Hello TF community, today has been a landmark day for The Elder Scrolls Online with two major announcements shaking the internet community. Most obviously, the unveiling of the distribution packages for ESO have revealed a set of exclusive bonuses for pre-orders and enhanced game editions which are both compelling and controversial. Secondly, a major announcement regarding game mechanics was a bit overshadowed by the focus on pre-orders. ZeniMax have lifted the racial restrictions for alliance membership and players will be able to create a character of any of ESO’s 10 (yes, ten) races in whichever alliance they choose.
These announcements have sparked rampant discussion, disappointment, excitement, and even anger throughout the MMO community. The purpose of this article is both to highlight the significant news of the day as well as to weigh in with my thoughts on these developments. I warn you in advance, many of you will patently disagree with me on certain points. I say this now so you have ample time to gather your torches and pitchforks and prepare to lay siege to my opinions in the comment section below. I’ve been surprised by the responses to this news from throughout the ESO community and in contrast I am prepared to defend the decisions which have been criticized by many fans, while condemning choices that many others have applauded.
I hope you will bear with me for this, and at least consider my thoughts before laying into me. However, I do want to hear from you even if you think I’m utterly full of rubbish. Ok, here goes…
Perhaps the most exciting news of the day was that ZeniMax revealed details regarding the preorder packages that are now available to buy through major online retailers. On all platforms you can buy both physical or digital editions in “standard”, and “imperial” editions. The standard edition of the game will retail for $60. All preorder packages come with a number of shared features:
- 5 days of early access (from Sunday, March 30)
- A “Scuttler” vanity pet
- Bonus treasure maps that you can find throughout Tamriel
The collectors or “Imperial” edition of the game is priced at $80 for the digital version and includes the following extra benefits:
- Access to the Imperial race as a playable selection for your character
- Imperial white horse (a free standard level mount)
- Mudcrab vanity pet
- Rings of Mara (gives bonus experience shared between two accounts when you group together)
The physical collectors edition, which is priced at $100 additionally includes the following goodies:
- Printed map of Tamriel
- Emperor’s Guide to Tamriel (a 224 page illustrated guide to the game)
- A Molag Bal statue
Some of this news was fairly standard, vanity pets, in-game trinkets that give minor experience bonuses, and free mounts are all pretty standard fare for enhanced editions of the game featuring an expanded price tag. The most surprising and controversial component of the pre-order packages is the addition of the Imperial race as a playable selection in ESO. The Imperials had originally been included as an NPC faction under the control of Mannimarco and Abnur Tharn, and partially blamed for the corruption of Cyrodiil which gave rise to the three-faction conflict as a core premise of the game. Traditional Elder Scrolls fans have been asking for a while to see the Imperial race included in the game, and while many are happy to see their wishes realized, there has been a great deal of disappointment regarding the perception that ZeniMax are essentially turning this 10th race into paid content exclusive to the “Imperial” editions of the game. I sympathize with these sentiments, however, on this particular point I am prepared to defend ZeniMax’ decisions.
- A lot of fans have condemned the fact that “we have to pay 80 dollars just to play Imperials”. Firstly, if you are going to criticize the pricing of this package, at least recognize that you are only paying $20 to unlock the Imperial race (plus extra bonuses like the mount and the Mara rings). Twenty dollars for an entire playable race with it’s own skill line is far from the worst price gouging I’ve ever seen in the MMO industry.
- It is ZeniMax’ job to design compelling collectors edition exclusives in order to cater to their most ardent fans. Charging a single price to everyone for only one version of the game is a terrible choice from a business perspective when you can instead take advantage of the fact that some of your playerbase have a very high demand for your product. Offering multiple tiers of the game allows players to self-select into the version which is most appropriate for their own valuation. In this respect, I think ZeniMax did a great job. How often do you see a collectors edition for a game and feel like the extra stuff you get is mostly crap? With the “Imperial” edition ZOS have put together a bundle of really great exclusives that will appeal to a number of people. Everyone would like to have access to Imperials for free, but the bottom line is there are plenty of people willing to pay the extra $20 for that privilege, and it’s a savvy business decision for them to make.
- The fact that you can “buy” Imperial access does not mean that ESO will have a cash shop. It does not mean that ESO will have microtransactions. It does not mean that content will be pay-gated even though they already have a subscription model. The Imperial is an exclusive account flag that you will be very likely able to unlock eventually in some other way, either by completely certain tasks in-game, or by paying the difference in cost ($20) to “upgrade” your account. Plenty of MMO’s work in this framework where you can add the entitlements offered by collectors editions to your account later down the road by paying a fee equal to the difference in price.
It strikes me that what is happening here is that ZeniMax came up with a completely kick-ass exclusive for the folks that buy their collectors edition, and instead of being excited about that the internet community has blown up in outrage that not everyone gets that same feature for free. It seems almost like a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario”. If you offer great exclusives people will complain that not everyone gets them, if you offer lame exclusives people will accuse you of exploiting or nickel-and-diming your customers. I don’t think that many people can convincingly argue that the contents of the “Imperial” edition is not worth $20 to an avid ESO fan. I stand behind you on this one, ZeniMax marketing team.
