The Elder Scrolls Online: Crafting the Perfect MMO

What does it take to make the perfect MMO? Well, you need to have every facet work just right. I’m not sure we’ll ever see such a game exist, but we decided to zero in on each part of ESO to see how it succeeds or fails. Zenimax Online Studios was nice enough to give us some more time with the The Elder Scrolls Online beta this past weekend, and let us play with the much-touted PVP system as an endgame as well as more time with crafting, banging on the user interface, and questing as the Soulless One.

Here’s a more detailed view of each section from The Escapist staff who were able to play the near-release version of ESO.


UI Interface (Greg Tito, Escapist Editor-in-Chief)

I’m one of those people who spent hours modding my interface in World of Warcraft. The default interface was great for beginners, but I preferred a clean viewport into the world of Azeroth, with UI elements only popping up when needed. Thankfully, Zenimax Online Studios clearly devoted a lot of energy to providing only the information a player of Elder Scrolls Online needs at any given moment. Not only that, but the interface looks clean and elegant, fitting for guiding your adventures through Tamriel. The only downfall is that it’s not moddable, at least not yet.

Fans of Skyrim should feel at home in ESO‘s interface. There’s the compass display at the top of the screen which lets you know which direction you are facing and where nearby landmarks are. One big difference from Skyrim is that the default key used to access most menus is Alt, instead of Tab. Pressing it brings up the menus, and hitting it again will cancel you back out into the world from most screens, including dialogue. The scripted dialogue sequences look almost virtually identical to Skyrim, with the spoken text and dialogue choices displayed over a darker gradient on the view of the world itself. The only thing I missed was the ability to look around while the character is speaking. You are stuck with a fixed view.

I really dug how Zenimax Online handled items in ESO. Your inventory is nicely separated into tabbed categories, rather than the “icon-per-item” system of moving around stuff in virtual bags. Inventory is still limited though by a simple number of items, regardless of weight or number in a stack. A stack of capon meat takes up the same space as an iron axe or that nirnroot you just picked up. There are NPCs you meet in the game which can increase your inventory limit for a reasonable amount of gold. Speaking of gold, nearly every mob you kill in ESO drops 1 gold piece rather than flavorful junk items in other MMOs. While that’s something to miss, there’s enough lore in other parts of the game that I appreciated not having Broken Axes and Dirty Butt Hairs clogging up my inventory.

Another convenience I didn’t know I wanted in an MMO was that in-game mail was delivered directly to you. There’s no need to head to a mailbox in town or anything like that. All guild invites and AH purchases are sent directly to you. I could see the argument that this reduces the immersion into a virtual world, but is going to a mailbox the kind of thing you really want to spend doing in a made-up fantasy world?

The combat UI was uncluttered as well. You have only a few abilities you can use at any given time, and these line the bottom of the screen. Your opponents will occasionally make attacks that are AOE, and it’s a simple matter to dodge out of the red zones on the ground in front of your character. There’s a handy radial favorites menu, which you can fill with consumables like health or mana potions. I never felt hindered by the UI, and most combats flowed naturally so that I was blocking attacks or deftly avoiding an enemy mage’s fireballs.

For the most part, I was very impressed with how the interface was designed in The Elder Scrolls Online. As I said, there are no mods available yet, with no plans announced for an API for fans to use to develop their own UI elements, but there was a tantalizing menu item called “Addons” in the Escape menu. You might remember something similar from when I played ESO at E3 last year. It looks like there are still some plans to allow interface modding in ESO and I hope they do. It’s a great interface already, but opening it up to the coders would make it truly wonderful.

Remember how much Sky UI improved Skyrim?

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Charter Creation (Dan O’Halloren, Escapist Senior Editor)

Character creation in RPGs have a high standard to live up to. Some players get very picky about what they want their character look like and will spend hours with the sliders and color charts. Others just want to hit the “Randomize Appearance” button and get into the game, but still care that their avatar looks the part of the mighty adventurer. Fortunately, Elder Scrolls Online is built for both.

For those that want to spend the time, you can adjust many fine aspects of head shape, nose height, tattoo color and more. For others, a few hits on the random button generally yields a badass character ready for battle.

