This is the second in a two part article series which dissects various tenets of design in The Elder Scrolls Online to analyze the degree to which its gameplay philosophy is motivated by Dark Age of Camelot. ESO is often labeled as DAoC’s “spiritual successor”, and while it is certainly its own game, MMO design always adapts proven cornerstones from past titles. Unsurprisingly, the closest bridge between the two titles spans the three faction PvP system which both games showcase. In part one of this series I examined five key features of AvA design which clearly demonstrate Matt Firor’s desire to replicate the success of Dark Age of Camelot’s PvP model. Conversely, in this installment I investigate five cornerstones of game design through which ESO is forging its own path. Many of these philosophical changes allow ESO to both avoid specific pitfalls in past game systems as well as to appeal to a wider audience of MMO players.
I. A More Perfect Mirror – Game Balance
MMO design philosophy has evolved towards a state where game balance is of paramount importance. There are many reasons why this is good practice, balance reduces attrition due to frustration, deters vocal complaining by disenfranchised players, and makes it easier to provide fair incentive structures. Balance comes at a cost, however, often making game environments and scenarios feel more sterile and less chaotic. I believe that a defining characteristic of Dark Age of Camelot was its lack of perfect balance. The three realms in DAoC had unique classes and ability allocation that were not shared evenly. Moreover, different armor types, weapon lines, and geographical features created an uneven landscape of game mechanics where certain fights were simply not “fair”. As a result, creative tactics were employed, builds were specifically designed to counteract inherent class weaknesses, and life moved on. Like an Escher staircase, this imbalanced design somehow returned full circle, producing an asymmetric equilibrium which relied on the game’s three faction nature to ensure that the scales never tipped too far for too long.
The Elder Scrolls Online is adopting a more modern philosophy of mirroring classes across Alliances, maintaining a symmetric distribution of player abilities. A disadvantage of this approach may be that the three competing alliances feel quite similar, with identical classes and abilities available to each. However, the primary benefits of this choice will be reflected through the parity of AvA combat, where no faction will suffer from an inherent disadvantage due to their class composition. Moreover, in ESO all three alliances will have access to the same armor and weapon types. The appearance of these armor sets will be differentiated (as exhibited in a recent concept art piece) in order to allow players to more easily distinguish friend from foe.
One facet of AvA in which ZeniMax cannot guarantee perfect symmetry is the geography of Cyrodiil. The topography of the province is such that certain geographic features could yield some practical advantage. For example, the Niben Bay (and its tributary rivers) acts as a geographical fortification, separating Ebonheart and Aldmeri Dominion controlled lands. Similarly, while Daggerfall Covenant territories lack natural protection, they provide the most immediate access to the Imperial City. I am confident that some mild re-imagining of Cyrodiil’s boundaries will occur to ensure that each of the three Alliances begins with comparable land holdings, but I hope that ZeniMax does not strive too hard to downplay geographic diversity. A major weakness of Guild Wars 2 was the blatant duplication of their frontier areas, a mistake I hope ZOS is keen to avoid. Even in the presence of mirrored classes, the diversity of Cyrodiilic geography could manifest tactical differences between each alliance’s optimal playstyle.
II. Wide Load, Low Overhead – Stats and Attribute Caps
Character progression and advancement systems in Dark Age of Camelot relied on a very wide base of attributes. To optimize a set of equipment in DAoC, players had to weigh the relative benefits of eight primary attributes, 9 resistances, 3 resources, and numerous meta-stats like attack speed or casting range. This optimization problem was constrained by the presence of caps on each of the aforementioned statistics. Gear planning was analogous to solving a large Rubik’s Cube, and was realistically only possible with the assistance of player crafted equipment hand designed to fill any missing gaps between static gear drops or quest rewards. This was a character building challenge quite different from the equipment choice problem of most games which typically involve the unconstrained maximization of two or three primary attributes. In DAoC there were many great pieces of gear, but there was no one “best-in-slot” piece, because anything you chose to equip would have to play nicely with your other gear, otherwise it might waste valuable itemization capacity by overcapping an attribute. Optimizing a character’s load-out was not a newbie friendly exercise, and acquiring a well-rounded set of gear in DAoC was the result of extensive hard work and planning.
