The Elder Scrolls Online - The Balanced Path

Posted Wed, Feb 19, 2014 by gunky

Elder Scrolls Online Point/Counterpoint

The Elder Scrolls Online has proven to be a very polarizing game. It is half MMO, half single-player Elder Scrolls game - kinda like Sheogorath, Daedric Prince of Madness, who is half twisted and grotesque and half beautiful and nurturing. Even months before launch, players have formed very strong opinions about it - many without having even participated in the beta. We here at TenTonHammer have participated in the beta, and some of us loved it and some hated it.

Lewis B, our resident "hater," and David "Xerin" Piner, our resident "fanboy," each wrote their own very polarized articles detailing why they felt so strongly about the game after the media beta event. In the interest of presenting a more neutral viewpoint, then, we have a point-counterpoint debate between Lewis B, the "hater," and Gunky, the "realistic fan."

ESO Point/Counterpoint - a Breton town

Gunky: From the sounds of it, you're coming from an anti-Elder Scrolls viewpoint to begin with. Of course you're not going to enjoy the Elder Scrolls Online, because it uses a lot of the same systems that you evidently find so flawed, but which fans of the series really enjoy. Like simplified combat, for example - MMO people are probably not going to like that very much at the start, but Elder Scrolls people will. That seems to be the real issue: that this is a MMO for single-player RPG fans, and less so for MMO fans.

Lewis B: The thing is, I'm not anti-Elder Scrolls, I'm just anti-shit. There's little else that makes my blood boil more than fans and media waving over elements of a game that are awful. The fact that Elder Scrolls fans seem to love horrendous combat, AI, bugs and lifeless NPC's (from a multi million dollar product) is maddening. Where is the logic behind this? When did it become acceptable to accept such mediocrity? Part of the problem here is the fact that Bethesda are free to ignore such issues because they know the community will fix them, but unfortunately for us we just won't have that luxury in ESO. The other side of the coin as well, is the fact that ESO is an odd mix for ES fans and MMOG fans. It doesn't really satisfy either side...

ESO Point/Counterpoint - Argonian village

Gunky: On the contrary, I personally found it very satisfying. Your assertion that Elder Scrolls fans "seem to love horrendous combat" etc. comes across as very anti-Elder Scrolls. And, in fact, it's simply not the case - the combat is simple, yes, but far from horrendous. NPCs are absolutely not lifeless and their AI is quite complex - in Oblivion and Skyrim, NPCs went through daily cycles of sleeping, procuring food, eating it, working, socializing and so on, and it was very dynamic. In the Elder Scrolls Online, we have MMO NPCs - they have to be in predictable places at all times. ESO uses phasing to move NPCs around rather than radiant AI (which had a tendency to get NPCs killed from time to time), but it amounts to the same thing. A lot of MMOs use that workaround, and I felt that it worked well in ESO.

Lewis B: Ok, perhaps a bit of a generalization but the combat in the Elder Scrolls series is very shallow. It lacks depth and tactics. It's effectively whack-a-mole and that's something I find limiting. Unlike Age of Conan or Zenoclash, there's just nothing there. Heck, the fact melee swings aren't even AOE by default - that's regressive. As far as other areas are concerned, yes the AI have routines (actually quite basic of the ones I've encountered) but when the majority don't work or are providing a false impression of autonomy, is there much value of them being there? Three of my fondest memories in Skryim are as follows:

1. Being asked by an NPC to stay overnight in their home (which I did) only to wake up and have the AI bug, alongside the rest of the village, to pronounce me a thief and chase me out. Returning 20 minutes later, the same NPC once again asked me to stay the night.

2. Entering a pub and falling through the floor forever.

3. Stealing items from a house, in the attic, only to hear an NPC in the basement who happens to be sat by the fire say "Put that back".

These 3 are just a very small selection of my disastrous time with Elder Scrolls games and although ESO had marginally less bugs, it was still very rough around the edges. I'm not quite sure how I feel about phasing at the moment as it creates a weird gulf between players in different stages of narrative.

