is going to be an actual sandbox. A real sandbox with an emphasis on dynamic content, customization, and community. Mark my words, if its not EQ Next, there is going to be some other developer that goes back to the roots and makes a breakthrough in the genre. Otherwise, like you said its going to be groundhog day. Just like it is for TESO. TESO will go the way of SWTOR and all of the other failed clones.

    • Best post I’ve seen in a long time! I agree with you 100%. I haven’t seen a post like this in years. I was starting to think that people such as yourself have stop playing MMOs or just didn’t exist anymore.

      I’m going to write an article inspired by your post. Stay tuned!

      • Nah… We’re still out here. Waiting, (im)patiently for someone to come along and create a proper MMORPG worthy of the last three letters; where you’re dropped into a virtual World and left to earn a name for yourself, not being guided through a game, where your “destiny” is pre-scripted through countless Fedex quests, spanning dozens of clearly marked Quest Hubs.

        We’re out here.

        In my case, I spent the better part of the 2000’s beating that drum. I’ve decided to give my arms a rest until something with actual promise comes along that makes me feel like pulling that drum out again is worth it.

        My prediction: EQ:N isn’t going to be it, nor is it going to come from any of the current “big name developers”. They’re too risk-averse, and too addicted to “formulas” and “market data driven game design”

  6. I apologize Wolf for the extra comment.
    I read AL’s comment first before I read the article.:)

    I have come to the conclusion that a “virtual world” MMO does not seem to be something new game developers have any understanding of. It seems all they know how to make is a social game.

    LOL, and I totally agree with this overused theme of “everyone and their dog is a hero!”

  7. Hey Wolfshead – an update. I’ve been playing a little known MMOFPS called Firefall. I started playing their open beta last year.

    Firefall was a unique and quirky MMOFPS. They combined a mixture of themepark and sandbox elements, and it worked out quite nicely. You had a “battleframe” (a mech suit) and you would level it up accordingly to open up new powers.

    Players could craft gear that was gathered from the world. You had about 6-8 gear slots. This crafting was very similar to SWG’s deep crafting system, with a wide range of quality of mats. Higher quality mats resulted in higher quality gear. You could further customize your gear by specifying what elements of the gear you wanted to focus on. For example, you could build a fireball gear, and focus on the damage, radius, etc etc. What made this interesting was the fact that your battleframes would have a maximum power output. Higher quality gear equaled higher power output. Meaning that players could NOT stack their frames with high level gear. They would have to strike a balance.

    Additionally, you would have other unpredictable sandbox elements, like random spawning of higher level mobs.

    Well, guess what the development team did to Firefall? I just logged in as I got an email from Red5 on Firefall’s release. 2 weeks before release, Red5 has butchered their game and basically turned it into a WoW clone with FPS. They took away the deep crafting system, no more power constraints, zones are now clearly marked with levels, and there are only a few materials to be found for crafting.

    A shame. The game was really unique, not a true sandbox but it was good enough and dynamic to be fun. Now its boring, only a shadow of its former self. If you hop onto the forums there’s a small backlash of players complaining about the recent changes. Apparently the amount of players that are getting sick and tired of WoW clones are indeed growing.

    I still can’t believe this is happening in the industry. We’ve had over 10 years of this garbage and developers insist upon butchering their games. Unbelievable.

    • Oh yes – they also had permanent item decay. Now they took that out. Your Super cannon 9000 now lasts forever. Whoop de doo.

  8. Old school Everquest player here, also from the “Golden Age” of mmos. I’ve recently read this article regarding an ex WOW dev stating that the world of craft has basically ruined the genre by making mmos too “accessible”. http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/7.820543-Former-Dev-WoW-Has-Killed-the-MMO-Genre Thought it may be if interest to some of you folks and especially you Wolfshead. Furthermore, I haven’t played an mmo in years due to the current (long lasting) situation which the genre can’t seem to free itself of but I deeply enjoy your articles, Wolfshead. Your research of the past and visions for the future of gaming worlds feels me with nostalgia/joy reminiscent of times I spent adventuring the lands of Norrath on my old Iksar warrior. I hope I speak for many when I say our old breed of players still exist and I’m sure there are many out there who have never participated in a true virtual world, thus “they do not know”. So please continue to educate others through these articles of what a virtual world can be!

