Blog Archives

Yearly Attempt: Elder Scrolls Online

Almost exactly one year ago, I tried out Elder Scrolls Online (ESO). My conclusions this time around did not change: it’s not the game for me.

In several ways, the game actually felt worse this time around. While I have not kept abreast of all the changes to the general structure, I was aware of the “One Tamriel” had opened up a lot of the game. Apparently you were no longer limited faction-wise, and now all mobs scaled with your level. Which is nice on an explorer level – you can just strike out in a random direction and not have to worry about getting one-shot by mobs – but really hearkens back to my distaste of Oblivion more than anything else, e.g. being punished for actually gaining levels.

WoW’s Legion expansion features scaling mobs, of course. I can’t say I particularly like them in there either, but at least with WoW you still have several avenues of character progression. Hell, WoW really hasn’t been about leveling this expansion anyway, given how most of your power comes from gaining Artifact Power and similar parallels.

Playing ESO again, I just could not help but realize that it’s a bad single-player game. My inventory quickly filled with vegetable debris and other crafting components, but I could not really utilize any of them. Where were the recipes to craft things? In a more traditional MMO, I would pop on down to the AH to see if any were available, but there is no AH in ESO. Which, let me tell you, really kills any motivation to collect much of anything in terms of resources out in the world. Why mine Iron ore unless you specifically need ore for a specific purpose?

Once you go down that rabbit hole of not caring about in-game objects with intrinsic value, the entire gameplay loop edifice starts to collapse. If you aren’t looting everything, you begin to realize how much time you are wasting searching every container out in the world. If you stop searching containers, you stop being excited about seeing containers and other interactable objects in the environment. If you stop being excited about environmental objects, you start to care less about the environment generally. Without the environment, you are left with just the mobs, who are both trivial and drop little loot of consequence (because, hey, most items are meaningless).

Now, you can “subscribe” to ESO and suddenly open up a Crafting Bank tab ala GW2 where all this random crap magically gets ported to. But, to me, that’s just another indication of how ESO is a bad single-player game. I expect that sort of paid-for addon stuff in an MMO. And if we’re judging ESO as an MMO, well, it plays out even worse.

I dunno. Presumably there are a bunch of people out there that like ESO just the way it is. After trying the game a second time in as many years, I am reaffirming that I am not one of them.

Impressions: The Elder Scrolls Online

Over the past few days, I played around 10-15 hours of The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) and the experience has been… odd. I say “odd” because while in general I found the experience pleasant, the more I played the game, the more I wanted to be playing something else entirely.

I'm pretty spoiled by my 970 card at this point.

I’m pretty spoiled by my 970 card at this point.

There is a lot of interesting things going on in TESO. For example, while there is an option for a more traditional 3rd-person perspective, I stayed in first-person the entire time for its sheer novelty. I also appreciated the dedication to the traditional Elder Scrolls trappings, up to and including the ability to literally steal all the things. Want some Grand Soul Gems as a level 3 character? Just crouch behind the merchant’s cart and pocket (?) them. Finding a random armor rack with a full suit of wearable armor that you could just take and equip was rather delightful.

The progression/leveling system in TESO is interesting as well. There are four classes, each with three class specializations. Beyond that, every class has access to the same dozen or so general specialization lines: Light Armor, Two-handed Weapons, Destruction Staves, and so on. Most of these specialization lines have ~6 active abilities and a number of passives. Your character has a total of five hotbar buttons and one ultimate, and it is up to you to mix and match. Additionally, individual abilities level up with use in typical Elder Scrolls fashion, but once an active ability hits rank 4, it can be “morphed” into one of two mutually exclusive options, which typically adds bonus effects.

While all of the above systems felt satisfyingly crunchy, it reminded me heavily of Guild War 2’s system – limited ability slots, choosing abilities from a wide list, earning Skill Points from exploration (every three Skyshards found in TESO grants 1 Skill Point), and even “leveling up” skills in a sense. In fact, that was my exact problem: the more I played TESO, the more I felt like I’d be having more fun playing GW2. Especially when I started thinking about PvP and three-way battles.

Hell, I’m resisting the almost overpowering urge to redownload GW2 right now.

Not pictured: any combat.

Not pictured: any combat.

Strictly viewing TESO as a sort of pseudo-Skyrim did not assist in keeping my interest level high enough to justify more play time. As tends to be the case, the existence of other players ruins the MMO experience. Apparently mobs drop individual loot so there isn’t any kill stealing, but objects in the world (chests, etc) absolutely disappear if someone loots them. I did not stick around a particular place long enough to see if they respawned, but the bottom line is that there was never a point in time that I was thankful to see another human playing “my” game.

