The Elder Scrolls Online – Good MMORPG but bad Elder Scrolls game?

The Elder Scrolls Online(TESO) has been rumoured to exist for a long time at this point, but very little was actually known other than “it will be an MMORPG set in Tamriel/Nirn”. Since Zenimax Online Studios was set up (2007), fans have been waiting for it, or something very similar to be revealed but with scarce info thus far. This week however, came the announcement, announcement trailer and a whole flood of screenshots and info. Game Informer have an article in their current issue with a first look at the game and its features. As I’ve mentioned before, I have been a huge fan of the Elder Scrolls franchise since Morrowind so the announcement was something which piqued my interest straight away. At first there was way too little information to form a valid opinion on what the game would be like, but after reading the Game Informer article and after letting it sink in I have some thoughts on the game. I’m going to break it down by feature and discuss what I think. I’ll more than likely pick the game up on release but I do have some issues with it thus far.

The game will be in third person

This one isn’t a huge shock, and to be honest it doesn’t really bother me all that much. It may take away from the immersion element of an Elder Scrolls title, which is one of the main strengths they have, but at the same time it’s not a huge concession in order to move the game from single player to massively multiplayer. It won’t change a huge amount of the game for me, apart from the fact that I will most likely create a female character because if I have to look at someone’s ass for the majority of my gameplay then… well it’s self explanatory.

The game will have a hotbar to activate skills and will not have real-time combat

The developers explain that this is a technical choice rather than a game design choice, as real-time combat can be frustrating when latency is an issue. That being said, this is a harsh sell to Elder Scrolls fans. One thing I really enjoyed since Morrowind was the progression of combat throughout the Elder Scrolls series. Morrowind’s combat was quite annoying, especially if you had low levelled combat skills since you could “miss” an opponent who was 10cm in front of you. This led to a lot of time early in the game spent swinging your sword like a crazy person and ending up hitting an enemy twice out of three hundred attempts. Oblivion was where the combat got more interesting and started to feel weighty, with no sign of “misses”. Suddenly you had to raise a shield in order to block and your arrows actually traveled somewhat naturally. Skyrim improved the system once again, resulting in a very rewarding and fun combat system which added a great deal to the immersion of the title. Taking away these elements which have become a strong part of the franchise is unfortunate at best and may result in a lot of Elder Scrolls fans being unhappy.

The game will have “levelled” areas like most MMORPGs

This one just hurts. One of the biggest joys of playing an Elder Scrolls game, be it your first time or your fifty first time, is walking out into the world and thinking “I can go wherever I want? Seriously? My god this place is huge.” I talked before, in my post comparing Skyrim and Amalur, about how great that feeling of hugeness is. Having areas in your game that are either inaccessible or impossible to deal with until you reach a certain level is the furthest thing from “Elder Scrolls” I can think of. I’m a fan of linearity done right(the Uncharted series for example) but Elder Scrolls is not and should not be a linear game. This feature in my opinion is one of the toughest for current Elder Scrolls fans to overcome, myself included.

The game will have “hubless” design

The Game Informer article describes this feature as “allows players to enjoy whatever piques their interest as they wander the world, so long as you are appropriately levelled.” As a feature for an MMORPG, this is fantastic. I truly do applaud some of the game design for TESO when compared to other MMORPGs which have been released and will be released that it will have to compete with. They are trying to make a really good MMORPG and to be fair, they have a lot of good designs in place that, if implemented correctly, will pay off big time for them. Unfortunately for us Elder Scrolls fans, once again that last part breaks my heart. “so long as you are appropriately levelled.” Once again this hurts the very nature of what makes Elder Scrolls special.

The game will have kill and collection quests

Maybe it’s just me, but there has got to be a better way to do quests in this day and age. Kill quests are where the player has to “Kill 6 bears and then return to me for a reward.” and collection quests are “Kill 6 bears, don’t forget to loot their pelts, and return to me for a reward”. These quests appear in Skyrim, don’t get me wrong, but I think I have come across 4 in total during my 200 or so hours play time thus far. And in Skyrim they are mini miscellaneous quests you complete without ever intending on doing so. According to Game Informer, in TESO they will be implemented similar to how they are in most MMORPGs. They’ll be the intermediate quests in a larger questline or something similar. I was really hoping this was one of the areas which TESO could excel. Skyrim provides an enormous amount of quests which very rarely result to these MMORPG staples. But I guess this is another concession to making the game massively multiplayer, although one I’m not a fan of.

