About a month ago, on the top floor of a seven-storey hotel whose elevators were temporarily out of service, I saw the massively multiplayer online version of The Elder Scrolls. (You know, the Skyrim series.)
Two of the top people who have been creating this game in secrecy for the last couple of years played the game in front of me. They talked about it and then turned to a few dozen games reporters and asked them if they had any questions.
Yes, I had one. It may have come off as a little rude, but it was about the very thing that had curdled much of the initial cheerfulness I'd seen online about The Elder Scrolls Online since the game was revealed this past spring in Game Informer magazine.
This is how it went...
Me: "I'm from Kotaku and a lot of our readers were initially really excited about the game, and then they began to feel like this was more World of Warcraft than it was Elder Scrolls. Some of our writers were complaining about that as well, and they felt -- whether it's stuff that was in the Game Informer story that you can't own a house because it's too difficult to implement in an MMO -- or you can't explore the whole world because some of it's being held off for expansion content, the feeling again was that this is more World of Warcraft than true to Elder Scrolls. So to people who have those anxieties and feel this is trying to be something other than what people know from the series, what's your response?"
Matt Firor, ESO game director (and longtime producer on the pre-WoW Dark Age of Camelot series): "Making an MMO is making an MMO. I worked in the industry before World of Warcraft, so I can tell you that World of Warcraft had a lot of influences from a lot of games. Our priority is to make a great game and not to make a clone of anything. You saw a lot of things [in the demo today] that have no analogue in pretty much any other MMO. I think the answer there is: the more information that comes out about it -- and when people sit down and play it, they'll realise it's different. Like our whole real-time combat system of blocking and dodging is all pretty much new. And the fact that it's based on health, stamina and magicka -- you have to maintain your stamina bar to block and it's all real-time -- gives it a completely different feel from any MMO."
Me: "But things like attacks that have cooldowns and are keyed to a toolbar and all that, which is something we're used to seeing in most MMOs, you feel that's a necessity..."
Firor: "Some attacks have cooldowns; some don't..."
Paul Sage, ESO game director: "I think the key thing there is when you look at [things like the clickable toolbar] think of it more as an accessibility thing. When it's designed and laid out, it's there to give you the ability to do something very quickly. So, versus thinking of it as 'it's-the-ability-bar' combat, think of it more as "that's a tool being used to give it a real-time feel.' Certainly some things would have a cooldown, but a lot of things have no cooldown whatsoever. So you're seeing a very reactive, fast-paced combat."
Firor: "That big two-handed power-up attack I was using in combat, that was from the toolbar. But it wasn't based on cooldown, it was based on how long I held it down. But you have to get hands-on with it."
Me: "Right. Just a final thought on this, and then I'll leave you guys be: I think some of this reaction was coming out of the sense that-and you guys had nothing to do with [EA's] The Old Republic -- but that was pushed as: 'finally we're going to get something significantly different from what everybody had been making, [from all those] games similar to World of Warcraft.' And there was an expectation and maybe even some promotion by EA that the game would feel like, 'OK, this is finally the alternative MMO for people who may not have been into those trappings.' I think now maybe you guys are freighted with those same expectations. Are those appropriate expectations? Or are maybe people conflating what they call World of Warcraft with just the necessities of MMO games?"
Firor: "I think really they just need to sit down and play it when it goes into beta. Games are a lot about feel. When you see them in a magazine it's hard to get an idea of exactly what's in it and how it plays and what features work and how, so..."
[One of the magazine editors in the room laughed]
Me: "I hate magazines, too." [everyone laughs]
Firor: I didn't mean it that way.. when explanations went out, when videos of Paul and I went out, and people actually heard about it.. explaining it [helps]..."
Let's back up. I've put the defence before the horse.
The half-hour demo of the game that preceded that bit of Q&A included a tour of the game's terrain, a play-through of some of it's distinct real-time combat, and an explanation of such non-WoW-like features as that of the ability for player faction that has won empire-wide player vs player battles to name one player as the game's emperor.
The game is set 1000 years before Skyrim, just before the rise of Tiber Septum. It's meant to be playable solo, if you'd like but is designed for you to play with friends. The game's map consists of all of Tamriel, the land of Elder Scrolls lore. The map is divided into three major areas, each run aligned with a player faction and surrounding the imperial city of Cyrodil. Players can be part of the Ebonheart Pact in the northeast, which consists of Dark Elves, Nords and Argonians, "former enemies", Firor said, "bonded in an alliance of convenience."
