During my visit to the ZeniMax Online Studio I had the chance to sit down for a long conversation with Brian Wheeler, Lead PvP Designer for The Elder Scrolls Online. We have known for a while that three faction RvR in Cyrodiil is one of the crown jewels of TESO endgame, but the details on how this system functions have been a bit unclear. Our interview revealed an amazing number of details about how the alliance war works, and the mechanics involved in large scale PvP in TESO.
This interview is a bit lengthy, but the amount of information covered is awesome. We talk about a ton of topics including campaigns, victory conditions, open world pvp, objectives, alternate advancement, stealth, and keep sieges. I encourage all of you to click through, read on, and check it out!
Tamriel Foundry (TF): It was great to finally see some of the PvP, but one of the biggest shockers of the day was the megaserver announcement. That is obviously going to have logistical implications for how you handle PvP. Tell us more how you handle that unique challenge.
Brian Wheeler (BW): When you sign up for the military in real life, you get assigned to a campaign and that campaign has a duration. It seemed to make sense to give people that same militaristic comprehension of how PvP in Cyrodiil would work in a mega server. There will be a campaign that you sign up for individually or as a guild. For as long as you go into Cyrodiil, you are going into that version of Cyrodiil and that campaign. You can always go help out your buddies in their campaign if they need help, but there is a bit of a restriction on that. We don’t want players to hop back and forth frequently to help out friends. We don’t want to have a situation where it’s like “OK, everybody flood this campaign tonight”. We have restrictions on that so that the campaign doesn’t get flooded and overloaded, also we want you to feel like while it is a megaserver, this is your home and your community. I want to play with these people that I see in this campaign all the time.
TF: Will your preferences that you set for PvE space assignment carry over in any way to campaign selection?
BW: They can, a lot of those preferences will be set pre-game, and so when you first create a character you will get assigned a campaign. You can switch off, which will cost some alliance points, but we don’t want to lock you in to a campaign that you don’t want to play in the first place. So there is some freedom when you first get into the game.
TF: How about the culmination of campaigns, can you talk a little bit about the victory conditions for successfully winning a campaign?
BW: There’s a duration to campaigns, and they use a scoring mechanism, but the persistence and ownership of keeps will stay when the campaign duration ends. So, we don’t want to have a situation where it’s midnight on the last day of the campaign, you’re in the middle of a keep siege, and suddenly everything resets. The only thing that will possibly reset is the score, which would go from the “victory” number back to zero, and it would immediately start ticking again. So there will end up being a first second and third place in terms of alliances, but there will never be that spontaneous reset.
TF: Do campaigns conclude with the capture of the Imperial City, or can that occur before the end of the campaign duration? When and how is an Emperor crowned?
BW: The Imperial City is locked at launch, you can fight around it, and there are some things you do around the outskirts of the city, but at launch the act of becoming Emperor revolves around capturing keeps throughout Cyrodiil.
TF: Will campaigns be synchronized in when they complete and reset to prevent manipulating or gaming the system?
BW: Yeah, we don’t want to have an off-cycle splintering situation where players can hop between campaigns. We’ll see more in beta what we want to do with that system and see if we want to make them variable duration or not. The great thing about campaigns is there are tons of levers to pull, so we are going to find out what works best during testing.
TF: In the PvP video we were shown, there’s the big faction banner in the courtyard of a keep, and at the end of the video when the keep fell, the banner sort of mysteriously flipped. Can you talk more about what’s the actual flipping mechanism for capturing a keep?
BW: Every keep has banners which you stand near to flip. If you are familiar with first person shooters or other point capture type games, you stand around the banner pole, and the more people you have on your side around that objective the faster you can turn it towards your side. There’s a maximum amount of players that actually count towards it, but we don’t want to make it where you have to kill an NPC or an NPC blocks. We wanted to keep things player-versus-player oriented.
TF: With this sort of tug-of-war system around the point and how the numbers of players around a banner dictates whether it flips, how do you ensure that the “better” side wins, and not just the more populated.
BW: That comes into play with a lot of the class balance things, since every class can wear any armor and use any weapon they want. It sort of equals out where one time you might get wiped out because they had the numbers but you had the skill, your group can re-tool your abilities so that you can better handle a mass amount of people at once as opposed to one vs. one. The numbers thing is always going to be there, but it’s more down to player skill and there are ways through ability choice to configure a group to be stronger vs. large groups of people.
TF: Another question about the banner system and the banner we saw in the courtyard, apart from the outer walls themselves, it seemed like there wasn’t necessarily that strategic chokepoint that we’ve seen in other games?
BW: Yeah, right, in the video there was just the banner in the outer courtyard, but there are also banners inside the inner keep. So there’s not just one banner you need to flip a keep, you need to capture several to flip the keep. So it’s a multi-phase assault, there’s get in, secure the courtyard, secure the inner keep. We took a lot of inspiration from first person shooters when designing the inner keeps, so it’s not necessarily a layer cake like it is in other games where it’s floor one, floor two, lord room. It’s more of, well, to go architectural, it’s a nave and an apse. The keep is themed off a cathedral style, which is inspired by our combat. You’re playing in third person; we want to have a lot of people, so we made them very open inside. You won’t feel as cramped in our keeps as you might in others. It gives you a lot of room for people to be fighting around a flag. Outposts and resources on the other hand, those are just one flag.
