Around a year ago, I wrote an article explaining my thoughts on what Blizzard needed to do to make Diablo IV a success. Based on their dark, gritty reveal, it seems like they listened to me (at least that’s what I tell myself). So along the same vein, I’m going to present my thoughts on what Bethesda needs to do in order to ensure that their beloved The Elder Scrolls series maintains its reputation as a gold standard in open-world games. Bethesda, if you’re reading this — pay attention.
The Elder Scrolls series is in a significantly different position compared to the Diablo series. The last release, Skyrim, was a massive success and the near-endless chain of rereleases has become somewhat of a meme (check out the Very Special Edition on Amazon Alexa). Despite my criticisms of Skyrim being an overrated RPG, I don’t believe it is an overrated game, even if it isn’t my favourite in the series (nothing beats Morrowind, in my mind).
Despite all this, Bethesda, like so many other AAA studios, have exhibited some concerning practices in recent years, and we also need to take into consideration how much the games industry has changed since Skyrim’s 2011 release. Games-as-a-service and the tumultuous world of microtransactions are the focus of ongoing debates among gamers. Furthermore, as a result of endless disappointing releases, Bethesda is now facing a consumer that is much more cynical towards AAA studios, and much more discerning with their purchases. With a vastly expanded games industry, and a diverse selection of alternative open-world games, Bethesda can no longer rely on the “fanboy effect” to ensure the success of The Elder Scrolls.
Chill with the Microtransactions
Bethesda was one of the first developers in the world to incorporate paid DLC with their infamous Horse Armour DLC for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. While their record with microtransactions since then has been rather spotty, Skyrim was quite generous on the DLC front by modern standards; Dawnguard, Hearthfire and Dragonborn are more representative of classic expansion packs than contemporary microtransactions.
If Bethesda sticks to this model, and not some sort of exploitative nonsense like charging money for mods, then they’ll be fine. Which bring me to my next point…
No Creation Club
If there was ever a red flag for the future of The Elder Scrolls, then the Creation Club is it. Bethesda denies that this is a sneaky way of turning content created by other people into profitable microtransactions, and that they are supporting content creators. I call bullshit. Seriously, the day that some gaming megacorp like Zenimax Media (owner of Bethesda) becomes an altruistic champion of the little guy is the day pigs fly. Content creators only see a fraction of this money. While the Creation Club currently exists alongside free mods, you can bet that Bethesda was testing the waters to see what they could get away with.
Thankfully, the backlash to paid mods was pretty huge, and I’m hoping it gave Bethesda second thoughts. The free-flow of user-created content is what has allowed Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim to flourish well past their release dates, longer than anyone would have expected.
Embrace Content Creators
“Modability” is a key part of The Elder Scrolls legacy. When you buy an Elder Scrolls game, you know that you are buying a blank canvas upon which you can paint your own story with the diverse paints of endless mods. Bethesda must continue this legacy by providing the modding tools that allow it.
Where this gets complicated in coming years is the appearance of cloud gaming — how will you mod your game if the files are stored in some Google data centre? How Bethesda navigates this complicated territory could make or break the next game in the series.
No more streamlining
One of my biggest criticisms of many AAA sequels is the streamlining effect, where developers over-optimise all the fun out of their game. Blizzard is a classic offender — Diablo III and later World of Warcraft expansions became so streamlined in their gameplay loop that you could practically play them while comatose.
One need only look at the declining complexity of The Elder Scrolls over time to see this trajectory — Daggerfall and Morrowind are supremely more complex games than Skyrim. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and is often just a symptom of changing or improving design trends over time. However, Bethesda should remember that so much of what players love about The Elder Scrolls is the journey, not the destination. Streamlining all the effort out of the journey to make reaching the destination easier will only kill the game.
This is likely to be the most controversial point — The Elder Scrolls has always been a shining example of why single-player is not dead or dying. However, I think we need to realise that some level of multiplayer could actually make the next Elder Scrolls game one of the best. There are already mods in various states of development that add multiplayer to Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim; adding multiplayer to a single player game is no easy feat, so the desire for it must be strong.
Bethesda doesn’t have to make this overly complex for it to succeed — a simple co-op mode, where you can share the world with a few of your friends is all they need to do. After all, who hasn’t dreamt of running around Tamriel with a buddy?
Don’t get complacent
If there’s one thing that is a sure-fire killer of good games, it is complacency. This is a trait that Bethesda exhibited all too prominently with the absolute train-wreck of a release that was Fallout 76.
From CEO to QA tester to marketing guy to programmer, this is something that everyone at Bethesda needs to understand — success is not guaranteed, and gamers are not going to give them a free pass just because they attach The Elder Scrolls name to their game. If anything, the expectations are higher than ever. Bethesda needs to take the time to craft, polish and test their game before they release it. They need to ensure adequate supply chains for the various physical editions. They need to make sure that their advertising and marketing is accurate and honest.
Gamers are generally pretty lenient with release dates, but they are most certainly not lenient with substandard sequels to beloved franchises. So, if you need to push the date back a few months to add a bit of extra polish, follow the CD Projekt Red example and do it.
To finish up, there’s much more to be said on what could make The Elder Scrolls VI great, but the general message is this — as long as they commit time and effort to development, try a few new ideas while staying faithful to the series, and don’t try to squeeze every last penny out of their customers, we could be looking at another classic. Here’s hoping that I’ll still be playing The Elder Scrolls VI in ten years’ time.