    P.s. I’ve recently heard of an mmo titled Wildstar and reviews state that it might be the real deal, please clarify if you have played it because in this day and age it is important to be skeptical and yours is one of the few credible opinions left in regards to this genre. Thanks for keeping the hope alive.

  9. Wolfshead, have you played Morrowind? It sounds like you started the Elder Scrolls series with Oblivion. If you haven’t played it, you should. Although a single-player RPG, it’s a work of art with incredible depth, even if not in the most obvious places. And you do need to play it very much alone and in quiet… There are graphical updates on the Morrowind Nexus that make it look a bit less dated plus a bunch of gameplay-enhancing mods, and in-game books and stories, many and often well-written, will explain the lore and the history of the world – up to that point in the series (Oblivion and Skyrim practically exploded the timeline with crazy turnabouts, in my opinion). If you like poetry, look up the “24 Sermons of Vivec” in the bookstores.

    All this may give you a sense of how low, unfortunately, the standard of sophistication and originality and artistry has fallen in the series. But the notion of creating a really huge world for Elder Scrolls may go back to Daggerfall, which had an explorable map the size of real-life England, they say. I never explored it very much, because the towns and villages were almost exactly the same, with identical shops, guilds, wandering NPC, cloned quests and so on. But it was, in essence, the ultimate sandbox, enormous and open to discovery, and despite some mind-shattering bugs, it had a hell of an atmosphere. I’m actually afraid to go back and replay it, to be honest. And I left a piece of my soul with Morrowind.

    Now I don’t know if the Elder Scrolls MMO really stood a chance of bringing any of the old virtues to multiplayer. For one thing, there is the often-made point that depth is just what can’t be shown on screen and so must be imagined, and that usually means reading (dialogues, descriptions) and letting imagination extend the facts. But designers nowadays absolutely will not write up anything longer than a couple of lines, usually a task, with brief words, too, because who would read anything longer? Whatever the setting, the no-text rule alone means no lore other than small hints here and there at best.

    Perhaps there ARE players who would read and do other non-obvious things, and they may be the ones who pause to scoff at playing the hero again. But the majority will not so much delight in this banality as gobble it up as they run. Young players expect to be bashing monsters in spiky armor on install, and they literally don’t blink an eye. Who else could possibly emerge from that cloud in the trailer if not evil robot-like dudes? It’s a familiar world players plunge in every time, one and the same world under different titles, so accusations of banality miss the point. You don’t say hymns are banal because they all praise God, do you? And it’s the same God every time, too. Most young players “come in” to the virtual universe with a sense of homecoming just like they “come in” to the Internet – not “come out” for a scary encounter with technology that had better pay off, like we, older, biological players treat it. We still put a distance between IT and I, but the young are completely sold. Most don’t know any better rules and ways.

    At any rate, MMOs are entertainment-only. Even the passions and flames are about the entertainment value or balance or conversion to real-life currency, never immersion, because that is something neither advertised nor expected. Everything more complex, any coulds and shoulds are first of all behind an educational barrier. It’s permanent, because no matter what happens, few will care to learn, discern or develop taste; that’s a fact of life. And it is taller than the technological barrier of difficulties inherent to creating a meaningful interactive environment that also encourages in-character play – a supreme challenge, really. One of them is the text problem, which *becomes* a problem if it gets in the way of interacting with people. And yet there is no alternative to text.

    But why expect anything from crowd-pleasers? We know how expensive MMOs are to make, market and support, so how could their developers possibly target the 5% who have actually read something, grown out of teens and have a little imagination? But there are other options for interactive play and for role-playing. One is pen-and-paper RPGs. It doesn’t matter what the system is, it just takes friends and a free evening. I must say, I’ve never had more fun sitting in front of a computer than listening to the Dungeon Master. Old-school MUDs may be another possibility. Of course, you might ask, why should we have to give up on graphics, on the new technologies? It hardly seems fair that players with imagination and standards have to go back to rock-paper-scissors just because the market realities are such. Well, it isn’t fair, but realities they are, until the social situation changes in other ways. But even then the common denominator will be low, just because it’s common. For now, the best we can do is determine to expect nothing when there is nothing to expect – and actively look for intelligent friends to love, and talk to, and laugh with, and act out stories.

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