I understand that you are a new studio, but you stem from a studio with a long history of making good games. I understand that no game has ever been 100% bug free. I also understand that you are extraordinarily excited about bringing your game to the public. And I wanted to see Elder Scrolls Online as much as anyone. You're also a young studio, and I understand the feeling wanting to do things your own way. You want to make your individual mark on the world, but doing that at the expense of wisdom... well, I hope you can see where I'm going with this.
On Thursday, I spoke to many people about the console delay. I mentioned to most of them that my last Tamriel Infinium about the PC gamers actually being console beta testers was meant to be hyperbole. Although it was based on truth, I extended my logic beyond what I thought a studio would actually do. I didn't think that you were actually using the PC version that people are playing and paying for as a beta test. Clearly, that's the case since you will not release ESO in its current state to consoles.
I don't think all is lost. I believe you might be able to turn some things around. So here's my armchair developer's advice.
We learn as children that we should live up to our promises. If we make a promise to someone, then we need to keep it. Somewhere during the course of life, we find out that promises are more difficult to keep than we once thought. Unfortunately, broken promises happen all the time as adults.
Although I think it's important to keep promises you've made, I believe its even more important to not make promises you cannot keep. And the best way to keep from making such inevitably broken promises is to do research. MMOs in the past have run into some of the same issues you did. Some of those issues are unavoidable; a studio shouldn't pretend that it's so much better than all the others who came before, not when it's a studio taking its first step into the MMO genre.
The first huge promise you shouldn't have made was the content release cadence. You promised that we would see new content every four to six weeks. Granted, it's not been six weeks yet, so you still have a week to release Craglorn, but you've not opened up the test server to the public. If you happen to release Craglorn in your expected six weeks, I suspect that it will be buggy and disappointing to fans. The public test server needs to be open to, you know, the public. Give your paying audience a chance to tell you if the new content is working. Although I know that you have guilds and privately invited players running around Craglorn, a sense of transparency will go a long way toward bettering your image.
When Matt Firor promised a "polished and lag-free" launch, you were just asking for trouble. First off, the word "polished" is more than subjective. But you should know the internet by now; it will point out every single unpolished corner of the game. On top of that, it's a promise you shouldn't have made. MMO history will tell you that no MMO has ever launched completely polished and lag-free. I know that you are excited about your game, but you should at least be honest about the state of it.
Your fix here is to be honest in your communication. People want to love the game. I want to love the game, so if you're honest and enthusiastic about the things you should be excited about, we will be excited, too.
Bear in mind, ZeniMax, that I can't see your financials. It's possible that you are beyond repair financially. It's possible that Elder Scrolls Online is no longer a long-term investment, but I like to think there is still hope for the game.
Your first step is to kill the subscription. It's OK to admit a mistake if it's to the players' benefit. Removing the subscription would go miles toward improving your image. I don't want you to go completely free-to-play. That is likely a very bad move. Charge for the box and that's it -- become a buy-to-play game. That way people will not feel as ripped off about having to buy another race or a horse.
Craglorn will also have to be free, but any future patch of that size you can charge for. It would have to be reasonable: $15 to $20. But people will pay for it. And if you can actually live up to your promise of releasing content every four to six weeks, then it'll be just like having a subscription, and you won't lose any money.
On top of that, you have had multiple problems on the backend regarding subscription billing. You required people to subscribe before giving them the first 30 days of play. Usually, this is OK, but the fact that you held $15 on players' accounts instead of $1 like most companies seemed shady. Then you actually charged some players that $15, which made for lots of bad press. Now that some players have paid their first installment for their subscription, we've started to see new issues arise. Players have reported that you're charging them twice. I know you're going to fix it in the end, but this really shouldn't have happened in the first place.
Just get rid of the subscription. It's a win-win if you ask me.
For a long time, you gave the impression that you didn't know what you were making. A member of your senior staff would say that it was not an MMO, and then some other dev would say that it was. Now that the game is released, we see this confusion played out on screen. Many parts of the game struggle between this balance of grouping people up and making them play the game solo. So what you have are dungeons that require cooperation between players floating alongside questing elements that cannot be completed with a group at all. Players quest solo and then dungeon in groups, which would be OK if the matchmaking system worked. But many players report either not ever finding a group or having a group of mismatched classes and not being able to complete the dungeons
I could go on, but I believe that if you fix the first two items and make great strides toward fixing the last one, you will not bleed players. But as of right now, many loyal fans, including me, are deeply disappointed in what you have done. We want to love Elder Scrolls Online, but right now, that's a really hard thing to do.
Traverse the treacherous terrain of Tamriel with Larry Everett as he records his journey through The Elder Scrolls Online, an MMORPG from ZeniMax. Comments are welcome below, or send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org. He promises to keep the arrow-to-the-knee jokes to a minimum.