TF: Obviously keeps are the primary objectives in Cyrodiil, but there are also supporting buildings and outposts. Can you describe those in a bit more detail?
BW: Yeah, so there are outposts which are smaller versions of keeps, then there are farms and lumber mills and other things that support the keep itself and help feed its upgrade status. The outposts are designed for about 10 people to take, while keeps are designed for 15-20+, while the smaller support structures can be taken by smaller groups 4 to 6 players.
TF: So a lot of people love open world PvP, meaning you can roam around and find someone who is questing and you can ruin their day. I’ve heard that you are going to have quest areas in Cyrodiil so people who enjoy that type of PvP will be able to go and roam around and look for people who maybe aren’t necessarily expecting combat?
BW: Yeah, exactly. So there are Bruma, Cheydinhal, Chorrol, and two other towns, Cropsford and Hackdirt which are all places from TES4: Oblivion. We felt like we needed to give them some sort of purpose, so we have filled them with citizens from Cyrodiil who are living through this war going on all around them and they are trying to survive. They are like “please help us kill the raiders who keep attacking us”, or “just get rid of the bears that are raiding us at night” or “just collect some things for us”, so there are definitely PvE quests to do. Also, there are all the public dungeons; we have a lot of public dungeons in Cyrodiil as well.
TF: That really neatly segues into my next question about the dungeon experience and PvP. So with the public dungeons in Cyrodiil there will be full PvP in those?
BW: Yes, absolutely.
TF: Also, I asked Matt (Firor) about the possibility of a Darkness Falls style experience, can you say anything more about that?
BW: We’re working on plans for something like that, but it may be later down the road.
TF: What about fast travel within Cyrodiil, is that substantially more restricted?
BW: Yeah, there are no wayshrines within Cyrodiil like you have in PvE territories. You travel from keep to keep, and they’re connected in a network where if you take out certain keeps, the enemy faction loses its travel network.
TF: So you are able to travel to keeps that are securely held, but not necessarily ones that are under attack?
BW: Right, not ones that are under attack. One of the big lessons to learn from other massive MMO games is you don’t want to allow permanent reinforcement of a keep. You lose via attrition, and the attackers are like “what the hell, we can never flip this thing because defenders are always there”. You want to allow the attackers to feel like they are making an impact, both economically by taking down walls and making the defenders have to repair, but also by killing the other players and forcing them out of there. So you can’t perpetually respawn in a keep or travel to a keep that‘s under attack.
TF: Speaking of keep sieges, and siege weapons. Will player crafting have any role in the creation if siege weapons or the improvement of existing siege weaponry?
BW: Yeah, siege weapons will have several slots that you can upgrade on them to make them tougher or have different ammo types. So crafting will come into play on that, very much so.
TF: In DAoC, we had the ability for certain classes to climb the walls of a keep, anything like that, or any way to infiltrate an enemy keep?
BW: If we do have anything like that, it won’t be class specific. It will be for anyone that can have the alliance points to spend to get a perk or an item or something (and the courage to try). I’m dutifully aware that people will want to sneak into keeps and do things, it’s just a matter of how can we do it that is lore appropriate as well as not class restrictive. While it was awesome in DAoC, it was one of those things that if you weren’t that specific class you couldn’t experience that invading feel. We want as many people to enjoy that feeling as possible.
TF: You mentioned spending alliance points on perks or items. Is this the alternative advancement system for PvP? Can you say anything about that yet?
BW: Yeah, there is an AA system for PvP, we call them “alliance points”. You accumulate a lifetime alliance point tally. There are ranks, we are looking at about 23 ranks at launch. Each rank gets you a new title and a new icon for your character. We are working on different ways to spend your alliance points, but the system is still in progress.
TF: One thing that has been true, in my opinion, of siege warfare games is if you are specialized in melee combat, it’s kind of boring for you until the wall goes down. Obviously in TESO, any class can use any weapon, so in your testing experience, do people usually just pull out an alternative weapon?
BW: Yeah, they go ranged. Typically if they are a melee character they go ranged and they’ll try to either heal other people who are operating the weaponry that’s getting nailed, or they’ll just start attacking players that are on the walls. It definitely alleviates that feel of “well, I’m a Dragonknight, I’m useless unless I’m in melee range.”
TF: So no more “OK, I’m alt-tabbing, let me know when the wall or door comes down!”
BW: Yeah, for sure, it gets around that worry in a big way. We also want to allow you to infiltrate a keep, so that’s another reason why we want any class to be able to do that.
TF: So, how does the accumulation of resources help the war effort, does it just add to your score?
BW: It actually adds to the keep itself in terms of making it get stronger walls, better guards, tougher doors, innate repair meaning without needing players to repair the walls it will repair itself slowly, and then the resources themselves also upgrade too.
