Pre-PAX Reactions and Musings

Hail Foundry-goers, I write from a chilly Boston hotel room on the eve of PAX East, capping a week that not only marks Elder Scrolls Online’s first convention showing, but also yielded the largest chunk of new ESO game information since the first press event during October 2012. The many articles published earlier this week revealed details on endgame PvE, AvA, character advancement systems, crafting, and much more. Collectively, this  information has largely redefined our perception of the game. Many of the burning questions which seemed all so relevant a week ago have been  answered, or replaced by even more critical concerns. After taking a few days to discuss and absorb the new information, this  article presents the thoughts of several Tamriel Foundry staff members, explaining their  perspective on ESO  going leading into PAX East. I hope the next three days will be extremely informative, and I am eager to revisit these initial opinions after seeing ZeniMax Online’s presentation of the game.

Atropos – Creator

Daggerfall statue

I have been excitedly pouring through new ESO content since articles began  releasing on Tuesday morning. While  it’s interesting to hear about a first look at new content, like the Daggerfall starting area of Stros M’Kai and hands-on with the Sorcerer class, I think the few wholesale changes to the game are much more  informative regarding ZeniMax’ intentions for ESO. ZeniMax has reacted to persistent community feedback, largely originating from the single-player contingent, shifting development priorities towards adding fully immersive first person combat animations into the game. Additionally, they  have devised a “new game plus” mechanic for ESO which allows the unrestricted  exploration of alternate alliance’s provinces. While  these features were often requested, and their inclusion seems like an improvement for the game as whole, I am forced to question what is the cost of this change in direction.

The first and most important apparent casualty is that of raiding. A quote from Matt Firor in an IGN interview claimed, “There are no raids; after all, that’s not Elder Scrolls”, a line which has spawned a furor of discontent among veteran MMO gamers (and rightly so). I believe it is critical for any MMO to establish an identity, and plant a stake in the ground claiming a fundamental purpose in it’s design. It seems that core philosophy centers around the alliance war which rages in Cyrodiil, and I am content with  ESO being a PvP-centric game. I do, however, strongly question the rationale for neglecting a mechanic which is the solitary source of stickiness for serious MMO gamers since large group PvE encounters were first introduced in EverQuest. I also wonder what happened to the Warden class, as well as the companion class to the Nightblade in the finesse archetype. In a game that seemed so naturally poised for six base classes, that ESO will now launch with only four seems like a forced change, and one that could likely be explained as the game’s animators being re-tasked to rendering first person attack animations for all of ESO’s combat skills. I hope that core MMO fundamentals like a broad and balanced class distribution and endgame PvE are not ones that ZeniMax views as expendable in their effort to appeal to casual fans who, ultimately, will not sustain their product in the same way that dedicated MMO players will.

Spider DaedraDespite these concerns, I have been very excited to learn  of several enhanced game systems. The additional depth behind character advancement with the addition of racial and class skill trees, is a welcome improvement beyond the rudimentary allocation of a single attribute point into health/stamina/magicka upon level up. Furthermore, the option to “morph” your skills into a specialized advanced version provides even  more meaningful choice behind class building. Additionally, the crafting system seems intelligently designed, and Paul Sage’s comments in particular regarding how to protect the relevance and importance of player crafting in the game were encouragingly worded.

In conclusion, I believe the biggest battle which ESO must win in order to be successful is to attract and engage the dedicated MMO gaming community by providing sticky mechanics for the types of players which constitute the lifeblood of a persistent game world. While seeing my hands in combat is a neat diversion which will be entertaining when grinding PvE quests solo, it ultimately does nothing to prolong player commitment to the game. I hope that ZOS is willing to prioritize game systems which will make ESO a resilient and compelling  persistent world, and not just a multiplayer Elder Scrolls experience.

