Why The Elder Scrolls Online May Not Be for Purists

I’ve been pretty quiet about The Elder Scrolls Online lately, even though Zenimax Online Studios gave the Quest Gaming Network the go-ahead to talk about our experiences in-game. That’s not because I don’t have a lot to say, but perhaps because I have TOO much to say, and it’s not something fans of this network want necessarily to hear.

But I’ve decided it’s time I speak my mind, air my concerns, and let you know what I like about the game as well. Because don’t get me wrong. I REALLY like this game. I will play the hell out of it once it launches. But I have reason to believe there will be scores of players that leave the game after their first “free” month is up. And truly, I only have one concern, but it’s a big one.


One of the things that has been praised about ESO as being one of its best aspects is the freedom. Once you complete your starter island experience, you enter Tamriel-proper and can go anywhere you want. You can set a course and walk from one province to another, free to explore every nook and cranny along the way. There are no gates or walls saying, “Return when you’re level 20” or anything like that. Players are rewarded for seeing as much of the map as possible. In fact, during the course of my exploration of Tamriel, I was able to level up two levels simply by exploring. I didn’t engage in any combat. I simply crouched into sneak and tried to uncover everything around me. That was awesome.

But that’s where the exploration awesomeness ended.

After completing the starter zone and advancing to Tamriel, I decided I really wanted to walk to Cyrodiil. I won’t give too much detail about my path, for one reason, because the game is still in beta and there are a few things I can’t go into, but also because I want to save the surprises for you. I looked at my map of Tamriel, plotted course, and began my journey.

Can’t Touch This (Because If You Do I’ll Die)

It started off great. I discovered some wayshrines, dungeons, villages, and more. I was finding so many new places to come back and explore later that it was mind boggling. Just on this fairly straight and narrow path, I was finding a plethora of content, and there was still all the rest of the High Rock province to check out. But then I noticed something.

I was dying a lot.

See, initially I wasn’t sticking to an in-game path. I was just walking towards my waypoint, across fields, through trees, and swerving around enemies when I found them, just so I wouldn’t have to waste time kicking their butts. But eventually I started becoming unable to avoid these groups of enemies, either because there were too many of them to dodge, or because they were simply too-high level for me to sneak by quietly.

And this is a problem.

Though I am able to go anywhere in this game, I can’t say I can go anywhere AND do anything, which is one of the hallmarks of an Elder Scrolls game. Because once I got deeper and deeper into High Rock, and eventually into Hammerfell, the enemies were so high-level that if I got anywhere near them, they could one-shot kill me – even before I ever knew they were there. I was getting killed over, and over, and over, all while trying to completely avoid combat.

Try As I Might, I Can’t Avoid the Danger

Let me paint you a picture for specificity’s sake. At the time my journey began in earnest I was level 8. I made my way deep into High Rock and eventually I began to notice the enemies I was encountering were level 13. Occasionally I could take them down in one-on-one encounters, but if another enemy jumped in I was doomed. Through sheer will I made it past this batch of enemies (ok, maybe I ran a lot), but eventually I started noticing that the enemies surrounding me were level 41. LEVEL FORTY-FREAKING-ONE. They became damn near impossible to pass unseen. I crouched and moved slowly, but inevitably, they would always discover me, and like I said, a lot of times it happened with an enemy behind me, so I never even saw them shoot that fireball that scorched my head right off.

Now let me stop here and address all the MMO vets out there. Yes, I realize this is normal MMO gameplay. I can’t just start playing World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic or RIFT and expect to walk into the heart of the map untouched, unscathed, and free to do whatever I want.

But that’s what Elder Scrolls fans are going to expect.

My fear with this game is that gamers coming to ESO as their very first MMO, or at least the first one they’ve really given a shot, will experience this artificial wall and get frustrated. I fear they’ll quit the game before they ever have to subscribe, and will never get to truly experience all the game has to offer. Additionally, I am also afraid that another segment of those fans WILL stick it out, but quit a few months later. They’ll stick with it – despite not being able to roam wherever they want and complete (all) the content in any order they chose – take their time, and make it to level 50, and they’ll have seen almost everything there was to see along the way, because that’s how they play. The slow and steady Elder Scrolls way. But… then what?

Daggerfall Is Beautiful…Will I Ever Return?

Are the explorers out there going to be content with the fact that the only real gameplay left for them is in Cyrodiil for PvP, adventure zones, master dungeons, or the higher-level sections of other provinces? What point will there be to ever return to the staggeringly beautiful Daggerfall area? Unless the Level 50+ content somehow makes the enemies in these areas scale up to their difficulty level, it seems pointless for anyone to ever return. What benefit could a level 50 character possibly have to return to the low-level shops of Daggerfall, or to explore the lush landscape for low-level chests and level 5 enemies? It may seem petty to make this a sticking point since there’s so much end-game content, but trust me… it will be an issue for non-MMO players and traditional Elder Scrolls fans.

