“The ESRB advised us that it has given The Elder Scrolls Online a Mature rating. While we may disagree with the ESRB’s determination, we do not plan to challenge the rating, and we are unwilling to change the game’s content to achieve a different rating. The game we have created is the one we want our fans to be able to play.
As a result of the ESRB rating, we are in the process of promptly updating everything with the required rating and age gates, including game trailers, web sites, and ads. Thanks for your understanding. We can’t wait to welcome players into The Elder Scrolls Online soon.”
Most of the Elder Scrolls Online community has expected the game to receive a Teen rating, and given that the company specifically alluded to their presumed disagreement with the determination, it’s not unfair to make the assumption that this was the rating the game was targeting. Many fans of The Elder Scrolls franchise were off-put by what they perceived to be a dilution of the franchise’s lore in an attempt to conform to the ESRB’s standards for a Teen rating; for example, making Bosmer cannibalism a private affair even though this wasn’t necessarily supported by the existing lore. Prior to the NDA drop, we have no way of knowing if they are correct in their assumption that this was a method of downplaying the presence of Bosmer cannibalism in the game, or if this is just wild speculation.
Criticisms of the pursuit of a Teen rating were not merely limited to the lore crowd, however, as many other fans have pointed to the rating as the scapegoat for all manner of concerns, be it their opinion that the game is cartoony (a position I do not agree with), or the position that the combat system lacks weight; the assertion here is that the ability to add more mature combat effects, such as blood splatter, would create a more visceral feel to the combat system. While I would never argue for ludicrous fountains of gore, I do have to agree that the constraints imposed by a Teen rating are tight enough to be a burden on feel of the combat system, especially in an MMO environment where mobs cannot react as noticeably to attacks as they can in a single-player game.
So why go for a Teen rating? In 2014, the ESRB is widely mocked for its ever increasing irrelevance as parents either do not understand or are not concerned with the ratings of games. Grand Theft Auto, a game routinely run through a gauntlet of the non-gaming media and whose very name exclaims its mature content to the world, two circumstances virtually ensuring most parents know damn well what it is, went on to reach $1 billion in sales within the first three days of its release - an achievement which stands the crowning jewel on a history of successful Mature games resoundingly establishing that if there is financial harm from being assigned a Mature rating, that it is far from material. However, The Elder Scrolls Online did not begin its development in 2014, but over half a decade earlier, when the decision would have seemed much more significant. This change in market outlook was almost certainly the reason ZeniMax’s response to the rating determination amounted to little more than “ok then”. The benefits of receiving a Teen rating from the ESRB are no longer worth the financial cost of trying to achieve them, even when the game is so close; the ESRB has completely failed at being relevant in today’s market.
Now that ZeniMax has discarded their hopes for a Teen rating, is it time for the benefits of a Mature rating to be realized? Should The Elder Scrolls Online step it up, free of its rating-imposed constraints, to arise a far better game? Can it? The move to a Mature rating does open up a lot of avenues for the game in terms of themes, visuals, and story, all of which I would love to see implemented within the game in some shape or form. The darkest bits of the lore have always been part of what sets The Elder Scrolls franchise apart, so bring them into the light! Use slightly bloodier effects to make the combat more engaging, and put in a few stories with truly horrifying content. Skyrim-style fatalities would be a nice touch as well (minus the slow-motion, as that would mess with PvP).
One important aspect of mature content is that it should be handled, well, maturely. Skyrim made great use of more mature themes and visuals without going over the top. On the MMO side, I think The Secret World nailed it as well. On rare occasions. you would find a truly gruesome ritual site, and because it was rare, it was both emotionally engaging and shocking. To properly utilize mature themes, they should be included in a jarring way, and not in every single part of the game world. When you stumble upon a necromantic ritual, the player should be horrified, not be vaguely aware that they’re in gore-strewn room #4,327. I am in no way advocating for over the top fountains of blood, and not every cave should be littered with gore and decaying remains; when a game does those things, it completely negates the benefits of having them in the first place. The same can be said of sexual content. The Elder Scrolls lore is overflowing with mature content for the designers to make use of, and with the shackles of the ESRB Teen rating lifted, ZeniMax is now free to include it in The Elder Scrolls Online.
Can ZeniMax do this though? In short, no.
As that would be the most anti-climactic ending to an article ever, I suppose I’ll give it to you in long instead. At the time of writing, we are 71 days from release, and ZeniMax has a lot to work on. There is simply no way that they can spare the resources to work on more than a few minor tweaks before launch. Reworking blood effects to be more engaging? Absolutely. Adding epic story lines with mature themes and new, horrifying environments? Not so much.
That doesn’t mean that they can’t take advantage of this going forward though. I cannot stress enough how fortunate it is that some of The Elder Scrolls Online‘s darkest content, The Dark Brotherhood and the Thieves Guild, will not be added until post-launch, as well as many parts of Tamriel which won’t make it in for launch. I’ll also be speculating the addition of a necromancy skill-line post-launch, which clearly stands perfectly poised to take the greatest advantage of a Mature rating.
Will The Elder Scrolls Online perform a content revolution in the next few weeks before launch to take full advantage of its Mature rating? Of course not, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see a lot of that advantage realized in the months and years following its launch.