The game will use “phasing”

This one is tricky and could either be great or terrible, depending on implementation. “Phasing” in an MMORPG means that each player will see a different world, depending on how far into certain questlines they are and can’t interact with players in different “phases” to them. It seems like Zenimax Online have this one covered to me, stating they know the pitfalls associated with this type of feature and are working on ways to avoid them. We’ll have to wait for more info to judge this one fully.

The game will have public dungeons

I think public dungeons are a great idea in theory, but hard to implement. This is the alternative to having “instanced” dungeons, which means when a player or group enters a dungeon, they will be in a different “instance” of that dungeon to other players and groups currently exploring the same content. I think even Zenimax Online aren’t 100% sure how to implement these public dungeons correctly since they’ve said there will also be “instanced” dungeons in the game. Curious, but again until we see how these are implemented, there isn’t much more to say.

The game will not be based on the “holy trinity”

In MMORPGs the “holy trinity” is the three archetypes under which every character class or build falls – Tank, Healer and DPS(Damage per second). Tanks are responsible for taking the most damage and being on the front lines, Healers are responsible for making sure the other characters don’t die and DPS characters are responsible for dealing the most damage to the target. That’s the basic idea of the “holy trinity”. With TESO Zenimax Online intends “for any five reasonably skilled players to be able to form a group capable of clearing most content”. This is an approach which modern MMORPGs are taking, Guild Wars 2 for example, in order to provide a new and fresh experience for their players who are sick of World of Warcraft and its clones. I think this is another great MMORPG feature to have, and one that also helps the Elder Scrolls fans. While we are unlikely to be able to level every skill available in the game to the maximum level as in Skyrim and become some sort of multi-talented divine being able to wield a two handed war hammer as skillfully as we can fling fireballs, the hybrid class mentality behind this is maintained.

The game will not have “aggro”

This feature is one of the more ambitious the title has to offer. The idea is that instead of enemies standing at the other side of a room in a dungeon, doing nothing while you kill their buddies,  that every room should be a self encapsulated encounter. The enemies in a room should react accordingly to your presence, working together in strategic ways so that as you are trying to manage the enemies they are trying to manage you and your group as well. On paper this could very well be the strongest feature of the title. But unfortunately, as of yet, it’s only on paper and is yet to be seen in action. If this works well it could make TESO one of the most engaging and compelling MMORPGs out there, if it doesn’t work well it could make every encounter into a messy nightmare that is completely luck based. Here’s hoping it’s done well though.

The game is class based

Skyrim has a very open ended character system, where you simply use the skills you like in order to improve them. For balancing reasons, this is obviously not an ideal choice for an MMORPG, although could certainly be interesting. I, and I’m sure many other Elder Scrolls fans, would have loved to see this attempted since it is quite a unique system to the Elder Scrolls series and again something we have grown accustomed to. A generic class based system unfortunately leads TESO down the “generic” MMORPG route, which I fear is not a route the Elder Scrolls fans will appreciate.

The game will feature combo abilities

In another move similar to Guild Wars 2, TESO will allow players(and enemies) to combine their abilities in interesting ways. This seems like another great move by Zenimax Online in order to allow TESO to compete with other MMORPGs on the market or soon to be on the market. Little is known yet as to how broad this feature will be, but I certainly relish the idea of enemies using combos on me to provide challenging and varying encounters. Since it has very little downside for Elder Scrolls fans, this feature gets a full thumbs up from me. Although again it leads me to believe that Zenimax Online are developing an Elder Scrolls skinned MMORPG, not an online Elder Scrolls experience.

The game will feature the guilds

The Fighter’s Guild, Mage’s Guild, Thieves Guild and the Dark Brotherhood are all confirmed to have an appearance, and most importantly for the Elder Scrolls fans, the player will be allowed join them all. The way the guilds are being handled however, strays a fair amount from the typical Elder Scrolls experience. In Skyrim, and indeed Oblivion and Morrowind too, the guilds represent additional questlines which in a lot of cases are more intriguing than the main questlines of those games. Each guild has a unique questline which to me has always felt like I was getting to play through multiple stories during my game instead of just one in an “average” game. Instead of this however, it appears that the Fighter’s Guild and the Mage’s Guild at least, are simply factions you can increase your reputation with. The Fighter’s Guild rewards you for destroying Dark Anchors spread throughout the land and the Mage’s Guild for collecting lore books. That, to me, sounds like more kill and collection quests and not extra questlines. The Thieves Guild and Dark Brotherhood have only been confirmed for the title, but with no details as to how they fit in. My hopes for them are quite low considering the Fighter’s and Mage’s guilds, but I would love to be pleasantly surprised here. If you’re an Elder Scrolls fan looking for an engaging questline out of each guild… you should maybe wait for Skyrim’s sequel instead.

