Something weird is going on in THE ELDER SCROLLS ONLINE.

Granted, a world with hermaphroditic demi-gods and shapeshifting cannibal wood elves is bound to be a little weird, but this is the bad kind of weird. The kind of weird that’s making players feel like they’ve wasted their money. A relatively popular MMO by Zenimax Online Studios, ESO is no stranger to controversy. But rarely have I seen a company react less professionally in response to a relatively minor issue.

The following is a series of confusing, conflicting, and nonsensical events, all stemming from an issue that didn’t need to be blown this far out of proportion. At the end of the day, the issue at hand may not resonate with you. It may not be a big deal and it may not effect the way you play the game. But that’s not quite what this article is about. This article is about the madness that comes from silence and disinformation. If nothing else, consider this a case study on how not to communicate with your fans.

What’s Happening?

About 20 days ago, players on the ESO forums reported some bizarre changes to one of the in-game houses: Earthtear Cavern. One of the most expensive houses in the game (13,000 crowns or about $130), Earthtear Cavern is a fan favorite, and one of the most unique places to live. The serene location and peaceful atmosphere were broken when it began raining through the solid rock ceiling. Not only that, but players reported that a giant boulder had appeared, making a section of the house impossible to reach.

For $100, you too can live in a cave!

Gina Bruno, Zenimax’s community manager, responded to the complaints, saying she’d look into the issue. 20 days later, the moderators, customer support reps, and press representatives remained more or less silent.

Then things got a bit weird

As the month went on, several threads opened complaining about other houses in the game. Mathiisen, for example, is missing its windows. In Hunding’s Palatial Hall, the seaweed, shells and clutter on the beach are missing. Random boulders and other bizarre additions are appearing in people’s homes. As these threads swarmed the official forums, each went seemingly unnoticed by Zenimax, who didn’t even merge the spam into a single megathread (which is standard practice). As time went on, players started to notice a jarring silence. Other threads could get a response from the team within minutes, but every thread involving the housing was being ignored.

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This may seem like a nitpick to some. Many don’t see the point of housing at all. There are many players who just want to kill monsters, grab their loot, and log off. But for many gamers, art, immersion, and atmosphere are just as important as “pure” gameplay, especially when we’re paying a premium for it. This issue pushes two of my biggest gaming buttons: downplaying the importance of “flavor” items in games, and developers altering the deal after you buy a product.

But Why?

The easiest explanation is that these are simple glitches. Indeed, it could be argued that players are overreacting to easily fixable mistakes. At the same time, this overreaction is a result of Zenimax’s silence. People can spend over $100 on these houses, and spend months decorating them. Changing the houses without explanation is bound to send people into an uproar.

To make things worse, it’s not unheard of for Zenimax to change things at random. Several strange alterations were made to the redguard’s racial gear, and to date no reason has been given.

Top: Before. Bottom: After.

It’s a bit hard to believe these are simple bugs. Many argue they’re too specific, that they seem too focused on making the houses look less appealing. The fact that this has happened several times over the past few weeks is raising eyebrows as well.

Given the circumstances, some rather extreme theories have developed. Many think Zenimax is trying to remove the decorations so they can resell them as microtransactions. While altering the homes, they may have caused more trouble than they intended, leaving behind strange glitches and unwanted clutter. Let me be clear: it’s far too early to conclude that Zenimax is doing something so sinister.  I’m only bringing it up to demonstrate the confusion that develops when players feel they’re being cheated and left in the dark. These theories wouldn’t be getting this much traction if Zenimax would just answer us.

Confusion, Mixed Messages, and a Deafening Silence

The past few weeks have been characterized by silence, punctuated by hearsay and conflicting emails from customer service. As is the norm in MMOs, people are getting bounced around to different departments by different representatives who claim they don’t know what’s going on. On June 26th, exactly 20 days into the silence, Gina Bruno posted on one of the many, many complaint threads:

“Hi everyone, apologies for the delay in replying. We’re talking through some possible options, and will let you know what we plan to do regarding these changes. Will keep you all in the loop and let you know what’s decided as soon as possible.”

This raised more questions than it answered. What did Bruno mean by “options”? Is she saying they’re trying to figure out what happened? Or that they’re trying to decide how to fix it?

Several hours later, someone finally got a tangible response from customer service. It reads as follows:

“Greetings!

Thank you for contacting The Elder Scrolls Online Team. My name is Logan, and it’s my pleasure to assist you today.

I understand you’re frustrated about an unexpected change to Mathiison Manor. As it stands, we only know as much about this as has been made public by the development team. You should keep an eye on the forums for updates. I realize that may not be the most appealing option to you.

Regarding your request for a refund, the answer is no.

It is not possible to refund items purchased in the Crown Store except to the extent required by local law. Some jurisdictions (including Australia) impose certain terms and conditions on the supply of services and digital content (including in respect of refunds) that cannot be excluded. See http://www.zenimax.com/legal_terms_us.

