Looking around the MMORPG community, you may not even be aware that Elder Scrolls Online has less than a month until its newest expansion, High Isle, comes out on the PC. Heck, looking around the ESO community might not even give you that impression. Oh, I’m sure there are some who’ve marked their calendars and are taking time off work or school to binge, but the anticipation and hype is so quiet as to almost be non-existent for an expansion to a Top Five MMO.
To put it bluntly, I think the game has a real and present enthusiasm problem that’s keeping it from being noticed and loudly enjoyed by the players who are in the market for such a game. And this issue has affected the MMO for several years now.
Understand that I’m not trotting this out as any sort of vendetta or a delicious slice of schadenfreude. I genuinely like Elder Scrolls Online. I say it’s very deserving of being a Top Five MMO these days, particularly in light of the tremendous content, voice acting, and flexible playstyle that it offers. I don’t bag on games to bring controversy and clicks.
Rather, I’m saying what I think a lot of us ESO fans have noticed but didn’t want to vocalize because we might appear to be bashing the MMO. But c’mon, we all know it’s true: There’s something missing that keeps the game from triggering actual hype and buzz.
Contrast where High Isle is right now in its pre-launch month to where End of Dragons or Endwalker was a month ahead of time. People were jazzed about those packs. They couldn’t get enough information. Everyone was making plans, coming back to those games, and talking about them on various platforms. When the buzz is real, you can’t avoid it — it’s everywhere.
So what’s creating this enthusiasm gap with Elder Scrolls Online then? We can start by ruling out what are probably not factors here. It’s not that the game is bad (it’s not) or that the expansions devoid of fun, interesting stories, and a wealth of activities to do (they have all of these things and then some).
It’s also not because ZeniMax is lazy and isn’t promoting High Isle. In fact, ZOS is remarkably reliable when it comes to pumping marketing dollars into advertising, putting out dev diaries, and running preview livestreams. You can set your watch by this cadence. I’m quite sure that it’s netted more than enough money from pre-orders to be profitable, especially thanks to the help of the deer pet with the Thousand-Yard Stare:
This deer has seen stuff, man. You don’t even want to know.
The game is solid. The studio is making the appropriate promotional noise. The content is as regular as Clockwork City. So why aren’t more people lifting up High Isle, Blackwood, and company as shining beacons of summer entertainment?
As with most things in life, there isn’t any one simple and pat answer for this. I’ve given the enthusiasm gap some real thought and come to a few conclusions, although I’m certainly open to more analysis on the subject.
First of all, as G.I. Joe once said, “regular and dependable content is only half the battle.” It’s such an important and vital half, and I’d argue it’s the half to get right first. But the other half is generating excitement with new features and changes that make people say in their heart of hearts, “I want this now! I can’t wait to experience it!”
Elder Scrolls Online found its pattern and routine but in so doing has played it almost too safe and too regular, if that makes sense. I’m all for trustworthy development cadence, but sometimes you need to shake things up and be a little unexpected, you know? By producing an expansion every year on the same exact month, it becomes something people just assume rather than find delightfully surprising.
I also think that the studio is having a hard time producing expansions with what I call “the hook” — a big tentpole feature or two that everyone has to have. The hook could be a highly anticipated region (see Morrowind) or a new class (see Elsweyr). But companions, archaeology, and card games? As genuinely enjoyable as those are (or have the potential to be), they’re simply not striking the public zeitgeist in a way that’s needed.
I actually got a sad chuckle when I saw that one of High Isle’s big features was… volcano events. You’d get a stronger reaction with “Taco Tuesdays.”
One of the most damning things you can say about an expansion that a dev team has poured a ton of work into is “it’s more of the same.” You can’t really get enthused about “more of the same” even if it’s exactly what you want. You can partake in it, find enjoyment in it, and derive comfort from it, but enthusiasm? It’s not going to happen.
And so my conclusion is that ZeniMax needs to stop playing it safe and predictable (without destroying itself in the process, I might add). It needs to give itself a bit of a kick in the pants and permission to go off-road to do something more adventurous and thrilling. It needs to try out a New Coke to see if that might rouse the playerbase to higher levels of public engagement — and if that backfires, then hey, you can always go back to Classic Coke and reap the benefits of people clinging to their content security blanket.