Blade – Co-Founder

MMO communities are diverse, and are home to many kinds of gamers with different play style, however, players  can typically be placed into one of two groups, PvP or PvE. Let’s start with talking about the PvP players first. PvPers are gamers who enjoy the adrenaline rush from fast paced and intense combat against enemy players. In order for PvP to be successful in an MMO, there needs to be incentive to engage in combat with enemy players. The incentives normally come in the form of PvP ranks, and gear acquired through PvP. You also need to give players who enjoy PvP places to play, which normally involve instanced PvP, in the form of arena or battlegrounds, or open world PvP such as open world RvR. ESO is taking the route to stay away from instanced PvP, and instead focus all of their efforts on their open world RvR. Interviews in the past have confirmed the presence of Alliance Ranks obtained through your effectiveness in AvA, as well as gear obtainable with Alliance Points, but whatis the equivalent mechanic for PvE players?

Spider bossThe PvE player group is much more diverse, as more players tend to fall into this group. You’ve got gamers who enjoy playing solo, questing through the game content then crafting or rerolling at max level. Alternatively, there are players who enjoy running in small groups and completing smaller scale dungeons such as 4 man group dungeons in ESO. Lastly, there are PvE raiders who enjoy large scale complex scripted encounters. These are the players I am going to be focusing on. While I do understand that raiding is not absolutely essential, I believe that it leads to the overall longevity and success of an MMO. Many of the comparisons I’m going to be making are with World of Warcraft, simply because it has been the most successful MMO to date.

World of Warcraft does many things right, but one aspect Blizzard has done better than other MMOs is how they’ve handled raiding. While WoW features a plethora of other content to do, the primary reason people continue to sub is for progression raiding. During WoW’s 7 years of existence Blizzard has released 41 different raids in a series of 4 different expansions; an average of 10 raid encounters per expansion. Even now, WoWProgress records 15,532 raiding guilds are currently progressing through WoW’s scripted encounters. There is no surprise that even after 7 years, World of Warcraft maintained 10.3 million subscribers through the end of June, 2012. Is it coincidence that the MMO which understands the importance of raiding also has been top dog for 7 years? I don’t think so. I believe that if ZOS doesn’t seriously consider developing scripted raid encounters as a priority, and would rather release it after launch, they’re going to cause a large group of the MMO community to not even consider buying their game, and first impressions are everything. I’ve been an MMO and Elder Scrolls fan for many years. My first real RPG was Morrowind, and I was ecstatic when I heard the news about Elder Scrolls coming to the mmo scene. I want this game to succeed, and want it to be the best it possibly can. I hope some of you fellow raiders can stand behind me, and encourage ZeniMax Online that we want raiding to be more of a priority than it currently appears to be in ESO.

Byronyk and Fizzle – Hosts of  The Rubicon

In lieu of typing individual reactions, Byronyk and Fizzle recorded a special episode of The Rubicon, in which they express their thoughts on recent developments.

Isarii – Moderator

I, like many, was shocked to learn this week that The Elder Scrolls Online will not be including the MMORPG genre staple of raids, instead choosing to offer bosses tuned for raid-sized groups in the open zones known as adventure zones.  From the casual to the hardcore, a substantial amount of MMORPG veteran players enjoy and count on progression to be a part of their game, and without it, a game would significantly lose falling in their eyes; of all the information we’ve learned so far, this is the closest we’ve come to a deal-breaker for many.  I am one of the many players that aren’t raiders themselves, but can clearly see that failure to include such a highly demanded feature would cripple ESO’s marketability, and thus revenues, hurting even those of us who don’t normally participate in raiding by lowering the quality of updates that we all receive.  That said, all hope is not yet lost.

