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The Elder Scroll of Speculation

May 3, 2012 2 comments

Game Informer today confirmed the not-so-secret existence of an an already-in-development Elder Scrolls Online MMO.  Porting the highly successful single-player Elder Scrolls franchise to a massively-multiplayer environment is a high risk, high reward move for ZeniMax Studios.  On one hand, already having a huge fan base to draw on means that the studio can count on a fair amount of revenue up front on release as long as they deliver a working game.  On the other hand, those same fans are going to demand the kind of game experience that they’ve come to expect from other games in the franchise: a rich open world where players decide how they want to play.   Translating that single-player experience into a multi-player environment may not be simple, so ZeniMax will have to come up with some fairly creative solutions to bring the Elder Scrolls alive in a way that mediates the demands of the MMO genre with expectations of their players.

While ZeniMax probably won’t give away too many details about specific game mechanics this far out from release, we can probably expect to hear soon about overarching design concepts and major game features.  When Game Informer releases an exclusive trailer tomorrow, my biggest fear is that we’ll see a game that resembles another attempt to piggy-back off World of Warcraft.  While this approach has arguably worked for some MMO franchises (e.g. Rift and SWTOR), it also tends to draw a lot of criticism from MMO players and probably cut hard into those franchises’s potential growth than if they’d tried a different approach.  Don’t get me wrong, WoW is a great game even seven years after release – but if I want to play it, I’ll play Blizzard’s version and I believe many other players feel the same way.   Blizzard had seven years to flesh out what is, at its core, a very structured MMO experience.  Even a great emulation of that style of game play, especially without those seven extra years of development, is probably going to pale in comparison to precedent set by the open worlds of previous Elder Scrolls game.

Tomorrow, if we’re comparing ZeniMax’s Elder Scrolls MMO to any other game on the market, I hope we’re talking about EVE Online.  While I do not want ZeniMax to copy EVE wholesale, for many of the same reasons I do not want want them to copy WoW, there are definitely lessons to be learned and some features which may be too useful to pass up when moving Tamriel to the internet.  EVE is probably the best implementation of a massive open online world where players can have direct impact on the world itself.  Instead of picking classes as in other more structured MMOs, EVE’s players choose how to develop their character using an expansive skill-tree system.  They can specialize or diversify across skills that impact various aspects of the game’s social, economic, and combat systems, gaining more depth the longer they play.  This flexibility in game play and character development are the same reasons why everyone I know enjoyed Skyrim.   As the last Elder Scrolls game to be released, players will almost definitely expect similar flexibility in the Elder Scrolls Online.

As I said earlier, what works in a single player game may not work in an MMO, but the reverse is also true.  Trying to give players an open world like EVE’s without losing the richness of content and story is a challenge in itself.   It’s a lot easier to account for one player’s actions in a game world than it is for thousands, and if it’s a true open world, that’s thousands of opportunities for players to undo any work developers put into the game.  Game Informer’s tease about The Elder Scrolls says that ZeniMax has already decided structure the player versus player aspect the game with three set factions.  This design is not entirely surprising given that ZeniMax’s president used to work on Dark Ages of Camelot, which also featured a three-faction PvP system.  It remains to be seen, however, if the studio will cede more freedom to players in other aspects of the Elder Scrolls Online experience.

If nothing else, the next year will be interesting to see how ZeniMax chooses to balance these competing forces.

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Finding the Edge of Skyrim’s Open World

March 4, 2012 1 comment

As I reread this for the typos I’m prone to make, I feel the need to start off with a disclaimer about the tone of this post.   I may  come off as be fairly critical of Skyrim, but only because it was worth playing.  As my girlfriend put it, I had a month-long affair with the game.   Don’t worry though; we’re still together – the girlfriend and I that is.   Using the metrics of playtime and fun factor, Skyrim is definitely amazing and worth purchase if you haven’t played it; I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the game’s design across multiple characters.   The main issue issue I ran into, though, was that I couldn’t help but wish that the game’s open world was capable of more intelligence response to my decisions in game.

