When I attended the 2014 Guild Summit in October we were presented with a first look at the future of crime in ESO. We saw players stealing, murdering, and fleeing from guards; a set of features that TES enthusiasts have longed to see implemented in The Elder Scrolls Online. This was the “Justice System”, and as excited as I was to see that a player criminality system was coming to the game there was one feature of the presentation that excited me beyond any other. Law-abiding players would be able self-identify as “Enforcers”, who could assume the responsibility of preventing crime and apprehending (read killing) criminals. In my mind, this was a masterstroke by ZeniMax, finding a way to add not only crime but also voluntary player versus player combat throughout the lands of Tamriel. Granted, the proposed system had some drawbacks and flaws, but ultimately it solved most of the major problems inherent in bringing player crime to the game. The Enforcer system created a compelling risk and reward structure that allowed players to self-select into the type of gameplay experience that most appeals to them.
One of the most exciting pieces of the upcoming update 1.6 which should be arriving on ESO‘s live server before the end of the month includes the first phase of the Justice System. The reason for labeling this as the “first phase” is that unlike the PvP inclusive incarnation of the Justice System which we saw last October, ZeniMax has elected to release a limited version of the Justice system which allows players to participate in criminal activity with only NPC guards acting as law enforcement. ZOS has been fond of the multi-phase release plan, we’ve seen this strategy used also for both Craglorn and the Champion System transition, so this alone is no cause for concern. In fact, ZeniMax has stated in the past that the player enforcement component of the Justice System will be added in a later phase. Some recent comments by ZeniMax developers, however, have raised community concern that plans to proceed with the PvP side of Justice may be facing the chopping block. In a recent “Ask Us Anything” on the ESO subreddit, Matt Firor responded to the following question from @dominoid73:
Q: Please talk about how the PVP portion of the Justice system will work with Tamriel Unlimited. Is this portion now DLC?
Matt: This remains to be determined – I’ve been pretty clear that PvP justice is pretty scary from a game balance perspective, and we need to be very careful how we implement it. If/when it makes it in to the game, it will not be as part of a paid DLC.
This comment, along with several other instances ZeniMax employees avoiding questions about Justice System PvP have created a number of red flags that this side of the Justice System may never be added to the game. Initially when the multi-phase approach for the Justice System was announced, I harbored a number of concerns with the strategy, ones that have been confirmed after hands-on experience on the public test server. I believe that a PvE-only implementation of the Justice System would constitute a massive failure to live up to the potential of the system and moreover may be harmful to the economic balance of the existing game.
Risk, Reward, and Incentives
Tamriel is already a world in which death or failure is already essentially meaningless. Players can respawn in-place (sure it costs a soul gem, but who doesn’t have 10 thousand of those). Outside of trials where deaths penalize your completion time and soul reservoir, ESO players have little to fear from failure. This philosophy carries on through crime and the justice system, NPC guards are invulnerable death machines (take that, immersion!) and witnessed crimes can impose a costly bounty, but the current Justice system has blind spots a mile wide and loopholes you could ride a Guar through when it comes to avoiding these penalties. Why bother trying a risky attempt to pickpocket an innocent civilian when you can one-shot them with a sneak attack and take everything off their corpse? Your expected bounty is lower for cold-blooded murder than it is for petty larceny. You can be busy rifling through the corpse of a dead civilian right in front of a guard, but heaven forbid that you skewer a farmer’s chicken. The risk and incentive structures facing aspiring criminals in ESO are frankly broken, in a system with player-enforced PvP these inadequacies of NPC enforcement could be ignored in favor of the vastly more interesting (and dynamic) player vs. player element. Without player enforcement, however, the laughable flaws of the current system are left quite exposed.
Threat to Economic Balance
While testing the Justice System on the PTS, a guild-member was able to achieve a consistent and stable hourly return of 14,000 gold through theft, murder, and fencing (and this was before even upgrading the fence capacity). This rate of return exceeds even some of the most previously lucrative activities in the game. A typical run through Veteran Dragonstar Arena which generates some of the most desirable bind-on-equip gear in the current ESO economy generates an average return of around 10,000 gold per hour and requires the teamwork and coordination of four highly capable VR14 players. Likewise, farming Nirncrux and legendary upgrade materials in Upper Craglorn is replete with its own hazards where aggressive and dangerous packs of enemies deter many players. In contrast, the gold return achievable through the Justice System not only surpasses that of other activities, but it can be completed solo and without any demanding skill requirement.
Crime is by definition a “high risk, high reward” activity. To implement this properly in ESO, ZeniMax needs to do one of two things; either reduce the rewards from criminal behavior (in which case players would complain about the pointlessness of the system), or find a way to introduce substantial risk commensurate with the potential level of returns. Player enforcement was not an obvious answer to this question, but it was a cunning one. Players could provide natural balance to the system, the most lucrative areas for theft would also become the most popular areas for Enforcers to seek PvP. The higher the potential reward offered by a crime route, the more likely an Enforcer will be on-hand to deliver justice. Regardless of whether or not we eventually receive a PvP component of the Justice System, it will not arrive for several months. During the intermediate time, players will be free to earn massive amounts of gold by abusing the misaligned risk structure of a PvE only system. This could have serious consequences for the health of the game economy, leading to dramatic inflation and devaluation of game currency.
Neglect of the PvP Community
Perhaps the most significant reason why the PvP component of the Justice system must be added involves ZeniMax’ persistent neglect of the dedicated PvP community. While small balance adjustments and mechanical changes to Cyrodiil have been made, changes which improve the enjoyment of gameplay for PvP focused players have been few and far between. There are thousands of outspoken community members who are thrilled at the prospect of a more open-world and dynamic PvP experience delivered by the Justice System. It would be an opt-in system, Enforcers choose to wear their tabards making themselves PvP eligible. Player Outlaws opt-in to the system by acquiring a bounty, assuming the risk of PvP conflict as a result of their lawbreaking ways. The most obvious reason to exclude PvP Justice is out of respect for players who want to engage in a life of crime but explicitly do not want to face PvP repercussions. While I respect everyone’s right to enjoy the game in their own way, the need for appropriate risk associated with criminal actions far outweighs the need to protect deliberate lawbreakers from PvP. Players that wish to steal without threat of PvP can always choose to avoid towns and cities where Enforcers are more likely to be present.
The Imperial City is coming, but realistically this may not occur until after console release. I’m thrilled at the prospect of a Darkness Falls style dungeon combat in the IC Sewers, as well as the street level skirmishing of an urban combat environment, but the Justice System would add an additional outlet for PvP not captured by Cyrodiil or the Imperial City. Designing new content for PvP players is difficult, it’s relatively easy to release a new dungeon or zone to appease PvE enthusiasts, but with the Justice System ZeniMax hold in their hand a golden ticket to implement a system with dynamic and player-driven PvP content that can generate the kind of rare, epic, and memorable moments that make MMO gaming such a rewarding hobby.
To be clear, ZeniMax has not explicitly confirmed or denied that the PvP component of the Justice system is a part of their future plans. I am hopeful that the ESO community can encourage them for these reasons (and others) that there is no justice in a Justice System without player enforcement.