The recent Elder Scrolls Online announcement is quite possibly the biggest botched game unveiling ever. Instantly, fans of the legendary series voiced revolt ‘en mass on blogs and forums.
The reaction, which was galvanized with a cartoony screenshot that looks nothing like The Elder Scrolls game world, seems like a classic example of a disconnect between developers and what the market really wants.
This disconnect happens all the time in the software. Though trends in the industry have a vastly improved deployment methodology. Tech startups in particular are embracing a more rapid, iterative release cycle - with customer feedback at the center of the process.
Zenimax Online, the new studio leading development of Elder Scrolls Online - is a startup. One that has received massive injections of capital from its parent ZeniMax, a company that has raised to the tune of $325 million in venture capital since 2007. Years in the making, with over 250 employees, truckloads of capital backing... yet this blunder out of the gates. What went wrong?
There is absolutely no reason why the game should already be stumbling at this juncture. Here's why: there is an enormous existing, pre-qualified market of over 10 million paying customers. Owners of the fastest selling title in the history of Steam, the most recent Elder Scrolls epic: Skyrim.
Each and every one of those gamers is a potential buyer of the new TES Online. Not every startup has the luxury of a target market with over 10 million customers willing and ready to send you their money. Imagine!
The marketing strategy is obvious: build a product to entice existing Elder Scrolls gamers and maximize conversions to the new title.
The only thing that could possibly go wrong is to somehow screw things up so bad that the majority of existing customers despise the new product. Causing a viral effect that will dwindle conversion rates down to abysmal levels... which is exactly where this project is headed.
It's obvious what Zenimax Online should NOT have done. They should not have waited 5 years to release the first screenshot. Seems leadership is out of touch with the target market and product direction is in the wrong lane.
Of course, its easy for me to sit in a high chair - criticize management and say this or that. About what could've and should've been done. But it's actually kind of fun. And this is my blog, so I'm going to do it anyway...
IF I was hired to clean up this mess - here is what I would do.
I would take measures to aggressively re-calibrate the product direction back on target: precisely on the millions of existing Elder Scrolls fans. I would synergize the disconnect between the traditional TES franchise to the new TES Online. I would shake-up the dev team and re-energize the office with a bold new vision. And I would leverage the power of open dialog & social media to share this new enhanced vision with the world - especially existing TES fans.
Finally, about the new vision for TES Online... the catalyst to recapture excitement in the game. And a strategy that will not only maximize initial conversions - but one that will create sustained interest in this online game world for the next 10 years. A grand, long-term vision that is vastly superior to what Zenimax has shown us to date. I present to you....
How do you engage loyal fans? You give them what they've been asking for for years: their favorite game, re-made with current gen graphics and a new twist.
But the original Morrowind was released... 10 years ago! We're trying to engage new fans right? I thought this was all about leveraging the millions and millions of Skyrim customers?
Well for every Skyrim player who has never played Morrowind, is a player who is intrigued by it. They've surely heard of it. And perhaps even interested in playing. Morrowind Online gives them that opportunity - and to do it with refreshed graphics and a new multiplayer dynamic.
And for players who have played; the existing Morrowind fans - consisting of roughly 1.3 million original XBOX players and countless more PC gamers - the decision to buy Morrowind Online is an easy sell. Because what's beautiful about this strategy is that you are tapping into the very core of TES fans: those introverted RPG players. The guys who said they would never touch an Elder Scrolls MMO. Sure they are opposed now. But give them Morrowind Online and they will buy it up - regardless of whether its an MMO or not.
Give players the exact same Morrowind game world. Not a half-ass chopped up version mixed with all the other game worlds (like is currently planned). Of course, most fans will understand its impossible to reproduce Skyrim-like graphics in an MMO setting. Which is why this is totally doable for Morrowind. You've got towns and landscapes and the whole island is already designed. Just needs fresh textures, a little more polygons here and there, and new content to help accommodate for the new massive multiplayer experience.
And then - post release, after a good dose of complimentary content, bug fixes, tweaking, and general milking of the MMO monthly payment model - you roll out part 2....
Suddenly players are introduced with a new game world. Another one many of whom are already familiar with: Cyrodil - the setting of the blockbuster RPG, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
Players who buy the expansion pack unlock Cyrodil. And can roam, explore, and battle in it just like they did in the original game. With an all new dynamic that makes the experience worth re-living... essentially the same game world but with new quests, enemies, places to explore and of course: fellow adventurers- or enemies - scattered about.
See the pattern ? It's by design. The macro strategy for TES Online, and indeed the TES franchise as a whole, is to couple each Elder Scrolls game with an online counterpart. Which is staggered by a few generations.
While Bethesda Softworks team innovates and makes the best, most bleeding edge Elder Scrolls game technically possible for the current era - the Zenimax Online team continues in parallel, focusing on recreating the previous worlds with a tight MMO implementation. So players can explore their favorite game world again - this time with their friends.
If you think about the incredible sustaining, perpetual, long-term potential of this model - you would think it is something that had to have been seriously considered by the high-level team when planning the MMO strategy.
Or Perhaps there are just not enough real TES gamers at the helm of this operation. One thing is for certain. If TES Online is just another WoW clone it will be resented by the majority of existing TES gamers. And you have to question the sanity of a business ignoring (and pissing off) a pre-qualified market that huge. I fear its a recipe that could disenchant the entire franchise. From players to devs.
But it's not my game world! And it's probably too late to turn back now... or is it?