If not ‘Skyrim the MMO,’ then what?
Unfortunately, the constraints inherent to online gaming preclude some designs that put Elder Scrolls on the map. Players can’t master every discipline or own every mansion, though you absolutely can join every guild and build a pool of skills far broader than ever before. Almost anything you see off in the distance can be explored, but you may have to level up a bit before you can survive the dangers that live there. The sheer size of the game world, though, dwarfs the single province of Skyrim that we know and love.
It sounds like they may be trying to put together a truly open world in an MMO setting, which would be great, but only if they can do it justice. The reason exploration is so fulfilling in traditional TES games is the high amount of detail and interactivity crafted into the landscape. Can they pack that much stuff to see and do into an environment meant to be tread by hundreds or thousands of people daily? Especially if they’re going to be presenting a game world as ambitious as the entire continent of Tamriel, including Skyrim, Morrowind, the Summerset Isles, Elsweyr, Cyrodiil, etc.
It won’t be completely fleshed out at launch -- the example they give for the Skyrim province is that the central stronghold of Windhelm will be there, while Winterhold and its mages’ college will be added later -- but that’s still a whole lot of ground to cover. Especially if everything is presented on a giant map that could conceivably be tread from corner to corner without loading screens, which seems like it would be pretty tough to do.
Recreating the freedom Elder Scrolls players expect within the World of Warcraft-style mechanics Zenimax Online is using for this MMO would be impossible without changing the way that players interact with the world. The studio came up with something it calls “hubless” design to combat this problem. Instead of the typical questing design that MMO players intuitively recognize – go to town, pick up quests, complete quests, return to town for reward – The Elder Scrolls Online aims to allow players to enjoy whatever piques their interest as they wander the world, so long as you are appropriately leveled.
That is the crux of it, then. To encourage exploration, they’re going to decentralize questing, which sounds like it could be a breath of fresh air in the MMO space. Apparently, points of interests such as dungeons and caves will comprise self-contained “modules,” which the article compares to Dungeons & Dragons-style adventures. While you may end up stumbling upon a location by chance and have no quest associated with it, you are going to be rewarded for taking it upon yourself to clear it out. (Hopefully they won’t be relying on randomized, leveled lists for loot!) Of course you will still have quests to undertake, or NPCs you meet along the way will point you to certain places or side quests, but it’s made clear there are several spots that are hidden to you unless discovered via exploration.
In addition to the instanced dungeons that have become the norm in today’s MMOs, Zenimax Online is also bringing back the idea of public dungeons, where people can work together with other passers-by to accomplish something they may not be capable of on their own. This is supposed to encourage meeting and mingling with strangers, as opposed to being isolated in your own separate world. Naturally, that opens things up to people being assholes or just plain stupid, both of which can quickly ruin your day. They seem confident that this will work out for the better, though, as they claim it did in older games like EverQuest
and Dark Age of Camelot
The main storyline in The Elder Scrolls Online
deals with a vacuum of power in the Imperial City sometime in the Second Era of the franchise’s lore, and the devious plot by one noble house that makes a pact with a famous necromancer and evil Daedric lord to further their goals. This is before the Septim dynasty takes hold, leaving room for huge armies to wage war as they vie for territory. Along with the Imperials (who seem to be an NPC faction that everyone battles with), there are three separate factions that all players are required to divide themselves into.
In this case, each of the nine playable races are split geographically by their homeland into three alliances -- Ebonheart Pact (nords, dunmer, argonians) to the north and east, Aldmeri Dominion (altmer, bosmer, khajiit) south and southwest, and Daggerfall Covenant (bretons, redguard, orcs) in the northwest. These opposing powers serve as the basis for the game’s player-versus-player interactions, as well as offer three distinct areas in which to spend your time questing and leveling up.
Though we don’t know what the level cap is yet (if it’s even been determined), Zenimax Online claims that it would take the average player about 120 hours to reach it with a single character. After that, they plan to keep you busy with end-game content including the usual high-level group instances, PVE raids, and PVP arena combat, as well as faction-versus-faction open-world PVP. With Tamriel’s power structure in tatters, the entire province of Cyrodiil will serve as a battleground for the three alliances trying to claim the crown.
They’re using the same map layout from TES IV: Oblivion
for the basis of this region, though the playable area has been shrunk down a bit, and it will be filled with forts, mines, farms, castles, and other locations to capture. The largest and most important strongholds will support battles with up to 100 players on each side, while the smaller points may only be guarded by a handful of NPCs loyal to whoever currently controls them. The ultimate goal of this PVP mode will be to conquer the Imperial City itself and proclaim one player from the faction to be the new emperor, which actually sounds pretty awesome.
“It has this interesting dynamic where one side can go into ascendancy, but they’re always going to be pushed back by the other ones,” Firor says. “When there are three sides, there’s always something happening. I always know there’s a battle somewhere. I can always jump in and fight, because I know that somewhere, someone is weak.” Allying with another faction – temporarily and locally, of course – to bring down the currently ascendant alliance is a simple thing, but it leads to political intrigue and a fascinating endgame more often than not. What happens when a prominent guild in your faction promises to show up in support of a Daggerfall assault, only to leave an allied keep undefended from Aldmeri retaliation? Is the mutual irritation from months of small-scale raids between the Covenant and the Dominion too much to overcome a proposed joint attack on a ripe target?