The Elder Scrolls Online has a much simpler system, using only three core attributes of Health, Magicka, and Stamina, with secondary attributes of Power and Armor. It is unlikely that this represents the extent of itemization statistics in ESO, but we know the game does not feature the traditional pantheon of Elder Scrolls attributes (strength, endurance, agility, etc…). It is unknown whether the game features attribute caps, but it is highly unlikely given the simplicity of this system. Having only five stats reduces dramatically the dimensionality of tradeoffs associated with equipping a certain piece of gear; likely making itemization an exercise of acquiring the list of “best-in-slot” pieces for your class and desired role. While the disadvantages of an oversimplified gear system are readily apparent to MMO veterans, there are some advantages of this approach. Firstly, this system is much less daunting for inexperienced players, and secondly, a simpler itemization system better accommodates the flexible adjustment of player roles. ZeniMax wants to encourage players to switch their skills, weapons, and armor to fill different roles in group play. A more streamlined attribute system will help ensure that the effectiveness of your character is not totally invalidated when you switch to a different weapon type or skill set. Furthermore, the inclusion of meta stats like resource regeneration rate could liven up the itemization mixture considerably.
III. Separating Men from Boys – Alternate Advancement and Realm Ranks
Another distinguishing feature of Dark Age of Camelot was the tremendous returns from PvP advancement. Slaying enemies in RvR returned realm points (similarly termed “alliance points” in ESO), the acquisition of which increased your characters realm rank. Realm ranks constituted an alternate advancement system featuring 100 levels; 10 base ranks comprised of 10 levels each. The RP grind was very steep, and to achieve R10L0 was an exceptionally heroic feat. The returns from realm rank progression were vast. Each new level granted the player a point to spend at his trainer on a PvP specific progression tree consisting of both active and passive abilities that functioned both within and outside of PvP combat. Every realm ability had multiple tiers; top-tier RAs were extremely powerful, but equally expensive, costing over 30 points, or three entire realm ranks to acquire. The payoff, however, from owning these abilities was vast. High realm rank foes were to be truly feared, not only due to the skill inherent in reaching such a level, but also because they had access to an arsenal of special abilities that could be used to devastating effect. Maximizing a character in DAoC was a lengthy process, but that road was heavily incentivized. As a result, DAoC players tended to remain deeply invested in a single character’s growth for extended lengths of time.
Elder Scrolls Online is adapting the realm rank structure from DAoC in the form of “alliance ranks”. Lead PvP developer Brian Wheeler suggested they are considering a starting point of 23 alliance ranks at launch. While I hope the progression curve to achieving these ranks is as steep as in DAoC, I do not expect the benefits of alliance rank progression to be as substantial for several reasons. Firstly, the system in DAoC was hugely unbalanced; fights against high realm rank opponents were unfair contests and such disparity is extremely unpopular in the modern genre. Secondly; PvE progression in DAoC was far less competitive than it will likely be in ESO. The usefulness of DAoC’s realm abilities was tremendous, even in PvE, since many RAs granted either passive benefits or active powers that were equally effective against NPC opponents. If ZeniMax were to incorporate a similar realm rank system into ESO, it would force hardcore raiders to prioritize PvP advancement in order to be maximally effective. That being said, I personally hope that ESO’s alternate advancement is not only useful within Cyrodiil, since their overarching design philosophy seems intent on removing artificial barriers between different types of game content.
