Monday, February 17, 2014

The Elder Scrolls Online: What's in a Name?

The NDA lifted off The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) and I’ll be honest, the only reason why I noticed was because Twitter was all aflutter about it. I’ve played previous games in The Elder Scrolls universe such as Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim and every time without fail I end up playing for a while, getting distracted by something shiny and fun, getting distracted from that by something else shiny and fun, repeat ad nauseam until I’m so far off the beaten path that I have no idea what the plotline is anymore and then I just drop the game to play something else. This entire process usually lasts for about 6 to 8 hours, so given all of the other games I want to play, this seems like a poor fit for my play style.

That’s not to say they are bad games. Given the number of people who clamor they’re excellent games, I’ll leave that judgment for other folks. I just know that they’re not a good investment for me. So when TESO was announced, I gave it a firm meh and went on my day-to-day business.

Fast forward to today, and the blogosphere is alive with the sound of music complaints. Like myself, it seems that folks looked at the name “The Elder Scrolls” and walked into the game with a certain set of expectations. A world that opens up within the first like 15 minutes to do whatever you want, be it stealing all of the cheese wheels across the land and rolling them down a mountain, or questing to your heart’s content.

More cheese, Gromit?

Edit: Apparently the tutorial actually only lasts 15 - 30 minutes. That'll learn me not to ask questions.

Edit2: The above is true for certain definitions of tutorial. You can go off the rails after the first 15 minutes, but there's still guided tutorial-esque quests after.

Turns out those expectations aren’t met, at least for the first 10 levels or so. Apparently the tutorial phase is pretty much like any other MMO on rails. If you’ve got a bunch of journalists who only have a few hours to dig into your content (or new players who are trying to make a value judgment on if they want to invest more time, for that matter), having your tutorial take a long time and not be representative of the rest of your game is a fatal mistake.

Take Final Fantasy XIII, for example. Square Enix made the same mistake, and got lambasted for it incredibly harshly. Twenty hours of linear play with a tutorial every twenty to thirty minutes before it finally opened up at the very end. Now, that’s an extreme example, I highly doubt TESO is anywhere near that bad, but nonetheless, we’ve been through this song and dance already. Players don’t like it.

J3W3L from Healing The Masses expresses her frustration with folks taking the tutorial and extrapolating the rest of the game from said tutorial. On one hand, I can sympathize: how many games have I said, “Oh, the first few hours aren’t that great, but the game really takes off once you’re past that point”?

On the other hand, how is it not a complete design failure on the part of the developers that they aren’t showing—as a part of the game that is teaching you to play the game—what the game is like? I suppose rationalizing open world with guided tutorial is a hard problem, but throwing up your hands and saying, “it’s too hard to solve,” and just shoving in a sub-par experience as part of the crucial initial few hours where people make that snap-judgment is not a good idea for getting people to keep playing. Or worse: passing it off as a problem with the customers because their attention spans are too short, which completely misses the point of designing a game to make money.

When designing software, or a device, or anything else, to sell to people, the problem is rarely with the customer. Nobody can find that feature? People constantly hitting the wrong key by accident in your app? People aren’t going to give you as the developer a free pass because you’re nice (usually); the customer will buy someone else’s software that does it right, or at least, does it well enough but doesn’t have the issue they’re struggling with.

If you’re the software developer and designer, it’s your job to solve for those issues. So if your tutorial is turning people off because it isn’t representative of the rest of the game and takes too long, then you need to fix that, or you’ll get the niche of players who have the patience to get through the tutorial, but you won’t end up with the population to support the $100 million you just spent on development.

Even WoW had the statistics to support that 70% of trial players quit WoW before level 10, which was only about 2 to 3 hours of gameplay for a new player, so complain all you like about players with short attention spans: if the developer wants the money, the developer needs to have the experience nab them in those immediate short few hours. Nicholas Lovell of GAMESbrief puts it succinctly:

“The criticisms of TESO suggest that its initial experience is not trying to show you why this game is worth sticking with: it assumes that you are going to stick with it. It doesn’t try to earn your love and respect. It assumes it.”

Developer rant aside, if the game truly does open up after the tutorial, then this is all fixable. Shorten the tutorial or redesign it, and bam, you have your Skyrim: The MMO, which is what many folks want when they hear “The Elder Scrolls Online.” But if it’s not, then you have a branding problem, which likely stems from the fact that in most people’s minds it’s “easy” to make Skyrim: The MMO (despite it being very, very hard to actually develop Skyrim: The MMO because design considerations in a single-player game don’t really cross that divide into a multiplayer game very easily).

World of Warcraft made an incredibly successful jump from RTS to MMO, but perhaps that was easy because the only expectations people had of WoW compared to Warcraft III was that it should have the same factions/races/major NPCs and flavor. Since the genres were so radically different, there were no expectations from the RTS crowd as to how the game should play.

Interestingly enough, Final Fantasy XI had a similar issue to TESO, and I’d argue that they failed to bridge the gap from single-player Final Fantasy games to the MMO, at least for North Americans. You had a bunch of hardcore old-school MMO players, but the folks who wanted that crunchy story-heavy JRPG flavor weren’t going to get it from the grind-fest that was FFXI. People were upset (and still are) that an MMO got to take a spot in the venerated Final Fantasy line with a number and everything, because to them it wasn’t really Final Fantasy.

When you look at Bravely Default, which was classic Final Fantasy in everything except name, it sold like gangbusters in all markets. A new IP/franchise was born, divested of the baggage that comes with a venerated IP: Final Fantasy, an IP that is extremely diluted at this point. If someone says Final Fantasy these days, the only thing that comes to mind is made in Japan and Chocobos. There’s no strong association with a given character, genre, story, or style of play, and I argue that’s a bad thing. In the PlayStation era, the name “Final Fantasy” meant long JRPG with a heavy story, evolved battle mechanics from game to game, excellent graphics, and awesome music. Basically, the brand “Final Fantasy” was sufficient to sell the games nearly sight-unseen.

But that name also invites comparisons to other games in the series, and so it is with The Elder Scrolls Online. Zenimax chose to name their MMO on that series, and so it comes with certain expectations. When those expectations aren’t met, it hurts the brand and drives the players away. There’s room for experimentation, but as a company you need to understand what your brand means to your players, and deliver on that premise, because when you’re selling based on that brand, that’s what customers are buying. And if you can’t prove to your customers that they’re getting what they purchased in relatively short order, you’ll lose them and end up with upset blog posts on the Internet.

1 comment:

  1. So Syl on another post says the tutorial is like 15 minutes if you know what you're doing, which probably means 30 - 45 minutes if you're new. Perhaps a little too long, but not the hours people were intimating. My rant still stands as do my comments on brand, but it seems like there's a disconnect here between different people's experiences. Some determine it isn't Skyrim: The MMO, others do. Hooray subjectivity.

    Lesson learned, don't take blog posts at face value. Ask questions.