The Good and the Bad Musings on the Elder Scrolls: Online Press summit
Since Game Informer’s June 2012 coverage of “Elder Scrolls: Online (ESO), we have not had that much info on the game and even the website that was set in place was more devoid of life-signs than Jeremy Bentham’s body has exhibited in the past two centuries or so. Suddenly things seemed to have changed though. The website got a new layout and there was a metric ton of news flowing from an ESO press summit. As I went through some of the editorials, video interviews and a very lengthy and entertaining podcast a few things caught my mind:
– The Idea of a Megaserver and its consequences
– The combat system
– The character development system
While I will discuss all these aspects on the basis of what was published from the press summit, a lot of it is subject to change and in some shape or form speculation. The purpose of this article is as such not to encourage or discourage you from playing ESO, merely to provide some things one should keep in mind when reading the ecstatic (that is far too mild a word) responses to the game. In short it’s my way of trying to reign in my horses and not get too hyped up (because I am one of those individuals who do get easily hyped up).
Azuriel over at “In an Age”, did a brief post on this and capitalized on the positive aspects of the “serverless” aspect of ESO, citing positive effects such as that low level zones will not get depopulated. Another argument brought up is the fact that there would be next no hassle to find your friends’ server or having friends on different servers (after all everyone plays on the same server right?). The way this system works is through a questionnaire you fill in at the start of the game stating how you want to play and then the game allocates you to an instance of the game where people who answered similarly are located. On top of this the game monitors your play-sessions and refines its choice of “where to put you” based on with whom you play etc. (Other social platforms such as Facebook are said to tie into this as well). So with all of the positive aspects of a megaserver covered I wanted to share some concerns regarding it. As you can see the whole system of player allocation through a questionnaire and then monitored in game data is what is supposed to make this idea work. In essence if the script allocating you is not “smart” enough the system fails. This is something that affects especially the time when you newly joined the game. Because the system needs more data and time to be more refined. Meaning your first few hours in the game will be a mad scramble to find your friends. The only way of avoiding this would be to coordinate your questionnaire answers with your friends… something that requires more effort than deciding that we all will play on server X when joining the game (something we have been completely fine with before). That the deciding factor at launch lies heavily on a questionnaire is also surprising as the only ways such a questionnaire could possibly work is by you giving your answers on a scale or through multiple choice answers. The problem with that is that while the system gets answers it can work with as they are all in a regulated space where the variance between answers is kept to a minimum, your answer and my answer can be different even if we gave the same answer. In essence leading to a high per cent for the system to interpret your answer falsely. And if the questionnaire is made more refined than we end up in a situation where players actually want to play the game but end up filling a questionnaire instead of playing the game, which does not sound like a nice scenario. While I do think that when it comes to player allocation ESO has a system that will prevail in the long run you only have one chance of convincing the player to keep playing. If finding your friends at first proves an insurmountable task than the player will feel lied to in regards of the megaserver systems positive aspects (and rightly so in my opinion). Good ways to avoid this is to make sure that identifying your instance as well as other and switching through instances is made very easy. But also being very careful with promises like: “All your friends are right there you just create a character, click “play” and go!” because in the end the former promise just really does not portray the reality of what Ryan Kightlinger “Acolytes Gaming Community” describes with:
“Over time the system will learn who you would prefer to play with and automatically group you with those individuals who are of similar play-styles. There will be multiple questionnaires that you will be able to answer to determine your specific grouping criteria (whether you prefer to play alone, group together, meet new people, seek a guild, participate in rp events, select age group, etc.).”
Not so much “just create a character, click “play” and go!” now is it?
Another aspect of the Megaserver I am leery about is that it removes different server types and their rule sets. How is PVP regarded? Is it only available in Cyrodiil or will there be PVP in the open world as well? How will a positive answer to the latter affect people who don’t want this? I highly doubt the Megaserver will create instances with unique rule sets as it would undermine the point of having a Megaserver. Or what happens if there are not enough people to warrant an RP instance at any point, but these people still want to RP, but are put into an instance where the tolerance for RP is low?