Or they can join the Daggerfall Covenant, "a mercantile empire of Orcs and Redguards and Bretons, who all consider themselves the true heirs to the empire." In the south-west lies the Aldmeri Dominion, a group of "high elves, the wood elves and the Khaljit, a precursor to the faction of the same name from Skyrim." Cyrodiil is filled with non-player characters who, their city overrun by the three factions, have made a pact with a Daedric prince who raises an army of the undead to resist occupation. The Prince steals your soul. To get it back, you have to be a hero to this fractured world.
The game includes three times of dungeons: group instances, in-game raids and public dungeons, "a concept that hasn't been done in MMOs in some time," Frior said. "Just like aboveground, you'll run into players below ground." These public dungeons will be more difficult to survive in than above ground, so you'll want to ask people for help or give help. You'll always be rewarded for helping people, he said.
Each character has three core characteristics: health, stamina and magic. Every class and characters within that class may have a different balance of them, and each class can in some way block, dodge or charge up power attacks. Some moves are mapped to the standard bottom-of-the-screen toolbar we've seen in other MMOs, but other basic moves like block are simply mapped to keys and can be triggered at any time without waiting for a cooldown. Blocking uses stamina, but timing blocks well can enable strong counter moves and finishing moves. The idea is for battle to feel skill-based.
Enemies simulate player character builds. You'll run into warrior enemies, bandits and necromancers, to name a few. They'll work together against you, enemy rogues dropping oil on the ground so an enemy mage can shoot fire through it. Players can do the same.
If you fight well, you earn finesse points which give you added rewards (better loot, perhaps?).
"Our game is based on one simple philosophy," Firor said, "Everywhere you go, you find something to do. You can just walk across the world and find things to do." Generally you'll be tempted to do these quests with other people, though you can solo if you want. (The entire story involving the main character plays out in single-player instances.)
"Our quests are a little more exciting than 'just go out and kill 10 rats'," he said, before showing us a sidequest that had our hero going back in time to find out how to defeat an undead warrior in the present. He classified the quest as a "POI" [point of interest] quest that would have 20 minutes of content and reward you at the end without you having to cash it in. These kinds of quests will just pop up as you walk around the world.
PvP in the game can involve small skirmishes near farms or massive sieges involving hundreds of players. The faction that achieves the majority of territory can crown a player-emperor.
Firor said that people should think of The Elder Scrolls Online as "an MMO that you can play the way you want to play."
Part of The Elder Scrolls Online's problem is that, at a glance, it really does look like other fantasy MMOs. Part of it is that, to some eyes, it doesn't look enough like an Elder Scrolls.
After Firor and Sage's presentation and after I asked my questions, I walked down the hotel stairs to the pool area where the game's publisher, Bethesda, had set up a few stations where reporters could play the upcoming first-person action-adventure Dishonored. Firor and Sage stood to the side and in an unintentional demonstration of how friendly their game will be to people with non-cutting-edge tech, proceeded to play the MMO on a humdrum MacBook tethered to an iPhone (hotel internet generally stinks).
I walked over to play some, knowing that I'm not enough of an MMO gamer to assess with my own hands how similar or different the game is from World of Warcraft. I could just ferry the complaints and concerns of others. I also could, I learned, enjoy the real-time combat in this MMO, which does indeed help it feel more like an action-based game.
As I tried to kill stuff, I asked Firor and Sage about one of the big this-doesn't-look-like-Elder-Scrolls hang-ups. This game isn't in first-person. It's in third. Why? Well, you can actually zoom in and try to play, more or less, in first-person and it's a bit of a disaster. The developers pointed out to me that you want to be able to see characters in your peripheral vision. You want to see who is flanking you. In their more open-ended combat design, a third-person camera view is needed for this. But Skyrim was open-world, I observed.
It is, they said, but its encounters don't involve the kind of surrounding crowds seen in an MMO. The other hang-up with first-person in ESO is that the first-person zoom you can use in the game doesn't show your character's arms, which you can see in the likes of Oblivion, Skyrim and similar off-line Elder Scrolls. Adding the sight of your arms to that vew, the developers told me, is not something they're focusing on.
(The idea of what they're focusing on is key. Remember the house thing? That bit from Game Informer that it just might be too difficult to do player-housing in an Elder Scrolls MMO because it was too "difficult"? That might, the devs said kindly, have been a misquote. Whether it was that or a misspeak, they say it's do-able byt not something they're focusing on now. There are, they said, a finite number of things they can focus on for now.)
Firor and Sage reminded me that the Elder Scrolls lore is its own special thing. It will help make their game feel more Elder Scrolls than anything else. And their combat will make it feel, they believe, unlike other MMOs.
Try it in beta, they say.
There will be a beta... eventually. You'll see for yourself, if you've got a half-decent PC or Mac.
The finished game -- such as MMOs are ever finished -- will be out in 2013.