To them, there is no such thing as “end game.” End-game is an MMO thing, not an Elder Scrolls thing. For them, the game reaches an end. They continue to explore, seek new vistas, new caves, new pathways, new NPCs… To them, THAT is end-game. There is always exploration.

What MMO gamers – and even some gamers who have played a lot of MMOs but play a lot of other games as well – don’t understand is that those who don’t play MMOs… DON’T LIKE MMOs. You can tell them all you want about how “single player games must adapt to MMO rules in order to work online.” “Developers can’t simply make Elder Scrolls VI and connect it to servers and call it good.”

Falling In love  Is Hard for a Nightblade

Look, they’re not idiots, they get all that. But don’t be surprised if they don’t completely fall in love with a compromised version of their favorite IP.

You can tell them all you want about how there’s so much end-game content that it doesn’t matter that there’s no reason to return to Daggerfall. You can tell them to pace themselves and finish up all the content in the zones they’re in before moving on. But that’s not how they play Elder Scrolls games. They go where they want and do what they want, with of course, a few limitations here and there. Obviously, you can’t go fight Alduin right when you start Skyrim, but you CAN go visit every single town in the province without fear of encountering something along the way that completely prevents you from getting there.

* * * * * * * * * * *

To wrap this up, please know that I personally will be playing the hell out of The Elder Scrolls Online. I love the combat, the stories, the “questing system”, the music, the character leveling, the sky shards, the dark anchors, and yes, even the level of freedom players are given. I understand and can accept the compromises that I have to make as an Elder Scrolls fan in order to play a living, breathing version of the game. Though I am disappointed I can’t just walk to Cyrodiil, or anywhere else I want in Tamriel, without the fear of getting smoked by an enemy 35 levels higher than me the whole time, I understand the MMO reasoning for this, and I will adapt. I will play my zones, exploring every square inch and enjoying every minute. I will level up to 50 and play adventure zones, return to dungeons I’ve already cleared, and will be a badass in PvP.

But don’t be surprised if a large portion of the initial player base doesn’t feel the same way as me and begins dropping off after that first month. After they see just how much MMO has crept into their Elder Scrolls, my fear is there won’t be enough reasons for them to return.

And I hope we’re all prepared for that.


  • Just to note, in Skyrim I didn’t feel I could go anywhere from the start.

    I remember when I tried going to Riften with a level 7 character and got my ass kicked very hard in the way. The same thing happened when I tried to walk to Winterhold and Markarth.

    • Just what I was thinking. And similar for Oblivion and Morrowind too – all three games have a kind of “nursery slopes” area around the starting point.

      No, the reason I won’t be playing ESO as soon as it comes it out is simply the price and subscription fees. Much as I want to play it, I simply don’t have that kind of money spare.

  • Nice article I understand what your saying, mabey there will be a pach later on that lets you explore more freeley later on

  • Other than the Races i don’t think of ESO as anything like another Elder Scrolls game I see it as something new and different, I never played Daggerfall or Morrowind so maybe that is why i don’t feel for those lands the nostalgia that some people do.

    Before I tried it I thought I would be a Wood Elf Night Blade but now i am leaning more towards a Dark Elf Dragon Knight as my first character

  • Really I have never heard this patch. Is this confirmed by ZOS?

    • I don’t know about a patch to adjust player and monster levels before level 50 but Paul Sage did state that things open up in terms of freedom and exploration beyond 50. Here’s the quote from the Tamriel Foundry Q & A.

      “ESO is more like Morrowind in its leveling with regards to monsters. Monsters and players have definite levels. ESO also has zones which are tuned to certain levels. These zones allow you to meet people around your level range and adventure together or just let you know what you are getting into. Once you hit 50 and venture into the other Alliances, level doesn’t mean as much and you will be able to go from place to place without worry of being overpowered so much.”

      Personally, as someone who has never played an MMO, the fixed levels and artificial walls doesn’t bother me at all. I like feeling the sense of progression that comes from exploring one area to it’s fullest and then moving onto the next. Dark Souls, arguable one of the best (mostly) single player fantasy action RPGs to come out in the last few years accomplished this progression style in and open world to absolute perfection and was one of the greatest gaming experiences I have ever had.

      All that said, I don’t disagree with the idea that solo players will likely look to drop off within the first few months, but I also find it hard to imagine that ZOS hasn’t accounted for this in their plans. For one thing, they have already announced that the Dark Brotherhood and Theives Guild would come post launch. They know this will attract solo players to continue with a subscription or return to play. Eventually however, many of the single players will leave and we’ll just have to see whether the subscription model is sustainable in the long term.

    • He said maybe, not that there is one confirmed.

