Hands-On With The Elder Scrolls Online

This past week, I was afforded the immeasurable privilege of visiting the ZeniMax Online studios in Hunt Valley, Maryland to attend a small media event unveiling many of the cornerstone features of The Elder Scrolls Online. Matt Firor, Paul Sage, and the other lead developers of the project personally outlined their vision for the game, and explained the philosophy underlying its design. Not only were some major new features announced for the first time, but we were given several hours with which to actually play the game and experience these tenets of gameplay for ourselves. It was a fantastic event, and to make things even better, I’m allowed to talk about it! What follows is a series of five articles which fully detail my experience. I can guarantee they are worth your time, so click through, and let’s get down to it!

This first article is intended to give you a snapshot view of the major talking points which were revealed during the event, while the follow up articles go into a much greater level of detail about various mechanics. Without further ado:

I.  The Elder Scrolls Online features responsive, real-time, action combat.

This was one of the most refreshing and surprising announcements of the day, as ZeniMax Online had previously suggested that ESO was going to use a more conventional turn-based hotbar combat system. This was hinted at during the developer interviews surrounding the E3 unveil, as reported in the Development FAQ on this very site:

The Elder Scrolls Online cannot use the same real-time combat model that has been a feature of recent TES games. (Development FAQ)

Despite these initial doubts regarding the action combat mechanism in an MMO setting, the awesome systems team at ZeniMax Online was, in fact, able to create the exact style of action combat that MMO fans have been requesting for years. The combat system in TESO is nearly identical to what players are used to on the PC version of Skyrim. The hotbar still exists and provides players with a variety of spells and abilities to use during combat, but weapon attacks, blocking, and shield bashing all happen real time using familiar mouse controls. I delve much more deeply into the intricacies of this system in my full article Combat in The Elder Scrolls Online.

II. The entire player population of The Elder Scrolls Online plays on one single server.

This was an absolutely huge bombshell, and it’s not a joke. Everyone who is playing TESO is connected through ZeniMax’ “megaserver” technology, removing the problems associated with separate shards or servers. Matt Firor went into significant detail about the motivations inspiring this decision and the technology ZeniMax Online is using to achieve this.

We want to solve the day one problem of shards […] Day one is probably the worst experience you’ll ever have because you don’t know where your friends are, you don’t know what server they’re on, your guild tells you ‘everyone get on this server’, but by the time you get home from work that night the server is full and doesn’t let you create characters there anymore, so you create a character on another shard, but three days later you have to ditch that completely to play where everyone else is.

As a veteran gamer, I can empathize with this experience, and ZOS recognizes the barriers that this mentality imposes towards community formation and interconnectivity.

Everyone plays on one server, and one network, everywhere. So your friends are always available to you […] No shards, just create a character, click play, and get in the game, the game will figure out where to put you. No more ‘server full’ and no more ‘ghosttowns’. We’ll never have to close shards because they are empty, and there will never be server queues.

Moreover, the game intelligently places you with your friends, guildmates, and other gamers who have similar interests within the world. Naturally, the entire player population cannot coexist within a single world instance, so the megaserver technology creates multiple copies of zones as required, and groups together similar players in order to naturally create an optimized social gaming experience.

If you are logging into Stonefalls, the game is going to look for instances of Stonefalls where your friends are logged in, or your guildmates are logged in. Over time the game becomes very intelligent about who you like to play with, and it will place you into game spaces with those people. So eventually you will end up playing with the same people, the people you want to play with every night.

This is obviously a huge step forward for social gameplay. Past MMOs have attempted to circumvent the social barriers created by shards by allowing cross server chat and grouping, however the communities of these games are permanently fragmented, and the adoption of a technology that naturally diffuses this problem will herald a new era for MMO gaming. TESO gives players richly featured tools to connect using a single friends list, and the ability to see what all your friends are doing and form groups directly through the friend interface.

