Let's do everyone a favor and sum up the next few months of Elder Scrolls Online developer hype. The game will have exciting dungeons, multiple classes, PvP, player customization, deep combat controls, lots of lore, great graphics and an semi-expansive crafting system (also known as features available in just about every single RPG ever). Sure the fine details may be important, and I'm sure we'll all look forward to reading about the siege warfare that ZeniMax has planned or the various realms we'll be able to traverse that have been hinted at in the single player games, but what makes or breaks an MMO can be boiled down into three areas: Launch day server stability, endgame content, and social networking features. A well laid out content plan should keep the first two points on the list well under control, and most developers are smart enough to know that you need to capture the hearts the minds of your players in the starting zones if you have any hope of keeping them long enough to get through the last few levels. But social networking is an entirely different matter. Every game has general chat channels, world map channels, forums, guilds and party building, but how do you force players to join hands and engage in content with one another beyond the obligation?. How does a developer form bonds?
Players may join an MMO to engage in a mechanic or explore a world but they generally stay for the relationships they form. Working with others, participating in a small community, and building the foundation for friendships is what makes an MMO definitively fun. As World of Warcraft will tell everyone it's always best to cater to the social crowd. That's the great success behind Guild Wars 2's questing system and the incredible failure of The Old Republic's far too detailed level based storytelling. The more you bog down the party mechanics and world questing with disruptive cutscenes and quest-based zone phasing the harder it is for others to group with one another.
Say what you will about single player games but when it comes to MMO's alienating your audience in any way immediately makes it less desirable to play for most people. That's not to say that there aren't gamers willing to stick out unintuitive quest design, poor UI, or unwieldy party mechanics; Final Fantasy XIV's dedicated player base is proof enough that some gamers will stick by a development team against all odds, but most gamers will abandon ship at the first sign of poor design. If Elder Scrolls Online is looking to avoid the mistakes of the MMO's before it then we need to see a game ready to encourage players to work together, not simply out of obligation. Just like no developer should assume that players are simply willing to trudge through anything just to experience content no one should believe that players are just going to log in and magically become addicted to grouping with others. There has to be a good balance between incentive and reward.
What worries me is that amidst trying to capture the scale and depth of the Elder Scrolls games the key features that make an MMO enjoyable in a group will be pushed to the wayside. At this point in the ESO's marketing stage we've heard a lot on how the game will be able to keep players on the same friends list together, and how guild members will all be intelligently placed within the same zone phase. That's great for those already grouping with one another but there needs to be more. Gamer groups that stick together will always do so, regardless of features that make it more convenient to do so. What we need to see are moments that encourage players to interact with one another 'face-to-face', like customizable guild halls, multiple (and frequent) world events, player housing in an instanced community perhaps. It's not unreasonable for an MMO to force players to work together in order to complete content, but whether ESO decides to make everyone blindly form groups via a WoW-esque dungeon finder or creating events which everyone benefits from teamwork like in Guild Wars 2
Utilizing the incredible background left by Skyrim, Oblivion and Morrowind means that the developers have a massive advantage already. Many players have been clamoring for an online version of the Elder Scrolls series for quite some time now, so it's not like gamers won't be investigating in droves. What matters now is building a community and that's a task far more difficult than designing quests or balancing classes. We'll need to see some real innovation from ESO in drawing players together if the game plans to flourish past their opening six months, otherwise we may see yet another MMO fade off into obscurity right after launch.