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While Fallout 76 struggles, The Elder Scrolls Online keeps getting better

There's been a lot of talk about the huge mess that is Fallout 76 - but for another beloved RPG, Bethesda's online efforts are best in class.

When I first saw The Elder Scrolls Online, Bethesda seemed confident. Instead of revealing the MMO to the mainstream press, they chose to show it to potentially the most critical audience - RPG experts, MMO nerds, and of course, die-hard Elder Scrolls fans. They let these reporters and influencers talk about the game, took feedback, and then revealed it to the wider world via a more typical promotional blitz. The confidence was bold, but not entirely unwarranted. ESO showed great potential, even though there were serious questions about it from the start - not so with Fallout 76.

That's where the similarities end, however. The Elder Scrolls Online had a somewhat troubled start, but it's fair to say that back when it launched in 2014, the MMO's journey into the Elder Scrolls universe was just fine. It was okay. Decent. The problems it had were primarily driven by the game's unique identity. As a mix of traditional MMO ideas alongside mechanics and traditions from Bethesda's storied RPG series, ESO risked pleasing no one - MMO fans could be left wishing with some of the typical staples of the genre cut out to allow for things like first-person mode and reliable solo play, while fans of offline Elder Scrolls games would be left questioning things stripped back to ensure consistent online status. These were problems that the developers were aware of. Back in the early days, they talked about wanting to bridge the gap by enticing traditional Elder Scrolls players into the massively multiplayer world.

In 2015, ESO dropped the subscription fee, which PR described as a great victory for consumers, but which clearly sounded like Bethesda's downfall and failure. It was the best thing that happened to the game, though, as this simple shift from subscription-based to buy-and-play allowed ESO to quietly squeeze into a cozy niche like the masked assassin from Dark Brotherhood.

For me, The Elder Scrolls Online has become the perfect casual MMO; something I'm happy to buy expansion packs and the occasional in-game purchase for, but something I wouldn't play at all if I had to maintain an expensive subscription fee or was forced to sink a lot of time into sustaining myself. I fall in and out of the game depending on my interest and how busy I am, and this in turn fits perfectly with how the game is designed as a single-player friendly MMO that can be experienced like any other Elder Scrolls game. It honestly just works, and in turn, that makes it the perfect MMO for those who typically don't have the time, inclination, or attention span for the usually very demanding genre. In that sense, ESO has finally completed that initial mission.

Also incredibly smart is how ESO now approaches expansion packs, where any given large, full-fledged expansion can serve as an add-on to an existing journey or an entirely new starting point for new players. Instead of grinding levels to reach the threshold of content added in the 2018 Summerset expansion, new players could simply jump into the game and experience new Summerset-appropriate introductory sequences and tutorials. Experienced players could simply have their characters travel to new zones, where appropriately scaled quests for their characters would await them.

If I compare this to other MMOs, the benefit to a player like me is obvious. In order to stay up to date with the great Final Fantasy 14, you have to pay a subscription and hunker down like crazy - or possibly pay a little more for level boosting and skipping potions, which literally means paying to skip content you've already paid for. ESO allows me to get in and out of the game when I need to, and when interesting content pops up. And that's where hardcore gamers find extra depth, and where Bethesda makes money on the whole endeavor.

While the world is rightfully turning both barrels on the big mess that is Fallout 76 and trying to fix Bethesda's mistakes, I can't help but turn my thoughts to The Elder Scrolls Online. Looking back, I realize that it had some of the strongest and highest quality levels of continuous support of any live game, and I also can't help but think how far it has come since those early stumbles as a game confused and trapped between its identity as an Elder Scrolls game and its status as an MMO. It looks like those successes will continue this year as well, with ZeniMax Online Studios and Bethesda expected to announce a new expansion and content roadmap for 2019 within days. Here's hoping Fallout 76 enjoys a similar renaissance in a few years.