Written By Warren C. Bennett
Just a quick note: the screenshots and pics used in this article are from the official materials for The Elder Scrolls Online. I didn’t get a chance to take my own, but will try next beta. - WCB
Over two different weekends, I’ve been able to play the stress test beta for The Elder Scrolls Online. I’ve come away feeling a bit more positive about the game then I have in the past. That isn’t to say I don’t have concerns, but these are concerns that seem to be in place at the launch of any MMO. Since I did enjoy my time in the game, I’ve decided to spend a year with the game and document my time in the online version of Tamriel.
I’ve actually really enjoyed my time in the betas. I’ve been absorbed in this MMO more so than many I’ve played in the past few years. I know this is basically a theme park game with a sand boxy center, but it also has a similar focus on questing and lore that the single player games hold. That isn’t to say this is a single player game. It is an online game and has many typical MMO trappings. The combination of the two styles of play will either be why The Elder Scrolls Online succeeds or why it fails. I have gained five levels on two different Characters: One is a Nord Dragon Knight and the other a High Elf Sorceress. The following is not a complete overview of the entire game but hits on points I like and dislike about my Elder Scrolls Online experience.
What I like
- Quests and Lore
There are a lot of quests within the game world. I spent most of my time over the past weekend exploring the lands of the Aldmeri Dominion. This is the faction composed of Altmer (High Elves,) Bosmer (Wood Elves) and cat-like Khajiit. I spent my time as a High Elf Sorcerer running around the starting Island and city, picking up a wide variety of quests and reading as much lore as I could.
The quests have a huge emphasis on story. Each zone has many mini-zones filled with quest chains that wrap up a specific story elements in that area. I found out that I could see what areas I’ve completed on the map by gliding my mouse over the core icon for that area. This informed me of what quest line I had active or how I resolved that quest line. I enjoyed these small stories that may or may not be part of the over arching plot of the game. Many of these quests are side missions, but I’m the type of RPG gamer that doesn’t really know the meaning of “side mission.”
I also enjoyed reading the various lore books lying around the world. I’m glad these books made a return to the online Elder Scrolls game, although they are in a bit different form than in the single player games. A player can see the books but generally can’t take the books in to the inventory. This is because items in this online space are tacked down in a way not seen in the single player experience. A player can’t go in to a home or city and loot everything from the various houses. Since a player can’t generally take the books that are lying about, the contents of the books go in to an ever growing collection of lore that is accessible from the quest log. This was a nice touch so I could go back and read the books at my leisure. I think they do a good job of fitting this game in to the already created lore of The Elder Scrolls series as a whole. Others do not, but that is an article for another day.
- User Interface
The Elder Scrolls Online has what might be considered a very Spartan User Interface. In place of the usual minimap in most MMOs, there is the same type of compass found in Oblivion and Skyrim. This compass shows the direction of any quest that is being tracked plus information on other quests and locations as well. Anyone that has played either of the last two Elder Scrolls games will be at home with this direction system. It might, however, throw some long time vets of Massively Multiplayer Games for a loop. Outside the compass and the quests currently being tracked, all the other UI elements fade away until needed. This includes the health, stamina and magicka bars for the player and health bars for enemies. The chat box in the lower left hand corner also fades away unless there is someone actively chatting. This chat box can be customized so that it permanently fades away for those not interested in Zone chat. I don’t know if there are built in options to totally customize the UI but there is an Add-On section included with the game client. I’m sure that users will create different mods that can be dropped in and out to adjust the User Interface to fit the needs of any player.
One of the selling points for any Elder Scrolls game is the player’s ability to customize his own avatar. This extends from the look of the character to the skills and abilities wielded in game. The Elder Scrolls Online has a very robust character creation system. I wouldn’t say it is as robust as the single player Elder Scrolls games, but it certainly has more options than many Massively Multiplayer games on the market.
The customization doesn’t end at the character creation screen. Although there are only four classes from which to choose, players don’t have to stick to these classes. There is a skill tree associated with each class but there are also skill trees associated with individual weapon types and magic. It is possible to completely ignore the class skill line and focus on becoming a pure mêlée or ranged character, but it probably isn’t the best use of the skill points.
Each guild also has a skill line associated with it. The Mage, Thief and fighters guilds can open up a skill tree with abilities that can only be found by joining each group. All skills are either active or passive but all grant the player some sort of boon. Since every level gives the player one skill point to use, there is a bit of planning that should go in to choosing which skill trees to harness for maximum potential.
