The state of Elder Scrolls Online: 3 months after launch

A week after E3, I logged into Elder Scrolls Online expecting the worst. It was a pivotal moment for the future of ESO in the notoriously fickle MMORPG genre—the colorful rival WildStar had gone live but days before, the new "Craglorn" patch was settling into maturity, and most importantly, the first month of subscriptions had run dry for most early adopters. After the barrage of criticisms from critics and bitter players alike, I'd all but convinced myself that mine would be the only name shining on my favorite guild's roster upon entering Tamriel.

I couldn't have been more wrong. I logged in to find almost every player at Veteran Rank 12 rushing to complete one of the new "Trials," and they bugged me about why I hadn't been logging in as though all the factors above weren't into play. I needed that; it gave me hope that the roughly 400 hours I've spent with the game to date weren't for naught, and that other players shared the same begrudging affection for it as I do. The pieces, it seems, are in place to get back on track after a rocky start. ZeniMax has shown some competence so far in delivering an end game that its loyal players want to play, but now the question is whether it can overcome lingering issues with balance, fresh content, and a tedious leveling experience beyond the level cap.

Miles to Go

MMORPGs depend on the lively interactions and coordinated group efforts that greeted me upon my return, and ESO inexplicably holds this aspect of its experience at a distance. Reaching the level cap in most of its competitors resembles crossing a finish line of sorts, granting access to better loot through high-level dungeons and raids as a reward. In ESO, it's more like starting another lap. MMOs seldom take you from the high note of battling a fiend like a daedric lord to knocking you back to the beginning in the style of an action RPG like Path of Exile , but ESO insists on making you play through the leveling content of the other two factions before you reach the true level cap of Veteran Rank 12.

Reaching the highest veteran rank takes around 300 hours, which discourages players from leveling alts. Worse, the design whisks players out of their faction homelands and ships them off to the lands of their enemies, resulting in Nords who hang around and do their business in High Elf cities. It shatters the concept of a shared ”culture” among members of a common faction that usually makes faction-based MMOs so appealing, and it lessens replay value since you've already seen every quest by the time you're done. Think of it this way: It's like starting a Horde character in World of Warcraft and ending up playing through Alliance zones by the time you're done. It's hard to dredge up the conviction to shout "For the Horde!" when you're hobnobbing with dwarves and gnomes.

Elder Scrolls Online complicates this design further by slapping the veteran levels with harder encounters in both the open world and instances, resulting in characters that feel weaker at the level cap than they did when they were running around in the dungeons of Coldharbour. That's not to say that the challenge isn't welcome—it encourages player interaction in a way the 1-50 experience seldom did—but it's the kind of thing that should have been in place from the beginning.

The Trials of the Companions

If you can stick it out to Veteran Rank, Elder Scrolls Online's end game shows promise. The dungeons found in veteran ranks alone are worth the effort it takes to reach them, as some of the encounters resemble mini-raids that demand at least a modicum of coordination and cooperation among random players. Here the depth of ESO's combat best reveals itself, and the resulting challenges reveal weaknesses in builds that weren'tapparent when bulldozing through the core 1-50 content. I'd spend the majority of the veteran leveling process in the dungeons if I could, but poor XP for repeated runthroughs and boss loot that's easily salable in guild stores diminish some of the appeal.

But for weeks after launch, those dungeons constituted the end game experience aside from faction battles in the PvP zone of Cyrodiil (and why, ZeniMax is there no world PvP?). The Craglorn patch back in May added an "adventure zone" dedicated to group content, whether it be dynamic events and world bosses, public dungeons that required other players to complete, or two new 12-player "trials" that filled in the need for raid-like encounters. It was one of the first signs that ZeniMax might know what it's doing with late-game content, after all.

It's thus a shame that the trials, while fun enough, serve as a poster child for the issues Elder Scrolls Online faces every time it tries to deliver a non-standard MMO experience. The emphasis is usually on speed, as the trials limit the number of resurrections and reward players with leaderboard rankings depending on how fast they clear them. In another MMO without similar pressures, players usually allow concessions to support a player with a build or class that's not quite optimal for specific encounters.

