Freedom in an MMO: once, I thought this was a given aspect of all MMORPGs. But recent releases have changed this facet of the genre. Many titles now place the player on rails through a batch of content, and then hope to God there will be enough waiting at the end to keep that person paying and offering up their precious time (and money). This is fundamentally flawed. Content is so costly to develop that studios can never make enough to keep players satiated. Inevitably, a vocal portion of player base winds up out of things to do and creates a feeling of restlessness among the community. I don’t want this column to become an essay on the virtues of “sandbox” over “themepark” design mentality, but simply put: player freedom and robust systems will amount to longevity in a well-designed and rendered MMORPG. Elder Scrolls Online must not only give fans of their vaunted series a compelling narrative and world to explore, but they must give them the freedom to explore that world in any way they wish. And they must also avoid the pratfalls of the “gear grind” as a means to keep players hooked.
It’s been awhile since I got to sit down and play Elder Scrolls Online back in October, but one thing stood out to me while there. It wasn’t even part of the gameplay demo. It was the presentation that came after. Matt Firor and his team showed us some plans for their Alliance vs. Alliance system (think RVR or WVW). They also told us that they plan on continually opening more and more regions of Tamriel as the game ages, at an alarming planned rate of one a month. Matt’s taken to calling these “Adventure Zones”, and they will serve as new and fresh content for the level-capped players (or so I gathered).
From what we saw, there will also be plenty of dungeons to delve into. Some will be public spaces like the one we were treated to, and others still will be more traditional “instanced” adventures that tell a story for a small group or raid. In addition, there will also be an ever-present “dynamic” system of Anchors that are placed in the world by Molag Bal as a way for the evils of Oblivion to try and gain entry into our plane of existence. These will drop in the open world, and serve as sort of public events for players to partake in and reap rewards from. It definitely seems like Zenimax has a good eye on giving players lots to do at any time in their world. This is a must. But what happens if the content schedule can’t be held to, whether because of development roadblocks or funding limitations?
Zenimax’ aim is to give Elder Scrolls fans an MMO where they can live and breathe in the world they’ve grown to love. But Elder Scrolls fans are the sort of gamers that will spend hundreds of hours in a world that changes because the players are allowed to change it. What happens when that world becomes less malleable? What happens when limitations on their character and its actions are put in place because they suddenly have to play with everyone else and not in their own private Tamriel?
By the end of 2013, we’ll all have Elder Scrolls Online to poke around in. We’ll be tearing it to pieces and ravaging it for all of its tasty little content morsels. But what happens when we get to “the end”? I already think that ZOS is onto something with their progression system (see links below). But aside from AVA, dungeons, and the usual fare, I believe that Zenimax should start planning now for systems that help players build stronger attachments to the game: housing, guild halls, trophies to display... anything and everything that helps them feel like their actions matter in the world and aren’t just some vignette played on repeat for the next guy and the guy after him.
We already know that housing is on the “to-do” list after launch for ESO. But we also don’t quite know what other tricks for the “endgame” they have up their sleeve. There’s a lot left to be learned when it comes to the online Tamriel. What features, were you designing an Elder Scrolls Online, would you make sure to include? Let us know in the comments!