After doing a bit of research in the first Elder Scrolls, I'll give a rundown of my impression of the first three Elder Scrolls games. No doubt some people will have their own experiences, and as far as Oblivion, I've pretty much laid out that I don't have any experience of it except the vicarious kind, but we can all make guesses about Skyrim based on what we've learned about player tastes over the years, and how Bethesda might interpret feedback and criticism.
Elder Scrolls: ArenaElder Scrolls I: (the?) Arena was the first game set in this universe, and was basically built to be a pen-and-paper simulator, with only the thinnest plot progression for those who want it.
In Some Ways, Arena Is Actually More Involved than Its Sequel
When you go to a smithy, you can customize how you get your items repaired: you can extend the length of the time it takes to fix something if you want to save money, or you can up the price and get the work done much quicker.
Haggling is fairly easy to get used to, and you don't even have to do it if you don't want to, but you can set a new price, then go back and forth until you reach a price you find suitable (or the AI gives up in disgust, forcing you to start over).
The sun and moon run in a cycle, so that you can sometimes see eclipses, and each land has a very obvious reference to the kingdom you're currently in (Morrowind's background has an active volcano, for instance). People have skin color based upon the dominant race or species there (although this only holds for wandering townsfolk; classes or stationary NPCs are all generic, even if they turn out later to be an Argonian or whatever). This game takes place in the entirety of Tamriel, though there's not much difference from place to place, unfortunately.
Every town's surroundings are randomly generated (according to some, these areas go on forever, forcing you to fast-travel in order to reach any town). Unlike in Daggerfall, the random generation is very generous with its dungeons, so you could, for example, walk outside the walls of Sentinel and in less than a minute find a tomb to loot.
The two-tiers-per-level-dungeon system was not 3D like Daggerfall was, but that makes the maps much easier to read, and the sizes of the dungeons are a lot more sensible. Still, you will have endless pits, standing water you can swim through, and secret passages that, while marked clearly on your map if you happen to look, are usually well-hidden compared to many of Daggerfall's hidden doors. The many levels of a dungeon are separated by staircases, and compared to Daggerfall you could say that each level has a definite theme to it, with bricks, tiles, tomb walls, moss, or roughly-cut rock to name a few. It didn't feel like it was just a bunch of random dungeon segments, even though it was obvious when I looked at the map that there were patterns I'd seen before.
This style of dungeon yields one of the coolest spells I've ever seen in an Elder Scrolls game: Passwall. Just click on a block, and it disappears! Great when I get impatient with the layout. You can also cast the reverse, which can put up a barrier between you and something chasing you. There's a similar spell that fills in a pit or water tile, and a reverse which can open a pit, stopping an enemy from coming after you and allowing you to hit it at a distance if you want.
Also, conversations are not like a huge menu, database, or control panel. You ask simple questions and get straightforward answers.
Where It Shows Its Age
Guilds are only there to provide basic services or be named antagonists; they don't do much beyond this. We'd have to wait for Daggerfall to have a solid guild system. The shops and guild buildings are also generated from a set list EACH TIME you enter. No matter how big or small the building is on the outside, it'll look the same on the inside, and this may change, so that you will see a different layout in a particular Mage Guild you frequently visit if you left and came back.
There is no custom class: you determine or pick your class at the beginning, and you're stuck with this for the rest of the game. The classes themselves have special abilities and drawbacks, much like the custom class designer from Daggerfall although a lot less varied.
Very little of the environment is interactive. While most of Daggerfall's objects were just there for flavor, you could use some objects in dungeons to open doors, spring traps, or teleport you to key points. While Daggerfall's intestine-style dungeons were at once awesome and overwhelming, Arena's dungeons are manageable yet a bit less dynamic.
As busted as many of Daggerfall's quests were, at least there were a good amount of them, and the lack of a guild system in arena meant that progression lay in helping nobles, rather than trying a bunch of different things.
The interface is probably one of the bigger problems, but that can be said about a lot of Bethesda's releases. You don't know if an object has been identified
Customization was expanded dramatically in Daggerfall, even if a lot of it was limited to the paper doll interface. You don't get any different clothes (regardless as to whether or not they were ever to have a gameplay effect), and all of the character models are pretty much the same (the Argonians, lizard folks, look pretty much like the other humanoids except for their faces. They even have hair!). Because you have to pick a class, you have no control over skills, though the skills that are in the game are rather straightforward thief/mage/warrior variations, with some interesting nuances (rangers take less time to travel, for instance, and sorcerers can only gain spell energy by absorbing spells cast at them).
Spellcasting is at a bit of a disadvantage because you have to hit "C" to get your spell list, then click on the spell. This wouldn't be so bad if you then had to click on the monster you wanted to attack, which could result in getting hit several times before you manage to aim properly. I'd prefer an auto-centered aiming system for combat casting, but otherwise there are some pretty neat spells.
Also, the conversation system is pretty limited, ultimately.
I feel like the games since then could have capitalized on Arena's universality. I can see a lot of the improvements of Daggerfall translating directly into an Arena-style format. I think the biggest change, the change that dictated things since, was Daggerfall's move to true 3D. That's where a lot of the game's problems came from, and I think a lot of time was spent fixing those that could have been spent adding more features to an already capable engine. Arena by itself wears thin after a while, but it feels like a much more ambitious and interesting game than Daggerfall, despite Daggerfall's physical size.
I really have fun with Arena, and I don't feel like the dungeons are too big a deal. It has me constantly wishing for an updated engine, better guilds, expanded character models, more sensible varieties of monsters in specific dungeons and deepening of regional themes, and more dynamic quests. I had fun with Daggerfall's crazy dungeons sometimes, but other times they were just too damned time-consuming, convoluted, thematically samey, and often pointless. If Arena's sequel had got a lot of the ideas for Daggerfall's dungeons, and maybe gone to some form of 3D when they were really ready to bring it in, that would have truly been something.
What game did YOU start out playing in the Elder Scrolls series (if any)?