PvP

There is some seemingly great PvP content in TESO. The center of the continent of Cyrodiil is a PvP area which each of the three player factions contest over. The three factions, determined by the race of your character, are the Ebonheart Pact(Dunmer, Nords and Argonians), the Aldmeri Dominion(Altmer, Bosmer and Khajiit) and the Daggerfall Covenant(Bretons, Redguard and Orcs). The Imperials, as a race, are antagonists to all and are not playable. So the PvP in TESO is “open world, free-from and faction-versus-faction”. This makes for a very impressive sounding feature whereby each of the three factions fight for locations in Cyrodiil with a dominating faction getting to crown a new Emperor after conquering the Imperial City. Having a three way battle, constantly being waged, supporting up to 100 vs 100 person battles seems like it could be another great feature for an MMORPG. Elder Scrolls fans have no PvP at present so they can’t be disappointed by this really.

End game

The end game is all important in any MMORPG as many fans of these games will tell you the game starts once you reach the level cap. TESO provides heroic(harder) versions of the dungeons you will have come across during your leveling and also high end public dungeons to provide some interesting opportunities for max level players. Naturally the PvP will be the biggest draw at end game, but I’m sure players can continue to find lore books for the Mage’s Guild for hours of… “gameplay”. There isn’t a huge amount of other info about the end game as of yet though.

Other Elder Scrolls touchstones included and not included

Daedric Princes are in, and will be part of the main questline. Crafting, Alchemy and Soul Gems are confirmed but their details are not. Vampires and Werewolves are both confirmed but the player will not be able to become either, resulting in even more disappointment from Elder Scrolls fans. Player houses are also out, which is more understandable but also more of that “Elder Scrolls experience” we are losing with this title. Stealth is confirmed, but no details are available as of yet. TESO will be fully voice acted, which should help Elder Scrolls fans at least remember the good times they’ve had playing Skyrim and Oblivion. But in all seriousness full voice acting is great for immersion. Nothing kills immersion faster than having to read chunks of text every time you get a quest.

Final thoughts

And that’s about the jist of it. Overall I think TESO sounds like a great MMORPG with lots of appeal for MMORPG fans. But as an Elders Scrolls game, I’m less than pleased with it. When the announcement was first made I had visions of this being a more accessible and fantasy themed Eve Online style MMO and I thought I was going to be sucked into an incredible Elder Scrolls experience for the first time with other people. Instead it seems like a fairly generic but modern MMO, set in Tamriel/Nirn without a lot of the “hugeness” I’ve come to expect and love about the Elder Scrolls series. I encourage you all to go read the latest Game Informer issue and make your opinions of The Elder Scrolls Online. And please let me know your own thoughts as either an Elder Scrolls fan or an MMORPG fan.

Eoghan O’Donovan

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Learning from Games

The world seems to have woken up to the world of gaming only recently. The success of the iPhone/iPad and Angry Birds/FarmVille has set the wheels turning in everyone’s brain. How can I make the most of this new trend? How can I get my share of the games profits? I feel like a lot of companies and people are treating the games industry as just the latest hot thing to try and exploit. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a huge amount of room for games to excel across many different sectors including Internet based businesses and even Education, but I worry that people are approaching it in the wrong way.

I attended The Dublin Web Summit a few months ago, representing Open Emotion Studios with Paddy Murphy, and we were the only game studio in the room with a stand. But the amazing thing was the amount of attention we got just because of that! We had at least five different companies, if not more, approach us for ideas on how to “gamify” their product. “Gamification”, as far as I understand it, is the idea of using game mechanics to make your product or service more appealing. Points, achievements etc. There are many different levels of “Gamification” obviously, but that’s the basic idea. While it’s great to see a move in this direction, I think there is a huge amount of untapped potential that non-gaming businesses fail to see yet.

I want to take Education as the area to discuss in the rest of this post, as I think it’s a prime example of missed opportunity thus far. Games teach us things. At present this is not intentional, and yet they are a really effective tool for learning. Let’s take Angry Birds as a quick example first, since it has such a wide audience. If I asked an average person a seemingly complicated Applied Maths question about projectiles, asking what angle you need to launch something at in order to have it travel the furthest distance, I guarantee you that more people would be able to answer it now than 5 years ago. Many of them probably couldn’t tell you why, or would only be able to give you half an answer but Angry Birds has unintentionally taught people the answer. If you aim too high the bird will go high not far and if you aim too low you’ll hit the ground earlier. So people will aim “somewhere in the middle” to go furthest. (45 degrees is the correct answer for anyone wondering).