Using an item or skill also raises the level of each item or skill. For example: Using heavy armor will allow a player to make better use out of that armor type and using a specific sword skill will raise the level of that skill and make it easier to use. Eventually many skills will gain the ability to ‘morph’ that specific skill in to one of two branches. This morphing process takes a skill point but can add a lot of power to an already existing skill.
There is even more to the character skill customization than I mention here. The customization for The Elder Scrolls Online may be a bit different from the single player games but it is no less complicated. There will be discussion about character builds from this game for years to come. I played a sorceress that ran around using heavy armor so I can imagine the unique builds that players will produce. Of course, the downside is that people might be a little confused about the whole customizable skill system in the game and not use it properly. Only time will tell if that is the case. It will be interesting to see what kind of builds that players use effectively in TESO.
The fighting in TESO is the meat of what a player will be doing in the game. This comprises of two action based attack buttons (Left mouse and right mouse) combined with use of a six slot hot bar for skills. The left mouse button attacks. Hitting it quickly provides a light attack and holding it down provides a hard attack. The right mouse button is used to block. The skills on the hotbar are a mix of weapon abilities, magic abilities and class based abilities. These skills can be swapped out and often depend on the weapon being used. Since TESO eventually allows a player to swap out two different weapon types, this can lead to a wide variety of ability combinations through skill unlocks. The first five slots are used for this while the sixth slot is a special ultimate ability that is unlocked by the player as he progresses through the game.
Although the comparisons to World of Warcraft have already begun to trickle on to the internet, I didn’t find the combat to be similar. TESO has an active combat system that combines actually hitting a button to attack with skill based hotbar attacks, dodging, blocking and jumping. The overall feeling sticks to the action RPG roots of the series. There is no auto attack in the game since combat needs player input to actually work. I found the combat to be unique and fun, though it might be a bit slower paced for some MMO veterans. If I had to make comparisons, the combat reminds me of the single player Elder Scrolls games mashed with Guild Wars 2 or Dungeon and Dragons Online. This action focused design decision is one increasingly being used in the online game space. I didn’t feel like I was just firing off a series of hot keyed skills while I was playing but taking an actual part of the action on the screen. The combat also felt a bit more tactical than other action oriented combat systems.
I played through both beta weekends on a business oriented laptop that was purchased in 2010. This computer isn’t a powerhouse and actually has issues overheating while playing many modern games. Yet, I was able to play good long chunks of time on this semi broken laptop without the machine becoming a smoking pile of rubbish. I didn’t have many of the graphical bells and whistles activated but the game ran well. The fact is that online games need to be able to play on a wide variety of machine types and configurations. In that area, ZeniMax Online has succeeded.
Keep in mind that this isn’t a game that has the same look and style as the most recent entry in to the series: Skyrim. I do like how the game world looks since it is a bit more realistic take on High Fantasy than many MMOs. I don’t think it is a game that will blow anyone away in the pure graphics department. There were moments where I went “wow” after entering in to a new area but I don’t think this game will ever win an award for most spectacular game engine. This is fine with me since the graphics do the job. The game pushes to the player a well established world reimagined for an online audience. It is easy for me to get lost within the game world and the look and feel of the game help with that.
What I don’t like
This game has a little over a month until launch. Although ZeniMax Online has actually listened to player feedback and changed a few things, there are still many bugs within the game world. None of the bugs I’ve come across are game breaking, but they do ruin the immersion factor.
The game uses a phasing system to allow players to experience their own story while still seeing other players. Unfortunately, this led me to hearing voices from NPCs that weren’t in the area and seeing many people interacting with items and objects that weren’t visible to me. That was a bit odd and a bit disconcerting. I hope they can work on the voice issue, since it took me awhile to figure out who was speaking to me.
There are also quest bugs galore. On one or two quests, I had to follow someone to a specific area. These people took off with the speed of the Flash and I just didn’t have time to follow them. Luckily this was a known issue and some friendly people in chat told me where to go.
- Player grouping
One main issue that the developers need to fix before launch is the Multiplayer grouping issues. Player group, at the moment, seems to be a throwback to an archaic age of MMO design. When in a group with players, the quests don’t share among the group. This means that when an objective is finished, each person in the group has to do that same objective to finish the quest. If the group is on a quest to free the slaves of a certain lord, each person has to wait for the slave to respawn and finish the quest before moving on.
This issue means it takes more time than really is needed to finish quests and ruins any bit of immersion a player might expect. I’ve heard people discuss how finding a group to party with isn’t easy and have seen the familiar looking for group (LFG) short hand in the Zone chat.
