It's no secret that MMOs have evolved over the years into something almost beyond what was once typical gaming. From the early days of Everquest's open world, epic, hundred person world bosses, to the slow social revolution that was brought upon by World of Warcraft, MMO gaming has become something more that's just simply for hardcore power-gamers. Interacting within communities has become a massive part of the online RPG experience, and while WoW has done a fantastic job in cultivating the genre, its failure to fill every single plausible role that an online game can offer (and understandably so) has left a void that other companies have been more than happy to step in and take over. As the still giant WoW focuses hard on holding together its Arena league and casual PvE player base, it's only natural that the competition should try and fill the gap.
Storytelling giants like SWTOR and open-world player driven economies like EVE Online have pulled players from WoW in the same way that you would take away someone's training wheels. And though Guild Wars 2 is the newest entry into the PvP scene, it isn't the first massive release that's tried to tear into WoW's dedicated (though often unsettled) PvP audience. Each of these games, WoW included, has an extremely unique sense of community.
Guilds, Clans, or Corporations, each of these player driven bubbles serves the same purpose of giving a group of friends the tools to stay connected. Which is exactly why I think Elder Scrolls Online has the potential to be so game changing. The franchise has already accomplished that, and it's always been a strictly offline experience.
There's no reason to assume that ESO is going to be the next 'WoWkiller', no game out there would ever hit the franchise so hard that it would whittle away and die. But just as Call of Duty stepped down from being the sole relevant franchise in modern FPS history with the release of Battlefield 3 (and perhaps the announcement of CS:GO), WoW's relevance as the determining factor for future MMOs may finally be at an end.
How many years have reviewers and general gamers alike been labelling future online titles as WoW clones, or comparing elements of any one game with the popular casual elements of Warcraft. But Blizzard didn't ever invent the MMO archtype, they just managed to discover what elements thrive in an online gaming community, and what Elder Scrolls can bring to online gaming is an element that's been all but torn apart in the past few years: exploration.
Not to undermine the detail poured into the character designs of the Elder Scroll's world, but it's safe enough to say that exploration is the driving force behind the franchise's success. People post videos of their discoveries and their own personal triumphs in the same way that PvP or PvE content reviews are posted with pride online. Stories about exploration, finding something new and unusual are commonplace amongst fans, and represent a type of connectivity that can be associated with anyone who shares love of a beloved book series; that same sense of exploration and discovery is something that gamers love to revisit time and again in MMOs.
Learning about secret areas, traversing the world and whatever dangers it may have, this is the kind of excitement that Bethesda excels at creating. And given the reaction to Skyrim it's clear they understand their audience quite well.
How does this end WoW's era? Because if done correctly Elder Scrolls Online could very well create the last frontier of gaming that's been left untouched by MMOs up until this point. Not to say that Guild Wars 2 doesn't have an absolutely ravishing world design, filled with an incredible amount of depth and detail. It's just that every MMO has learned that it cannot hope to compete in the market by being a jack of all trades and a master of none. In the same way that Star Wars has worked hard to craft its storytelling, but still has PvP to offer, Elder Scrolls Online can approach exploration in the same sense.
Perhaps some would argue that Minecraft has already achieved this in many ways through its online play, but Minecraft also delivers a different sense of accomplishment than a traditional RPG. The way WoW has shaped game design over the years is not to be simply disregarded, but there comes a time where eventually others must step up to advance the formula. It seems only fitting that Elder Scrolls becomes the platform for discovery on a larger scale, and even if the scale only ever boils down to a small group exploration (in the same fashion of D&D online) it would still be almost unprecedented in depth.
A lot of assumptions are being made about the quality and detail that ESO will bring forth, and in a way there's no reason to expect anything else. Given how far the franchise has advanced over the years and how seriously the IP's integrity is protected by its fans expecting anything less from the developers is shooting for disappointment. Few franchises can claim the sort of progressive excellence that comes with the Elder Scrolls' track record, which in the long run means Bethesda better damn well deliver. Failure to do so won't really mean much to our industry, but should they succeed it could very well bring forth a whole new way to view online interactions, let alone how to profit from them.