Developer: ZeniMax Online Studios / Publisher: Bethesda Softworks / Played on: PC / Release Date: Spring 2014
Let me tell you about a time I played The Elder Scrolls.
I’d just finished a quest that involved turning skeevers (TES’s version of giant rats) back into people… there was a wizard curse involved or somesuch. Taking a break from that excitement, I decided to just aimlessly wander through a snowy forest. I was deep into the vibe — that Elder Scrolls magic where you just sort of trance out and wander wherever you want. All the sudden, some random NPC bolts across my screen.
‘Where you headed, guy?’ I thought, following him. Maybe he was trying to chase down some errant wolf or go fight a bandit or something. I caught up to him but I couldn’t talk to him. He turned to face me and stared at me blankly for a few seconds.
Then it hit me… that’s another player.
“You couldn’t be happier to hear that,” ZeniMax Online Studios Lead Gameplay Designer Nick Konkle said.
The Solo MMO
Despite loving MMOs, I’ve been convinced that The Elder Scrolls Online just wouldn’t work since hearing its announcement. For me, The Elder Scrolls is a solitary, lonesome experience that innately contradicts the “massively multiplayer” part of the MMO acronym.
The crucial distinction — and what contradicts my initial assumption — is that ZeniMax isn’t making the game revolve around multiplayer.
“One of our goals and philosophies is that you can play it largely solo if you want to,” Konkle said. “You don’t need to do anything with a group if that’s not how you enjoy playing the game. We want to make sure there are the right amount of hints and notes so that you can [play alone if you want.]”
If you’re like me, your cynicism probably persists. After all, I’ve heard that promise before… but from my demo I can vouch that The Elder Scrolls Online is the first game to really deliver on it.
“For people that go in looking for that social experience, they have the same tools to find their friends, and it’s easy. We were in a guild, we made a group, everything works seamlessly and we just play together,” Konkle said. “For a person who decides to play the game solo, our goal is exactly what you described. To be like ‘Oh right, I AM playing a multiplayer game.’”
But enough of promises, how exactly does The Elder Scrolls Online pull it off?
This ain’t Ping Pong
The most profound difference between TES: O and, well, every other MMO in existence right now is in how it organizes content. Most MMOs cram quests in a hub town. You load up on quests, go out and check off all your objectives, then head back to cash them all in.
“We call those ping-pong quests,” Konkle said. “That style of ping-pong questing is just not what our game is about. Our game is about wander in direction, find thing, do thing, wander in new direction.”
It’s a wonderful sentiment that, by my experience, actually works. When I started, the game delivered me a fairly typical quest objective to go talk to the town leader. Undoubtedly this would start the “story chain” of quests that would set me on my path. Just to be a contrarian I walked outside of the starting village immediately. Suddenly the quest objective changes to “explore the island” with some vague quest indicators to visit.
That’s what I did — just wandered around general areas. The real magic is that I did find quests, dungeons, items, everything you’d expect of an Elder Scrolls experience. In the course of my two-hour demo, I’d explored the entire island and saved all the town’s villagers through diverse quests… all through loosely-directed exploring.
“Someone you start a conversation with in a town won’t have a quest for you, but they’ll say ‘Oh I hear there’s a cave somewhere.’ Then it shows up on your map,” Konkle said. “You walk over there and there’s a quest there, a treasure chest there… there’s always something.”
This structure is incredibly daring, especially considering how comfortably familiar the status quo is in terms of building MMO content. As an erstwhile completionist, my major concern then became more OCD… what if I can’t find everything?
“We have a certain amount of leeway. If we make it too hard to find everything we can do world-building cues, notes that people can find to lead them… there’s a whole bunch of things to do to get people there,” Konkle said. “If you miss a bit on the low side, we have going for us that it is an online game and odds are pretty good that people will figure it out and help each other out.”
If you consider what that actually means, it’s incredible. Every quest, every piece of content must be tuned and tweaked to work in an open environment, with or without a party.