It’s worth noting that I made it to level 10 without seeing even one “kill 10 whatever” quests. In fact, many of the (non-side) quests I encountered were fairly lengthy and involved. Not quite Secret World-level involved, but more than the industry standard. That being said, I found myself actually missing those kill quests, as the opportunity to kill anything was rather muted.

Sometimes I like pushing buttons, you know?

In any case, those are my impressions of TESO. I deleted the 44gb installation yesterday and don’t particularly see myself downloading it again. It wasn’t bad – at least the little slice of the beginning I played – but my New Years resolution is to not play “just OK” games to completion as if I don’t have a backlog of potentially amazing games to play through.

H1Z1, HotS, TESO

There have been a number of gaming developments in the past week, but I find them difficult to write about. First, because I remain distracted with the whole television vs projector search. Indeed, I went from 98% gung-ho for a projector to finding out I could get a 40″ TV for ~$205. For such a value-crazed individual as I am, it’s tough to imagine a better deal. But, projector, man. I could be playing Shadow of the Colossus on my wall, instead of on a TV a mere CD-length wider.

Secondly, I just don’t know how to feel about some of these news items.

For example: H1Z1. Much has already been said about SOE reneging on their promise of no P2W shenanigans, which the airdrops certainly were. Originally. The airdrops have since been nerfed to basically have a 10% chance of containing a pistol or shotgun, so… now what? Do we pack up the pitchforks and go home? Or do we stick around and stab some things since we’re here?

One of the terms being thrown around regarding the airdrops is “Pay 4 Content,” in the sense that buying an airdrop means luring other players to come fight you and/or others for supplies. I find it difficult to argue with that bit of cash shop jujitsu. Similar games like Rust already have random airdrops, so is there much of a difference beyond one’s ability to “advance the timer” in H1Z1?

Framed like that, it almost sounds cool. “This is boring – let’s shake things up a little.” If airdrops were exclusively a crafted or rare lootable resource, I doubt anyone would drop them out of boredom; the eccentric players would get one or two at most, instead of the effectively infinite amount they have under this scheme.

Aside from airdrops, I have been following the other bits of news from the game and it reminds me of why F2P is bad: it engenders cynicism and paranoia. For example, the looting system was described this way:

The lot [sic] system is very intelligent. It keeps track of where all the items are in the server and balances loot spawning accordingly. If everybody is all looted up and hoarding loot, then it’s time to hunt some players or steal from their stashes.

When a player logs out, the server knows that there is now less potential loot on the server and will begin spawning more. When a player logs in and puts the server over it’s limit, the server will stop spawning loot (of the kind that the player has) and you’ll need to begin fighting for it.

The first thing I thought of was: of course your looting system would be like this in a F2P cash shop game. Self-sufficiency isn’t profitable. Smedly was more than forthright in explaining the PlanetSide 2 implant nerf was intentionally done to squeeze extra cash out of players “to keep the lights on.” How would you trust any design decision under such a rubric? Your options are to imagine that SOE wanted a gritty, The Road-esque survival game with few resources, or… they’re just another exploitative F2P developer out to make a quick buck. I sure as hell don’t believe that there is a legitimate game design reason why my Town Hall takes six real-world days to upgrade in Clash of Clans, for example. Nor do I believe that Candy Crush’s candy placement/generation is entirely random either.

In the meantime though, it appears looting is getting buffed along with a number of other action items. The game is Early Access, which makes it difficult to feel justified in one’s outrage. This sort of thing is what Early Access is for, right?

Speaking of Early Access, there seems to be some internet consternation in regards to Blizzard charging $40 to get into the Heroes of the Storm Beta. Apparently, if Blizzard copies what everyone else is already doing, then… uh… er, isn’t that the standard Blizzard MO? People also seemed to have forgotten that paying Blizzard for Beta access already happened: the Annual Pass that granted Mists of Pandaria Beta access. While the Annual Pass was also tied to a “free” copy of Diablo 3, I know more than a few WoW players who bought it specifically for the Beta access.

The chances of Blizzard charging for HotS beta access having an effect on any other developer’s decision to charge for beta access is less than zero. Between Kickstarter and Early Access, the days of a privileged beta have long-since died. And even before those programs, people were selling GMail invites on eBay for hundreds of dollars. Beta access has value whether you choose to believe it or not, and I don’t begrudge these game companies cutting out the middle-man. As long as, you know, they slide me a few extra keys.

