Elder Scrolls Online and the Legacy of DAoC

For fans following the development of The Elder Scrolls Online, you have undoubtedly overheard mention about the game fulfilling the role as a “spiritual successor” to Dark Age of Camelot.  Mythic’s flagship MMO cultivated a sense of pride, rivalry, and personal investment in its players that few games have ever matched; as a result, there are not many gamers more zealous about their love of a past game than DAoC enthusiasts. The zenith of DAoC’s popularity has long since passed, but many veterans have waited for a new game willing to pick up the torch and recreate an MMO in the same image.

AvA Combat in ESO

ESO – Ebonheart and Daggerfall Battle for a Keep

While I suppose that DAoC veterans would technically be considered as part of the PvP community, it’s a very different demographic than WoW arena players or SWtOR instance grinders. Dark Age of Camelot instilled its players with specific ideologies which do not all translate into other PvP systems. At its root, Mythic’s trademarked brand of RvR is simply three-faction PvP in a large open-world space; however, there were many nuances of DAoC’s implementation which made this system tremendously successful. Several MMOs have attempted to rekindle this dormant corner of the MMO genre; Darkfall, Warhammer Online, Aion, The Secret World, and Guild Wars 2 all sought to emulate the DAoC model to some degree, but ultimately lacked the vital spark which anchored the DAoC community. The mantle has fallen to ex-Mythic visionary Matt Firor and his team of developers at ZeniMax Online to determine how closely ESO will follow in DAoC’s footsteps and in what ways it will divorce itself from a gameplay model that, while greatly loved, only captivated a narrow band of gamers.

The following article is the first of a two part series; this installment examines five gameplay systems which The Elder Scrolls Online is most likely to inherit directly from Dark Age of Camelot. In these five ways, ESO seems poised to embrace the label of DAoC2 and announce itself as the long-awaited successor so many fans have craved. In contrast, part two of the series makes a counter-argument, identifying five ways in which ESO is shrugging off the preconceived formula and separating itself from certain core mechanics of DAoC which I believe are less appropriate for the goals and target audience of ESO. Whether or not The Elder Scrolls Online is truly a legitimate heir to DAoC’s legacy is a matter of opinion, but I hope these articles illuminate for many fans the relationship between the two games.

I. The Main Ingredient – Three Faction AvA

This seems incredibly obvious given the three alliance system featured in ESO. However, there is more subtlety in reproducing DAoC’s brand of RvR than is immediately apparent; a fact which arguably accounts for its imperfect imitation in other games. One of the critical attributes of alliance vs. alliance (AvA as it’s called for copyright reasons) conflict in ESO is that it is as persistent as the world itself.

DAoC RVR

DAoC – Hibs and Mids Clash in RvR

In Dark Age of Camelot, the three-realm conflict had no reset switch, it had no convenient escape, and it was war. Every action of every player contributed directly towards the position and power of your realm. In this way, the status of the RvR campaign manifested the aggregated effort of thousands of players, whose individual contributions never were erased. While control of a keep might regularly exchange hands, the responsibility for achieving such change was always left to the players themselves.

Conversely, the campaign reset switch in Warhammer Online and the two-week server rotation in Guild Wars 2 are both vilified examples of how a player’s individual contribution is erased on a regular basis. This artificial leveling of the playing field is intended to counter faction imbalance, but rather it serves to sap the enthusiasm for fighting in the first place. In The Elder Scrolls Online, from the very second the servers go live, the actions of players will forever mark the history of their Cyrodiil campaign. In this way, a true RvR system is a deterministic expression of player effort. As such, it has the ability to transcend the boundaries of a static game, becoming something more dynamic, more organic, and more fun.

 II. Be Mindful Of Your Surroundings – Positioning and Initiative

Danger Comes From All Sides

DAoC – Danger Comes From All Sides

Three critical components for success in DAoC were to take advantage of the terrain, to always be aware of nearby players, and to seize initiative in combat. In most MMOs, these factors are nullified by a single evil: tiny PvP spaces. In a typical instanced PvP arena or scenario, the canned environment generates a scripted PvP encounter that obeys a very limited set of rules, and therefore always plays out in a very similar way. Even games which feature large open world PvP spaces frequently sabotage themselves with mechanics that condense combat into small areas. A portion of the thrill from PvP in DAoC was because of uncertainty within the PvP environment.

The geographic areas of DAoC frontiers were very large, featuring fortified objectives that were separated by considerable distances. Without artificial fast travel mechanisms for jumping around the frontier, players had to roam the landscape in order to pursue RvR objectives. A result of this diffusion of player density was that you didn’t always know where to expect combat, nor from which direction it might come. The most successful players in DAoC were constantly vigilant and quick to respond to nearby foes. Moreover, due to the geographical diversity of the RvR areas, developing an innate familiarity with the terrain became a huge advantage. In RvR, you don’t have time to stop and consult a world map for directions. Moreover, patrolling enemy controlled territory is deadly if you don’t know places to hide, what hotspots to avoid, and where to anticipate combat.

The enormous scale of Cyrodiil in ESO will effectively replicate (if not improve on) one of the pivotal features of Dark Age of Camelot, a massive, geographically diverse, and dangerous frontier where PvP achieves a delicate balance between being omnipresent yet unexpected.

