A closer look at the success of Skyrim and Bethesda’s quest to streamline the RPG experience.
In November 2011, Bethesda Game Studios released the latest highly anticipated game in the widely-popular open-world RPG series, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
Skyrim was met with world-wide acclaim from critics and gamers alike, it went on to become a household name, selling over 20 million copies as of June 2013, the best selling Elder Scrolls yet and certainly the most popular.
A sequel to the also acclaimed previous title The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Skyrim took gamers from Oblivion’s heavily-forested grand province of Cyrodiil to the harsh, cold and rocky mountains of Skyrim, where racial tensions, war and once fabled Dragons tear the landscape apart.
While Skyrim introduced a few new features such as the dual-wielding of spells and weapons, dragon shouts, companions and some great quality of life improvements, its overall gameplay felt noticeably watered-down and more streamlined compared to its predecessors. With several of its most notable features being pruned and some mechanics being cut entirely, it seemed Skyrim sacrificed depth for the sake of accessibility, aiming for a broader audience.
So just how did Skyrim achieve such success and where is the series going?
As a huge fan of The Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim did not captivate me as much as it seemed to captivate others, to this day I still have not motivated myself to complete its main storyline, even after the countless hours I poured into it.
Like many others, I bought into the vast amounts of hype that Skyrim generated in the months leading up to its release, going so far even to preorder the overpriced Collector’s Edition, not an easy feat at the time considering the limited number that were produced.
That damn dragon statue still sits in my closet today, taunting me while simultaneously collecting dust.
By no means do I consider Skyrim a bad game.
I enjoyed it and would most certainly play it again, with all of the additional content that has since been released and talented modding community, I look forward to delving back into it, this time with some modifications to enhance the experience.
But to me, its predecessor Oblivion was a much better title in almost every aspect, which leaves me wondering how it remains all but forgotten compared to it’s successor.
I still remember vividly stepping out of the sewers of the Imperial City for the first time and being blown away by the incredible view that greeted me. Even the dated hardware of my Xbox 360 could not stop the beauty of Cyrodiil’s picturesque landscapes from immersing me in a way I had never experienced before.
My first hour of freedom from those dark dungeons and sewers was mostly spent running away from the local hostile inhabitants and wildlife, (I’m not ashamed to admit my first encounter with a mudcrab saw me running away in defeat) it still remains one of my happiest gaming memories.
It truly felt like the possibilities were endless and the horizons never-ending, I never dreamt of seeing everything that Oblivion had to offer, but eventually after hundreds of hours of play-time, I did just that.
My journey through Skyrim did not feel as memorable as my time spent in Cyrodiil, it felt like I was crawling through the same 3 dungeons, fighting the same 3 enemy-types and fetching the same items for the same NPCs over and over.
Skyrim’s quests felt like they offered very little variety in comparison to Oblivion, after retrieving yet another piece of small treasure from a Draugr-filled tomb, I was ready to do something different.
When I finally stumbled across the Thieves Guild, (my favourite guild and quest line from Oblivion) I couldn’t wait for the amazing high-stake heists I was surely to pull off.
What I was met with however was yet more fetch-quests, dungeon-diving and probably one of the most poorly-written quest lines I have ever encountered that left me scratching my head in disbelief.
After playing through the rest of the offered faction quest lines which also lacked variety, it became apparent that my character was the ultimate ‘Mary-Sue’.
I was the Dragonborn, Slayer of Dragons, Master Thief, Nightingale, Master Assassin, Arch-Mage, Leader of The Companions, Werewolf, Bard and Commander of The Imperials, striding through Skyrim with invincible and unstoppable power, like something straight out of a poorly written Tumblr fanfiction.
What point was there in creating a new character when I could accomplish absolutely everything there was to offer in one play-through?
My experience with Skyrim had not lived up to the hype or met my expectations, while the art direction and visuals were incredible to behold, along with its stunning soundtrack, I soon put it down and never touched it again, something I never thought I would do with an Elder Scrolls game, not until I had truly conquered everything it had to offer at least.
I was heartbroken, while everybody around me were enjoying Skyrim and digesting everything it had to offer, I had quickly become disenchanted and bored with what I thought would be one of my favourite titles ever.
Lack of variety wasn’t my own gripe with the game, compared to Oblivion, Skyrim had little to offer when it came to role playing mechanics and while it offered some great improvements to things such as combat and the freedom of building your character, I noticed some important things were missing.
- Classes, a staple of the RPG genre, gone.
- Attributes that define your character’s limitations, gone.
- Spell-making, a powerful and in-depth tool from previous games, gone.
- Different slots on your character allowing a versatile combination of different armor pieces, gone.
- The possibility of failing quests, gone.
- The freedom to kill every living NPC in the game, even important characters crucial to major quests, gone.
- Consequences for joining opposing factions, gone.
- Meaningful choices that would have an effect on the game world, gone.
- Accomplishments that would affect the way other characters in the game would perceive you, gone.
It seemed Skyrim had done-away with many features that the series was known for, and yet its popularity was soaring, as were its sales.
I watched it sit at the top of Steam’s top seller list for years, wondering how such a shallow game was still surging in popularity.
It was, dare I say it.. more of a fantasy action game with light RPG mechanics sprinkled on top than an actual RPG to me.
It was no longer about providing a deep, challenging experience filled with different paths to take and endless possibilities, but there to simply please everyone that played it by pushing them along a linear road on a children’s bike with training wheels.
Playing through it was like having your hand held while being escorted around a playground, helping you climb the slide and then patting you on the back once you reached the bottom with minimal effort or challenge, cheering you on the entire time, ‘Yay, you did it! You are the one true savior of Tamriel!’. There were no real consequences for any of your actions, joining one guild did not stop you from joining any other, something that made no sense to me at all and only hurt its replay value.