Players will fill out a questionnaire that describes their own preferred playstyle to assist the megaserver in allocating similar players to their game space. You can specify preferences for roleplaying, age groups, and degree of socialization. By flagging your character as “I want to meet new people and join a guild” you will be put into spaces with other players who are also interested in meeting new people, and with guilds who are recruiting new members. Alternatively, you could specify “I want to play solo tonight”, and the server will place you into a game space with other people who are interested in soloing, so you won’t be pestered with frequent group invitations.

III.  The Three Faction PvP Campaign System

While the megaserver technology solves a host of problems for PvE connectivity and social gaming, one of the best parts of separate servers is the tight knit community that forms, creating close friendships, rivalries, and competition. In a “best of both worlds” move, ZeniMax Online is able to retain this by segmenting Cyrodiil into multiple parallel “campaigns”. Players select into the campaign of their choice, and each campaign pits the same players and guilds against each other in perpetual three faction RvR. Within their campaigns, players will develop a strong affiliation for their own alliance and recognize frequent friends and foes across the battlefield. You can read much, much more about the specific details of the PvP system in my amazing interview with Brian Wheeler, lead PvP designer of The Elder Scrolls Online.

IV.  Social Integration and Networking

The team at ZeniMax wants to make sure that MMOs “don’t exist in a vacuum anymore”. Early MMOs pioneered many of the concepts that we observe in modern social networks, but now these social networks are bigger than any single MMO. By designing a system that allows players to bring their existing social connections into the game with them (if they desire), ZeniMax has created a way to bridge the disconnect between gaming circles, and social circles. When you create an account for The Elder Scrolls Online, players have an option to import their Facebook friends. Any friend who also has an Elder Scrolls Online account will automatically get added to your friends list in-game. The team at ZOS is currently working with Twitter and Google+ to implement similar functionality for those social platforms. This would allow players to create a guild page on Facebook (or as a circle on G+), and import the guild en masse when the game launches. ZOS wants to give players the ability to continue using their existing social network instead of being forced to rebuild and rediscover all your connections when starting a new game.

For similar reasons, players are allowed to join multiple guilds in TESO. Everyone has more than one group of friends they play with; you might be involved with a raiding guild, a PvP team, a roleplaying group, or a bunch of real life friends or coworkers. Forcing players to choose a single guild experience throws up unnecessary barriers to gameplay, so in TESO you can participate in multiple guilds, allowing you to be placed into areas with all your overlapping social circles represented. This allows a player to choose who they want to play with at any given time through being a part of multiple groups.

V.  Four Playable Classes Unveiled

We got the first look at four of the playable classes for the Ebonheart Pact, two melee specialized classes and two spellcasters. The Dragonknight is an offensive fighter class, naturally suited towards using either two handed or dual wield weapons, and aided with useful magical abilities that allow them to maneuver across a battlefield and control the opposition. The Templar features a more defensive approach, resembling a classical Paladin using restorative magic to heal himself and allies. Similarly, the Sorcerer is an offensive spellcaster with a versatile array of magical abilities. Lastly, the Warden was not described in detail, but is likely a more defensive mage, specializing in beneficial spells and group healing. You can hear a lot more about my own gameplay experience with a Templar in the follow-up article: Gameplay Impressions of The Elder Scrolls Online.

 VI. Fourteen New Screenshots

I’m thrilled to release fourteen brand new screenshots of the game that showcase the beautiful environments and dramatic combat of The Elder Scrolls Online.

Excited for the presentation!

While these were the biggest revelations of the day, there was a veritable ton of information that we discovered while talking with the many developers on hand, and actually playing the game ourselves for several hours. The following four articles go into much further detail regarding many aspects of the game.

Lastly, the comments section of this or any of the articles can be considered as an “ask me anything” opportunity to inquire about any of the thousands of details which I discovered during the presentations, gameplay, and interviews. I encourage you all to check out the articles, and feel free to post your questions or reactions in the comments below!