Forget about that in ESO. Random groups actively turn away damage-focused Nightblade characters, as the class' DPS is in such a pitiful state right now (particularly for stamina builds) that bringing them would likely result in a lower ranking or outright failure. Balance as a whole remains a problem, and it's not uncommon to see trial groups composed almost entirely of players equipped with destruction staffs and clad in light armor regardless of class.

Good thing, then, that the trials aren't the only attraction; Patch v1.1.2 also introduced Shada's Tear, a sprawling multi-wing four-player dungeon as a nod to old-school dungeon running à la World of Warcraft's Scholomance and Blackrock Spire. I spent five hours in there the day after it launched, and figuring out the encounters in the absence of online wikis was one of the most rewarding experiences I've had in an MMO in years. ESO could use more things like this. It's a welcome alternative for players who want it, although the loot currently doesn't really justify the time commitment.

The Craglorn patch overall represents a healthy stab at creating content that keeps players busy, and it doesn't hurt that it alleviated some of the pain of the veteran leveling process. Thanks to a boost to enemy XP in the veteran ranks, newly minted level 50s now head straight to Craglorn to participate in the overland group events when they're not in the mood to slog through nearly 200 hours of story from a faction that they never intended to join in the first place. Most importantly, it seasons the experience with more variety, which is something ESO has needed since the beginning.

And it could stand to have more yet. After just a day of sampling its attractions, even Craglorn starts to feel like just another zone. A new patch this week introduced the veteran version of the Daggerfall Covenant's Crypt of Hearts dungeon along with a bundle of much-needed tweaks and bug fixes, but there's something inescapably dissatisfying about running through the same dungeons you saw as a fresh-faced adventurer even when you populate them with new bosses and enemies.

Variety is something that WildStar got so right, while ESO's oh-so-conflicted desire to remain true to the single-player games holds it back. Take it from Elsa, ZeniMax: Let it go.

The Spice of Life

What could this variety consist of? I saw a hint of it at the Bethesda booth at E3, where the ZeniMax team had set up a king-of-the-hill style PvP battleground called Colovian Crossing specifically for the event. A lone flag stood at the center of the arena, and players from the three factions rushed in to hold it and fight off their enemies. It was a simple affair designed to let random passersby enjoy and get a feel for the game despite not knowing jack about its gameplay, and here's the thing—it worked. I know of at least one person who was determined to pick it up after playing, but I never learned if he knew that small, focused content like that isn't even in the game.

It should be. ESO remains overly focused on the big picture: big zones, big questlines, and lately, big dungeons. But contemporary MMOs thrive on the little things as well, such as the PvE scenarios in a game like World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online or the focused, structured PvP content you find in WildStar or Guild Wars 2. Content, in other words, that you could log into and complete in the span of a lunch break or in the few free minutes before dinner. It's the kind of stuff that keeps players logging back in even when they don't have the time to bother with larger projects but still want to feel as though they've accomplished something for the day.

Elder Scrolls Online already has a devoted and friendly playerbase that's remained true to the game in the face of enticing competition. Some of us actually prefer its brand of combat where you click your mouse and your mace thunks down on your enemy; still more enjoy its muted color palettes that evoke the cold realities of medieval life over Pixar-inspired rainbowscapes. Thus far, ZeniMax has done a good job of eradicating the bugs and bots that scarred the first few weeks of release, and they've done a good enough job to warrant forgiveness for missing their ambitious update schedule.

But now the work begins. An MMORPG is a living thing, and Elder Scrolls Online needs to grow. It may be too late to do something about the drudgery and awkwardness of the veteran leveling experience beyond 50, but ZeniMax can lessen some of the damage by introducing new bite-sized activities while still finding time to remedy massive issues with balance. The latter issue's so bad that I've even started leveling a Dragonknight to continue enjoying my time with the game. At the same time, this frustrated endeavor gives me an odd sensation of hope—if I thought ESO wasn't capable of staying the course, I wouldn't have bothered at all.