ESO Point/Counterpoint - siege on a Cyrodiil fort

Gunky: The "regressive" combat is going to be a selling point for some people - how much thought does one really need to put into smashing something until it's dead, anyway? A lot of other games have to have extensive tutorial missions to teach you how combat skills work before they let you loose in the "real world." You get that a bit in ESO also, but they don't need to drill it in that "left click = attack, right-click = block." You don't need to be a character in a Dan Brown novel to figure out a viable attack sequence by deciphering a giant toolbar full of attack skill icons.

The phasing is not really any weirder than it is in other games where similar tech is used. Hytbold in LotRO is a good example of this; you can have the town partially rebuilt and have access to some of the town services, but you'll see another person come bombing in and stop to talk to an invisible NPC vendor you haven't yet unlocked in your phase. And it seems to work fine for solo questing in ESO, which is arguably just as important as any group content in this particular game.

As far as bugs go, what is the last game you can think of that launched bug-free? I can't think of any. Some have come close, maybe, and have felt more "polished," but no game is perfect on day one. And there's no reason that ESO should be any different, especially considering it's the studio's first stab at making the Elder Scrolls into a multiplayer experience. No game is perfect and utterly without flaw, and I actually found the beta of ESO to be fairly smooth in that respect. I ran into one missing-monster quest and found that some UI elements and such needed tweaking, but that's the nature of beta content (even at a late stage like this one), and most of the other stuff worked more or less the way it's supposed to.

I'll give you another point there, though: the vanilla games had a bunch of hilarious and weird bugs. And the player-made mods that address glitches and bugs like the ones you're talking about, and which have made Elder Scrolls games the powerhouse IP that it is, are not going to be available for the Elder Scrolls Online. I think a lot of players are going to miss the option to run hundreds of mods with nude character models, Anime-themed armor and god-mode weapons bug fixes.

If we may return to one of your original points - it's not so much a matter of glossing over objectionable parts in favor of highlighting good ones. In my case (and I believe also Xerin's), it's a matter of having a vastly different opinion about the "objectionable" things, and finding more about the game to like than there is to criticize. None of us is saying that the game is utterly perfect and without fault, because that would be an idiotic thing to say. We know there are flaws. But we enjoy the hell out of it because it has a lot of stuff we like.

ESO Point/Counterpoint - Orc Dragonknight with a bow

Lewis B: I think to finish off (we could easily chew the fat off this all day) I think it all boils down to compromise and how willing you are to forgive Zenimax/Bethesda for delivering a product that cost hundreds of millions, for the condition it's currently in. I'm not suggesting other MMOG's are bug free and compared to some, ESO is in pretty good condition. But (and it's a big but) I'm simply not willing to compromise so heavily on core elements. It shows a lack of care of Zenimax's part and a complete disregard for the very fundamentals of the genre. I suspect I'll likely pick up the game but it'll be after launch and in the hopes of significant polish. I'm certainly not alone in my criticisms: Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Massively, MMORPG and a variety of others have all had issues on the exact points I make but for the most part, I think it's largely irrelevant.

It's clear from the responses by many Elder Scrolls Fans that they really don't care what condition the game is in. It's an Elder Scrolls MMOG and for them, that's a guaranteed purchase. Unfortunately, I heard the exact same opinions coming from the Star Wars corner and even after my First Impressions piece for Star Wars: the Old Republic where I called it out as a terrible product, I was still called crazy. The Elder Scrolls Online gives me the exact same vibe and (touch wood) I'm usually right. For Zenimax's sake, I hope I'm totally wrong because the only alternative is a free to play model 12 months after launch.

Gunky: Well, I won't comment on the opinions expressed on other websites, except to say that I don't necessarily agree with them, either. It's going to come down to balancing the scales, exactly the same as any other game - hopefully, it will have more stuff you like than stuff you don't. And for the record, I still think SWTOR is a great game, too.

It's nice to read two opinions when I can agree by and large with both of them.