The Elder Scrolls series, of which Skyrim was the most recent installment, is one of the best examples of an open-world role playing game concept.   While many other games emphasize a main story line, sometimes ushering a player through critical decision points in order to maintain story integrity, Bethesda Games places minimum constraints on players’ actions while they experience the game.   You can, for instance, spend hours chasing optional objectives and side quests and hardly ever advance the main storyline.  For those unfamiliar with the concept, think Grand Theft Auto with swords and Vikings instead of guns and criminals.  On second thought, those two things aren’t all that different, but that might make the comparison even more apt, because some people experience Skyrim by running around and killing and stealing everything they possibly can.  To each his own.

Open worlds are compelling because they offer, in theory, a richer gaming experience than completely scripted games.  Rather than just experiencing an interactive movie, you’re literally shaping the events around you, as you see fit, and when you see fit.   In practice, open worlds often don’t live up to expectations due to the complexity that actually coding cascading decisions can have on a game world.  The result is that players can make hundreds of decisions, but these decisions usually have only first order shallow consequences at best.  The freedom to do anything ends up coming with the price over being able to do everything.   And if you can do everything, what exactly becomes the point of doing anything?  This was my experience with the previous Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion.  I got so caught up in the side quests that I forgot about the main storyline.   While I became the leader of some of the game world’s most powerful factions, the power I’d acquired in the process trivialized the main storyline’s difficulty and sense of importance by the time I got around to it.   Adding insult to injury, despite making dozens of decisions that resulted in my being what can only be described as the most important person in the game, none of it mattered.   Dialogue options were the same as if I’d been a vagabond in rags.  In short, the totality of my decisions still resulted in very little real change to an open, but mostly static, world.

A friend of mine from college recently posted a comment on this same topic, stating “I’ve been playing Skyrim lately, and while it’s a great game, I’m starting to pick up on how shallow it is, despite an initial impression of enormous complexity.”  I tried lots of ways to say this in my own words, but that’s basically my experience.  Skyrim was a leap forward from Oblivion in that it took me much longer to find that edge where my decisions no longer seemed to matter, but I still managed to find it even when I specifically tried to avoid it by pursuing a strategy of limiting myself to one major side-quest arc per character I made.   While it extended the life of the game for me by giving each play-through a slightly different focus, it also still exposed a lot of missed opportunities to add even more depth to the open world.

One of most obvious missed opportunities was the civil war storyline in which the game world’s eight cities, or holds, have to side with either the Imperials or the Stormcloaks.  Your choice to side with one or the other or neither has little to not impact on your ability to complete the main storyline.  As one of the few mutually exclusive side-quest choices the game offers, this was the perfect place to make some gameplay changes with no risk of altering a player’s ability to “finish” the game.   That’s actually how I expected it to play out, but after completing the story arc for both sides (which turned out to require nearly identical missions), I discovered my decisions and actions offered only a simple cosmetic swap of leadership in the conquered holds.  I didn’t get any new content to explore and none of the game’s characters really seemed to notice that the war even happened (except perhaps the dead ones).  By that point, this lack of impact shouldn’t have surprised me, because even during the war your allegiance had no impact on many people in the game.  As a Stormcloak, running across Imperial patrols was not a threat unless I inadvertantly shot an arrow at one.  I believe making those enemy patrols attack you or assist you based on your allegiance, varying the actual campaign quests for each side, and adding some bonus content only available to the side you won with would have been relatively simple additions to the game which would have vastly improved its replayability.   As it was, I’d found the edge and didn’t have much left to play.

If Bethesda adds more major decision points that offer a changing game world, I’ll definitely be excited for the next Elder Scrolls game.   Either way,  Skyrim was a quantum leap forward over previous Elder Scrolls games and I definitely look forward to the next one if for no other reason than to see the world they create (which for those who have not played a Bethesda game, includes among other things, dozens of little mini-books that you can read in game which have nothing to do with the game’s objectives and only serve to add depth to the setting).  I’ve got more to say about this game, but I’m going to save that for a later installment since it addresses very different gameplay issues and this has already gotten long-winded.  As always, I welcome your thoughts.