Khajiiti TownThe problem that raiders have come up against is multifaceted – there needs to be challenging and comparable progression attributable directly to a single, limited group of players, and there needs to be a steady stream of content updates of increasing difficulty to keep them occupied.  Unfortunately, all of these requirements are difficult or impossible to achieve with an open zone and world bosses.  There is a simple way to implement adventure zones that could address all these criteria, however: instancing boss encounters.  The vast majorities of the problem veteran raiders are now foreseeing come from the boss encounters being in the open world, available for multiple groups of players to overrun with a zerg, or completely disorganized hordes of players to tackle at the same time.  In the past, this has lead to the mechanics and difficulty being ‘dumbed’ down to accommodate the disorganized – completely failing in offering the compelling and challenging feat of coordination that raiders expect and require.  The philosophy behind adventure zones was alluded to by, Matt Firor, Game Director and creator of the now infamous “that’s not Elder Scrolls” quote (referring to raids).  Jokes about the repetitive dungeons in Oblivion aside – I fundamentally agree with Firor that The Elder Scrolls has always been about exploring an open world, and with adventure zones, we can get an open non-linear raid that adheres to that vision; it may even include the possibility of dynamic events.

This in no way requires that boss fights themselves not be instanced though, and that is the key.  Luckily, we know from Creative Director Paul Sage that ZOS is already considering going this route, so all is not yet lost.  With boss encounter rooms instanced, there will be no functional difference between an adventure zone boss and a traditional raid boss.  The mechanics can be challenging, and the defeat of the encounter can be directly attributable to the group of players involved – it cannot be overmanned and trivialized by multiple groups in the open world. Logistical implementation of the adventure zone could be done a few different ways to achieve progression.  Most obviously, adventure zones would need to be released in tiers equivalent to the traditional raiding model – where gear from Tier 1 is required to progress into Tier 2.  Optionally, they could also implement requirements for killing the bosses in order to create progression even within the instance.  For example, one could drop a key needed to progress to the next, or several bosses could drop items that combined into a consumable buff that is required to defeat the final boss.  These options are not necessary to create the progression raiders require, but they could help if the developers chose.  It is worth noting that all the content in the zone besides the raid boss is still accessible by and targeted towards smaller groups of players doing their thing.

Argonian PoseIf adventure zones were implemented with instanced boss encounters and progression through increased difficulty between zones, I am confident that they would offer all that raiders require to be satisfied.  There would be challenge from the ability to implement real mechanics that required incredible amounts of coordination, and with a limited raid size groups would be able to compare their progression honestly between each other, as there would be no way to cheat.  Progression in itself would be possible due to the linear path from adventure zone to adventure zone, as raiders competed to be among the first to clear the next zone.  With these goals easily accomplished, the only functional difference between adventure zones and traditional raids would be the format of the trash mobs – something largely inconsequential when it comes to the satisfaction of the raiders.  The only concern left is the quality and quantity of the content – and here we have a valid concern.  After the news broke that traditional raids would not be a part of ESO and that even the adventure zones would be pushed back until after launch, many raiders felt disenfranchised, and worried that the developers weren’t concerned with their playstyle being a priority.  While some of the specific complaints raised in this area are shaky (e.g. the complaints regarding voice over being implemented first), the feeling that these players have is very real, and does need to be addressed.  ZOS needs to make an effort to reach out to these players and let them know that they will have a place in The Elder Scrolls Online – and a nice place to start would be by implementing adventure zones as I outlined above.

What About You?

I think it’s best to conclude by suggesting that three days of PAX coverage will likely clarify the current situation somewhat. The developers will have observed the reactions within the ESO community in response to Tuesday’s press releases, and will be prepared to handle tough questions, particularly about raiding. Whether they openly address the issue and explain their vision for the game, or attempt to dodge the questions remains to be seen, but either result will prove informative. As for the rest, it’s up to the community and fans to decide what type of game ESO will become. While many of you share our concerns regarding raiding, there are also those to whom it is not as important. I am eager to hear the thoughts of the Tamriel Foundry community on where your perception falls leading into the PAX weekend. What do you most hope will be clarified or revealed in the next three days? Have you heard enough to make up your mind whether ZeniMax is moving in a favorable direction? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below!