What ESO Must Do to Succeed

Recently, the folks over at Elder Scrolls Off the Record wrote an excellent pair of articles describing their take on the fundamental challenges and milestones that ESO will need to overcome in order to achieve success with both Elder Scrolls purists and MMO fans. Shank provided his take on the biggest issues for traditional TES fans, while @Evarwyn added some counter-points from the perspective of an MMO veteran. I think both articles present some fantastic points and opinions regarding the key issues which ZOS faces. I agree with the spirit of both pieces, however, my experience with playing ESO at several conventions over the past year has given me with an alternative interpretation of these issues. This article presents my viewpoint on what ESO absolutely must do to succeed, and I strongly recommend any interested readers to check out the original posts on ESOTR first!

 

For Elder Scrolls Purists

Shank’s article at ESOTR highlighted audio design, lore, exploration, de-emphasis of PvP, and uniqueness of the character experience as critical keystones for the team at ZeniMax. I think he raises some excellent points, but I would like to augment his views with the following thoughts:

1. Break the News Gently

You may not be able to climb that mountain.

You may not be able to climb that mountain.

In many ways, Elder Scrolls Online is fundamentally different from the past three single player games of Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim. Combat feels a bit more gamey, exploration is restricted in certain ways, and story advancement is far more linear. This sounds negative, and I suspect some hardcore TES purists will view this as a condemnation of ESO. This should not be the case, as there is a tremendous amount to love about the game
ZeniMax is creating. I strongly believe, however, that ZOS will need to confront some of the expectations players have when imagining an experience like Skyrim translated directly into the MMO space. For example:

  • Exploration in ESO is not truly “open world”, you are not guaranteed that you can travel to anywhere you can see. The segmentation of Tamriel into zones serves a very important role for the technology of the megaserver, allowing a complex system of phasing and player allocation to give each individual the best personal experience in a massively multiplayer game space. The downside of this decision, however, is that you cannot travel in a straight line from Vvardenfell to Summerset Isle as many players are imagining. You cannot scale the highest mountains or roam for hours without encountering a barrier or load screen.
  • Zones are level-dependent and progression in ESO follows a predetermined exploration path. For example, Ebonheart Pact players will start on an island in Skyrim, before travelling to Morrowind, then south to Blackmarsh. Every EP character will follow the same geographic ordering of zones. You cannot choose to, for example, run directly to Winterhold instead of following the main alliance storyline. Monsters in later zones will be far too challenging for the player if they attempt to skip ahead.
  • Since zones are designed to accommodate many players at once, instead of one solitary hero, the density and challenge level of monsters has to be adjusted for a multiplayer space. Areas are more heavily populated with enemies, and combat is much more fast paced than the single player counterpart. The combat systems in single player TES games are arguably quite dull; their limitless exploration and variety of potential advancement paths creates a game in which the entertainment of combat is not of prime importance. As an MMO, combat in ESO takes center-stage and the systems the game employs are designed to be more engaging and action-oriented. A side effect of this design objective is that combat in ESO may initially strike TES purists as being more arcade-like than they are used to.

All these systems are ones that MMO veterans are completely accustomed to, but the single player fan-base will need to be exposed to the different structure of Elder Scrolls Online in  a way that gently and positively explains the need for such changes. I believe one of the greatest challenges for ZeniMax is to market their game in a way that doesn’t advertise itself as simply Skyrim: Online while still promising and delivering features that customers will expect from a game with the Elder Scrolls label.

