The state of The Elder Scrolls Online in 2021

(Image credit: Bethesda)

Have you ever had to grow into your gear? The Elder Scrolls Online has. The Elder Scrolls MMO was not a smash success when it debuted on the heels of Skyrim in 2014. Those first months were rough (just ask players to relive those beta and early experiences and look for the trauma in their eyes). But over time, TESO got better, becoming a rich world that tied together many aspects of the Elder Scrolls universe. It took players back to Morrowind, the most beloved Elder Scrolls setting, and mostly pulled it off. As it grew, the MMORPG's popularity also increased. In early 2021, Bethesda's Pete Hines lauded TESO as "the most successful Bethesda game over the last four years." And this past year was its most popular yet.

While Steam is only one of the platforms The Elder Scrolls Online is available on, its charts show the game's upward trend. April 2020 had the highest average player count ever, and it's consistently averaging higher than previous years. The developers attribute some of this growth to the worldwide pandemic, but not just because people have more time. TESO already had systems and features in place for players to really delve into. A playable map that has doubled in size since launch, customizable in-game housing, and multiple expansions' worth of new quests all contributed to that success.

2020 was a successful year for The Elder Scrolls Online, but it was still a challenging one. Amid the new zones, features, and story of The Year of Skyrim were rough, buggy updates and patches that sometimes caused more problems than they fixed. Stability is still an issue. The devs have committed to making 2021 a less buggy, more stable year for The Elder Scrolls Online as it gets ready to embrace Oblivion.

So, how is The Elder Scrolls Online now?

As an early player who left and returned, the difference between 2014 and now is striking. There is much to do, and you aren't tied to any single path. Folks jumping in now will find a vast number of delves, dungeons, and story arcs to occupy their time as well as crafting, PvP, housing, collections, and different types of treasure hunting. On top of that there are also frequent events with special rewards. Whether you want to wander around exploring Tamriel, smash through dungeons, hunt treasure, play through the many expansive story lines, The Elder Scrolls Online can keep you occupied for a very long time.

One of TESO's strengths is that you don't need to be well-versed in the other Elder Scrolls games to enjoy it, even though it offers fan service for those who are. The latest year-long campaign, The Dark Heart of Skyrim, introduced players to Western Skyrim and a story steeped in murder, secrets, torture, and betrayal.

In the intriguing company of Fennorian (the scholarly vampire from House Ravenwatch) and Lyris Titanborn (a beefcake half-giant Nord), players get to traverse the new area investigating mutant-making magical storms, an icy ghost, and the return of power-hungry ancient evils. The personalities of the companions are a particular highlight, especially an old, clever woman named Mjolen.

The Elder Scrolls Online

(Image credit: Bethesda)

What's been happening recently?

  • The antiquities system: This addictive non-combat gameplay for treasure hunters-at-heart allows players to scry out and excavate ancient relics via a series of new minigames.
  • Kyne’s Aegisis 12-man trial: Players defend the island bastion from invading sea giants in normal or veteran mode; additionally each individual boss has its own hard mode.
  • A new item collection system: For those who want more options in their crafting (or just like collecting things), this system lets players collect gear and sets, allowing them to personalize the item when crafting later.
  • Vateshran Hollows solo arena: Dungeons lovers who don't love groups can experience the solo arena that offers seven bosses to encounter. There is also one hidden boss in each of the three stages.
  • Bethesda is expanding: The studio is currently hiring more developers for TESO, a positive sign for the health of the game.
  • Free trials: The studio offers occasional free trials, both of the standard game and of the ESO Plus subscription (which includes perks like temporary access to all DLCs and the unlimited crafting bag that players can draw materials from even after it ends).
  • New Flames of Ambition DLC in testing: The Cauldron, a cursed mine dungeon in the upcoming DLC, is on the test server.
  • A loss: On a very sad note, Robert A. Altman, the founder and CEO of ZeniMax Media, died in February.

Are the players happy?

The Elder Scrolls Online

(Image credit: Bethesda)

For a game as big as TESO, getting a sense of player happiness depends on which aspect you're focusing on. Player counts are up, which is a good sign. Excitement for the next chapter is high, and many like to see TESO mixing nostalgia and originality in new expansions instead of just retreading ground of the most popular single-player games. Players are also really happy with the revealed rework of the champion system; not only will there be significantly more points to allocate into this post-50 progression system but there will also be horizontal progression choices on top of vertical.

What players generally are not happy about are the stability issues that plagued the last year, especially during big events. In December, devs had to tweet out asking players to avoid certain dungeons during the dungeon-running Undaunted event because of serious crashes. 

When is the next big update happening?

Bethesda shared the big news for 2021 at a global reveal event on January 26th. The year-long focus for TESO is Gates of Oblivion, and Bethesda called it "an amazing year of daedric destruction." The star of this show will be the Blackwood chapter

Launching in June, Blackwood will include the expected new delves, public dungeons, world bosses, Oblivion portal world events, and a 12-man trial. More than 30 hours of a new main storyline as well as many sidequests will be woven throughout the three new areas. On top of this, TESO will introduce a new companion system. Soon you can have your own interactive NPC keeping you company (and hopefully helping) while you adventure. And last but not least, a personal favorite upcoming feature: the ability to choose your starting zone instead of being forced into the current expansion’s iteration!

As a warm up to the big show, the prelude DLC Flames of Ambition will be released in March on all platforms. Its two dungeons, The Cauldron and Black Drake Villa, will set the stage for Blackwood.

What does Bethesda say?

The Elder Scrolls Online

(Image credit: Bethesda)

Acknowledging the difficulties this past year, Studio Director Matt Firor assured players in his Director's Letter: 2020 Retrospective that the team would be focusing more intently on fixing issues. He said, "I want to highlight that in 2021 we will devote more time overall to stability and game performance and less time to new game systems (with our standard content updates continuing unchanged). We will still be working from home for the foreseeable future, and I want to ensure that our 2021 updates and patches are smooth and the player experience is enjoyable." 

Additionally, the studio has pledged to update and replace all game servers this year to ensure that TESO runs more smoothly.

Despite the difficulties in 2020, TESO is reaching more players in more places around the world. During the global Gates of Oblivion reveal, Firor shared that "Almost 18 million of you have now played ESO, with three million of you joining the game in the last year." He emphasized that players are coming from all over the world, logging in from 240 different countries just in the previous month. "In fact, some of our strongest communities are not native English speakers,“ he said. “ESO is truly a worldwide phenomenon.”

Now it's time for The Elder Scroll Online to be an otherworldwide phenomenon. TESO is going to hell this year... oh sorry, Deadlands… but it sounds like fun, and I get to take some NPC friends along for the ride. So, who brought the hand basket? 

If this all sounds cool, but you're extremely lazy...

Don't sweat it—there will almost certainly be some new bridges to nap on this year. If you're lucky, you may even run into Sleeps-On-Bridges.