Games have been teaching things to people for a lot longer than Angry Birds also. When I was growing up two games I played were Age of Empires and Magic the Gathering. Age of Empires taught me more history than I learned in school, without a doubt. I learned about the Romans, the Greeks and so much Medieval history in general. And what’s more is it gave me an interest in learning more about those periods and civilisations when it came to school.

Magic the Gathering is a physical card game where you use a combination of spells and creatures to try and reduce your opponents life total from 20 to 0. Naturally enough, and this may seem small, but this greatly improved my basic arithmetic. When you’re weighing up different options, trying to decide what cards to play and when, you are constantly using arithmetic to calculate which option is best. Again there is a lot more to the game than this, but the moral of the story is, my mental arithmetic improved without me ever intentionally working at it.

This is the area I feel games and Education could truly prosper. If we start creating engaging games which from the ground up are intended to educate the users, without ever telling the user they are being educated, kids and people in general will begin to learn things without ever trying to. Most of us do not have the drive to teach ourselves, if we did then Education would be unnecessary. Games are fun, and are now more socially acceptable than ever, so let’s harness the power they have and convince parents and people everywhere how fun it can be to learn new things!

Skyrim and Amalur – A Comparison

I want to begin this musing by saying that I am a huge Elder Scrolls fan. When I was growing up the game that made me think about getting into game development was Diablo, followed by Diablo 2. But the game that cemented that fact for me was Morrowind. And what a game that was. I was about 12 or 13 the first time I played it, and for me it was the openness that blew me away and the world that sucked me in. No other game I had played up until that point was so… huge. As a player I felt like I could do anything I wanted. Which is why I stole every spoon, fork and plate just because I could. I remember walking up to the Silt Strider in Seyda Neen(the starting town) to fast travel to another town for maybe the third time and then suddenly coming to the realisation that this wasn’t a game where you have to “teleport” between levels. I could WALK to Balmora(the second town) if I wanted to! And that’s when the game captured the guts of 400 hours of my childhood.

Silt Strider from Morrowind

Actually... I think I'll walk

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was a great addition to the series and while I had my issues with it, it was still more of that Elder Scrolls world I had fallen in love with. Fallout 3 to me was “Oblivion 2:The Dark Future” more so than a sequel to the original Fallout games. And the build up to Skyrim releasing was nerve-wracking and painful. It was similar to the Diablo 3 build up which is currently driving me crazy. But when Skyrim released, it was fantastic. I’ve never been happier with an Elder Scrolls game. Oblivion was great but never lived up to Morrowind for me. But Skyrim… Skyrim was like the amalgamation of everything I loved in Morrowind and everything they improved in Oblivion, and more. The world drew me in, the scale still blew me away, the combat was more fun and everything just felt bigger and better.

Alright now that I’ve explained how much I adore the Elder Scrolls franchise, I want to talk about a game which was released a little too soon(for me) after Skyrim and is in some ways similar, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. I keep seeing the two games getting compared and I keep hearing the reasons why one is better than the other. But to me, even though they are similar in the sense that they are both open world RPGs, they are miles different with the experience they are providing.

Skyrim is a world where things seem real. There are dragons, there is magic and a whole host of other unrealistic elements, but they are all handled in a way which makes you think “If Skyrim was real, all of this stuff could totally make sense.”. Amalur as a world, is not in any way trying to be real. They push the fantasy elements in more colourful and crazy ways. Artistically and stylistically Amalur is beautiful, but completely unrealistic. Greatswords in Amalur are huge and  exaggerated, hammers are much the same. Everything in Amalur is done to make you, as the player, feel awesome. What’s interesting to me is how the two games are taking the same initial concept and going completely separate but equally awesome directions. At this point I find it important to note that the Executive Designer on Amalur, Ken Rolston was previously the Lead Designer on both Morrowind and Oblivion.

You call that a hammer? THIS is a hammer!

There are two major reasons why I loved the 80 hours(so far) that I’ve put into Amalur. The first is that feeling of being awesome. There are a whole bunch of “feel good” games these days where you play an empowered character capable of taking on the world, but there’s a lot more to it than that in Amalur. To me as a game designer, Amalur is a masterpiece. Starting characters in Amalur feel quite bland to play. You have one attack combo which involves hammering the attack button and watching your character go through his three piece combo. When you unlock a new skill in Amalur it adds a new level to your character rather than just adding another “this spell/ability deals X damage blah blah blah”. You skills add depth to the gameplay. They allow you to charge up an attack with the attack button. Or change up your combo by delaying a button press rather than hammering the button. And once this started to happen, I knew Amalur was something special. Suddenly I wasn’t leveling my character so that I do slightly more damage, take slightly more damage and wear slightly better equipment. I was leveling up to see what other interesting things my character could do. There’s something incredibly rewarding about a game, especially an RPG, that allows you to unlock new parts of your character’s moveset.

