Tamriel Infinium: Elder Scrolls Online faces an uphill battle in 2023


Let me tell you, it is a strange time to be returning to Elder Scrolls Online. After a strong stint in the game last spring, I took a break around High Isle’s release and didn’t boot it up for the remainder of the year. ESO is very on-again, off-again with me, and I don’t think that’ll ever change.

But as I’ve re-entered the game’s atmosphere, I made sure to catch up on all of the news and developments that slipped past me when my attention was elsewhere. What I’ve found isn’t truly heartening: an MMO that’s coming off one of its roughest years in a good long while and is struggling to regain ground with the larger MMORPG playerbase.

The bad year that was

It turns out that I left right as things started to go sour for ZeniMax’s baby. High Isle failed to make a splash, despite reports of it being a decent story experience. This wasn’t helped by the chapter’s most-touted feature, the new card game, underwhelming many.

I’ve spoken before about how Elder Scrolls Online has a real enthusiasm problem, and High Isle is a good example of this issue. ZeniMax puts out big releases that fail to get the broader MMORPG playerbase stirred up, and so the potential of a huge promotional moment is squandered time and again.

And without stored up goodwill from an exciting expansion, what happened next hurt the MMO even more. ESO suffered a one-two punch with an incredibly poorly received combat update and the disastrous Firesong DLC rollout. Several people and guilds made a big stink about leaving the game, and others stoked the fires of rumors that ZeniMax was abandoning ESO to mostly focus on its as-of-yet unannounced next MMO project.

This is all to say that 2022 went about as wrong as it could for ESO without the game actually shutting down. Nobody who follows — or works on — the game is denying this. A gloomy cloud set up shop over Tamriel, and it’s going to take a fair bit of hearty waving to get it to move elsewhere.

Voices from the studio

Probably the most heartening thing about last year was that by the last month, we didn’t see ZeniMax becoming that studio that gets stubborn in the face of criticism and double-down on bad decisions. Rather, we got two letters that gave us some hope that the studio knows it’s facing an uphill battle in 2023 — and is taking action to course-correct.

In a December 12th letter to the community, Studio Director Matt Firor acknowledged the failings of Update 36 and teased a new content cadence for 2023 that’ll be a bit different than the same-old, same-old of the past.

The centerpiece of the year will be a “full-featured, complete” chapter in June that’ll kick off a multi-year story arc. ZOS is also working on better datacenter infrastructure and some sort of new system to repurpose zones and add a different kind of gameplay.

While the specific details of all of this are forthcoming, what I took away from this letter is that the studio knows it (a) can’t keep doing everything exactly the same as before to generate success, and (b) it needs to produce something that’s genuinely exciting (and marketable).

This was followed by another letter speaking to the vision of the game’s much-maligned combat system and continual efforts to refine and reform it. I am certainly not knowledgeable enough on this topic to comment whether or not these proposed tweaks will benefit or harm the game, but I do appreciate the studio at least communicating on the subject.

All I can offer is that ESO’s combat doesn’t just need to be tweaked; it needs to experience a full-fledged overhaul. That approach carries a lot of risks, to be sure, but this all reeks of slapping duct tape on the leakier parts of a car and hoping it’ll run for a few hundred more miles.

Uphill at full steam

Of course, mere words aren’t going to instantly erase all doubt and concern. ZeniMax has to work hard, work smart, and work transparently to make 2023 the success that 2022 was not. One would hope that the disasters of last year would have lit a fire under the studio’s butt, but we shall see in the coming months.

Yet if all I felt were doom and gloom, trust me, I wouldn’t be playing ESO again. There’s still so much going for this MMO that ZeniMax does have some runway to turn things around. It’s an incredibly good value for your buck, with scads of voiced and scripted content, a wide array of engaging systems, and an active and generally positive community that cares about this game. There’s a reason that we said it was underrated, despite being popular.

Elder Scrolls Online needs to charge uphill this year. It must establish momentum of enthusiasm, vision, and execution — and then keep it going. It’s not a task that I envy the devs of having to do, but it must be done even so.

Here’s to the hope and open potential that a new year has to offer. Here’s to cheering on this MMO to learn from its past mistakes and build upon its past successes.

Traverse the troubled land of Tamriel in the Elder Scrolls Online! Larry Everett and Ben Griggs will be your guides here in Tamriel Infinium on Wednesdays as we explore together the world created by ZeniMax and Bethesda in one of the biggest MMOs in the genre. Larry and Ben welcome questions and topic ideas!
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