 III. Surprise Attack – Stealth Kills

DAOC Lurking Stealthers

DAoC – Stealthers Patrol a Bridge

DAoC was famous for its stealth warfare, each realm had two (damn dirty Albs had three) stealth classes which added a shadow game to the normal “visible” RvR. Packs of visible players would roam between objectives, while around the outskirts of battle assassins and archers would lurk, eager to pick off stragglers or reinforcements. It was the role of a “stealther” in DAoC to keep their allies safe from such predators, while instilling fear in the opposition. The favorite haunts of such players were natural chokepoints of the land itself. While the overall topology of the frontiers was very expansive, in certain places features like bridges, milegates, canyons, or bodies of water would channel players through narrow corridors where assassins could predictably lie in wait. The diverse geography and architecture of Cyrodiil will be perfect to rekindle this sort of gameplay. Furthermore, ESO improves upon the DAoC model since every class has some limited ability to sneak. When attempting to quickly traverse the land between two keeps, this forces players into taking risks. Should you cross a bridge leading directly to your destination, perhaps opening yourself to ambush of any assassins who prey on such travelers, or do you swim across the river, leaving yourself vulnerable to attacks from its banks? A further hallmark of stealth gameplay in DAoC was the ability for assassin classes to scale the walls of enemy keeps, eliminating critical defenders to soften the resistance to a primary assault. Developers have stated a desire to implement similar abilities in ESO, which would certainly enhance their primary siege mechanics.

ESO Stealth

ESO – All Classes Can Stealth

IV. Deadlier Dungeon Crawls – Public PvP Dungeons

Yo dawg, I heard you like PvP and dungeons, so we put some PvP in your dungeons so you can PvP while you dungeon.

In all seriousness though, I can’t possibly understand why more games don’t combine these two features. Warhammer Online is the last game I can remember to attempt it with Tomb of the Vulture Lord, although ToVL was more of an instanced scenario than public dungeon. The Elder Scrolls Online will have a multitude of public dungeons within Cyrodiil, which will feature quests, bosses, and loot. Unlike dungeons in the safe PvE areas of the game, however, anyone can enter these dungeons, including your enemies! Imagine working your way with a friend through the bowels of some ancient crypt, only to find a small group from an enemy alliance preparing to kill a boss at the end. There are few things more satisfying than teaming up with a PvE boss to take down a group of players.

DAOC Darkness Falls

DAoC – Albs Invade Darkness Falls

Allowing this overlap of PvP and PvE provides a really natural risk vs. reward structure. Not only will groups who wish to acquire high end gear from Cyrodiil dungeons have to be capable in handling the PvE encounters they contain, but they will have to be equally alert for enemy players and capable of multi-tasking to fend off their attacks. If ZeniMax Online gets the incentive structure right, these public PvP dungeons could become a simply awesome experience for endgame players. In an even more exciting revelation, Matt Firor has publicly stated that ZeniMax is working on implementing a Darkness Falls style dungeon to add to Cyrodiil post launch.

For the many of you who did not play DAoC, Darkness Falls was a massive dungeon which connected all three realm’s frontiers underground. Access to DF was controlled through portals which were only active if your realm held a majority of the RvR objectives (keeps). This produced two awesome effects. Firstly, only one faction had access to DF at a given time. The dungeon itself contained many bosses and hotspots to grind experience, making control of DF itself a valuable prize. Secondly, when access to DF flipped, many players from the newly controlling realm flocked to the dungeon to clear out enemy players and farm for valuable items. This had the secondary (but important) effect of naturally balancing the realm war by giving the members of the dominant faction an attractive alternative use for their playtime.

V. The Elder Scrolls  – Not Just For Moth Priests Anymore

DAOC Relic

DAoC – OMG, I has a relic!

In The Elder Scrolls Online, one of the crowning accomplishments for an alliance is the successful capture of an Elder Scroll. This mechanic mirrors the relic system introduced in DAoC, where relics were artifacts of great power. Each realm naturally possessed two relics; one augmented the power of melee attacks, while the other enhanced the effectiveness of spellcasting. These relics were held in massive strongholds which were protected by secure milegates that were normally impassable for enemy players. Through successful conquest of an enemy realm’s frontier, it was possible to break through the milegate and lay siege to the relic keep itself. If the attackers were able to defeat its NPC and player guardians, a single member of the attacking realm could seize the relic and attempt to return it to the safety of his own frontier. At this moment, the entire realm war became turned into a giant game of capture the flag. The three-faction dynamic makes things even more interesting. After one realm did all the hard work to conquer a relic keep and claim the relic inside, the third realm could always swoop in, kill the relic holder, and claim the spoils of war for themselves.

In general, this system engineered a rare, but climactic PvP endgame moment that added exhilarating variety to RvR. I’m personally quite excited that ZeniMax is adapting this exact system in ESO, with the Elder Scrolls themselves being artifacts of tremendous power which impart faction wide benefits to the alliances which control them. Ownership of the Elder Scrolls will prove an important facet in the battle to control Cyrodiil, and breaching the defenses of the strongholds where they are held is only half the battle!

ESO Siege

ESO – The Daggerfall Covenant Sieges a Stronghold

The Heir Apparent?

These five features represent key cornerstones of Dark Age of Camelot’s much-loved RvR system which are being adapted and modified for the alliance war in The Elder Scrolls Online. From this perspective, ESO has firmly planted its banner staking its claim over the three-faction PvP throne. However, The Elder Scrolls Online is its own game, and it brings a lot to the table apart from what is inspired by DAoC. Moreover, there are many ways in which ESO’s design philosophy evolves or deviates in a fundamental way. Next week, I’ll continue this article by focusing on 5 elements of design which substantially differ between the two games. I hope you check back for part 2, and please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. I am especially interested in hearing what elements fellow DAoC veterans are most excited to see return in The Elder Scrolls Online.