Last but not least I do hope the Megaserver does not mean an all instanced gameplay à la Age of Conan or Star Wars the Old Republic. Right at the start of the introduction movie to ESO the developers state how they wanted to create an immersing world. Loading screens between every zone are my polar opposite of immersion as they hamper other things like exploration as well. We have seen it in countless games that when the developers opt for instanced zones the way in which to explore the zones are diminished as its entry and exit points are clearly laid out. No more can I explore Wetlands by falling of the dam and trying to find my way back to Loch Modan or trying to climb over a mountain in Redridge Mountains to see what’s on the other side (an angry Imp from Burning Steppes). I sincerely hope that ESO will feature a seamless world, something I have been aching for quite some time. All these are questions that have to and I hope have been taken into account when choosing a Megaserver technology.
In the end I do think the choice of a Megaserver will serve ESO in the long run… if ESO can hold itself over water for there to be a long run and in order to do that keep the slander on how bad the launch experience in games with servers, in regards to finding fiends, was and the promise as this will not be the case because of the Messiah in the form of the Megaserver non-existent, because if Zenimax won’t, ESO will fall flat on its nose on that department. (And if it won’t I will haply eat my hat or anything else you make me eat for I would be happy to see that promise fulfilled).
So ESO has been described to have retained an ES combat system of aiming and pushing your mouse buttons for attack/ block and charge up. In addition to this there will be 6 buttons for other abilities. All in all a compromise between the classical ES and the classical multi-ability MMOs combat system. Worth to add here as it relates somewhat to combat s that every class can equip any type of weapon or armour you choose to fancy. Your abilities depend on your class and your chosen weapon proficiency (say you are a Sorcerer going for a two-handed sword your abilities would differ from another Sorcerer, but also to that of a Fighter going for a two-handed weapon).
What I like about this system is its flexibility, you can be anything! Although I do think 6 abilities or if you so wish 8 with the mouse-buttons is too little, it will help in avoiding the trap of making classes feel the same (at least it should) as there is not an overflow of abilities that you can use at the same time in the system. This combat system will also provide some joy for players who look for a faster type of combat. Personally I prefer it slower and not as unforgiving as it leaves the outcome of battle shrouded in mystery. I also think that this system will not turn out as revolutionary as Zenimax thinks: After all Tera, Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World all have identical combat systems. All in all I do not think it is bad, merely not my cup of tea. In support of this system Lead Gameplay Designer Nick Conkle explains that “in our game it does not work that way [there are no rotations] every ability, no cool-down. Of course there will be Magicka [and Stamina] … would you just not want to use the spell whenever you can? … Isn’t that more fun?” In response to that I can say that as there will always be people that want to play the most efficient way, so will there always be rotations. You would have to take away abilities to get rid of rotations. Now arguably a rotation in ESO might be simpler and shorter and thus allow you not to be as much enslaved to it, but I do not think it will remove the “convention” as Mr. Conkle put it of rotations. Yet it can serve as a happy medium of a heavily rotation based and a no rotation based game.
What I do like about the combat system is how AI’s where described to react to your and their own abilities and so trying to take you down as a team and not as a mindless zerg. Mmorpg.com described it as follows:
“One of the great things about PvE combat was that the monsters work together against you. If you come upon one monster in a hallway, you pretty much know what you will get. However, some monsters work in teams. The monster AI is designed to work against you when you face multiple mobs. For example, we saw a foot soldier and a fire mage during a presentation at the end of the day. When the dev attacked the foot soldier he dropped oil on the ground. The fire mage blasted at us and immediately lit the oil aflame and burned the area. This was a small example that Nick Konkle gave us during his presentation. He did say that the more you face groups of monsters, the more challenges players have in store. The AI strategies will change so the combat remains fresh and does not become a rinse and repeat style. But that we’ll just have to see to believe.”
It is great to see that for once a game tries to make the “trash” mobs in the game actually more than just trash mobs. I was already very happy when TSW had this implemented but they did not go as far as trying to add teamwork to their opponents (then again zombies are per definition mindless so I do not think they would have headed such lessons anyway…) It is a nice touch of older MMOs to once again give even the most common enemy tools to fight against you and not just have its purpose of existence to be moved down by the dozen. The latter will of course happen but at least now it can fight back and I don’t have to sigh every time I come across mobs in the world, which without recourse feel more like annoying mosquitos than enemies to be taken seriously. In the same article it was also stated that:
“The game also has a Finesse System which adds a nice little bit of bonus to the action. You are rewarded for how well you dispatch foes and how “good” you are fighting in general. The finesse system rewards you with chests and drops for how well you kill stuff. These rewards include bonuses to XP, items, and also kill-cam deaths like we’ve seen in Bethesda games since Fallout 3. The finesse points also pop up discreetly to the right of the screen as you go through combat so during a fight you can see how well you are doing. If you learn to get good with your character, the finese system will become a major aspect of your character. We loved it, and were pleased to see you could simply “stop” the kill-cam stuff by pressing button if you don’t care for the slow-mo John Woo sort of action.”