- User Expectations
One of the main issues that this game is facing is the expectation of the user that is purchasing this project. Many of the people I’ve talked with in and out of the game were expecting Oblivion or Skyrim online. I don’t feel like ZeniMax has explicitly stated this in their prerelease comments, but they have subtly lead people to believe this will be the case. (If they did explicitly state this, it was in an interview I haven’t read or information I haven’t seen.) This has led many to assume the same freedom and player focus would be found within the online game world.
While I can say that TESO is a much more robust RPG than a lot of Massively Multiplayer games I’ve played, it is not Skyrim Online. This game is a good entry in to the Elder Scrolls franchise and I believe many people will enjoy the product. However, the player doesn’t have the same freedom as he would in an offline game. There are things that are missing from the game: Looting every house for goods, picking up all the objects on a shelf or table, watching the game morph itself around your character, dodging guards and other moments for which the single player Elder Scrolls games are known.
I’ve already seen players come in to the game world expecting the full Elder Scrolls experience but getting a mashup of Elder Scrolls and a typical MMO instead. ZeniMax Online didn’t set the User Expectation well and it is already starting to backfire. Me? I’ve been around awhile and knew what to expect. Unfortunately, there are many that aren’t as experienced and feel burnt by the product. I can’t really blame them but hope these people will give the game a chance.
I’ve participated in many betas in past fifteen years. I’ve seen a lot of communities at launch, from those in games that failed shortly after release to those that are still going strong. I have to admit that many of the comments and communication from the members in The Elder Scrolls Online community are some of the most toxic I’ve seen. Maybe it is the broken expectations mentioned above or maybe it is the attraction of many ‘console’ players in to the MMO space, but there is attracting many to be nothing more than internet trolls.
In the official Elder Scrolls Online forums, I’ve seen people beat up for either liking a feature that TESO offers or not liking a feature that is found in the game. I’ve seen people cursed at and degraded for asking for help in Zone chat that is part of the game itself. I’ve seen comments on articles just trashing others: Sometimes it’s for liking the game and sometimes it’s for disliking it. I’ve even had people private message me in the game and call me names for a comment I made in Zone chat to help someone else. When I confronted this player, he (or she) didn’t respond. I’m unsure why this game is bringing out all the worse parts that the internet has to offer. I can see a new player coming in to this and being turned off just by the community alone.
That would be a shame since there are many good people within the community. I wonder if the Elder Scrolls Online player base can combat this without the help of ZeniMax. Can we overcome the darkness with an epic show of good will? That is something to think about. I hope this is just a symptom of the Beta being a free to play experience that will be dealt with once the Subscription kicks in. If so, it is another bonus to having a subscription model instead of being free to play.
What I’m unsure about
- Will a subscription game work in the current MMO market?
The question on the mind of many is this: Will a Subscription based game work in the modern marketplace? Although the $15 a month subscription used to be the norm for Massively Multiplayer Online games, in recent years it has fallen to the wayside. With dramatic failures in the subscription model for games like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Age of Conan, there is a question on the viability of new games adopting that revenue model.
I honestly don’t know if The Elder Scrolls Online can sustain a monthly subscription model. I think they will be able to if their expectations aren’t astronomically high. Final Fantasy XI has maintained itself for over a decade with around 500,000 players. Eve Online also has around 500,000 players and is going strong. If TESO wants to continue to exist with the Subscription model, ZeniMax Online Studios should aim at not becoming a World of Warcraft killer. The company should aim at making a profit with a (relatively) low amount of players.
There is a bet among game journalists and players that TESO will go Free to Play within the year. I don’t think this will happen. Since this game will be spread between home computers and consoles, I think the game has a good shot of attracting enough loyal players. One reason I’ll be documenting this game for the next year is to see if this happen or not. I’m rooting for the game to survive. Yet, if the company makes bad decisions it should reap the harvest.
- Content is king
Will ZeniMax Online be able to produce enough content to keep players coming back? One drawback to the approach that the company has taken with the game is that players will burn through the existing content fast. The game does feel more like a single player RPG than an MMO at times, but that can be a blessing and a curse. With a $15 a month subscription fee, there should be a steady stream of content flowing forth to keep the loyal player base satisfied.
Keeping players beyond the first month is a challenge for any MMO. I’m willing to bet there have been more MMO flameouts than there have been real success stories. If modern MMO games have proven anything of note, it is that content is king. Games like Guild Wars 2 push out new content and live events at a brisk clip. ZeniMax Online needs to realize this and stay competitive within the MMO marketplace.