IV. Less Smoke and Mirrors – A Combat System That Makes Sense
A noteworthy weakness of Dark Age of Camelot was a combat system which was governed by a multitude of strict mechanical rules. Spellcasters could not attack while moving and suffering any damage while casing a spell would interrupt its progress, forcing the caster to restart. Likewise, archers could not fire arrows on the move. Combat defenses were strictly passive and based on percentage chance. Your ability to dodge, block, or parry incoming attacks was a purely probabilistic function of your character spec, stats, and itemization. As a result, there was always the possible outcome that an enemy would avoid all of your attacks by random chance, or that you would fail to defend any incoming blows for an entire fight. Of course, this frustration was counterbalanced by the occasional heroic moment in which you drastically overachieved any reasonable expectation of your own defensive ability. Another peculiarity of DAoC’s combat system was the number of borderline exploits which allowed players to cheese the system. For example, DAoC included a feature called “stick” that caused you to auto-follow your opponent’s movement in combat; this allowed players to focus on intelligently rotating their combat abilities, without having to worry about manually tracking enemies’ erratic movements. However, a side effect of stick was the possibility to exploit network lag and the lack of player collision to “trick” your enemy into turning his back on you for a split second, allowing a fairly twitchy player to perform a rear positional attack at will. Another quasi-exploit involved using bodies of water to break line of sight by rapidly diving and resurfacing. Collectively, such features caused winning in DAoC to be at least partially a function of one’s ability to “game the system”.
The Elder Scrolls Online seems to be adopting a much more natural approach. Most noticeably, the approach of putting defensive measures directly in the player’s hands through active blocking and dodging definitely moves the game towards a more skill-based combat system. Additionally, allowing players to remain mobile while casting spells will make combat more dynamic, particularly in the case of spellcaster duels, which will feel more like a skirmish and less like pistols at dawn. Furthermore the possible addition of player collision (although still unconfirmed) could help prevent the sorts of run-through exploits which became a hallmark of the “high skill” DAoC player base, in addition to giving defensive archetypes a more physical presence on the battlefield.
V. Everything PvE
As a final, albeit fairly obvious, catchall; I would be remiss not to mention the overall PvE design of Elder Scrolls Online as a fundamental divergence from the DAoC model. While several factors are held in common, such as faction-locked territories and public dungeons, the PvE model in ESO will be much more evolved. An individual character story, exploration based quest content, instanced dungeons, and private raids with a participation limit are all examples of genre refinements which make DAoC’s PvE experience look quite antiquated in comparison. I fully expect PvE progression and itemization to draw inspiration more closely from games such as WoW and RIFT. Additionally, the prevalence of quests and places of interest is much closer to a theme-park style of PvE design than the free-form sandbox elements of original Dark Age of Camelot.
Forging Ahead, Not Following Footsteps
In contrast to the five mechanics identified in the first article, these five design philosophies comprise key decisions in which ZeniMax Online is likely to diverge from the blueprint of DAoC . It is important for every MMO to establish its own unique identity, and not solely be a byproduct of its predecessors. The influence of DAoC is readily apparent, especially in the three faction alliance war; however, The Elder Scrolls Online is far from a DAoC clone. While the core mechanics governing the PvP system are closely shared, I am uncertain whether enough gameplay principles are shared for ESO to be aptly labeled as DAoC’s “spiritual successor”. Gamers tend to be fond of branding games with terms which overgeneralize their nature. As a grizzled DAoC veteran, I am not yet sure if this label is any more accurate than calling ESO a “WoW clone” because of its adoption of theme-park style PvE mechanics.
From a broad level, however, I think it is certain that The Elder Scrolls Online offers veterans of DAoC something to be excited about. The similarities in the PvP systems are striking, and it doesn’t seem overambitious to hope that ESO’s implementation of Cyrodiil will revive that corner of the MMO genre. Furthermore, for the majority of gamers who have not yet experienced this brand of PvP, I think ESO has the potential to create an experience that will exhilarate players for years to come, and hopefully be remembered as fondly as DAoC often is by those of us who played the game.