Finally, The Elder Scrolls Online has dropped its subscription and went Buy-2-Play. While such a scheme is dubious ethically, this sort of payment model trajectory could be a way out of the otherwise unfortunate design trap of $60 million MMO budgets for ~150,000 player audiences. Obviously these companies would prefer a million-plus subscribers, but chances are they wouldn’t be able to get their investment back if they released with B2P, or developed the game under a lower budget at the start. It sucks for the early adopter, of course, but life has always sucked for them.

We’ll have to see how this move plays out for TESO. The game has never been on my radar and more or less remains that way currently, even though I very much want Skyrim 2. When I start seeing it on sale for $20, perhaps I will take a closer look.

Megaserver

In the recent The Elder Scrolls Online preview video, the part that piqued my interest was when they started talking about the “megaserver,” e.g. going serverless. Incidentally, this topic was something I wrote about just over a year ago:

  • Eliminate named, permanent servers entirely.

Essentially, set up the servers like an ice-cube tray and as each server fills up, it spills over into the next server, and divide it all into game regions. One huge benefit of this would be to allow there to always be a steady population of people leveling in every zone for group questing, etc.

Example: if I went to Borean Tundra right now, there may be 1 person questing there on Auchindoun, and maybe 5 on Maeiv, and 50 on Tichondrius. Under this methodology, there would be 56, up until an arbitrary cut-off. And if the cut-off is 100, I would have it start transferring people to a second zone instance at around ~70 so the 101st guy isn’t off by himself. The key would be to make it subtle, with no load-screen or anything. With phasing technology it should not be a problem.

Obviously, my Nostradamus-like predicting skills failed to account for the very real structural problems WoW has with Cross-Realm Zones (people = competition, etc). But as is demonstrated with games like Guild Wars 2, it is quite possible to foster a more-is-merrier environment with a few tweaks to the formula. And, indeed, the TESO video goes on to say a lot of GW2-esque things in terms of everyone getting equal credit for kills, no competition between players, and so on.

With the formula issue settled, and provided there are methods available to get into the same “instance” as your friends, are there really any good arguments against going serverless?

Keen’s soft criticism of TESO likely being all “instancing and lobbying” falls a bit flat to me when he graded GW2’s “Presentation of a MMORPG World” a B+; not only is GW2 pretty heavily instanced already (plus Overflow servers), there is literally an in-game PvP lobby as well. As long as the frequency of load screens is kept to a minimum, I don’t think many people will be able to tell any difference. And, hell, if the TESO programmers can engineer some WoW-level seamless map transitions instead, it will be a major design coup.

In any case, the Megaserver deal was the only actual thing that piqued my interest with the TESO gamble thus far. Some people are flogging the “real game begins at endgame” statement, but that is arguably true in any MMO with finite levels.¹ Design musings aside, I am much more concerned about whether it would be fun to play, which is something we will not be able to see until the inevitable beta buy-in.

¹ Yes, including GW2. Unless you managed to complete your Story or jump to Orr straightaway, content was gated by your level. To say nothing about how one’s behavior² likely changes at the cap in regards to farming explorable dungeons, legendaries, and vanity gear in general.

² Bhagpuss notwithstanding, of course.

Revisiting Single-Player MMOs

Keen has a post up entitled “MMORPGs are not Single-player Games,” which laments the direction MMOs are heading as evidenced by The Elder Scrolls Online having a 100% solo “main story.” I am not particularly interested in talking about TESO, but rather this paragraph (emphasis mine):

If it’s so important to your game that the player be the hero in the story, why are you making a MMO?  MMO’s suck at being single-player games.  Did you skip SWTOR?  What makes MMO’s any good at all are the multiplayer elements.  Take those away and what are you left with? A game worse than the one you could have made if you actually made a single-player  RPG.

Well… do MMOs suck at being single-player games?

It may be easy to answer in the affirmative, and in some respects I would agree. Undoubtedly there are concessions made in an MMO that are irrelevant in a single-player RPG. Daily quests, for example, exist as “content” to get people to log on at regular intervals and maintain social ties. The related notion of paced content (i.e. weekly resets) is also an MMO staple that makes no particular single-player sense. Even normal quests are likely more generic (and numerous) than they would have to be.

But in a very real sense I consider the average MMORPG these days as a much better single-player game than the average RPG. There are two main reasons why.

1) The gameplay is often more satisfying, for longer.

