The Elder Scrolls Online promises to open up the entirety of the immense continent of Tamriel, allowing players to explore places never before seen in the series.
It was rumoured for years, and at E3 2012 it was finally confirmed: The Elder Scrolls Online is coming, a game that promises to take the classic Elder Scrolls experience from titles such as Skyrim, Morrowind, and Oblivion and take it into the massively-multiplayer sphere.
While the complete game won't be on our PCs and Macs for quite a while yet, publisher Bethesda has today announced sign-ups for the upcoming beta programme. Players eager to get an early look at The Elder Scrolls Online can go to ElderScrollsOnline.com and register to be beta testers.
To mark the occasion, Screen play was offered an exclusive interview with Elder Scrolls Online's Creative Director, Paul Sage. I was only able to ask him a handful of questions, but hopefully I got some answers that Screen play readers will find interesting.
Many breathtaking vistas may be found in the gigantic world.
The first topic of discussion is ESO's first-of-its-kind server system. Rather than single, discrete servers dotted around the world, all of ESO's servers will be linked together in what they call the Megaserver. Players will never have their favourite character stranded on one server when their friends are playing on another, but instead will be intelligently placed in one of many versions of the game running on every server.
"The goal of the system is to allow players to join with the people they want to play with," Sage explained. "By eliminating server selection, you are able to join your friends at any time. While they might be in another version of an area, you can still say, I want to play with this person or these people and you or they will be moved."
The server software will also try to intelligently place you in the best version of the world without being asked, based on your guild membership and friends list. "We try to intelligently put you in the right version of an area with the people you are most likely to want to play with," Sage said.
The Argonian home city of Blackmarsh will be just one of many explorable locations.
Of course, the big question players in Australia and New Zealand will be asking is whether there will be dedicated server hardware located in the area. On that point, Sage was unfortunately non-committal, saying only, "We are aware of and understand your concerns and are currently evaluating solutions for players in New Zealand and Australia."
Local servers may be quite important for enjoying the game, as ESO will be employing a fast-paced combat system that is more like Skyrim. It will employ the familiar control combo of mouse to look around, left button to attack, and right button to block, so snappy server response will be required to make sure the deadly lag is kept to a minimum.
"Combat was designed to be engaging and exciting. That was the overriding goal," Sage explained. "We also designed a system that takes into account the online aspects, no pausing, online performance under heavy latency conditions, and so on. To be engaging, we keep the user interface to a minimum, and we want to keep the numbers and screen clutter to a minimum as well. That’s why our control scheme really gives you a good amount of control without having to look at your keyboard or onscreen elements to play. You’re looking in the world and that’s always more engaging."
Familiar places from earlier games will also make reappearances.
Given the huge battles that ESO is promising, some kind of lock-on system was required, and Sage gave me some idea of how it would work. "You’ll be fighting multiple enemies who work together against you. Sometimes they can run around and get behind one another. Given that this is online and there is often a need for help with precision, we’ve added some aiming tools that allow the player to say, 'this is the guy I want to hit in that crowd!' But you still have to face them and engage them."
Exactly how you engage with these enemies is also up to you. While ESO will have a set of archetypal classes, it has been revealed that these classes will be highly mutable, and combinations such as rogue-healer and wizard-tank will be quite possible. In addition, old-school character abilities such as strength and dexterity will be omitted, with a skill-based system much like Skyrim's being implemented instead. Sage went into some detail on the customisation of character skills.
"Our Health, Magicka and Stamina stats give players straightforward choices to make while allowing for deeper gameplay. Health for example pretty much does what you would expect, it allows you to stay alive. The more you have of it, the better off you are. Magicka, on the other hand, helps determine the strength of your magical spells as well as how many you can cast. Stamina adds to things like your damage with weapon and weapon abilities, as well as how often or how long you can block, sneak and sprint. At each level, you decide what to increase, and of course what you wear also increases your stats."
The demonic Daedroth will make their long-awaited return.
"As you grow your character, these decisions become important in the way you like to play. Maybe you want a more balanced character that can do what you want. Maybe you want to be the best healer on the field. Or maybe you want to use the weapons you find to your best advantage and be able to sneak up on opponents. You’re really crafting your character the way you see fit."
ESO will also offer the full complement of Elder Scrolls races for players to choose for their characters, and character appearance will be highly customisable. Sage went into further detail: "You can choose the way you look, pick from one of nine races, choose your alliance, choose skill lines. Upon creation of your character, players can use any armour and any weapon, there are skill lines associated with armour and weapon choices."