TF: So it sounds like those upgrades happen naturally as you control the area and the resources around a keep. Are there voluntary upgrades that a guild that claims a keep can elect to purchase?
BW: On every keep there are little locations where you can say “I want a guard here, and here, and I want a siege weapon here”. So there are things you can do there, but we eliminated the babysitting of a keep. We found that having to always go back to the keep you claimed to always have to put in X number of points to make it hit this level, that’s not the kind of game we want to be. We want you to take it, claim it, repair it, then get the hell back out there and fight some more as opposed to “hold on, I need to manage some things here…”. Players nowadays just want to get out there and kick the crap out of each other, but there is the option to say “on this wall, I want two mage guards, a stealth detector, and a siege weapon”. That’s available to you whether you own the keep or don’t own the keep. If you own the keep as a guild, you’ll get some advanced warning notification of attack, but there are some other bonuses we are looking into as well.
TF: That was actually going to be my next question, and it might not be finalized yet, but apart from the prestige of owning a keep for your guild, will there be some sort of tangible advantage for guild members because you hold a keep?
BW: You will get notification when a keep gets hit, it will say “guards have been killed with X number of enemy players in the area”, so you get more information than the rest of the alliance about what’s happening in an area. So you’ll know whether its 50 people hitting it and you need to reinforce right away, or it was just a single roaming player that killed a guard. We are looking at other kinds of bonuses, but we haven’t nailed those down just yet.
TF: Not really relevant to PvP directly, but related to guilds owning keeps… Will guilds be able to have their own heraldry and a guild banner that gets displayed?
BW: That’s something we are working on still. Obviously, I’d love to have the heraldry in there because that’s another form of advertisement for your guild. As it stands today, we don’t have heraldry in the game yet. As Paul (Sage) alluded to, you have to pick and choose what you know you can get in.
TF: One thing that people really tended to enjoy in DAoC were milegates, well…some people enjoyed it, some people hated it. Milegates were very natural chokepoints that weren’t really a direct objective, but they often sort of became an objective because if you could hold the milegate and stop enemies at the milegate it was easier to defend then to defend what’s beyond it. Are there any sort of natural fortifications like that in ESO?
BW: Yep, there are chokepoints that are not flipped by flags or anything. We did take Cyrodiil and we had to sort of say “this is your home portion of Cyrodiil”. All the architecture is Colovian based, but the Imperials have kind of withdrawn out of Cyrodiil itself and they are hunkering down in the Imperial City. So, you know, Ebonheart “owns” a portion up by Cheydinhal, and Aldmeri “owns” a portion near Skingrad and so forth. So each faction has its kind of “sphere of influence”. A good way to describe it is to say, suppose I put two dollar bills on the table and say “one’s yours and one’s mine”, then I take your dollar bill, you will be more upset then if I just put two dollars down arbitrarily. So we give keeps a natural owner and between those kind of ownership territories, there are bottlenecks.
TF: Is there a differential scoring between holding your own natural keeps and cities, versus taking another factions’ and holding an enemy’s city?
BW: We’re still working on the scoring stuff, but we want to make sure that you have an underdog possibility, and that getting your own stuff back helps you get points. We don’t want to make it so if all you do is run around and cycle keeps you get the most points. We want to make it so that the underdog doesn’t get screwed, and owning your own stuff is more important than taking something from the enemy. If everyone has that bonus, then everyone wants to hang on to what they have as much as possible. It kind of gets that sense that, back to the dollar example, if you take my dollar I want to get that dollar back instead of saying “oh, screw it, I’m just going to go take somebody else’s”. That leads to a gameplay mentality we don’t want where people just take whatever is closest because it doesn’t matter. We want people to feel attached to their native territory. We want them to feel like “I want to hold mine, AND I want to take yours” which helps lead to alliance pride.
TF: OK, I have one last question that I think a lot of people will want to know about. Talk a bit about stealth, during the gameplay session today we got to see how the basic stealth mechanic works from a PvE angle. In PvE you appear to yourself as sort of a dark outline, can you explain how that mechanic works in PvP and how you’ll appear to an ally, and how you appear to an enemy?
BW: Yep, to an ally you’ll appear shaded, the same way you appear to yourself. To an enemy you’ll be invisible as long as you are outside detection range. Once you become detected you become visible, but still shaded. If you take damage you get fully uncovered and you become fully visible. It’s interesting, because everyone can stealth, just some people can stealth crappily. So it’s an interesting dimension to add to the type of milegate camping or bridge camping stuff you were mentioning earlier. Those bottlenecks become real interesting because you walk up and you’re wondering “is someone here? is this safe?”
TF: Yeah, that is definitely thrilling. I think people are really going to enjoy experiencing the tension, especially if they haven’t had the chance to enjoy that type of gameplay before. Thank you so much Brian, I appreciate the great answers and can’t wait to dive into your PvP system in person.
That wraps things up for our article series Hands-On With The Elder Scrolls Online. We learned a tremendous amount of information about the game during the event, and I’ve done my best to share the revelations with you all in full detail. If you have any questions about the game or my experience at the media event, please feel free to drop them in the comments and I’ll answer if I can!