  • From the perspective of a Non-MMO gamer.
    I am one of the lucky few/many? how got to participate in the weekends beta test. I am truly grateful for this early opportunity, and I am almost certain I will not jump headlong into ESO. I’ve listened and read many reviews. After playing the game I have been most interested in hearing the opinion of the MMO fans and how this game compares to others, because first and foremost this is an online game and I want to how it stacks up against the other MMO’s out there. But no matter what they do it will never match the singleplayer experience – unless they make it a wholly singleplayer-online game. We ain’t got the bandwidth for that…yet 😉
    But we all understand this, right? Its an MMO with a singleplayer experience unlike anything before. So what I found myself faced with this weekend was a choice, and not what you might be thinking. Not a choice of which version of ESO I want to play, MMO or singleplayer?It was a choice between two icons on my desktop – ESO or Skyrim. If I want MMO then my choice is obvious. But when it comes to the singleplayer game another question came to mind, “Why would I choose ESO over Skyrim…or, Oblivion, Morrowind…etc.” The answer is I WOULD NOT choose ESO over Skyrim. Now the question becomes, “Is my MMO interest worth the price?”. My last online experience was Mass Effect Multiplayer Co-op. I loved it. In fact I still play, though the last time there were major server issue. If I could drop into an instance in Tamriel with a squad of three friends a’la ME style I might be swayed into giving up some cash. But IMO the only choice ESO offers is a better version of WoW – and I have had my fill.

  • Great article Brian. I am more in the crowd of TES purist, but thankfully I have played some MMO’s and know what to expect from that genre. I am still going to buy the game (Imperial Edition) because I really want to get into a good MMO that I can invest time into, especially with my love of TES lore already. But after reading your article, my main concern is like yours… freedom. Plus I too hope they give reasons to return to starting areas… even if its locations for new dungeons or “raids”. Though probably having to be phased separately from low level players.

    One of the only MMO’s I have truly played enough to comment fairly on is WoW (the other being GW2). Though I only played for 2 months, I feel I played enough in my play style to know how I felt about it. I enjoyed it, but not enough to stay subscribed. MMO’s to me just feel a blander, less filling, experience compared to well received single player titles. Yes the world is massive, and yes there are tons of people to group up with, but the layout of the lands seem slightly more generic and AI, and their quests, just create less immersion for me. Plus MMO’s always seem like you need to grind to be successful, but that is not how I enjoy games. I love to do things my own way and at my own pace, not be forced to do cookie-cutter quest over and over and over just to move comfortably to a higher zone.

    The only thing that kept me playing WoW as long as I did was just the exploration… which is my favorite thing in any open world game. At very low levels I was able to sneak through (or outrun) very high level enemy areas. I got to see soo much of the world in a very short time, and it was amazing. I fell in love with that… but at the same time I wasn’t able to do anything tangible when I was there. Enemies were way too high level and I would die instantly upon attack. But to a degree that was fun in-and-of itself.

    I just hope ESO has a happy median of what I love about TES games, and exploration, along with what makes a great, successful, MMO. Time will tell.

    • Thanks! I haven’t played a ton of MMOs either, but I have played enough to know the things I don’t like. While a very small amount of that exists in ESO, it’s not enough to keep me from playing. I can’t wait to get in the game proper and start playing my way. It’s gonna be a great game.

  • Woah, Brian Armstrong wrote this… the whole time I thought it was Shank the way you were moaning about too much MMO in TES. Ah well, lessons are learned every day and good points were made. Good Job man.

  • I understand your point of view, and we may have a lot of disapointement regarding the choices done to bring elderscrolls in the mmo world.

    Many games loose their verysoul and interest while going into mmo… it doesn t meen mmos has to be be repetitive and bad. Usually, when it happen it s just a lack of imagination and the will to do something to average, without real identity… just have a try on Dungeon and dragon Online and you’ll see what i mean.

    But in another they could find a way to make elder scrolls online being worthwile. Old gamers may remeber how anarchy online, or Dark age of camelot or even recentely the secret world have find a way to be inovative and build a strong identity.
    So, it s probably normal that some classic elderscroll points have to change.
    The question, is are they going to bring new answears, new game mechanics, or will they just copy past old games ?

    About your article and the fact that daggerfall will not be visited again once u get hight level, their might be a solution.
    Instead of only creating area dedicated to some levels, maybe they could create some dungeons, quests etc that will ask a player to come back in those starting area.
    And as RP is not only about killing, some quest could be more political, or diplomatic etc.
    It could also avoid the dead starting zone effect wich occure when most of people get hight level.
    They could Just think the game and uit s quests and events as layers and not as new zones.

