For a few weeks, I’ve indulged in a retro-gaming binge. I’ve waxed strategy with Final Fantasy (the orginal NES version), twitched my thumbs with Dragon’s Lair, and dedicated many hours to the old school grind-gone-social EverQuest. One recent night while my EverQuest guild and I were waiting for our 40-man raid, we discussed the fundamental differences between a game like EQ and more modern MMOGs. We all agreed things are considerably different today with different goals and target audiences. Expectations have changed appreciably over the years, not just from the players but from the developers themselves.
We began to wonder if a game that promoted group and social play that didn’t intensely focus on progression would have any real chance in today’s MMO market. Today’s games seem to have shifted focus away from detail-driven world immersion to a more achiever-oriented game on rails. If such a world-driven MMO were to be created, who would be the ones to take the risk to test the market with the game by spending big-time resources to develop it?
“The Most Socially Connected MMO Ever”
Enter ZeniMax and Bethesda. Hot off the heels of the recent success of Skyrim comes The Elder Scrolls Online, ushering Tamriel into MMO gaming. Many of the lures of older MMOs are making a fresh re-appearance in the upcoming game. Happily, Game Director Matt Firor tells us exactly what many of us have been waiting to hear: “In TESO, players will be able to play at their own pace and do only what they want to do.”
The Elder Scrolls Online will continue Bethesda's fine tradition of immersive worlds. (Sentinel Docks)
If you’ve ever played an Elder Scrolls game it’s easy to understand the lure of bringing this more “distraction-oriented” style of gameplay back into the MMO space. As TESO won’t have any quest hubs this game will be rich with content that will be up to the players to discover. Exploring the captivating backdrop and discovering plot twists, small nooks of unexpected civilizations, and self-contained stories that may not have any direct impact on the big picture but are captivating nonetheless and set the immersion bar high in The Elder Scrolls franchise. And best of all: now you can do it all with friends in the same online space.
Firor goes on to describe the game as potentially “the most socially connected MMO game ever.” The Elder Scrolls Online will offer the standard fare of raids and instanced dungeons (available in both group and heroic difficulty levels) but in addition ZeniMax is bringing back the tradition of public dungeons which haven’t been seen in an MMO for several years. These public dungeons will be shared content with no instancing.
Public Dungeons and Grouping in The Elder Scrolls Online
As in Guild Wars 2 and other recent MMOs, players will not be forced to group to take out the baddies but can opt to assist one another ungrouped. Every person contributing in any given battle will share in its rewards whether grouped or not. This approach nullifies “kill stealing” and instead promotes camaraderie between players.
The entrance to Ayelid, one of TESO's many puzzle-driven public dungeons.
The dungeons themselves stay true to The Elder Scrolls IP with various puzzles for players to figure out. Clues will be hidden around the dungeon or within objects that will contain the key to unlocking a door or opening a secret passageway. As Firor puts it, this game is the “familiar Elder Scrolls, but with friends.”
One of the restrictive effects of having group-only content in older games sprouted from the requirement of very specific classes for specific content and encounters. Some dungeons in these old games required a rogue to pick a lock, for instance. TESO will make use of player skills, but the group makeup and requirements are a lot more forgiving since every class will be able to fulfill multiple roles with multiple skills.
Combat in The Elder Scrolls Online
The combat itself takes place in real time. With the Skyim-inspired ultra-minimalist interface combat won’t be a game of mashing 40 abilities, but rather an active engagement of combat allowing independent blocking and weapon swinging. Ultimate combat abilities and finishing moves will become available from time to time during combat which will launch the player into an extravagant massively destructive move that will have the evils of Tamriel trembling in your presence.
As such, the interface becomes more of a quick-look info display instead of an all-encompassing set of controls necessitating constant attention. With this sort of active combat as we’ve seen with similar iterations in games such as TERA, the action is the focal point, not the cooldown timers. And, also as with Skyrim, when you don’t need the health and mana bars, the display neatly tucks away opening up the entire screens real estate.
Enemies should prove much tougher in TESO. (Salas En skeleton)
One of the more revolutionary points of TESO combat is enemy AI. In a word, few enemies in The Elder Scrolls Online will be easily defeated by standard tank and spank tactics. The baddies of the world act intelligently and conduct themselves as actual players would. For instance, if you find yourself facing off against a mage and necromancer and opt to take out the mage first, the necro will in turn resurrect the mage to once fight once again.
Player vs. Player in The Elder Scrolls Online
If PvP is your game, you’ll be happy to know that there is an extensive PvP game planned for The Elder Scrolls Online. With roots reaching back to Dark Age of Camelot, Firor and team have enough PvP design experience to bring a healthily balanced competitive game to the table.
Black Marsh and a warrior with an impressive body count.
TESO will have three factions - the Dagerfall Covenant, Ebonheart Pact, and Aldmeri Dominion - which will battle each other for dominance. The center district of Cyradil will host the world PvP action as the alliances vie for control of the area, and if successful, be able to elect a player as Emperor. Siege play will also be available in addition to territory combat. All of these PvP meta-games will add certain longevity to the PvP end-game.
Just as the political environment can change from player actions, the world itself will undergo its own changes based on the player’s actions. For instance, players will find Camlorn overrun by werewolves. Should they complete the storyline, the werewolves will be purged from the land and the citizens will be ever grateful for the assistance. Additionally should the player opt not to save an NPC during the story line that NPC will die and will not be available to player in the post-story world. This effect is accomplished via City of Heroes or World of Warcraft-style phasing, which is like a seamless zone line that allows different players to interact with different NPCs and see different visuals in the same area of the game.
An early look at The Elder Scrolls Online hints that this game will not only have the strengths of modern design but also re-deploy classic ideas that have been mysteriously left behind in the rush to emulate World of Warcraft’s success. Taking the best elements from past and current MMO successes is a bold and exciting move. Integrating them into the Elder Scrolls universe is monumental.
The Elder Scrolls Online is scheduled for a 2013 launch.