I find the Finesse system very interesting and a good move from Zenimax, as it actually gives some tangible reward for playing well and coming up with ways of improving your character so that you play the best you can. On the other hand these rewards should not prove to overpowered neither am I glad about the XP bonus. I enjoy leveling and as such I feel penalised playing well as it shortens a part of the game that I enjoy. Maybe there could be an option to turn the XP gain off or not implement it at all?
All in all I think the combat looks to be solid and well thought out, with only a minor worry being raised over the XP gain from Finesse points. I like the new spin of Finesse points (even though AoC had the whole business with kill cams already) and I think it is a very good system. Kudos also for being able to interrupt the kill cam! And of course I am a huge fan of how the AI system seems to shape up. Even though some familiarity with it will always cheapen its novelty over time. Albeit the combat in itself is not my cup of tea I cannot help but feel a bit giddy about it.
Character development system
As I pointed out earlier character development in ESO is very open. Your character can wear any armour type and weapon of his/her choosing regardless of the selection of class. This extends so far as also for classes to encompass every role, as each armour type has certain bonuses attached to it: “Light armor helps your magic, medium armor will boost stamina, and heavy armor boosts defense and/or health”. Your selection of weapon for instance also defines what abilities you will get. It was also revealed that you can master all the weapons and armour types and skills like “Sneaking” (which is available to anyone) on one character if you so wish. I see this being problematic in turns of balance though, even though it is great that everything seems very open and up to the player to explore. As every class has unique abilities with every weapon I fear though that the sheer number of abilities will make it hard to balance or lead to a situation where we only have few classes (SWTOR). None of these situations would be a very good situation to be in. The addition to sneaking to everybody might also incite everybody to either try getting the sneaking skill resulting in a ghost war or no one getting it as other armour types provide much better bonuses over the board, leading to taking away one very fun and random variable in combat.
I do admit though that I very much like the idea of you being able to learn every ability for your class, as with classes being around and being unique, it does not harm alting but gives something for the player who does not like having multiple character something to look forward to.
One of the biggest concerns though is that the character development system is too complex to be understood (NWN 2 and in some cases TSW) that it will drive players off. A very nice tutorial was described though, which I do believe will largely mitigate these problems:
“Taking into account the highly customizable nature that weapons and armor give you, as well as the attributes you obtain through leveling up either Health, Magicka and Stamina, you begin to understand the scope in which TESO allows you to make the character that is only limited by the player’s imagination. This is also prominently featured via an intuitive interface that helps you strategize on path you want to take. Each weapon type is listed in its own window, complete with drop down menus with a horizontal tree that shows, at the corresponding weapon level, each skill you will earn and even at what point the weapons skills split to become more role specific. This will help the player decide what they want to focus on and start to move their weapon proficencies and focus towards that goal.”
Nonetheless one should hope that the choices in the system are to an extent “real choices” (if I go one way in a “split” I cannot have the other ability at the same time as its opposite) and that the choices don’t seem to lack-luster (like in MoP). All in all I do think character development is a very strong point for me in ESO.
Some final worries I have are ESO getting fixed on a personal story and trying to make sure that the player’s choices while questing have lasting impact, as this video suggests. As this post is getting very long I will just refer you to this post where I discussed it in more detail. A final good thing about ESO is that it has been said to have a fully customizable UI, something I enjoyed in SWTOR and that some features like the classical ES compass pointing out points of interests (at this stage) can be toggled on and off for true exploration! And might I add all my books get added to my personal library to be read at my pleasure!
I wish the guys and girls at Zenimax all the best and will definitely stay tuned for more info and the subsequent beta test. I do hope though that some of my worries are also something that has occurred to them as well. Or what do you think are my worries merely the ramblings of a gamer gotten burned too many a time? Am I being too sceptic?