The example I used in Keen’s comment section was The Witcher. Here is a 3rd-person action-RPG game with hotbars and talents and exploration and quests and so on. Basically, a mini-MMO, if you will. As I detailed in my review, The Witcher’s combat system is terrible. Way worse than even Warhammer Online’s janky PvE gameplay. While I considered the storyline/setting to be somewhat of a redeeming factor, it could very well be that something like The Secret World or World of Darkness (assuming that is still a thing) or some other MMO eclipses it even within its own specific niche.

I would never agree with someone who would suggest that stories in RPGs are irrelevant, but let us be honest here: most of your RPG hours are spent in combat. RPGs don’t necessarily need gameplay deep enough to last 1000 hours because the story runs out in 40-100 hours, of course. But there is nothing worse than getting stranded 2/3rds of the way through an otherwise good story with gameplay that has ran out of steam. MMO combat systems, even the ones that feel “off,” convey a depth far beyond the average RPG. They have to.

Keen responded with “length isn’t related to quality,” which is true enough in a general sense. After a while though, one must admit that voluntarily playing the same game for 1000+ hours is perhaps indicative that fun is being had. I would not trade Xenogears’ 80 hours for WoW’s 7800 hours, or for the rest of my Top 10 RPGs for that matter. But for the Top #11-#120?

Absolutely.

2) Show & Tell enhances the single-player experience.

I truly believe that Show & Tell is the future of single-player gaming. If you are not familiar with the concept as I use it, this quote (from a year ago) sums it up:

In this light, I do not particularly think the trend of companion AI or whatever is necessarily bad. Having played Minecraft for a while now, I have reached that plateau where you want nothing more than to show off the cool biodome tower you built or the Pit of Doom you dug or the cross-Atlantic powered railroad to someone, anyone else capable of appreciating the amount of effort/vision it took to do so. Of course, the thought of trying to do what I have done on a multiplayer server where anyone could wreck my house and steal my materials at any time is mortifying. I want a Show & Tell, not a group assignment. I want a single-player MMO.

And also:

Repetition is required for communities – people are more asocial in LFD precisely because you aren’t going to see anyone again (unless you have a ranking system, of course). We can, however, condense the process via Show & Tell. What this means in a general sense is instead of blooming into a flower in front of others over time, you do hours and hours of blooming beforehand and invite others into your garden. […]

But that’s just it: players generally have a preternatural desire to express themselves any way they can. Player housing would not be about having somewhere to chill out waiting for a LFD queue, or even arranging your trophies and armor sets in aesthetically pleasing ways. It would be about designing and decorating a virtual space for others to look at. You already know the meaning behind that piece of gear that’s been sitting in your bank for the last four years. Other people don’t know, and deep down I believe it is a common human desire for said object or achievement to be recognized and acknowledged as something meaningful.

Show & Tell can be (and has been) implemented in bad ways. I am not a huge fan of arbitrary Achievements, for example, and I think focusing on the latest gear rewards is a bit crass. Transmog and costume options, on the other hand, are much better. Being able to invite you in to see my living room skull pit in Skyrim?

166 Human skulls. All legitimately obtained, I might add.

Would have been epic. The mere possibility of being able to eventually post the above screenshot, and having someone able to appreciate it on some level somewhere, generated dozens of hours of additional gameplay. In a single-player game. MMOs generate gameplay in this fashion all the time, of course, and I am here to confirm that it works for single-player games too. And, by extension, MMOs that are played as single-player games.

______

So getting back to the question at the top, I say: MMOs can (and often do) make excellent single-player games.

Keen openly wondered why this “mystery demographic” is getting catered to by MMO developers at the expense of “MMO identity.” I would say: where is the mystery? The vast majority of MMO players today are single-player MMO, erm, players. Less than 20% of WoW players raid; what are the other 80% doing? How many EVE players never make it out of high-sec space or never engage in consensual PvP? When you look at graphs like this:

This technically qualifies as a Rorschach test in six states and the District of Columbia.

…what do you see? Did 5+ million social MMO players crawl out of the woodwork in a single year? I don’t think so. Rather, Blizzard tapped into the latent single-player market by letting said players solo at their own pace all the way to the level cap. That was Blizzard’s biggest innovation.

Are social players more valuable to the long-term success of MMOs? Absolutely. Can studios focus exclusively on such players, ala Darkfall etc? Of course. But in so doing they leave literally millions of dollars on the table. And so the reason we see a “dilution” in the MMO identity is precisely because developers are seeking out the most profitable piece of that Venn Diagram – the intersection of single-player and MMO – by trial and error writ large.

The age of single-player MMOs has arrived. And for the majority of gamers, this is good news.