Righting the ship: a look at Elder Scrolls Online's future

"Look up, here it comes," the guy behind me whispers. There's something akin to reverence in his voice. I look up at the screen on QuakeCon's main stage to see footage of some thug pilfering the crates and boxes surrounding a shopkeeper's stand, taking care to avoid her gaze. The text accompanying each of the items is red; he's stealing. A guard catches him, and he's asked to hand over the value of the items, which amounts to a measly five gold. He obliges. The guy behind me is snickering now, and I hear a slap that must be a high-five he shared with his friend.

The perspective shifts; we're now behind the twin blades of some Nightblade slinking about the Daggerfall Covenant town of Wayrest. He sneaks up behind poor Phillic Menant, who's just strolling over to chat with the local stablemaster. The blades flash, Phillic falls with a bloody splash, and the crowd around me collectively leans forward. This is something new; something unexpected. "We'd like to encourage everybody to start killing NPCs in the game," says Paul Sage, ESO's creative director, just as we see an archer fire an arrow through an NPC enjoying the morning air. And the entire crowd goes wild.

The last time I'd experienced this level of excitement for Elder Scrolls Online , I was sitting in a cramped room in Maryland with other journalists watching the first reveal of the game's first person combat. In that moment, we saw a glimpse of an Elder Scrolls MMO that could live up to fans' expectations and distinguish itself from the morass of bland competitors. Like that crowd at QuakeCon, we gasped. Over the intervening two years or so, I've often wondered if ZeniMax and other developers would benefit from gathering a crowd of MMO enthusiasts in a similar room, presenting them with concept footage, and then focusing exclusively on the bits that gets the room o ohing and ahhing .

Paul Sage seems to feel the same way, although he attests he gets most of his insights into the game's health from ESO's forums and his own experience from leveling a character. In an interview after the presentation, he speaks of the clarity he finds in the post-launch development process that isn't as strong in the beta. With so many people treating the game's beta as a straight preview, he says, there's a danger of focusing on false positives.

"After launch, you don't have people who come in and say, like, 'I don't like this' within five minutes or they have weird patterns because they haven't paid for it," he says. "People in betas are sometimes looking for that 10-minute thrill versus the long play, although an MMO is really about your investment in your character and community. I think that investment doesn't get to happen in beta."

The footage I saw in Dallas depicted an improved game that seems tailored to meet most of the criticisms bandied about in reviews by folks who weren't quite so receptive. The list of changes is impressive—staggering, even. The footage of killing and stealing sprang from only one segment of the two-hour presentation, which centered on a new Justice system that would encourage world PvP by allowing players to hunt down folks who engaged in such misdeeds. Other features include:

  • New, smaller PvP and PvE zones within the besieged Imperial City
  • Horse racing
  • A new veteran dungeon
  • Dungeon scaling
  • Updated facial animations
  • Tweaks to combat responsiveness
  • New crafting motifs that introduce armor from series favorites like the Dark Brotherhood and the Thieves Guild.

Much of this new content centers on broadening the existing experience rather than tacking new content on at the end, in an effort to deliver gameplay that's genuinely "Elder Scrolls." It's exactly the kind of content I'd hoped for when I expressed the need for ESO to “grow” earlier this month. About 30 percent of the ideas in the presentation are new, Sage says—the rest were considered in the initial development process but sidelined by the demands of the release window. "It's fun to do a leveling game," Sage says, "but I think there's something magical about having all these activities that you can do regardless of your level."

ZeniMax's desire to improve the core experience popped up in other entries on the list, revealing an ambitious vision for improving the game that would more comfortably fit in an expansion pack for most other MMORPGs. Spellcrafting, for instance, at last makes its appearance (although it's kept in check by a series of rules that keep you from being able to nuke Daedric lords with one fireball). Reviews at launch tended to criticize the game's phasing and its tendency to keep group players from seeing each other in the world; in a future update, groups will automatically sync with the leader, and the journal and quest tracker will show which quests you share with your comrades. The veteran experience, which I deplored somewhat in a recent article, will be augmented with the "Champion" system that rewards passives via constellations much as in Skyrim.

That's an impressive list by any measure, and it was easy to get the impression from the presentation that we'd be seeing this all in a matter of weeks. Not necessarily so; during the Q&A session a viewer on Twitch asked when we'd see some improvements to ESO's werewolves, and the answer from Lead Gameplay Designer Nick Konkle involved "months."

This marks a sharp departure from the practices of most other MMO developers, who tend to either drop patches with little warning or after a testing period lasting only a few weeks. Almost never do they announce this many upcoming features at once. I asked Sage why they took the risk.

"We're being pretty open at this point because I want feedback on these systems before we release them," he says. "I think the earlier you get feedback from the playerbase and you gauge the excitement level, the better your systems will grow with your playerbase."

How does Sage expect to make that playerbase grow? By making ESO's current players as happy as possible. In time, he seems to suggest, that commitment should attract others and win over players who may have already jumped ship. For my money, it wouldn't hurt to keep pumping updates full of "wow" moments such as the ones we saw when ESO's formerly inviolate NPCs fell dead underneath a storm of player arrows.

The more Elder Scrolls that gets put into Elder Scrolls Online, the better.