"There are racial skills, mundus stone buffs, and character choice in quests. There are skill lines associated with fighter's guild and mage's guild, there are crafting professions, and you can change the look of weapons and armour through crafting, individual skills lines advance, and the abilities in those skill lines advance. You can also choose how to change or morph abilities when they advance to a certain level - it goes on and on."
Players will battle terrifying new creatures, such as the Dreugh.
"The really nice thing is all of those choices are meted out over time. You really have full control over how you grow your character in nice bite sized chunks. And the growth doesn’t stop at level cap. Skills keep progressing while you are enjoying the veteran content."
There is one element in particular, however, that makes a game a true member of the Elder Scrolls family, and that is a gigantic gaming world. Sage promised that this immense scale would also be a part of ESO, and explained how the landscape would be carved up into individual areas. "Our world is divided into zones, and zones have borders which will have loading-times associated with them, though these borders and loads are kept to a minimum. The world is huge, and you will be able to explore anything in your alliance and in Cyrodiil, and many other places besides."
The classic exploratory gameplay that Elder Scrolls fans love will also be a feature of ESO. Rather than following a set sequence of quests, you will be able to simply stride off into the wilderness and see what you can find. "If you are the kind of player that likes to pick up a quest or quest line and play that quest line to the end, you can do that," Sage explained. "If you’re the kind of player who instead wants to ignore all that and just go out in the world and explore, you can do that too."
"There’s a compass that will point out when there are interesting things to see and do in an area, and there are tons of things that even the compass won’t point out; things that you will only find if you explore. We encourage players not to just follow our quest givers - we encourage them to participate in 'organic discovery'. And while you can explore, there are areas which are definitely more dangerous than other areas."
"We do also have fast travel," Sage added. "This is similar to fast travel in Skyrim, but is done through wayshrines. You have to visit a wayshrine to travel back to it, but once you have visited it you can always go back to it."
Another fascinating new feature in ESO is the implementation of PvP, or player-vs-player. Rather than having small zones or arenas where players can duke it out, ESO will offer the entire realm of Cyrodiil. The game takes place during a period of Tamriel's history when three different alliances were fighting for control of the Imperial realm of Cyrodiil, located in the centre of the continent. PvP will all take place within this area, and it will be a dynamic system in which players will work together to capture territory.
Sage explained the system in more detail. "At any time you can travel to Cyrodiil, which is a huge land filled with towns, keeps, farms, and other valuable resources. Cyrodiil provides what I think is a very compelling and cool experience. You can travel alone and try to pick off people from the other side, you can travel in a small group and try to take over farms, or you can go with a really large group and try to take over keeps."
"On the personal side, you’ll benefit directly if you kill other players because you will advance in our PvP skill lines, buy siege equipment, buy special gear, and so on. As a group, you’ll be benefiting your alliance, and yourself if you take over farms, and of course the more keeps you own, the better your alliance will be doing which can confer special bonuses to you."
"The great thing is all of this is persistent to you in your campaign. You want to know that your actions have meaning, not just now, but later, so as long as you can hold onto it, that keep is yours."
The result can be seen in the snippets of gameplay video released so far: gigantic battles featuring dozens or even hundreds of human-controlled players striving for control of the battlefield. With this many bodies on screen, however, I began to worry about how powerful your computer will need to be in order to run it.
"I think the art staff and tech staff have worked out some kind of deal with beings of greater power," Sage joked. "One of the things Matt has been very firm on is that the game must be able to run on five year old PCs and Macs. The good news is that five years ago the PCs and Macs were still pretty powerful, and our tech team has pushed the boundaries for what you get out of them." As such, it appears that players are going to get a lot of pretty visuals out of some reasonably old hardware. "Our audio is pretty outstanding as well!" added Sage.
In the end, though, online RPGs are a gamble. Even great games made by veteran studios can fail to find a sustainable audience. I concluded the interview by asking Sage why he believes ESO will thrive where many other online games have not.
"People aren’t impressed when I say our game is online; online is almost expected. So that’s where you start," he began. "You have to build a terrific RPG, a game that’s just fun to play. Combat has to be fun, the world has to be immersive and amazing to look at, the quests have to be good, advancement has to be deep, and the game has to be social. Also, you have to look at the repeatable content and veteran content and ask if it's fun."
"The community we help to start and build is what makes a game sustainable. When players engage one another, when they cooperate to do cool things, when they fight with and against each other, when they work together to solve puzzles, that is what keeps a game alive."
- James "DexX" Dominguez
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez