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Elder Scrolls Online Interviews: Creative Director Paul Sage on Launch, Craglorn, and the Future

By Jessica Cook on May 05, 2014

The Elder Scrolls Online officially launched only a month ago but it has already become one of the most talked about – and possible divisive -- titles of the year. We sat down with Paul Sage, Zenimax’s Creative Director for The Elder Scrolls Online, to talk about how the first month of the game has gone from their perspective, what players can expect from the new Craglorn update, and where the developers hope to take the game in the future.

You can hear the full audio of this interview on the Game On Podcast.

A Look Back at Launch

Turning one of the most beloved single player game worlds ever into an online experience was always going to be a challenge. Fans of the previous Elder Scrolls games are used to a highly personalized experience with strong sandbox systems, while MMO players often focus more on social tools and repeatable end-game content.

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So which group does ESO favor? Paul knows that they’re walking a fine line and hopes that the game meets both sets of expectations. While combat definitely favors the Elder Scrolls style, the game’s classes are more familiar to MMO players and work within the traditional “tank, healer, DPS” group roles concept.

As for the launch itself, Paul is pleased with how everything went from a technical perspective. It may have all seemed pretty smooth to players, but there was a lot of work behind the scenes! “MMOs are a service, and from the service perspective [server problems] can be frustrating because we just want people to get in the game and have a good time.”

Of course even the most dedicated team has a hard time predicting what will happen once you unleash millions of players on your game, and that certainly happened with ESO. Paul says that they considered how to handle botters and gold spammers but didn’t realize how big the problem would be until after the game launched. Zenimax now has dedicated teams across customer service, security, and development to address the problem and has renewed their focus on “legitimate players, playing legitimately, having a good time and worrying about in-game advertisements or competing for resources with these botters”.

Even the legitimate players can cause unexpected issues. MMO fans are famous for chewing through content at an incredibly fast rate, and although the team expected some speedy levelers they were still surprised by just how fast some people are progressing. While the bulk of players are still in the second and third zones, Paul says that looking at the number of hours played by the most dedicated subscribers is “startling”. “It’s almost like you feel guilty,” he shared, “like ‘No, really, go outside and get some sun!’”.

Another post-launch discovery was that many players find grouping confusing because of the game’s layering mechanic. “One of the things that jumped out to me [after launch] was that there are areas where the quests work really well, but when you get into a group you can experience the separation of group members and it’s confusing as to why that happened.” ESO’s megaserver technology creates multiple instances of the same zone to balance the server load, and as it turns out internal testers were much more familiar and comfortable with that concept than the general playerbase. Paul says that one of the more immediate things the team is working on is better communication with players about what is happening and developing a technological solution so that group members can always see each other.

Adventures in Craglorn

Both players and developers know that launching a game is just the start for any thriving MMO. Right now, according to Paul, Zenimax is aiming for an update cycle of 4-6 weeks and in fact the company started working on their first update roughly a year ago.

Right now the team is focused on Patch 1.1, which is currently available on the Player Test Server. As well as some tweaks to existing gameplay, this patch introduces Craglorn, ESO’s first Adventure Zone. Craglorn features new instanced content called “Trials” and a number of focal points, which work similar to Dark Anchors. Paul also recommends that players take a moment to stop and enjoy the breathtaking vistas, calling Craglorn “probably one of the prettier zones in the game”. The zone is tuned for Veteran Rank 11, and a group of 4 is recommended.

The new Trials are challenging instances designed for groups of 12 players. These groups will move through the zone to see the sights and fight various monsters along the way. The catch is that group members have a limited number of times they can resurrect each week. Right now Trials allow for 60 resurrections, or 5 per player. The rewards for completing a Trial also change each week, and the best completion times are tracked on a public leaderboard.

The difficulty level of Trials is still being tuned based on the feedback of players on the test server, but Paul assures us that the goal is to create some tough battles. “Our philosophy right now is let’s crank it up, see how people do, and then later [in a future patch] we might be able to introduce a less challenging version.”

While the bulk of the new content is oriented towards Veteran Rank players, Paul says that folks still at the mid-level will benefit from system tweaks and improvements that will affect the breadth of the gameplay experience at all levels.

The Future of ESO

While Paul doesn’t want to “get cocky” about Zenimax’s update plan, he definitely feels like there is a lot of good content in the pipeline even after the launch of Patch 1.1. Already new voiceovers are being recorded, concepts are being fleshed out by the art department, and assets are being developed.

“I think after Craglorn will be the Veteran dungeon Crypt of Hearts. Also horse racing, which is a good example of content for all character levels, and several fixes and convenience features.”

Paul also gave a few details about the upcoming Justice System. He’s tried one of the early internal prototypes, and says it’s probably the systems he’s most excited to see put in the game. With the addition of the Justice System players will be able to kill and steal from NPCs, and can be accosted by guards if they get on their bad side.

Zenimax is also looking at ways to eventually allow players to adjust the difficulty of instances, particularly for those who want a more casual run. This would tentatively be set on a group basis, but the details are all still very much under internal discussion.

In the more immediate future, there are major plans to improve the guild store. Paul says that the Zenimax team are “pleased overall” with ESO’s auction-house-free economy, and that focusing on guild stores and player-to-player trading has helped to make the game more community-oriented. “We like the idea that people can buy from one place at one price and sell at another price at a different place,” he says. “Sure, you can do that with a global auction house, but it’s more fun when encapsulated in a guild store.” As well as improvements, future patches will introduce guild kiosks, which let guilds bid on one of a few different kiosks spots from which they can sell to the general public.

Paul would also like to see more tools added in the game for role players. He doesn’t have any specific plans at the moment, but says that he wants to find ways that people can reward others for inspiring great in-game experiences. Along with role play, Paul also confirmed that the team will continue to create a diverse selection of armor styles for all players. “We want clothing options that are both modest and sexy, cool and fun, whether you’re male or female. We want to let people outfit themselves exactly the way they want to.”

One thing that players are unlikely to see in a future patch is huge changes to the UI. MMO players in particular are used to having a lot of numbers and additional information available to them, whereas ESO tends to stick with basic graphical representations of stats. Paul explains that the game was designed to be used without a mouse (on consoles, for example) so they can’t just hide details away behind tooltips. Fortunately, the game has “embraced the add-on community” and encourages players to use them liberally to create their perfect UI.

Overall, Paul says, the Zenimax team is “enjoying the heck” out of seeing players online and having fun. “We're just really excited as a development team to get as many people in as we can in the game to have a good time. Tell us what you think! Go to our forums, go to MMORPG.com – we read it – and tell us what you think.”

Want all the details of this interview with Paul Sage? Check out the full version on this week’s Game On Podcast!

Jessica Cook, aka Liore, is usually found on the Game On Podcast for MMORPG.com. She enjoys puzzle games, space RPGs, and MMOs with ludicrous hats. You can find Jessica on Twitter @Liores.

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