Another way in which Amalur is a godsend designwise is in inventory management. Most of the loot you find in a game like this is stuff you want to sell back to a vendor, naturally. Every gamer and designer knows this. Skyrim again takes the “realistic” approach, as suits the title, and you need to sell potions to a potion vendor, weapons to a weapon vendor etc. Skyrim also gives vendors a set amount of currency for the day, so if you need to sell more stuff, you need to wait for them to gain this back. Amalur on the other hand, makes selling stuff a breeze. I honestly did not realise how much hassle it was to sell my loot in Skyrim until I played Amalur. In Amalur, as you’re adventuring through caves or open plains, you can go into your inventory and choose any item to be added to your Junk pile. Then on returning to any vendor, you can sell each and every item in that Junk pile with one button press. That’s right, a single button press. Another design choice I personally loved was the ability to “respec” your character as you wished. That opened up a whole new level of the game for me. Instead of spending 10 minutes weighing up my options every time I leveled up, I was choosing what I thought I wanted straight away because I wasn’t being punished for making a wrong decision. All of these things allows you to keep having a lot of fun with title by avoiding the usually tedious aspects of RPGs.

I mentioned earlier there were two big things that made me love my experience with Amalur. The game design is the first. The second is that it gave me that feeling I got when I first played Morrowind. It’s a feeling which is really hard to put into words but basically it’s a feeling of “this game is just so vast compared to anything else I’ve played”. It’s not just that the world is huge, or that it’s varied, or that there is so much to do but a combination of all these things. As I played Amalur I couldn’t help think “if this was the first open world RPG I played at age 13, it would have had as big an impact on me as Morrowind did.” And that’s possibly the one of the biggest compliments I can give a game to be honest. Amalur wasn’t perfect, no more so than Morrowind was in its time, but hot damn it’s a fantastic game!

So to collect my thoughts and musings, as this seems to have turned into a longer post than I intended, I love both of these games. I think Skyrim is leaps and bounds ahead of any other game world out there. I can get completely lost in the experience to the point that I forget I have a life outside of Skyrim. But I think Amalur is so incredibly well designed as a game, that it would almost be impossible not to have fun playing it. So my final point is this: there will never be a perfect game in any genre because you have to make concessions on certain aspects of a game to make others perfect. But Skyrim and Amalur are both phenomenal, so check them out!

Eoghan “megajenius” O’Donovan

Who the hell am I?

That’s a pretty hefty question to start a blog off with, but don’t worry, I won’t go all philosophical on you guys. I’m Eoghan O’Donovan, college trained programmer, self trained game designer. I’ve been in the Games Industry for almost two years at this point, but I’ve wanted to be a game designer for pretty much my whole life. I’ve found the best way to get better at game design is to constantly think about it, and I reckon the best way to constantly think about it is to write frequent blog posts.

I’m a Computer Science graduate, a course I enrolled in purely as a stepping stone to getting into the Games Industry. I am not a programmer at heart so you will probably see very few posts about programming, if any, on this blog. I think programming is a fantastic skill to have at your disposal as a game designer, but it’s not in any way a requirement.

I spent the last year and a half working for Open Emotion Studios, which I have recently left behind me so I can move onto bigger and better things! When I joined the company, I was the only full time member of staff alongside the founders. In the 18 months I spent at the company I learned a hell of a lot and worked in a hell of a lot of roles. I’ve brought 4 games from conception to release as part of the studio (Mad Blocker Alpha, Ninjamurai, Revoltin’ Youth and I Kill Zombies), the first three of which I was majorly involved in and the last one I only played a minor role in. I worked for just under 6 months on an unannounced game as Lead Game Designer, a project to be published by Swedish publisher Paradox Interactive, the publishers behind Magicka, Mount & Blade, and many other great titles. I was the Manager of the Dublin branch of Open Emotion Studios for 7 months before it was closed by the company for financial reasons.

I gained a wealth of experience from my time at Open Emotion Studios and also some great contacts and friends. I’m currently looking for a new position in the Games Industry in Ireland and I’m working on a few bits and pieces along the way. This will hopefully be the most boring of all my blog posts, but it always helps to know a bit about the person who’s words you’re reading.

I don’t know everything about Game Design and I never will. It’s an area that I will continue to learn about for the rest of my life. But I’m hoping I can at least raise some interesting points or just post my crazy musings over the future of this blog.

So that’s who the hell I am!

Eoghan “megajenius” O’Donovan