Today, I want to talk about a mechanic introduced most popularly in World of Warcraft’s expansion Wrath of the Lich King. Don’t look at me like that. I didn’t actually play WoW… I just heard about this second hand. I will call this MMO storytelling mechanic “phasing.” The Elder Scrolls Online developers call it layering. But whatever you want to call it, we know ESO will employ this mechanic to allow for story progression and player choice within the game.
Let’s say you and your friend are in the open world (or maybe an instanced dungeon), and he is further along in the quest than you. At the beginning of the quest, the quest giver is alive, and by the end of questline the quest giver is dead. With phasing technology, you and your friend could be standing next to each other in the virtual world. You see him, and he sees you. But he sees a dead quest giver while you see a living one. Your computer is not broken; you are witnessing phasing. So how does this affect storytelling and the overall feel of the game itself?
Back in April, ESO developers were asked about the storytelling implication of phasing. The player, Pavle Vivec, asked how he and his friend could be in the same area if he’d saved a village and his friend had not. (Obviously, that’s not the player’s real name, but wouldn’t it be awesome if it were?) ESO devs replied in their AMA,
In some areas, phasing (or ‘layering’ as we call it) is not based on a choice, but on whether or not you’ve done a certain thing yet. In this case, separation from another player would be temporary. In other areas, it can be based off of a choice you’ve made. Those choices tend to come at the end of the activity for an area, reducing separation.
There are other mechanisms we use to reinforce choice that have nothing to do with layering. You may experience something completely different than someone else based on your individual choices, but the ways we show this don’t separate you from others at all. The latter techniques are used far more frequently than layering. And finally, there are still other solutions we’ll discuss later that enable you to better stay together with others even if you’d normally be in different layers.
I’m most interested in how this will affect playing together and what it’s going to look like to see a bunch of people standing around viewing something you don’t.
For storytelling in an MMO, phasing is wonderful. People and groups can make their own choices in a given situation and experience something completely different from each other. This will allow ZeniMax to let one player to save a village and another let it burn. Players within an MMO can experience real and lasting consequences for their characters. Star Wars: The Old Republic did this with instancing, but once you left the instance, the rest of the world kind of reset to a neutral state. Phasing allows you to revisit the areas you saved and still see the village standing. In fact, it could probably go as far as your being able to speak to certain villagers that other players don’t see because they didn’t save that particular village.
But wouldn’t seeing a bunch of people hanging out in a burned up village take you out of the game a bit? I believe ZeniMax would never do something as foolish as make one story choice more beneficial than another, so I’m not worried about the long-term effects. I can see how these certain choices could prevent me from being immersed in the game. When you see people doing things that don’t make sense in your “world,” it breaks some sort of fourth wall.
Ultimately, I will have to wait and see how ESO handles it. In the meantime, what are your thoughts on phasing — is it good or bad? What do you think will happen if there is too much phasing? What will happen if there’s not enough? Are there better ways for ESO to handle phasing?
Last week, I asked for your advice to help me land a ESO beta invite. And the only person to say anything about that was KirkSteadman, who replied, “RNG is the only thing that plays into ESO beta invites as far as I know.” I assume RNG stands for random number generation and not radioactive noble gas or really nice guy, so thanks for ruining all my hopes, Kirk. (If it does stand for really nice guy, can you tell me which really nice guy I need to talk to?)
However, commenters did discuss players taking to Twitter and announcing to the universe that they found the really nice guy and made it into the ESO beta. I don’t personally know whether the ZeniMax Community team cracks down on these testers, but there are more than enough good reasons for players to avoid openly talking about their beta invitations. As PurityKnights explained, “It makes sense why. If you admit you’re in beta, you open yourself up to people trying to talk you out of info or buying info or buying your account. It’s just better if people don’t know. Besides, the only reason you’d want to announce it is to brag or feel special. That’s not the point of a beta.”
If you do happen to meet a really nice guy, Margaret gave some advice that I plan to adopt myself. “My biggest piece of advice is to give yourself a hilarious name [since] your character is going to be wiped anyway,” she says. “And have fun, explore, find some bugs, and try not to be quite as serious as you would if playing for real. Take a look at the game from a different perspective; play a character you wouldn’t normally play.”
Great advice and discussion as usual, guys. This week, let me know what you think about phasing. Next week, some of you will read one post and the others will read a different post depending on your personal choices in the comments. See you then.
Each week, traverse the treacherous terrain of Tamriel with Larry Everett as he records his journey through The Elder Scrolls Online, an MMORPG from ZeniMax. Comments are welcome below, or send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org. He promises to keep the arrow-to-the-knee jokes to a minimum.