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Skyrim's success is the best argument against The Elder Scrolls Online

The beta period of The Elder Scrolls Online is coming to an end. I played as a fan of The Elder Scrolls series but also as someone who is often skeptical of MMO design and execution and, while I saw a solid and often enjoyable game, this isn't what I want out of the series. I'm likely not alone in that regard.

Skyrim has sold over 20 million copies. It can be tricky to wrap your head around numbers that large. That’s not a hit, Halo 4 selling 9 million units is a hit. Selling 20 million copies of a game, especially before you figure in the sales of DLC, is a surreal accomplishment. It's one of the best-selling games of all time, and the total number of units sold is likely already higher than reported.

What's fascinating about that number is that it was originally announced in June of last year. The figure was trotted out again in a press release about the game's voice cast, and it went viral across the gaming blogs and news outlets last week. The number seems almost sensational, and makes for an easy, splashy headline.

The number itself may be old news, but the lessons that can be learned from it are still worth discussing, and in fact they kicked off a long conversation among Polygon staffers recently. Perhaps the biggest point is that it’s possible to grow a monster hit without adding multiplayer content. Skyrim is firmly single-player: You are the hero going on an adventure, and the world is shaped by your actions. There are no social features, and there is no competitive play. You explore and do neat things, by yourself.

The often publisher-led pressure to add social features, to go online, to interact with other gamers seems overwhelming, and may be out of touch with what gamers want. Tomb Raider has a multiplayer mode, for crying out loud, and who asked for that? Developers tell me all the time how surprised they are by the number of players who never go online with titles that we assume to be focused on multiplayer,which again suggest the very real desire for strong single-player content unfettered by other players or online requirements.

Skyrim rejected that conventional wisdom and offered an experience that's single-player only, and it sold 20 million copies. There's a reason that number has made news multiple times. The 20 million units sold will only look more sensational as time goes on and social interaction is continually stressed.

The other interesting thing is that there are no microtransactions. The content released for Skyrim was sold for a fair price and included new things for your character to do and, in some cases, become. It supported the idea that this was your world, and you were free to play in your own way. Once you paid for the content it wasn’t gated in any way. You were free to roam for as long as you wanted.

So who is ready for a $60 multiplayer game that will cost $15 to play a month as you adventure alongside the rest of humanity while being offered microtransactions?

I want to be alone

If hell is truly other people, Skyrim provided a sort of gaming heaven, free from being nickel and dimed, free from the tyranny of **Buttmonster420** and his friends, and free from the sort of grinding progression and forced social interaction that happens in traditional MMOs.

That sense of being the one hero, of having worlds hinge on your actions, is lost in the Elder Scrolls Online. There are players walking around each dungeon, looking at their notes for what they had to do next. It felt surreal to be busting someone out of prison amidst a group of people who were also trying to do just that.

We were warned that there would be few people online during the beta, and that we should expect a much larger group of players at launch. I took the opposite view of that e-mail and decided to enjoy what little solitude could be found before more people rush in to begin chattering about every quest.

This isn’t a eulogy for Elder Scrolls, as the series will continue on, and there will likely be an amazing single-player sequel to Skyrim for next generation systems and the PC. Until then, taking that world online could be the end of a train wreck that began years ago, back when it seemed like a good idea and that business model was still viable.

Can any game justify a $225 price tag for the first year?If your players respond so positively to your approach to single-player gaming and optional DLC, moving in the literal opposite direction in every way doesn’t seem like a smart move, and the industry is rapidly changing in a way that makes it seem even more foolhardy. It's not that players may not be interested in the game, it's that The Elder Scrolls Online seems like a refutation of everything that made Skyrim so successful.

If the 20 million units of Skyrim story is trotted out across the press again next year, maybe developers will accept the lesson that there is a huge market for strong, single-player games, instead of using that market to eye an experience that seems to be shoving a square peg in a round hole.

This is a game that will be developed over time, and if the game has a dedicated base of paid subscribers they have a strong reason to continue to update the game and make it feel more like the experience we love in Skyrim. But Bethesda  Softworks is in the unenviable position of either bringing in new players willing to make a large investment in the game, or convincing the enormous existing player base that they really want to share their world, and their heroism, with thousands of other players.

The Elder Scrolls Online doesn't seem to be a creative or artistic failure this early in its life, but it's not what I want out of the series, and I have a feeling I'm not alone. A more expensive, social game with a sense of diluted heroism isn't what we're looking for when we come to Elder Scrolls, and I'm saddened by Bethesda Softworks' inability to recognize this.

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