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What You Didn’t Know About The Elder Scrolls Online: Big Bad Bethesda

When The Elder Scrolls Online was first revealed in May this year, the response from the community wasn’t the warmest one.

While an MMO in the vein of Skyrim would be just lovely, most knew from the outset that it wouldn’t happen – at least not any time soon. Building an MMO that actually looks and feels like an Elder Scrolls title just isn’t feasible yet. Pete Hines, head PR honcho of (Elder Scrolls developer) Bethesda, summed it up nicely following this year’s E3, speaking to Eurogamer last month:

I certainly felt that some people were going to expect Skyrim, but massively multiplayer, which, if we could have done that, we would have just done that, right? We would have just done Skyrim that lets you play with a thousand other people.

Instead, we find ourselves offered yet another MMO sporting a skill hotbar, preset character classes and a third-person-locked viewpoint – much to the community’s evident distaste. I’m not saying it’s necessarily going to be a ‘bad’ game – my issue is that the existing potential for an Elder Scrolls MMO to inject some direly needed freshness in to the genre seems all but squandered here.

There has never been a better opportunity for the industry to finally push away from World of Warcraft-ism – with the Western world’s new RPG darling at the helm –  and yet it seems even this project is determined to follow the hollow. To me, the greatest irony of all is how fiercely ZeniMax/Bethesda battled Minecraft developer Mojang over the name ‘Scrolls’ in the last year, only to happily slap the title on one of their own games bearing little semblance to anything else in the series.

Jared Carr, the art director for TESO, said that current tech is preventing the game from even looking like an Elder Scrolls game.

“…we’re not really at the technical state with MMOs, the graphics technology, to really be able to pull off photo realism. We can’t do it,” he explained in an interview with Game Informer this May.

So if TESO can neither look or play like an actual Elder Scrolls game, then why not wait until it can to develop it? You’d think if they were going to risk the time and money to make this thing, they’d wait until they could at least do the brand name justice. The thing is, it’s not their money at risk – the funding came from outside.

A firm named Providence Equity Partners made a $300 million investment in to Bethesda’s parent company, ZeniMax, in late 2007. The investment won the private equity group’s Managing Director Michael Dominguez a seat on ZeniMax’s board. The accompanying press release dictated that the proceeds of the deal would be used “… to fund future growth, increase game development and publishing, facilitate acquisitions, and finance massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs).” Two months before the deal officially closed, ZeniMax also quietly announced it had opened a new studio to focus on MMO development, the rather creatively named ‘ZeniMax Online Studios’.

Though many suspected, it was only when TESO was announced this year that the team’s exact purpose was confirmed. It’s pretty clear that Providence’s investment was responsible for the studio’s creation, and as such TESO’s existence;  the FAQ on the ZeniMax Online Studios page refers to the grant in the question about funding.

This is certainly something to take in to consideration in trying to explain TESO’s impending mediocrity. There may never have been plans to develop an Elder Scrolls MMO – or at least not until the time was right. You’d be hard pressed to find any business that would turn down a titanic sum like $300 million though, even if it did mean making a game they may not have intended to.

With the better part of half a billion now up its sleeve, the ZeniMax collective still had some hurdles ahead before they’d be able to sell their MMO.

 

 

In April 2007, before the Providence investment (and subsequent formation of ZeniMax Online), Bethesda purchased the popular Fallout franchise from Interplay. One provision of the deal was that Interplay would be allowed to continue development of its in-progress Fallout MMO, so long as it secured $30 million and development was in full swing by 2009. This all took place 6 months before Bethesda/ZeniMax found itself with fresh financial interest in developing an MMO.

At this point, the developer found itself in a tricky situation – it couldn’t work on its own Fallout MMO, nor would it be wise to release TESO in a market competing against one of its own (acquired) intellectual properties.

For two years, all was quiet, and development of both TESO and Interplay’s MMO continued.

In September 2009, as you may remember, Bethesda pounced. Seeking an injunction to stop the development of Fallout Online, it took Interplay to court, arguing that their agreement had not been satisfied. The court denied Bethesda’s claims that the funding target had not been met and development was not fully underway. The injunction was denied that December, but this was only the beginning of a two-year legal onslaught.

Bethesda dragged Interplay back to court again in 2010, this time claiming it had only licensed out the Fallout name, but not any of the content – suggesting that Interplay was never allowed to use any Fallout monsters, locations, lore, and so on. Interplay successfully countered again, showing the contract stated their game had to have the “look and feel of a Fallout game”, which would naturally be impossible without content from the series. Emails between the two companies were also brought forward, showing that Bethesda was fully aware that Interplay intended to use Fallout elements in its game.

Aside from the legal clout of these communications, they also add a lot of weight to the idea that Bethesda rather suddenly changed its mind about letting Interplay proceed as originally planned. Bethesda filed for another injunction in 2011, this time asserting that Interplay was breaking Fallout canon in its MMO, and would damage future sales of the series.

From this point onward, Bethesda’s desperation grows more and more evident. It appealed the result and filed for a restraining order against Interplay’s development partner Masthead for good measure. Somewhere along the line, it requested a trial by jury for Interplay as well.

None of it ever eventuated.

The whole saga finally ended in January this year to little fanfare, when Bethesda handed Interplay two million dollars to essentially just shut up and walk away. Leaving a polite yet rather brief space afterward, Bethesda announced TESO only a few months later.

At the time, Bethesda’s persistence with the Interplay case seemed kind of ridiculous – but in perspective, it certainly makes a lot more sense, even if it does leave a rather sour taste in my mouth. Maybe I’m looking back through rose-coloured glasses, but I’m pretty sure Bethesda hasn’t always been this way. Its journey from small but fiercely innovative game studio, to dominant force in western RPGs, has left an undeniable mark on the company’s approach, and perhaps now the quality of the games it publishes.

Since the Providence investment in particular (which you’ll recall was also ‘to facilitate acquisitions’ and ‘to increase … publishing’), a rash of titles including the universally panned Rogue Warrior has hit shelves bearing the Bethesda brand. There was a time when you knew that any Bethesda product was something it wanted to be represented by, because as with any young company, it was hungry. It’s not like Bethesda is alone in slowly changing this way – it’s symptomatic of the entire industry.

Corporations are inextricably linked to moneymaking, and as more money flows, they find themselves with more resources and options to do what the corporations are made for. Some retain or even refine their identity as they grow, while so many others become almost autonomous – an inhuman construct that feeds only on money, throwing aside whatever ideals it once had.

Shareholders care little for the legions of fans who’ll cry foul and probably play the game anyway; by nature, they only care for hard numbers – about returns on their investments.

Lachlan is the resident Australian columnist here. He technically runs the column 'Player Two' , but mostly writes about whatever's bothering him at the time. He also wishes someone would speak Japanese with him.

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