Since the announcement that The Elder Scrolls Online will use a reticle based real-time combat system, a hotly debated topic of discussion has been how targeting mechanics will function in order to compensate for the limitations of pure first-person shooter style hit detection. Unfortunately, there has been a great degree of misinformation circulating throughout the ESO community regarding how targeting and hit detection are handled, with several gaming news sites reporting different interpretations of this particular system. I reached out to check with the awesome community folks at ZeniMax Online for some clarification, and they helped to describe how these mechanics work in Elder Scrolls Online.
When discussing targeting, its important to realize that this typically refers to the combination of two mechanics; targeting and hit-detection. Firstly, targeting is the actual method of interacting with the world and directing the focus of your player character. We already know that ESO utilizes a third (or first) person control scheme by which the character’s attention is directed using a fixed reticle. Just as in Skyrim, this reticle directs the characters focus when interacting with objects, NPCs, and aiming melee or ranged attacks. After my hands-on session at the press event, I had also announced that ESO included a hard-locking system for maintaining focus on a specific enemy during a crowded encounter. Since this hard-lock is initiated using the [TAB] key, it has been difficult to reconcile varying sources claiming that ESO does, or does not, feature tab-targeting. The phrase “tab-targeting” has become something of a bogeyman within the gaming industry, being used recklessly in discussion as a proxy for a host of flaws with combat systems, hit detection, or even game balance. All tab-targeting conventionally implies is an interface through which the player can cycle through available targets in order of proximity. As part of my inquiry, I asked whether or not ESO features this exact mechanic.
The second crucial facet of targeting implies a strategy of hit-detection, where the game server validates whether or not an attack met its target. There is a tremendous amount of excitement regarding the movement towards FPS style mechanics in MMOs; a type of system which tends to increase immersion and engagement. This innovation comes at a cost, however; while internet infrastructure has improved dramatically since the early years of the MMO genre, latency, variance in connection speed, and geographical separation of players still pose difficult challenges for FPS style hit detection on a massive scale. As a game designed to appeal to a wide audience of both Elder Scrolls enthusiasts and MMO gamers, Elder Scrolls Online cannot practically hope to implement true physics based projectile hit detection for a number of reasons, most important of which is the huge geographic area that will be handled by the Megaserver. The system that TERA has pioneered works with arguable success in the Korean market, a nation the size of Indiana where network infrastructure is roughly homogeneous. The ESO Megaserver will handle the entirety of North America (and possibly Europe as well). This geographic scope would undoubtedly create situations where latency is the primary deciding factor in player success, a situation which ZeniMax Online will certainly wish to avoid.
In what will hopefully clear up much of the confusion regarding the intent for these systems in ESO, I reached out to the development team at ZeniMax Online who graciously ran my questions by Paul Sage and delivered the following response.
What we can tell you right now is that the targeting system is very similar to what you experienced when you visited us for the preview event. Like in Skyrim, your attacks go where your reticle is aimed. So, while we don’t have traditional tab-targeting, we do have a system where if enemies are close together, you can tab to select the one you wish to hit. Think of this more as an aid to aiming, and this can be especially effective for ranged combat.
All targeting is ultimately based on where your reticle is aimed–when you have your reticle aimed at a monster (or group of monsters) you can lock onto a target and even cycle through a group to select the one you want to attack. In the case of monsters that are closely stacked on each other, the one you have ‘selected’ is the one your attacks will hit. If your reticle is clearly on one target but your target-aid is on another target, you will still hit the target your reticle is on. Also, you must be facing your target to hit them.
There’s a bit more to the targeting and aiming system than that (and we’ll go into more detail in the Ask Us Anything and upcoming combat-centric community content), but hopefully that gives you a general idea. As with anything in development, just keep in mind that this is subject to change.
This clarification largely reaffirms my own experience during the preview event, while adding some interesting information that sheds light on how hit detection will likely be handled. Targeting is primarily reticle based, but the “target lock” which can be cycled using the [TAB] key differs from traditional “tab-targeting” in a few key ways. Most importantly, it cycles through available targets which are nearest the position of your reticle, rather than by proximity to the player. Secondly, it can be overruled by the reticle itself if the two targets disagree. My interpretation is that the “hard-lock” serves to mitigate technical limitations in hit detection outlined earlier in this article. Both for enemies in clustered groups and enemies at range, it would be impractical to expect players to precisely pick out their target using the reticle alone. My suspicion is that hit detection will not rely on the physics and trajectory of player guided projectiles, but rather the flight of these missiles will be automated in correspondence with a players locked target.
I hope that this article has clarified the way that targeting mechanics are handled in ESO, I’m eager to hear what the community thinks about the strengths and weaknesses of this system. Do you think that the dual methods of targeting will be sufficient for the MMO environment? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!