This meme has been finding its way around the internet of late: where is the next Elder Scrolls game? Oblivion arrived in March of 2006, about four years after Morrowind, its immediate predecessor. Based on that admittedly limited trend, we should have at least heard an announcement by now, right?
Well, Fallout 3 surely intervened, as did Bethsoft’s parent company ZeniMax buying id Software. That alone means that Bethesda’s long and chummy relationship with Emergent is at an end; The Elder Scrolls V will likely use id’s Tech5 rather than GameBryo. And there are other things to consider.
ZeniMax has always been one of the quiet ones. It owns several large studios but barely takes any direct hand in game development. The acquisition of id was surprising enough; last week the company (very quietly) announced that it had bought Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami’s Tango Gameworks. That move suggests ZeniMax may have its eyes on Platinum Games, formed from the collapse of Capcom’s Clover Studio. Just how much money does ZeniMax have? And what’s the company’s long-term goal? Some rumblings suggest possibilities as far-out as a ZeniMax takeover of SEGA. Could it happen?
Anyway, lots has changed at Bethsoft since Oblivion. That game and Fallout 3 sold well; and Bethesda’s getting an extra cash infusion from Obsidian’s divisive but good-selling Fallout: New Vegas. Looking further back, Morrowind was also a hit. So we’re dealing with a company that has a fair amount of money in the bank – enough to buy id Software, whose upcoming DOOM 4 and Rage are likely to set sales records themselves. Money is not an issue.
But what to do with The Elder Scrolls? some – not me – would argue that it’s ideal fodder to be turned into the ZeniMax/Bethsoft entry into the MMO world. After all, they’ve got all the territory, the lore, major characters. The Elder Scrolls Online might make sense, to someone who has a vastly overinflated conception of how the MMO market works. Now, as a pessimist, I almost always come out against developers – no matter how big or well-funded – creating an MMO. It’s a completely different animal than normal game development, requires very different discipline. And, frankly, the chances of a new MMO succeeding are… god, if I said there’s a 5% chance for any new MMO to be profitable within the first three years, it’d probably be generous.
ZeniMax does not have a property in the MMO space, of course, and probably wants one. The ongoing legal wranglings between Bethesda Softworks and what remains of Interplay are where that drama will play out. The smart move for ZeniMax would be to launch Fallout Online as an MMO and keep The Elder Scrolls as a traditional RPG.
So, then, where is it? Oblivion represented the end of a very lengthy and somewhat discombobulated story arc; with Emperor Uriel Septim VII dead and the Septim line extinguished, Tamriel is in a rough spot. Provinces had been easing toward rebellion for some time; now the whole thing is likely to explode into civil war.
Generally speaking, Bethesda starts work on the next Elder Scrolls game immediate after they ship its predecessor. Morrowind was in development one day after Daggerfall hit shelves. Assuming they keep to this strategy – and the company is large enough that it could have at least a small crew working on Elder V without interfering with ongoing Fallout work. If that’s the case, I imagine we’ll get an announcement comparatively soon. BUT…
The true wrench in all this is the arrival of id on the scene. No one has said anything about The Elder Scrolls V, but Bethesda spokespeople have acknowledged that future games from Bethesda and other ZeniMax properties would be powered by Tech5 technology. I doubt The Elder Scrolls V is an exception to this, and porting it, even in prototype stage, from GameBryo to Tech5 may not be a trivial thing at all.
Whatever V is and whenever they announce it (believe me, there’ll be one), I’m more interested in the direction it takes. The Elder Scrolls kind of dominates western fantasy RPGs; where it goes, others tend to follow. Will Bethesda focus again on its Radiant AI, trying once more to create a living world that reacts realistically to character actions? So far there’s been little evidence of much success on that front. The more Radiant-powered games we play, the less impressive the technology appears.
One thing’s been consistent throughout all the core Elder Scrolls games: they are huge, open, and… well, almost discourage you a little bit from taking the main path right off the bat. Historically this has led to some of the greatest gaming moments of all time – like wandering into a Daedric shrine in Morrowind – and some of the stupidest – like encountering a bandit in full ebony plate and wielding a magic sword on the road to the capital.
For me Morrowind was the high point of the series so far, with its odd characters, bleak landscape, and slow-moving mystery of a plot. Oblivion was a disappointment. And while I have no doubt that we’ll soon hear about The Elder Scrolls V, what I can’t say for sure is what it will be, or what it will mean. I guess we have to wait and see.
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