“All of the quests have mechanisms to make them group-friendly. There isn’t a magic bullet that we did that was ‘Ha ha! Now it’s group friendly.’ Each quest, each time we run into one, we have to make sure it’s solo friendly and group friendly,” Konkle said. “That’s what our content developers do. They are busy folk.”
Even if the content in TES: O is structured in a way that encourages exploration and supports that solo Elder Scrolls vibe, it would be shattered the second you try to explore a dungeon centuries-old only to have fifty players burst forth from its entrance all laden with treasure. Fortunately, ZeniMax understands the perils of an online populace shattering a game’s immersion.
“You want it to feel alive, but you don’t want it to feel crowded,” Konkle said. “We have tools focused on making sure that we have that right balance.”
One of the tactics to prevent this from happening is related to the distribution of content described above. Since there are no quest hubs, player populations are naturally more distributed.
“The right balance of other players providing life to the world without taking your immersion away is a part of our challenge as developers,” Konkle said. “We have various controls that we can use to affect that. We can say ‘this is the maximum number of people in an area.’ If this is a particular choke point, say a lot of people go through this area, we can make it so quest givers come to you.”
Here’s an example of that technique in action. Upon wondering up to a wayshrine, a quest objective quietly popped up that read “Investigate the wayshrine.” I poked around for a minute, not quite sure what the game wanted me to find, until an NPC ran up to tell me her friends had all been turned into skeevers (ring a bell?). That’s when I realized… oh! The game was just trying to get me to sit still for a bit, and it totally worked.
But it IS an MMO
So far all I’ve talked about are the ways The Elder Scrolls Online manages to not be an MMO, but what about the ways in which it is? The banner feature in that regard is player vs. player, though you might be wondering if it’ll just be another iteration on the cooldown-rotation combat from World of Warcraft.
“God no!” Konkle declares. “At the meta level, what makes our PVP unique is that it is large-scale and persistent. We can have 100 on 100 battles no problem. It isn’t a battleground of ten minutes and 10 vs 10.”
The differences extend down to the fight mechanics as well.
“You don’t have the resources to 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4 [referencing ability rotations]. Some people just put their stun on 1 and just 1-1-1-1. When we say we don’t have cooldowns on abilities, PVP players go ‘Well, I’ll just use my stun over and over because you can’t beat that,’ but we have a huge breadth of counters available to you,” Konkle said
Counter is the name of the game, really. It’s not rock-paper-scissors either. TES: O employs an opening leveling system similar to Skyrim in which you can allocate points in a wide variety of skills, building out your character’s abilities with very fine control.
“Like the rest of the progression, the PVP is very much based on that deck-building game of ‘What can I bring to the table?’ and ‘How will that do against what you’ve decided to bring?’” Konkle explained.
This setup leads to a rotating meta-game in which the player populace will trend towards a particular group of skills that it deems “superior” only to have it completely up-heaved by a counter-build… that then becomes the new norm. The process as Konkle describes sounds oddly similar to balanced strategy games and can lead to interesting scenarios.
For instance, Konkle described a group of vampires that would attack at night, using their sizable combat buffs to slaughter armies. In response, a group of the player populace joined the Fighter’s Guild and specced out to kill undead. In a natural evolution of the game’s PVP systems, massive vampire vs. vampire killer battles started to break out.
Come on, that’s just badass.
“It’s critical that people always feel like there’s more to be learned, that there’s value in gaining depth. It’s not just ‘I found what works for me and I’ll stick with that forever,’” Konkle said.
The promise of being a part of a larger narrative — both in terms of Cyrodil’s gradual conquest and the constantly shifting metagame — is a real sea change when it comes to MMO PVP. In that way, The Elder Scrolls Online aims to not only change MMO norms for the solo player but the competitive one as well. While I haven’t seen the PVP in action, I can vouch for the solo content. Well, the first two hours of it anyway.
The Elder Scrolls Online releases Spring 2014, and I’ve turned from an total skeptic to one of the players that will be knocking at the gates on launch night. You can sign up for the beta here, and if you’re a fan of MMOs I suggest you do so.