- Player Versus Player
I hear that TESO has a hefty and meaty helping of Player versus Player combat. Since the head of the development team is the same man responsible for the classic Dark Age of Camelot, it is no surprise that the Player Versus Player content resembles that game.
Or so I hear.
I haven’t had a chance to get far enough to try out the PVP content. I understand the center portion of Tamriel is under constant attack. Cyrodiil, the home of the Imperial family, is a patchwork of constant warfare and Player Versus Environment questing. Each of the three factions funnels their troops in to the area and tries to lay claim to the Imperial Throne. In game, individual players will somehow be able to become Emperor for a time. I don’t really know how the reality of this system will work but it does sound like fun.
Cyrodiil is supposed to be more of a PVP sandbox with PVE quests scattered about. It is an area that has been compared to a giant version of World of Warcraft’s battlegrounds. I do want to experience this since it is something that could keep players coming back for years to come. However, a character has to be level 10 to have access to this area. Level progression is a bit slower than other MMOs and I only made it to level 5 on two different toons. I will have to see if I can make it to the Player versus Player portion in another beta or when the game goes live in April. Right now I can’t really comment on the quality of the feature since I haven’t even seen it for myself.
- Locked content (Imperial edition)
One of the most controversial decisions ZeniMax Online has made is to put one race, the Imperials, behind a pay wall. Those that buy the regular version of the game will not have access to the Imperial race at launch of the game since only those that own the Imperial Edition will have access to it. This has caused a great amount of anxiety and worry among members of TESO community. Some support the move but many do not. Those that don’t think it is just a money grab from the studio, since the various editions also come with other perks that aren’t available to those that purchase the regular version of the game.
I seem to be in the minority when I say this doesn’t really concern me. ZeniMax is obviously testing the waters to see if a cash shop will be a viable option. The Imperial Race will either go free at some point or be purchasable in the future as a separate package. One could argue that having a cash shop and a subscription is a bad idea, but it sure isn’t hurting World of Warcraft right now Meanwhile, it gives a little carrot to those that have decided to shell out more money for the more expensive editions of the game. Something that is a little more useful than a vanity pet or a onetime buff. I do wonder if it is worth it for the controversy that surrounds the decision. Will it turn people away from the game that would otherwise embrace it?
I’ve spent four days over the course of two beta tests within the world of The Elder Scrolls Online. I enjoyed myself immensely and feel the company is doing a good job of pushing an MMO that feels a bit more like a classic Role Playing Game and different from other MMO titles. It is the first MMO I’ve played in years that I’ve lost myself in, with those moments of looking at the clock and realizing four hours have passed since the last time I looked. This isn’t a bad product but it does need a bit more tender love and care. The game isn’t in the same state as Final Fantasy XIV was before it originally launched but there could be a bit of work done to help polish the product. It might be a year or so before the true potential of the game is realized. That happened with Guild Wars 2 and it might happen with this game as well.
That being said, ZeniMax is already responding to player concerns by changing things up in the game itself. One of the biggest complaints I’ve seen is how characters were funneled in to a starter Island after the tutorial, limiting the freedom players had to explore the world. ZeniMax Online has addressed this by changing it so that characters are now dropped in to the starter city after the tutorial. The islands are still there and accessible but the game doesn’t force the player to go through the quest line over and over with ever new character. There are other changes that ZeniMax has implemented due to player feedback as well, including collision detection with NPCs and other issues. This shows that the studio is open to changing the game based on player feedback and opinion. This can be a good thing and will help shape the game in the coming year.
I don’t think this will be a product for every gamer out there. I think some MMO veterans will be annoyed at the emphasis on story within the quest lines of the game. Many players just want to click through the quests, go fight things and get their rewards. The player that loves an emphasis on story will get a kick out of the way the quests are handled. I did, at least. The game doesn’t get rid of all MMO type quest tropes, but I haven’t come across “Kill x number of beasties and get y number of items” yet.
Only time will tell if this game will be a success or a failure. I wouldn’t attach myself to a year of playing the game if I didn’t enjoy the last couple of beta weekends. This game is getting a lot of flack in the press and by various users and I am unsure if it deserves all the complaints leveled at it. It is a slower paced game with an emphasis on story leading to a (hopefully) epic Player Versus Player endgame. Will this be enough to keep The Elder Scrolls Online as a contender in the MMO marketplace? I don’t know but I’m willing to go along for the ride.