2. Convince New MMO Players to Try PvP

The PvP system in ESO is not only a cornerstone of the game, but it is arguably the entire reason the game was developed in the first place. Matt Firor was specifically recruited to create the epic and massive 3-faction realm war which made Dark Age of Camelot one of the best MMOs of all time. Despite the tremendous allure of this system for most players, traditional TES purists and single-player fans may not be as eager to find themselves in a competitive PvP situation. The reality is that PvP in Cyrodiil will possess a scale to it that naturally steers away from the machismo and aggressiveness that usually accompanies player vs. player encounters. That’s not to say that no smack will be talked, but it will be more concerned with aggregate events like “we took your keep”, or “our guild group beat your guild group”. I am confident that even players who do not already love PvP in games can have a hugely positive experience with ESO‘s system. One of the main challenges for ZeniMax is encouraging more reluctant players to come out of their shell and give Cyrodiil a chance, as ESO will possess substantially less lingering appeal if players are not  engaged in the progress of the Alliance War. In his article, Shank makes the assertion that ZeniMax needs to let TES purists know it’s OK not to PvP. While I don’t disagree, I think it’s more important that ZeniMax convinces the same group that it’s something they should try, and something they very well might love.

AvA Combat in ESO

PvP may seem daunting to the uninitiated

 

For MMO Veterans

Evarwyn’s counterpoint article at ESOTR emphasized the business model, end-game PvE, crafting, and social systems as key issues upon which many MMO veterans remain to be convinced. Also, Evarwyn echoes Shank’s concern that the role of PvP is too heavily emphasized. I think Evarwyn makes some good points, however, I think there are some additional challenges regarding which I take an alternative view:

1. Don’t Oversimplify

From what I have seen of ESO so far, it appears to have a considerably streamlined system of player characteristics. Three basic attributes, regeneration rates, several resistances, and some derived stats like power and critical chance. There is a good deal of merit in this type of approach. As Einstein said:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler

The great advantage of a simple system of game mechanics and player attributes is that they can be universally understood, and they do not present artificial barriers to character advancement and optimization that only the most dedicated gamers can understand. On the other hand, a considerable pitfall of this streamlined approach is that the fewer choices and alternatives faced by the player, the easier it becomes to “solve” such a system. If it is possible to determine a “best” stat allocation, skill distribution, or gear set, a game can quickly lose much of it’s appeal. Unlike a single player game, there isn’t the emphasis on any single milestone at which point the game is “beaten”, however, many MMO enthusiasts perceive the meta-game of character growth and optimization to be the ultimate metric of MMO completion. If players can reach a point where their character is “solved”, the game will quickly lose a great deal of appeal. One can look at the player response to itemization systems (like the forthcoming World of Warcraft expansion) that are reduced to the task of maximizing a primary attribute and see the subsequent player attrition that results.

ESO's character sheet is very simple

ESO’s character sheet is very simple

In my experience with ESO, most of the secondary and derived attributes which are featured in the game are hidden from view, with your default character sheet only displaying Health, Stamina, Magicka, Power, and Armor.  Furthermore, most items I encountered (albeit at low level) had only one magical property. It is pretty easy to determine whether a helmet with 20 Armor and 8 Health is better than a helmet with 16 Armor and 7 Health. It becomes much more difficult to decide between the first helmet, however, and one with 16 Armor, 5 Health, and 4 Stamina. I worry that certain systems employed in ESO will be made “too simple”, as I believe it’s very important for ZeniMax to preserve a large degree of nuance and depth to their character development system. Having the tremendous variety of skills which ESO features is a great start, but even so, I fear that despite the quality of it’s gameplay, ESO may suffer if the meta-game of its character advancement systems is oversimplified.

 

2. Promote Community Reputation

Many of the most dedicated MMO gamers I know get deeply invested in games not only for the gameplay systems they offer, but also in order to be somebody within their respective communities. The allure of being known on your server, or being in a prestigious guild, or visibly possessing a coveted item is a huge draw for players. Being able to feel a sense of belonging and importance within the social culture of a game server has a huge impact on player retention. One of my fears for ESO is that the identity of the individual player is too anonymized in the context of the megaserver. In order to preserve immersion and minimalism in interface design, ESO doesn’t feature nameplates or other prominent advertisement of player identity. During my limited playtime with the game, I frequently saw other players running around, but I would very seldom notice their name (only if you directly target them). Furthermore, there is no way to tell what guild another player is a member of, or what Cyrodiil campaign they belong to. Granted, the game is still in active development, so these features could very well change, but I fear that without the segmentation of fixed servers and with no prominent display of individual identity the player experience in ESO will feel quite anonymous.

