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'The Elder Scrolls' gets the massively multiplayer treatment

The Elder Scrolls: Online, from ZeniMax Online Studios, will be the 18-year-old game series' first foray into the popular genre of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs).

Zenimax Online Studios

Bethesda Softworks' sister studio ZeniMax Online Studios announced Thursday The Elder Scrolls Online, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game that's been in development for several years.

Its existence was made official through the unveiling of GameInformer's June cover, which features an image likely to become an iconic symbol for the game: A ring of dragons biting each other's tails.

Friday morning came the game's first teaser trailer, in which a narrator talks about ancient enemies, an empty throne, and salvation in the form of many heroes (us, presumably) as the ring of metal dragons forms on the screen.

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Exciting stuff, to be sure, but I can't help but wonder whether this constitutes a misstep for the franchise.

It's easy to see why ZeniMax Media, the parent company of both Bethesda Softworks and ZeniMax Online Studios, might commission such a game. Blizzard's World of Warcraft has proven successful MMORPGs can be enormously profitable.

Plus, as repeatedly demonstrated in the single-player Elder Scrolls games, Bethesda's enviably deep talent pool has mastered the art of creating sprawling worlds filled with hundreds of dungeons, characters, and quests – which happens to be just what is necessary in an MMORPG.

However, a full-throttle charge into the world of online games places the series' legendary stature in the sphere of single-player games at some risk.

The Elder Scrolls brand has built up an enormous base of fans – well over 10 million, judging by how many bought The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – who love these games precisely because they focus on delivering immersive solo play. This is where the series' value currently lies.

In an industry ever more obsessed with online and social experiences, where story-driven franchises are retrofitted with multiplayer elements simply because it will allow the publisher to tick the online checkbox on the back of the package, those interested in purely single-player games are beginning to feel their backs pressed against the wall.

Many have taken refuge in the Elder Scrolls games, which have proven a bastion of single-player fantasy for nearly two decades. These people may be disheartened to see the series veer off course into the world of MMORPGs.

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Of course, it's a little early to jump to any conclusions.

We must keep in mind that The Elder Scrolls Online is being developed by a different studio than the single-player games (though one assumes that there will be some sharing of resources and ideas between sister development houses). Plus, while little is yet known about ZeniMax Studios Online's MMORPG, early details make it sound as though it will at least partially cater to those interested running unfettered through the multiplayer masses to complete quests solo.

And you can be sure that The Elder Scrolls' single-player adventures will continue. I suspect Bethesda Softworks already has a team in the early stages of developing the series' sixth numbered entry, likely for next-generation consoles.

Indeed, there's plenty of room for solo and multiplayer games within the same franchise to co-exist.

That said, gamers tend to be a passionate and fickle lot who make purchasing decisions with their hearts. There is at least some risk that the mere existence of a multiplayer-focused Elder Scrolls game will alienate core fans and in some way tarnish the series' – and, by dint of proximity, Bethesda Softworks' – reputation as a pillar of single-player gaming.

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