When Matt Firor, one of the great minds behind Dark Age of Camelot walks into a dimly lit theater on the E3 2012 show floor, you know great things are going to happen. Being that this is the first time we get to lay eyes on Elder Scrolls Online, we expect great things. Personally I was wary, which is my normal reaction to Bethesda products. Knowing that this is a different development team than the standalone RPGs they normally put out, and that they've been slaving away behind the scenes for five years, I expected little when the images finally came up on the screen. I am happy to say my expectations were blown out of the water.
The presentation didn't focus on what we normally expect from MMO development first looks. We didn't see classes, or skill trees, or gameplay mechanics that would set them apart. Instead Firor focused on three game design tenants and how they fuel the development of ESO. I've organized these three tenants into what I call social, organic and consequential.
Please be warned, the only way to truly discuss these gameplay tenants is to expose, at least in small part, the actual story of the game. If you want to stay in the dark, it's best that you stop reading here.
The beginning of the presentation talked about how most of the MMO developers disregard the reason people play MMOs in the first place -- the social experience. We don't pay our monthly fees simply to log into a world to play on our own. No, we want to interact with other players, whether it's to help or hinder. Knowing this, Zenimax Online Studios thought it best to focus on the social aspects of MMO gameplay rather than bury them, so throughout Elder Scrolls Online are rewards for social gameplay -- and we're not talking about the backhanded insults that are social gaming today.
Again, the presentation didn't focus on specific gameplay mechanics. Instead they talked about examples: You are running through the forest and happen upon an Elf who is in distress. She's fighting a monster (let's call it a bear), and you feel compelled to stop and help. Normally this would be a bad thing in an MMO, since one of two things happen -- either you steal the kill, and thus the loot and experience go to you, or the Elf retains credit, and you have no reward for your heroism. In ESO however, both of you will receive full experience and loot for the kill, because this is a truly social game.
The second example deals with the open world dungeons you may remember from Dark Age of Camelot. While Elder Scrolls Online will also have instanced dungeons for your party to conquer, the developers feel that social spaces like the open world dungeons allow for players to meet, create friendships, and grow their virtual social experience.
The social rewards don't just stop at the loot and experience though. Classes can combo abilities together, the example we saw was a fire Mage's Fireball ability being turned into an AOE spell by a Warrior's spin move. These combos can happen whether or not you are grouped, so there is no down side to running up to join a fight. If you help, you'll get rewarded, not only with items, gold and experience, but also with cool gameplay interaction.
Elder Scrolls Online was developed alongside of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and borrows one of the most popular gameplay devices from that game -- open world discovery of quests. While there are of course quest hubs like one would expect to see in an MMO, ESO is much more about rewarding the player for exploring. Much like in Skyrim, finding dungeons and quests and other gameplay opportunities will mostly happen as you set out into the world to find them. Tamriel is massive, and this is finally the game that will not only let you see everything from the snowy peaks to the desert sands, you'll also find subplots and stories along the way that will deepen your gameplay experience.
For fans of Skyrim this is an important point, but for MMO players this idea of rewarding exploration and allowing the player to discover quest content organically is an entirely new concept. There is only one other game out there that does this with any finesse, and that is Guild Wars 2. How much emphasis ESO places on organic explorative content may very well be the deciding difference between a good MMO and a great one, since players love to explore the worlds they are given, so why not fill their exploration with meaningful content?
The main storyline in Elder Scrolls Online is your own personal story, and therefore the choices you make in this world will shape it permanently. The story goes that some bad guy (forgive me, I've forgotten his name) wants to destroy the world. This same baddie has stolen your soul, and in order to get it back, you're going to have to save the world. If it sounds like an ambitious storyline for an MMO, it should -- it's not often that you hear of true personal story in an MMO. Others have done it, but not done it well, so in this case I do hope that the ESO team has leaned on the knowledge of their single player counterparts.
Since you are the hero of this story, what you do affects this world. To provide an example of this we were shown a scenario in a haunted wood. This wood (whose name again escapes me) is being plagued by malevolent spirits, and the mages in the area ask you to help get rid of a werewolf zombie, the first of its kind in existence. As you venture deeper into the wood, you discover that at least one of these spirits is trying to help you. She leads you to a set of armor, which when you put it on, sends you back in time to the point when this wood was a warzone. In the past you find out that the werewolf (not yet zombified) is alive and leading the attack on the men in your army.
At this point you have a choice: You can head straight in and slaughter said werewolf in the past, or you can try to find the woman who's spirit has been helping you and save her life. In the version of the storyline we were shown, we chose to save her life, and as a reward were told that the werewolf's only weakness is fire. Heading back into the present we kill the werewolf (still no easy task), and then the spirits in the wood vanish. The mages are happy, and all seems well in the world.
Because we chose to save the woman, however, we can then head out in search of her ancestress, who will give you a quest chain to follow dealing with her family's history. This quest chain would not be available had we chosen to instead kill the werewolf, since a difference storyline would open up for us to discover.
These three gameplay tenants are formative not only to Elder Scrolls Online, but also to what I hope is the trend for more meaningful development in the MMO genre in general. As I see it now, ESO represents what modern MMO players want: To play a game that makes them feel important, lets them choose how they want to play, and rewards them for enjoying a social gaming experience. Below in the gallery you will see the other thing that impresses me about this game -- its art style. This bold approach to a beautiful world people have known for fifteen years makes me hopeful that the game will live up to its potential. Whether or not Zenimax Online Studios delivers on these grand promises remains to be seen.