The Removal of Faction Locks
I have said my piece defending ZOS for their choices with the game packages, contrary to much of the sentiment I’ve seen throughout the fan community. Time for me to stir the pot even more by unleashing my righteous wrath on a change that many people have acclaimed as a great move. As part of the pre-order bonuses for all game editions, players have the opportunity to create any race they wish within any of the game’s three factions. I won’t temper my words for the faint of heart on this count, I think this is the worst decision that ZeniMax has made regarding their game thusfar. Here’s why:
1) Incompatibility With Lore
I am not a die-hard TES lorumite. My grasp of the Elder Scrolls world only extends so far, and yet I cannot possible validate this decision in the context of the world ZeniMax has created for ESO. I know many of you will say “but Atropos, it has always been a staple of the TES franchise to play the way you want, and make your own decisions, why should I be forced to espouse the political ideology of one faction?”. Let me be clear, I agree with this sentiment entirely in the context of the single-player games. When you individually are the hero and the world revolves around you and your choices, stepping outside the cultural norms established by your racial society is acceptable and even interesting. This strand of logic, however, breaks down when you extend the game experience into multiplayer space. The races, societies, and cultures of the Elder Scrolls are multi-toned, with complex customs, traditions, and social norms. Individual outliers lend a great deal of flavor to this world, where not every Bosmer is a carbon copy of Fargoth, and not every Altmer is a Thalmor zealot. It makes perfect sense in the context of the world for, perhaps, 5% of a racial population to oppose the political ideologies of the majority. It does not in any way make sense to dispense with these cultural and political ties at the aggregate level.
How can you justify over 50% of Dunmer opposing the Ebonheart Pact by allying with Altmer or Bretons? How could you fathom a majority of Altmer siding against their ancestral race? How could it possibly make sense for a majority of Bretons to take up arms against the King that unified their people? You may argue that faction locks inhibited roleplaying, but their removal does nothing but facilitate the following (in the words of Rial):
I am Ulfnar Bearbreaker, I am a Nord and I love killing those evil elves! I serve my queen Ayrenn loyaly because she’s hot!
2) Destruction of Faction Identity
The absolute best thing about a unique three faction system is the ability to identify and associate with your chosen group. ESO was off to a great start from the beginning with this, headed by Matt Firor, Brian Wheeler, and others of DAoC fame, they chose a three faction system where each alliance was different, with its own lands, ideologies, races, and political agendas. This created a wonderful sense of rivalry that was palpable even here on the Tamriel Foundry forums. The lengths people would take in order to justify why their alliance was the “best”. The removal of race restrictions strips out one of the main (and only remaining) reasons why Alliances in ESO mean anything at all. The game has already softened their stance on guilds (you can join a guild on any alliance), chat (you can whisper players of any alliance), and exploration (you can explore the lands of any alliance). By removing racial restrictions ZeniMax has removed one of the only remaining features for instilling faction loyalty and pride from their game. It may seem silly, and you may think I’m wrong but this change has caused me to give up hope of ever having the same type of community in ESO that would do things like this for their faction:
Alliances in ESO are now just straw-man stories that equate to little more than “choose your leader”, Ayrenn, Jorunn, or Emeric. There’s not much to be proud of in that choice. The game is no longer “us versus them”, it’s “us versus … also us”. Meaningful choices are defined by what you give up to make them, ZeniMax has decided to give players a free lunch, not having to give up anything when creating their character. The “you can have it all” mindset has made this change resound with applause and excitement from many corners of the community, but it absolutely is not the best thing for the long-term health of the game.
3) It Already Failed in Guild Wars 2
Part of the successful formula for MMO development is learning from the mistakes of the past, improving upon them, and innovating in small amounts. One of the absolute worst parts of Guild Wars 2 was that at the end of the day, it’s difficult to be THAT excited for a war that is as stale and uninteresting as “red vs. blue vs. green” (or just red vs. blue in structured PvP). ZeniMax looked at two games that have used the same model for three faction conflict, on the one hand you have Dark Age of Camelot who to this day is reflected upon as one of the best MMOs of all time, particularly for it’s PvP system. On the other hand, you have Guild Wars 2, a game that many people enjoyed, but had obvious and severe failings in it’s “World vs. World” implementation. Between the two they (initially) chose correctly and went down the path of Dark Age with unique factions, races, and lands that would instill the playerbase with a sustained sense of pride and belonging. Unfortunately, at this late date, they have decided to abandon this fundamentally pivotal cornerstone of that model and opt for the GW2 approach. Welcome to ESO alliance vs. alliance, pick your side – red, blue, or yellow.
Where does this leave us? I suspect it’s only a matter of time before the last vestiges of Alliance affiliation are lifted entirely and you can group with players of every alliance. Some will welcome this as a positive change for ESO, and in terms of PvE, perhaps they are correct. In my mind, the most reliable, dependable, and sustainable facet of ESO‘s endgame has always been their PvP system which is truly dynamic, player driven, and engaging. ZeniMax has chosen to sacrifice the feature that makes that system great on the altar of public opinion because “people want to play with their friends”.
I think it’s time to leave it there, I suspect this article will be an unpopular one both because of my defense of the monetization of the Imperial race and my condemnation of the removal of faction locks. I hope to be proven wrong regarding the latter, but I cannot bring myself to understand a world in which this decision is a healthy one for the long term stability and stickiness of the game. Please let me know your thoughts in the comment section below, I would like to hear them even if you disagree with me completely (perhaps especially then).