There are some defining characteristics to any Elder Scrolls game. Lore is definitely one of the big ones, and if you haven’t yet read Gunky's Lore Primer you really should. Another one of those critical and defining characteristics is the odd combination of classless skill-based and level-based progression that’s always been unique to the series. However, Zenimax is tinkering with the formula a little with the new online version of the game, The Elder Scrolls Online, and we have to wonder whether or not that’s a good thing. We’re going to take a look at some of the problems and advantages inherent in each system, and then focus the lens on what that means for ESO.

Levels Can be Good

Level-based progression and classes have been the tried-and-true RPG development standard since the old pen-and-paper days. Early RPGs obviously adopted the model because it was already what fans of the genre were familiar with, and it quickly proved to be a solid choice. Level-based progression has become common in PC gaming for the same reasons it was used in the table-top games of years past.

If you have a system of classifying the relative power of the characters that also advances the power of the various classes at a similar rate, it allows the Game Master, or developer, to construct appropriate challenges based around that relative power. It’s also a simple mathematical formula to increase the difficulty of the encounter to account for multiple player characters. The hard part in this system is really just adjusting the over-all power of specific classes at specific levels to balance with the other classes.

That’s a technical way of saying that, in World of Warcraft for instance, a Warrior and a Mage should have about the same amount of difficulty killing a mob as maybe a Paladin and a Necromancer. There are some fluctuations because some mobs’ traits make them more susceptible to one class or another, but in the end, the playing field should be relatively level.

World of Warcraft classes

WoW may not exactly set the standard for great class mechanics, but it is a well-known example.

So, the advantage of level-based gaming is that it’s just much easier to plan for and to build games around. If you know about how powerful characters will be when they’re in a specific area, you can build the mobs and quests to be appropriate for their levels. It’s a tried system, and it’s the same that’s worked for decades for that very reason.

In PC games we also see the inclusion of a level requirement for equipping gear. Going along the same lines as general class/mob power, this also helps prevent low level characters from getting the Epic Laser of Murder-death-killing from a friend and then going on a rampage of newbish glory. The use of levels can protect the integrity of progression through equipment as well.

Where Levels Fail and Skills Pwn

I guess one might conclude that level-based progression is an obvious choice, and wonder why developers would consider anything else. But level-based progression has one blindingly obvious flaw--it’s not very realistic. There are no level 50 basketball players, or level 3 journalists in the real world.

Skilled-based progression means that even a thin bit of metal can be deadly in the hands of someone skilled at stabbing.

In real life, you don’t get better at every possible skill each time you complete a random task at work or hand in an assignment at school. You get better at specific things by doing them, and there’s no real measure of how good you are at something compared to other people until you compete or at least work side-by side.

Where level-based progression fails, skill-based progression succeeds incredibly well. It’s this component, more than just about anything else, that truly separated the early Elder Scrolls games from the pack. I’ll never forget the days I spent in the Mages Guild of Daggerfall, firing my spells over and over to skill up in that discipline. The same process that creates a gold medal high-jumper in the real world was the one I used to become a master at face-melting fireballs in a virtual one--practice, sleep, wake up, and practice some more.

Skyrim forge

…because killing all the skeevers in the world won’t make you any better at forging a new breastplate.

Then, skill-based systems do have their Achilles heel. Besides the obvious problem of finding a balance between making mobs hard enough for players without being too hard in a world where there’s no level-based measure of how powerful the character is, skill-based progression in online games has become a target notorious for hacking. From something as simple as taping a key down in Ultima Online, to something as complex as a mouse-click script in Darkfall, exploitation is rampant. What’s worse is that it’s insanely hard for developers to detect and stop. Legitimate practice and taped keys often look alike in the log files.

Bethesda Has Their Cake and Eats It, Too

So, you need the reliability of level-based progression and classes, but you really want to maintain the realism and immersive feeling of skill-based systems. What to do? Well, that’s where the folks at Bethesda showed their genius all those years ago--they used both. By tying health, stamina, and mana to a basic level-based progression system, while allowing the player to get better at weapons, crafting, and magic-use through a skill-based system, The Elder Scrolls series hit a home run. They could even penalize players for engaging in unlawful activity through skill atrophy, without actually limiting their ability.