  • I think that’s awesome that you have chosen to love this game despite your very realistic qualms. I am a die-hard TES fan, with no MMO experience. I went into this game expecting not to have the same freedom as Skyrim, etc., and instead chose to embrace the differences. I feel like once many of these die-hard TES fans come to terms with the fact that this is NOT a single-player game and is a completely different experience set in TES world, it will be okay. It seems like the lore & story is so deep in ESO that it will carry it as a game that TES fans will love regardless of the same amount of freedom we are used to. If we focus on what is ADDED to the single player games to make ESO unique, not damn it for it’s differences, I think many others will take that stance once they start playing it, and all will be well.

  • TES was my first significant gaming experience. I’ve played a lot of games over the years but TES probably still represents half of my total gaming time, 2000 hours or so all told. I’ve been active in TES forums and such over the years and the most common complaints I’ve heard about the games all essentially revolve around the same issue:

    Level scaling.

    The complaint I’m hearing most about ESO from the TES crowd now all revolve around the same thing too:

    No level scaling.

    But TES games haven’t all been level scaled… what they have all had in common was significant difficulty scaling issues and game-breaking exploits.

    The fact that ESO isn’t Skyrim isn’t going to make people abandon the game after a month, it’s what’s going to keep those people who give the game a month playing. In the end it really doesn’t matter what the game is not, it only matters what it is.

  • Thanks for the article. So what you are saying is that if you don’t like MMOs you won’t like this game? That is a fair point. I am however having a hard time figuring out if people’s negativity for the game is because they are ES fans that don’t like MMOs or because this is a bad MMO. I was never a big fan of the Elder Scrolls series. Sandbox just isn’t my thing but I do like a good MMO. So will I like this game? I haven’t gotten into the beta unfortunately.

    • I wasn’t necessarily saying it’s as black and white as saying that if you don’t like MMOs you won’t like ESO. I’m in general not a huge MMO fan (though I do play a few from time to time), but I love ESO. It’s just that one design issue, of not really being able to go anywhere on the world you want that may rub some Elder Scrolls traditionalists the wrong way.

      And let me clear up something else. I’m not sure that I made it clear, but I understand that in Skyrim you can’t just walk anywhere you want to without having any trouble with enemies. There ARE places that have enemies that will kick your ass if you mess with them. But by and large you can sneak by them, go around them, or otherwise avoid them and still see *most* of Skyrim before doing a single quest. But in ESO, that is simply not the case.

      My recommendation? If you’re one of these ESO purists I’m talking about, I would beg you to try it. Whether that means buying it at full price at launch, or waiting for a sale somewhere down the line, try it for yourself. Understand that the nature of MMOs means that they can’t just let you go anywhere you want. There has to be leveled content. Try to see the beauty in exploring every square inch of the zone you’re in (which are often QUITE large). This is how I’ll be playing, and i was one of those that wanted to see all of Skyrim before I really got into the game. I really think you’ll have fun exploring Tamriel, albeit a bit differently from how you have in the past. But if we aren’t willing, as gamers, to adapt and try new things, we’ll never experience anything new.

      *stepping off soapbox*

  • Thank you Brian for this article.

    Between you and Shank, I feel that you capture the feelings of many Elder Scrolls fans like myself. I loved the ESO beta, especially crafting, but the limits in exploration was kind of disappointment, though not unexpected. MMOs appear to me to be very shallow compared to a typical elder scrolls experience. That is just an opinion of someone who’s only other MMO has been Neverwinter.

  • So you’re bashing an mmo for having mmo elements? O-Ok? And another thing, I could care less what non mmo players think of an mmo. They will either adapt or move on. This is not skyrim nor should it be.

    • I think you may have missed the entire point of this article. Not once did I bash the game. I was writing this from the perspective of half of ZOS’s audience – the single player Elder Scrolls traditionalists. And you SHOULD care what non MMO players think of an MMO Iin particular, this one), because they are the core of who is needed in order for this game to be a long-lasting success. The MMO crowd is so fickle these days, and they switch from MMO to MMO as they come out. I’m sure YOU are not that way, but in general, MMO players play an MMO until they reach end game and get bored or until the next one comes out. You want to have a vibrant, long-lasting Elder Scrolls MMO community and game? Then you better hope “non-MMO” players love this game. THAT was the point of this article.

  • Wow, that was an awesome review. I totally agree. The most fun I had was never playing any elder scrolls and putting in that Skyrim disc and seeing everything for the first time. Grass sunsets, landscape then Giants and mammoths etc. Getting squashed by a Giant and saving the game so often because I had no idea what was coming in those dungeons or what would kill me next.

    I felt like I could go anywhere or do anything or be anything I liked. I read a review that said I could be a blacksmith and spend as much time on that as i wanted or choose anything in the free open beautiful world that i’d never seen before.

    Since I’ve already signed on I have faith they’ll continue to improve it, esp with feedback like you’ve given!

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