Judging by the beta I played, the game isn't in a polished state and while I fully understand what "beta" theoretically means, the reality of the situation is that the game is going to launch with a lot of bugs and broken features. No white knighting here.

Of course, I also know that virtually every MMO has done the same. FFXIV version 2.0 is a notable exception but there's a strong case to be made that they _had_ a long-term beta, version 1.0, that was so terrible it actually ceased functioning. Since ESO doesn't have the luxury of a previous failed launch to work out the kinks, we should expect the launch to be buggy.

Levels 1-6 or so are tremendously disappointing from a world design standpoint. I know that tutorial levels or whatever have to be basic enough to not scare away new players. However, the early levels also have to be interesting enough to _keep_ new players, and I have no faith that the current "run in a straight line prison break with gratuitous, criminally-underused John Cleese voice acting" level will be interesting enough to folks to prevent them from (1) complaining loudly online and (2) not playing any further.

The bizarre thing is that there are many examples of games with much less lore having much better starter zones. For all its much maligned "kill ten foozles" quests, I will never forget the Dwarf/Gnome starter zone in vanilla WoW, with poisonous Gnomeregan (remember the city was destroyed at that point in time) off in a corner. Likewise, EQII's racial hovels were chock full of character even though they involved endless rat swarms (they also involved gathering lore and shinies).

If those games created memorable level 1 experiences ten years ago, just imagine what ESO could have done with today's technology. Certainly Guild Wars 2 has memorable starter zone experiences (no matter how you feel about the rest of the game and superhero Trahearne), including a boss battle and a public quest. What does ESO have? Fights against undead and a fake-out where a huge spirit at first appears to be the boss but then disappears, leaving you to face a single level 2 scrub.

Just as bad was my experience on the island that constitutes the "2nd zone." The Daggerfall Covenant island was almost as linear- and just as dull- as the tutorial prison. I know some folks liked it; I know that others have praised the Aldmeri Dominion island as being much more open. True, once I finally reached Daggerfall itself, the game world opened right up. Luckily I got to that point, because it helped me decide to buy the game.

However, it took me four or six hours of dull, linear gameplay in a game that is hyped as being completely non-linear in scope to get there. While us MMO veterans could likely get through levels 1-6 in two hours rather than six, new players won't- and if they abandon the game, the rest of us won't like what Zenimax will do to keep the income flowing.

On another note, SW:ToR is really not a bad game at all. I'm sad that so many folks left it after the first couple of months (including me) but I've gone back to it recently. The class stories are just as fun as I remember them.

what GW2 is shit, non existent AI, mobs just cc lock and u die...., events were just button smashing lag fest...

AND not forgetting the grind crafting and daily grind for ascended gear .......

dungeons boring and pathetic non existent AI.... sometimes i wonder if they even play that shit b4 shafting down to us....

as for TESO, most of us that played in the beta liked what we see esp the RvR, but at higher levels..., hopefully they do not follow GW2's foot step where higher levels everything becomes a chore and frustration...

I'm not so sure this game is going to launch with "a lot of bugs and broken features".

The beta client is the same client that was used three weeks ago - it's not the same that's being tested in closed beta (from what I understand). That's because they are testing stability - not quest fixes. I think a lot of these quests that are broken have already been fixed and we're just seeing a pre-fix version of the software.

Regarding combat - I'm not certain 4 separate button bars is an improvement. In any number of current games - I typically only use 7 or 8 skills in combat anyway. This game has 5, plus an ultimate, plus a quickslot - plus dodging and mobility. I think there's more complexity here than you're giving them credit for.

In most other MMO's, if you're a max level thief, you have all the same skills s other max level thieves and assuming you both raid - you pretty much have the same gear and same stats too. In this game you choose whether to pump up your Magicka, Stamina or Health. You choose which skills you want to use - and as they level they become more effective and even customizable through morphing. Two characters that follow are the same class can still be widely different.

I'm not suggesting ESO be crowned vanquisher of WoW just yet - but I think there's more here than you're giving them credit for.

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