I hope that ZeniMax is able to include features that enable social prestige for the best crafters, PvPers, achievement hunters, and raiders. The ability for guilds to claim and upgrade keeps seems, by far, the most effective system ESO incorporates thusfar in this regard. However, apart from Cyrodiil where leaderboards document the performance of the best players, ESO needs to include more ways to make the game feel not just like there are other player characters moving around the world, but that there are actual people in control of those characters who belong to various guilds and have a tangible identity within the player community.

 

3. Plan for the Hardcore Crowd

Similarly, I believe that it is critically important that ZeniMax always leaves room for characters to grow. Whether it’s the challenge of acquiring a near-perfect item roll, maximizing your reputation with an NPC group, or hunting down an exhaustive list of rare monsters, retaining the top 1% of achievement oriented gamers in your game has tremendous spill-over effects on the remaining 99% of your player base. Those top players are the legendary personalities, heroes, villains, and celebrities of virtual worlds. If they lose interest in your game, the quality of MMO culture is always soon to follow. By adding challenges that are near impossible to complete a game will preserve the feeling that there are still stones to turn over, dungeons to clear, and monsters to slay.

It is challenging to toe the line between introducing artificial grinds and satisfying the content consumption rate of the most dedicated players, but I think ESO needs something with which to satisfy such individuals. Game developers always underestimate the ability of players to consume content (see SWTOR for a recent and painful example of this). I think ZeniMax is already taking some great steps to satifying this demand by introducing 50+(++) content, veteran points, PvP ranks, and continued skill acquisition. I simply hope that these systems are designed with achievement oriented gamers in mind.

Bone Golem

ESO needs more long-term objectives than just killing PvE bosses

4. Convince Old MMO Players to Try PvP

Whereas the challenge for TES purists involves getting them to try a large-scale PvP game for the first time, the challenge which ZeniMax faces with MMO enthusiasts is convincing them that this PvP system is different. Cyrodiil is different from the Arena in WoW, the battlegrounds in RIFT, or even the borderlands in Guild Wars 2. With the minority exception of Dark Age of Camelot veterans, Cyrodiil be a new experience for MMO players, many of whom may have had negative reactions to the PvP they have tried in past games. ZeniMax needs to make sure that players understand how the ESO system is different, how it is epic, and how it’s something they will absolutely want to be a part of. While I agree entirely with Evarwyn’s call for a renewed emphasis on endgame PvE, I don’t think that ZeniMax should reduce the amount of hype they are devoting to the PvP campaigns of Cyrodiil. This type of PvP system is capable of providing dynamic and player-driven endgame that is one of  the only gameplay systems capable of withstanding the speed of content consumption that occurs in most MMO environments. I strongly believe the ultimate success of the game is heavily contingent on players buying into that system and learning to love the challenges, rivalries, and player engagement which it enables.

 

I have the highest of hopes for The Elder Scrolls Online and I firmly believe that ZeniMax has an exceptional and unique vision for the MMO which they are building. I believe ESO will turn out to be the next great landmark in this genre of gaming, but I think that the ZeniMax team faces a difficult job of delivering their vision for the game in a way that will convince the many different types of gamers who will inevitably be interested in the next installment of the Elder Scrolls franchise. Ultimately, it may be impossible to please everyone, but I admire the work ethic with which ZeniMax is striving to create a game that can bridge the genres of immersive open-world fantasy RPG, massive multiplayer, and competitive PvP. What challenges do you think are the most significant for ZOS, and what steps do you think they can take to tailor the ESO gameplay experience to be equally attractive to both groups of players? Let us know in the comment section below!