This is Just a Mess

Since nothing had been made public since the issues began, Zenimax officially admitted they had no idea what was going on. Or at least that’s what it sounded like. Several minutes later, we received another explanation from Gina Bruno in regards to Earthtear Cavern:

“Ok everyone, regarding the changes made to Earthtear Cavern, this was actually an intentional change in order to prevent an issue where you could access an unplayable area outside of the home. As such, we will not be reverting this change since it was done to fix an issue. These changes went live sooner than we expected, which is why there wasn’t a documented patch note for it; we apologize for the confusion this caused.”

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None of these explanations address the core issues, nor do they mesh well. If Earthtear Cavern was altered to keep the player from walking out of bounds then why is it raining inside the house? Will this be fixed? Are they even aware it’s happening? Why block a section off with a boulder? Do they honestly have no idea what happened to the windows at Mathiisen? What about the decorations in Hunding’s Hall?  Is this all just a mess of unrelated errors, mistakes, and ninja edits to the housing system? What is happening with this company?

Well, that explains it.

It Makes Less Sense the More You Think About It

The explanation for Earthtear Cavern is particularly strange. According to some, falling out bounds was never an issue. Others wondered if preventing this minor bug was worth cutting off part of the house. How are players supposed to reach the items they placed there now? What ever happened to invisible walls? Maybe we’re simply paranoid after the long silence, but Zenimax’s credibility is too weak for players to accept this explanation.

At the end of the day, Zenimax downgraded the items we bought, and their explanations aren’t good enough.

The Point

Guys, this is just chaos. In the midst of writing that last section, I had to revise it constantly as new, conflicting information came in. This is an object lesson on the importance of communication.

It Didn’t Have to Be This Way

You may be wondering why people are making such a big deal out of this. Well, I have two theories:

First off, the lack of quick, clear communication from Zenimax turned what should have been a minor issue into an outcry of injustice. The average company waits until the facts come in, or at least until they can prepare a unified, cohesive message. This is perfectly normal and keeps false information from spreading. However, anything over a week is too long for a response. This is when the conspiracies start, when the paranoia sets in. This is when people get worried that their money is being wasted, and that they can’t trust the developers with their cash. A simple “This is a bug, we don’t know what’s causing it, we’ll update you when we learn more” would suffice. As it stands, we’re 20 days in to this nonsense, and all we have is a cacophony of PR-speak and vagaries.

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Second, and most important, is that people spend a crap ton of money on this stuff. Take a look at ESO’s “crown store”, and convert the value of crowns to US dollars. Some of these homes cost over $100 unfurnished. When it comes to the exchange of money, a company needs to be especially careful, responsive, and clear. If you’re going to ask a hundred dollars for an in-game house, then you’d better prepare for an uproar if something goes wrong with it.

Here’s the bottom line: Zenimax took a potentially minor issue, and turned it into a month of vitriol. It didn’t have to be this way.

We’ve reached out to Zenimax for a statement, but haven’t heard back.

 

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6 Comments

  1. J

    October 26, 2017 at 6:53 pm

    People have seriously overreacted to some of these changes and are far too fast to leap to conspiracy explanations. Worse, a few of the people that inflame these issues are either those who quit playing long ago and just stick around to stir up trouble or whose interest in housing is purely an excuse to advocate hoarding via storage.

    Sometimes bug fixes necessitate alterations to existing parameters, be it accessible areas or interactivity. There are two options: live with the bugs or live with the changes. For some though it seems that all they like to do is complain.

    Reply

  2. carrieb

    June 29, 2017 at 12:09 pm

    Just wanted to mention that in regard to the change to the Redguard gear, this was announced and previews were given to show the changes they were making. I recall a minor uproar to the loss of the boob window in the Orc heavy gear for females, and I lamented the loss of the more uncovered look of the Redguard light female gear.

    Reply

    • carrieb

      June 29, 2017 at 12:11 pm

      Sorry, forgot to mention that the Orc racial gear was changed at the same time, and previews were given for it as well.

      Reply

    • psychotrip

      June 29, 2017 at 8:35 pm

      But did they ever explain why? I remember this happening and people are still confused about it.

      Reply

  3. Gale Conner

    June 28, 2017 at 12:56 pm

    There isn’t any mention of the other glitch in Earthtear. Anytime a guild mate visits Earthtear the game freezes and they have to log out and hope it kicks them out of Earthtear when they come back. The only response I got from a ticket was that I needed to report it as a bug. No further communication at all. This house, that was supposed to be my guild hall is completely useless because everyone is afraid of getting stuck. All my guild mates refuse to visit.

    Reply

    • psychotrip

      June 28, 2017 at 2:39 pm

      When did this bug start?

      Reply

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