Bethesda created a hybrid system drawing out the strengths of the various parts of skill-based progression while making up for the weaknesses of the whole. Why, then, is Zenimax changing that formula? Don’t they recognize genius when they see it. Well, I think I know what Zenimax is doing and why; you just have to take a step back and try to see if from a developer’s perspective.


Mixing level and skill-based progression allowed Bethesda to scale content to the player while still giving you the freedom to play however you want.

Zenimax Has Other Ideas

We all hate the concept of the MMO holy trinity, but at the end of the day, how can you get away from it? It has to be insanely difficult to create content that’s as enjoyable for a squad of fire-slinging mages as it is for the same number of axe-wielding warriors. I think that’s the problem faces, and I believe that’s why they’ve chosen to go the route they have, with level-based classes and skill-based weapons progression. But will it work for this IP?

I actually do see this hybrid system as a big departure from the proven Bethesda model, and I object strongly to the idea of classes. We’ve seen plenty of athletes make the transition from sports to acting (and eventually even murdering, but I digress), so why shouldn’t a player be able to transition from warrior to mage? In the other Elder Scrolls games, you can.

If the only point of skill progression in weapons is to make players feel like they’re playing a real Elder Scrolls game, and true power is determined by special skills and abilities tied to classes and levels, then the system is really just a cop-out. Zenimax appears to be taking the easy road, like every other recent developer, rather than daring to build the game fans want to see. There are so many other options. Gear condition/durability could have been tied to skill rather than level. Mob abilities could have been tweaked to require more diverse groups. There’s already an ability-slotting system a la Guild Wars 2 that resolves potential PvP issues inherent with acquiring too many skills over time.

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We know ESO is so much more than skills and levels, and with all the lore, PvP concepts, and other mechanics in store for the new game, I don’t think you can call the class system a deal breaker.

I can accept some slightly restrictive level-based content, though I really don’t think it’s necessary. What I really find troubling is the concept of classes with skills tied to them in an Elder Scrolls game. There are no classes in the Elder Scrolls franchise, and I know Zenimax is worried about what happens when they have the stealthy guy with a giant axe, but adding classes to a traditionally skill-based game isn’t the way to fix that problem.

Also, this idea that you should have to build content around the outdated concept of the trinity is a bit of a sticking point for me as well. If ESO is the realization of the dream many players have had while playing the earlier games, then you have to recognize that part of that dream is the idea of self-determination, a sandbox-like character design if you will.

Honestly, I think I might be preaching to the choir here. Zenimax has really gone out of their way to deemphasize the role of classes in the game, and even admitted as much in a recent post on the official site. It may be too late to rework such a core mechanic, but if they realize they’re not heading in precisely the right direction, they can take steps to minimize the impact and position themselves for a better resolution post-release. But, the first step is admitting you have a problem, at least internally. I doubt we’ll ever get a frank response on the subject, but there’s only so much openness a developer can have without suffering a lot of fan backlash, so you can’t blame them.

It’s not all bad

I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom. We know ESO is so much more than skills and levels, and with all the lore, PvP concepts, and other mechanics in store for the new game, I don’t think you can call the class system a deal breaker. Zenimax has managed to grab the tiger by the tail, and they are trying to turn one of the most beloved RPGs in modern gaming history into an MMO. I can only imagine the challenges they’re facing. Still, you can’t change one of the core concepts of a franchise and expect it to go over well.

This is a noble task and a difficult one, but the way to overcome these problems isn’t to fall back on antiquated systems, but rather to forge new ones. Despite the potential issues I see on the horizon, I do still find myself excited to see where one of my favorite series of games goes next. I think the game still has a solid chance to be great, and that’s why I feel someone has to step up and say, “Dare to be different, Zenimax!” Now is the time. Build the game we deserve.

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Last Updated: Mar 29, 2016