Elder Scrolls Online Beta Hopes

Zenimax is having another beta event for the Elder Scrolls Online this weekend. I can tell you that I have a code and that I’ll be participating. But there is an NDA, so I can’t say anything more about what’s going on.

I can, however, mention that, as of this moment, I don’t intend to buy ESO — which I went on record about a little while ago. But as I mentioned at the time, I haven’t seen the game yet, and doing so stands the best chance of getting me to change my mind. If it does I will be very pleased. I can also talk about exactly what I will be looking for in ESO.

TESOAs someone who has been playing Oblivion and Syrim recently, I’m curious to find out how much ESO feels like an Elder Scrolls game. I’ve heard folks say that it does, but from the video I’ve seen the graphics style is different and the animation flows differently, which I see as potentially jarring. Will the world and its NPCs be as interactable as they are in Skyrim? Do I get thrown in jail for stealing from the shopkeepers or murdering the guards? Can I even murder the civilians or do they have NPC Immunity? It the world riddled with zoning and instancing? Does it feel as rich and deep as the Tamriel of the single-player games? As big and expansive despite far more players in it?

How well will it run? I can tell you that EverQuest Next Landmark (which is not under NDA) runs like crap on my laptop… but that’s an Alpha, completely unoptimzed. ESO should be much closer to a releasable state, you’d think. How buggy is it, two months from release?

Does balance feel terribly off? This is one of the major long-term concerns I have for ESO. I worry that with a (relatively) open build system there will be a very small handful of optimal builds and playing any other way is a quick route to getting constantly owned. Truthfully, I have pretty low hopes for ESO’s PvP.

How much does ESO’s “epic story” dominate the game? Becuase when I am playing an Elder Scrolls game, their main plotline tends to run about #4 on my list of things I want to do. Can I do it at whatever level, or do I have to wade through three or ten hours of linear crap before I can become the interpid wanderer and explorer that I want to be? How much autonomy from the rails do I get?

Is it worth $15 a month? With so many free options, that will be hard to justify. But not impossible, and there’s always the hope that I’ll really like it. I’ll be sure to let you know what answers I find, as soon as I can.

The Next Best Hope

The latest piece of Elder Scrolls Online promotional fluff is the eight-plus minute trailer embedded below. It’s pulling in raves, largely from folks I would consider outside the hardcore demographic. Which in itself is fine.

Although this trailer is indisputably well-made, as a fan of both Elder Scrolls games and MMORPGs it doesn’t get me excited about ESO. For one, it reminds me of the Warhammer Online and SWTOR cinematic trailers. Which were also well-done and also utterly unrepresentative of the actual game. This one even follows the same narrative arc as those two. It doesn’t highlight any of the things that makes the Elder Scrolls single-player games special. It doesn’t even use the iconic Elder Scrolls theme, a baffling omission. That alone would have stoked me up to buy it.

I haven’t played in the ESO beta, and folks who have are more than welcome to correct me on these points. But what I see is a very conventional game lacking much of the interactibility and dynamic world that made Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim so interesting. The game itself could prove me wrong about this, but unless I get a beta invite I’m very unlikely to drop the $60 it will take to find out. I do expect ESO to sell lots of copies. I doubt its staying power and ability to retain subs beyond the three-month point. I think that MMO players, those most likely to be willing to commit to a subscription, will find ESO uncompelling. Then again, SWTOR seems to have done very well with a modestly big retail splash followed by an agile shift to microtransactions. It’s safe to say that everyone expects ESO to follow the same pattern. Perhaps I will try it then. Meanwhile I hope it does very well, but along with that there’s a hope that it’s a better and more interesting game than I think it is.

Insulation

Looking strictly at the dollars per day it’s taken in so far, the Kickstarter for the new Brad McQuaid project Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen isn’t going to reach its funding goal of $800K. Which wouldn’t neccessarily mean the end of the project, but it would surely be a setback. On the other hand, pledging tends to increase as the end of a well-managed campaign approaches, and Pantheon’s at least pushing out lots of information. Whether the Kickstarter succeeds or not I expect that crowdfunding for the project will continue after it’s over, as is being done with Star Citizen and Shroud of the Avatar. The latter recently hit $3 million in crowdfunding, which seems like chump change compared to many MMO budgets. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that Pantheon might pull in a similar amount.

This is the sound of the drum I (and others) have been beating for a long time: nobody needs $100 million to develop a virtual world. All of the classic pre-WoW MMORPGs were developed on budgets at least an order of magnitude less than that, and they brought more innovation and novelty and immersion to the table than any of the sterile commercial properties of the last few years. Developing on $3 million is damned tight, but today there are middleware tools that a team can leverage to vastly streamline the creative process. The big one is the Unity engine: Pantheon, Shroud of the Avatar, Pathfinder Online and Project: Gorgon are all being developed on that platform.

All four are interesting projects and all are MMOs at least by the current overbroad definition. Shroud of the Avatar is the one with the closest kinship with Pantheon and is relatively far along. It and Star Citizen (also fairly far along) are promising something interesting: the ability to host the game yourself. Pantheon is also making noise in this direction; its final stretch goal, which it seems unlikely to hit even if the Kickstarter funds, includes this capability. I’d expect this kind of feature to be rather less functional than running a full-fledged MMO server from your basement workbench. But even if it has limitations more severe than I expect, something very important is brought to the table. Or perhaps more accurately taken off the table: the ability of some faceless suit to take those worlds away, forever, with the flip of a switch. The willingness of these three projects to offer that, even potentially, is very brave.

This isn’t something Pathfinder Online is promising. Which is interesting, because one of the people behind it is Ryan Dancey. In addition to a stint with CCP Dancey was the guy behind the Open Game License, which did something similar to D&D: it insulated the game from the decisions of any one corporate entity. The fruits of that are evident now; in most areas D&D’s 4th edition is considered a misfire by most and Pathfinder, essentially a refitted D&D3.5, has surpassed it in sales and visibility. Once released into the wild, the game mechanics can never be caged again, and some have taken advatage of that to use the tools provided under the PGL to build emulators of older versions of D&D. In a very real way the D&D rules are now the property of the community rather than of the company the published them.

Of course, if D&D were to go away as a living product line it would be harmful to the hobby but the immediate impact might not be much felt by individual gaming groups. Their adventures and manuals would not suddenly dissolve into dust beucaes the publisher went under or decided to cancel the line. Their campaigns might go on for years, even decades, with no new official materials. There are examples of RPGs whose communities have done exactly that.

MMORPGs are not like that. Once the provider shuts them down, that’s it — barring a laborious player effort to reverse engineer enough serverside code to run a private server of questionable legality. This has occasionally yielded something playable, but in the case of Vanguard I doubt it will happen (I’d be delighted to be proven wrong.)