If you’re the type to commit your early-morning hours to gaming as I am, you’re probably waiting for E3 to open its floodgates. This year’s Expo might be a few weeks away, but the gaming community is getting its fair share of glimpses and leaks thanks to publisher previews, and last week, Bethesda and ZeniMax joined forces for a press event in LA to preview The Elder Scrolls Online.
Mystery and suspicion has surrounded the game so far; it’s the MMO entry in a long series of single-player installments for a beloved IP, so players are anxious to see how the transition from single-player adventuring to massively online gaming will play out. Unfortunately, the build I saw used only a third-person perspective and excluded PvP, but I still got a solid look at the game.
First off, the character customization is robust. Players can fine-tune nearly any characteristic they can imagine, emphasizing individuality. Leveling up is pretty straightforward, allowing the player to focus points on health, magic, and stamina. These aspects need no introduction. Questing comes easily as NPCs toting optional quests have a very obvious yellow aura surrounding them. Taking off into the city of Daggerfall, my character happened to chance across the first quest-giver of the entire demo: Giblets the dog.
ESO features a few creative limitations, such as the ability restriction. Characters can use only six abilities at one time, but the harmony of those effects pays off. Just like its single-player predecessors, the game ensures skill-leveling is use-based, but sadly the acrobatics skill won’t see a return (sorry, no castle-jumping in MMOs).
Here’s the part that intrigued me: At no point did the gameplay experience resemble an MMO. Sure, players weren’t allowed to run rampant through NPC houses to steal everything in sight, and questing was still limited to “gather such item” or “talk to NPC B because NPC A doesn’t feel like walking 10 feet” (those NPCs can be lazy!), but venturing out into the world felt natural, as if I were in any other Elder Scrolls title. The world is still populated with points of interest that actually generate interest. Players will find the nooks, crannies, hidden tunnels and decaying fortresses that dot the Tamriel landscape just as in the earlier games. There’s a higher emphasis on exploration with ESO, and though some MMOs can deliver sub-par exploration opportunities, this demo felt authentic and met my expectations. Houses, taverns, and shops are plunderable too, with an occasional book lying around to let you dig into the vast lore about the game. While the Tamriel server was scarcely populated with a handful of testers in our Razer-themed room, Daggerfall and the surrounding areas were immersive enough to allow me to forget that there were other press folks tackling the same quests I was.
ZeniMax has apparently listened to gamer gripes about previous titles and how an MMO should work as the “odd man out” of a series of games. ZeniMax has already addressed concerns about the lore, hoping to calm fears about how ESO will fit into Tamriel’s overarching tale, and the studio must also focus on ridding the MMO of bugs, since we all know previous Elder Scrolls titles took too many arrows to the knee when it came to loopholes and glitches. Before I left the demo, I spoke with ZeniMax reps to get a few questions answered, and later still, Matt Firor chimed in with a few clarifications.
Massively: ESO is a massive undertaking for any game, not just an MMO. How will the team attack the development issue and bugs that were common to Skyrim and previous games?
ZeniMax: We have a huge onsite QA team that’s going through testing, but we also plan to have a pretty long and comprehensive beta so that we can find a lot of these issues and work on that kind of stuff to make sure that it’s as clean as we can possibly make it. Last week was the most recent [closed beta].
What do you think is ESO’s most outstanding game mechanic compared to those of your biggest MMO rivals on the market right now?
ZeniMax: The character customization. Each class has three unique skill lines, but everybody can use any weapon or armor type. In the full game, you’ll be able to find more skill lines in the world with the Mages Guild, the Fighters Guild, those kinds of things. You have an unbelievable number of options to choose between and create your character.
Will there be a return of the Thieves Guild?
ZeniMax: Not at launch.
(/sadface) Will there be any mobile apps, sort of like an auction house app or something similar?
ZeniMax: That’s something we’ve discussed, but that will be after we have shipped.
What kind of tradeskill training can you do?
ZeniMax: There’s cooking, armorsmith, enchanting, and then alchemy. You can deconstruct things, which is how you gain skill, and you can refine things as well, sort of the same as in Skyrim.
The Elder Scrolls series is certainly a long, successful series of single-player games, but now we’re seeing the next installment morph into an MMO genre. How do you think huge fans of Elder Scrolls might respond to the change in the series, since many of the core mechanics will have to change in order to fit the requirements of an MMO?
Matt Firor: The Elder Scrolls is an IP full of rich lore and the legacy of five games over the last 20 years, but each of those games has brought something different to the table, as they are not all clones of one another. So think of ESO as an Elder Scrolls game set in Tamriel, but not trying to be exactly like the others. We are the “multiplayer” Elder Scrolls, so with that we bring some different dynamics, systems, and of course, the ability to play with (and against) other players.
But of course, to make the game immediately familiar to anyone who played the other games, we’ve kept many of the major systems (combat and questing are great examples) very similar to those systems found in Oblivion and Skyrim. Our goal is that you should feel instantly at home when you sit down the play the game.
Previously we’ve seen some ES titles carry rough development processes, especially on consoles, and I think the community is ready to see a “bug tackling.” How is ZeniMax prepared to tackle potential bugs?
Firor: Even though ZeniMax Online is a relatively new studio, we are made up of online gaming veterans, most of whom have shipped multiple online titles and are familiar with the pitfalls and inherent problems that can arise in a connected online game. Our robust QA team keeps track of all outstanding bugs and works with the dev team to make sure that these bugs are addressed as quickly as possible. The game’s beta program (which has been running for a few months now) is our best defense against bugs, balance, and stability problems. Online games like ESO tend to have long beta tests just to make sure that everything is working as intended.
Gamers are understandably concerned about how ESO fits into the overall lore of the Elder Scrolls universe. Can you spend a bit of time on the lore and where it fits in?
Firor: We are set approximately 1000 years before Skyrim. As we all know (spoiler alert!) at the end of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the last of the Septim Emperors (Martin) is killed, and the Empire goes into a steep decline. That Dynasty, the first modern Empire to control all of Tamriel, was founded by Tiber Septim, who ruled all of the continent (more or less) from the Imperial City.
The Elder Scrolls Online is set just before Tiber Septim’s rise to power in a time when there is much chaos and civil war in Tamriel. It is a perfect setting for an online RPG; the provinces and races are the same as in the other Elder Scrolls titles, but it is a time of no central authority, of alliances and war. It gives developers a setting familar enough to make ESO players comfortable but distant enough for us to be able to tell our own stories and introduce new characters and situations. And if you look closely, you’ll find tons of callouts to events that will happen in the future that you may have experienced in one of the other Elder Scrolls games.
Many thanks to Matt Firor and the ZeniMax dev team for their answers and for the demo!