It’s important that I once again mention that I do not think Skyrim is necessarily a bad game, it actually holds up quite well on its own, there’s a reason it’s still the go-to RPG for many gamers even today and while the game may have its limitations, with the help of the huge modding community on PC, you can mod Skyrim to be anything you want it to be.
Fans that have also played The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind will know that this trend of dumbing-down gameplay isn’t anything new for the series.
In fact, Oblivion removed even more features from Morrowind than Skyrim has removed from Oblivion, something I was not aware of originally, Oblivion being my first entry point into The Elder Scrolls series. This trend also isn’t exclusive to just The Elder Scrolls either, the ‘casualization’ of games has also affected other series such as the Mass Effect series by Bioware, which changed its direction entirely from a sci-fi RPG to a dating-sim corridor shooter as time went by.
While this trend creates warranted criticism from hardcore fans, it also generates interest from a broader audience, which also generates more sales for that developer’s game.
The more accessible your game is, the broader your audience becomes and there is nothing really wrong with that, there is a huge market for casual games aimed at all ages, mobile games such as Candy Crush Saga and Angry Birds come to mind. But just how far can you go before alienating your core audience entirely? I’ve taken part in many discussions regarding Skyrim’s direction, and I’ve discovered I’m certainly not alone in recognising its shortcomings.
I think there’s fine balance between accessibility and depth, one that can be difficult to achieve but entirely possible.
I understand not everybody has a lot of time to play games, not everybody has the time to dedicate themselves to them.
There are gamers that will spend hours creating and min/maxing their characters, and there are those that will want to pick the default preset and just jump straight in, and that’s okay. Great game design should cater to both play styles without favouring one over the other and ruining the experience for those that just want to play the way they like. A great example of this would be quest markers, which were introduced with Oblivion. In Morrowind, players were left to figure out the location of their quest’s objective on their own, with a little help from quest givers that would try and point you in the right direction through dialogue. This was great for those that enjoyed finding their own way around the world and the sense of exploration, but it’s understandable that not all players would have the patience for it.
In Skyrim, the player is magically pointed to the exact location with the help of map markers, spelling out the exact direction in which to go. While this is a great addition for those that want it, some players understandably don’t like being told exactly where to go. The solution to this would be simply to disable those map markers, a sensible option if the game’s quest text actually gave you a proper description of your destination instead of solely relying on the map marker system, rendering that idea impossible.
There are now more games and genres than ever before, there are niche games like Dwarf Fortress and EVE Online for those that are truly dedicated, games designed for a set audience and don’t seek to appeal to everyone and then there are more accessible titles designed to appeal to whole families, Nintendo is the absolute king of this genre and it’s hard not to admire the way they can appeal to casual and hardcore gamers alike but when a series turns away from a formula that already works in favour of a broader audience by sacrificing it’s core values, that’s when problems start to arise, and I think this is what we’re seeing with the Elder Scrolls series. The Elder Scrolls may be more popular than ever with no signs of stopping, but I think Bethesda have forgotten their earliest and most dedicated fans in attempt at attracting a larger audience.
Accessibility may not have been Bethesda’s true motive with Skyrim, developing for dated hardware as well as making it cross-platform no doubt had an effect on Bethesda’s vision and scope for the game. It’s understandable that some things just would not be achievable, but was it all really necessary? Morrowind and Oblivion gave its magic users the great system of spell creation, a complex and powerful tool allowing for a diverse array of powerful spells for all play styles. While this spell-making system was a little broken and open to exploitation, rather than work on fixing it for Skyrim, Bethesda removed it entirely in favour of simple preset spells, something I’m sure all Mages heavily missed.
This decision comes off more as lazy rather than necessary, a corner cut to save time and focus efforts elsewhere rather than a technical issue. Which begs the question, will the next generation of console hardware allow Bethesda to deliver a more technical product? Or will Skyrim’s overwhelming success only secure it’s path to becoming an even more shallow watered-down series? There’s no doubt they have an award-winning powerhouse on their hands, and with their customers voting with their wallets the way they are, there’s little reason for them to listen to their few critics. The increasing sales of each Elder Scrolls game might be influencing Bethesda’s design choices, perhaps gamers want a more casual experience? It’s hard to say.
What I can say however, is that the true hardcore RPG experience of yesterday is not dead, not by a long-shot.
While The Elder Scrolls may be moving away from the traditional RPG and seeking a broader, more casual audience, enthusiasts aren’t being left out in the cold just yet.
Thanks to the likes of Kickstarter and other crowd-sourcing programs, the genre of classic, in-depth, party-based role-playing experiences are making a return with games like Divinty: Original Sin, Wasteland II, Torment: Tides of Numenera and Pillars of Eternity, proving that there’s still a huge demand for the much loved genre, particularly in the PC market. The success of the Dark Souls series especially tells us that there are gamers out there that don’t want their hand held, the overwhelming challenge and depth of the series only pleases them, not everybody likes training wheels on their bike.
Maybe I’m wrong to criticise Bethesda’s vision, gaming as a whole is constantly evolving and expanding to suit all needs and reach more audiences. Its growing diversity means that there will always be something for everyone, and at the end of the day, maybe that’s all that matters.
Bethesda Studio’s next heavily rumoured and highly anticipated title is Fallout 4 and are set to make some big announcements when they hold their own conference this year at E3.
It will be interesting to see if the success of Fallout 3 will influence its Fallout 4’s direction also.
Will Bethesda take a page from Obsidian Entertainment’s book with Fallout: New Vegas and take Fallout back to its more complex origins?
Or will it follow the current Bethesda trend and sacrifice more depth for a larger market?