The Elder Scrolls Online has a 2013 release date, but here’s an early peek: We saw a demonstration by the game’s creative director Paul Sage this week at the E3 video game industry conference in Los Angeles, and with it a much more detailed picture of what the Skyrim and Oblivion-inspired MMO (massively multiplayer online games with thousands of simultaneous players) will look like when it launches next year. Be sure and check out the trailer for the game also.
The setting and story
Obviously, the big attraction for this fantasy online role-playing game is its setting of Tamriel, which has been used in seven major releases over the past 18 years, including last year’s megahit The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. While most of the previous games in the series focused on a specific region, The Elder Scrolls Online spans all of the continent of Tamriel, including many of the locations you may have visited in previous games.
Sage’s presentation began with a montage of locations in the game, which included the Argonian homeland of Black Marsh, the Redguard cities in the desert province of Hammerfell, the port metropolis of Daggerfall, Skyrim’s Windhelm, Elven ruins in Oblivion‘s Cyrodiil, the capitol city of Wayrest, and others.
However, he noted that not every square foot of Tamriel will be present in the game; large portions of the continent will be blocked off so they can be added in future content releases.
It’s also important to note that The Elder Scrolls Online takes place about 1,000 years before the events of Skyrim, so the world is a relatively different place. Most of the same races still populate the world, though, and they’ve joined up into three factions: the Aldmeri Dominion, the Ebonheart Pact, and the Daggerfall Covenant. Each of the factions will compete in player vs. player battles to control the central Imperial province of Cyrodiil.
Each player may journey through a main quest that tasks him or her with tracking down the evil deity Molag Bal, who stole the player’s soul. Over the course of the player’s quest to regain that soul, he or she will actually save the world.
Keeping combat simple
Most MMOs released in the past 10 years start out simple but become incredibly complicated as players unlock new abilities. Their screens become filled with “action bars” housing dozens of buttons. It gets very confusing, and the Elder Scrolls games have almost always had minimalist interfaces (you don’t want anything getting in the way of the immersive world, after all) so The Elder Scrolls Online will keep those buttons to a minimum.
The Elder Scrolls Online does have an action bar — blasphemy to some fans of the series, but unfortunately MMO designers have forgotten that there are other ways to do MMOs besides how World of Warcraft did it way back in 2004. However, that action bar is limited to only five or so buttons that you can click. Though your character may have a bunch of abilities, you’ll have to be tactical about which ones you keep available on that bar.
Each character can sneak, but his or her armor affects chances of success. You’ll also see a stamina bar on the screen; every character has this too, and it limits his or her ability to use special moves and block.
Exploring and questing in Tamriel
Like Skyrim and Oblivion before it, The Elder Scrolls Online is about exploring a fantasy world and spontaneously stumbling upon small quests with interesting stories. Also like those games, this exploration is serviced by an on-screen compass that shows icons indicating unexplored points of interest nearby.
When you arrive at a location, you may find a character who’ll give you a quest, or you might just find an interesting cave to explore — and yes, there will be more interactivity with the world than in other MMOs. You’ll be able to dig into just about any crate for loot when you see it, for example.
The experience may vary, also; multiple characters in different places may give the same quest, so there are (they say) no centralized quest hubs as in WoW or Star Wars: The Old Republic.
The classic Mage’s Guild and Fighter’s Guild are included in the game, but they’re a little different than they were in the single-player titles. The Mage’s Guild, for example, is centered around collecting books you find in the world (they’re all fully readable, and once you find one you have access to it forever) though these collection tasks will occasionally lead to full-fledged quests.
Waging war for the throne of the Emperor
Though specific details are scarce, we did see some footage of player vs. player combat in The Elder Scrolls Online. Each of the game’s three factions will vie for control of Cyrodiil, the central area that was the setting of Oblivion. The ultimate goal: Place a faction member in the Emperor’s throne. That Emperor will be an actual player.
The footage we saw showed several players duking it out with magic and swords around an Ayleid Ruin somewhere in Cyrodiil. It was chaotic and clearly an early test, but it looked promising. Sage said that battles will support up to 200 players at a time.
How The Elder Scrolls Online makes adventure social
While The Elder Scrolls Online offers traditional group-playing experiences (namely instanced dungeons for groups of four to six players, and raids for up to 25 players), the game also includes a new type of social gameplay experience called a public dungeon.
Public dungeons are places several players can wander into independently and tackle together even if they didn’t arrive at the same time or if they’re not in a formal grouping together. Sage said public dungeons will be about 1.5 times as difficult as what a player would normally tackle alone, so while it will be possible to get through them solo with a lot of care and patience, there’s an incentive to team up. Of course, this is essentially what all MMO dungeons were before World of Warcraft so this isn’t anything totally new.
These may work particularly well because The Elder Scrolls Online departs from World of Warcraft‘s target tagging system. That means that two players can fight a monster at the same time and still each garner the same amount of experience towards leveling up from the kill. In most post-WoW MMOs, the first player to do damage to an enemy gets all of the benefits of the kill unless they’re grouped, disincentivizing spontaneous cooperation.
There are also special abilities that each player will have that unlock new, follow-up combo abilities that only other players have. All this comes together to make cooperation the modus opreandi for The Elder Scrolls Online players.
As for the group-based dungeons that World of Warcraft turned into genre tropes, each of these will be story-driven and you’ll be able to replay them at the end of the game for additional stories.