The first thing to decide is what race you want to play. All races can play all four classes, so no worries there, but the nine races are divided into three and each group assigned to one of three factions. So if you want to play with your friends, make sure to choose a race that is in the same faction.

Then you can choose gender and class. The classes are Dragonknight, Sorcerer, Nightblade and Tempest. Each one has three different skill trees they can focus on that gives them different. Once nice thing about the character creation UI is that it shows your avatar not only in the basic armor (novice), but also in raid level gear (veteran) so you know what you are striving for.

After you pick a class, choose a name and you’re ready to enter the world. This is the one place where the character creation process falls down for me. I would have loved to have an option to have a name randomly assigned based on race choice. Not everyone knows the naming conventions of all nine Tamriel races, but I bet the devs do and it would be great if they could help the players at this point. Otherwise, the game will end up with another set of dark elfs who found a way around the name filter for Drizzt.

If you want to see character creation from ESO in action, check out the video embedded below. In it I show every race in heavy, medium and light armor, both novice and veteran gear. I also show randomized appearances for each race, both male and female, so you can see the kind of range each race has in individual looks.


Questing (Paul Goodman, Escapist Video editor)

Obviously, quests are the mainstay of any good RPG, MMO or otherwise. They’re the primary way of developing your character, exploring the game’s universe and experiencing the overarching game’s story. The Elder Scrolls Online doesn’t break any new ground with how it tackles quests – you find someone with an indicator over their head, and take things from there – but there’s a few things that just don’t seem to quite work right that can take you out of the adventure.

Moral choices are a big part of the Elder Scrolls games, and in games like Skyrim can often have a long and major impact over how your character interacts with the game world. While there are several instances in ESO where you are given options on how to proceed past a particular quandary, they don’t seem to have much of a lasting impact on the game world as a whole. I can recall several instances during my time with the Daggerfall Covenant where I faced a crossroads choice that felt like it could have drastic repercussions, but ultimately didn’t seem to affect anything other than how a few NPCs interacted with me. One quest ended with either destroying a dangerous, ancient, undead-summoning relic or leaving it alone with the hopes it could be used against Daggerfall’s enemies. When I opted to destroy it rather than risk it backfiring and causing more mayhem, some NPCs grumbled and told me how horrible a person I was, but the incident didn’t come up again later and it didn’t appear to close off any additional quests or areas to my character. In fact, I have yet to encounter those NPCs again, which felt very odd considering how the first chunk of the game set them up as recurring characters.

Another issue with questing in ESO how completing quests in groups is handled. Grouping up is an easy process, and you can share quests between you and other players easily, but the completion of objectives isn’t always shared between members of the group. After clearing out a Dwemer dungeon, a group I was with realized that one of our party hadn’t interacted with a specific item midway through while everyone else had, forcing us to go back through the entire dungeon so that they could catch up and complete the quest with the rest of us. As another example, I once tried to help a fellow complete a major quest to reclaim this ancient tree for a group of friendly witches. But since I had completed that quest on my own earlier, my partner literally disappeared from the game world when we entered the quest area and I could only see him by following the party indicator on my HUD. I couldn’t help him defeat any enemies or take on the tough end boss, and only when he finished off the end boss on his own did he reappear. This sort of mish-mash handling makes quests feel like they were meant to be tackled solo, rather than with other players. If the ESO was meant to be played solo, there wouldn’t be any issue, but since it’s an MMO and the genre is, well, massively multiplayer at heart, this can make social gaming a disjointed experience.

An additional aspect that feels off about ESO quests are the rewards you get for completing them, which are paltry at best. Usually you’ll receive a few dozen gold and occasionally a piece of equipment that may or may not be better than your current gear, or even part of your current skill focus. It’s kind of off-putting that you manage to save a city’s king from an elaborate assassination plot and your reward is a fancy magical staff when your character is a heavily armored Dragonknight wielding a two-handed maul. Hopefully this’ll change in the final version of the game, and the reward system for completing quests will match up better with your character’s outfit then what’s in place now.

All together, adventuring in ESO is a mixed experience. It features the same kind of quests and choices that you’d see in an Elder Scrolls game, but doesn’t always feel like it has the same lasting impact in the game world. And with the odd party mechanics, it often feels like the game would be better experienced solo than with other people – worrying, since there is a whole “multiplayer” part of the game. The game is still in beta, so I have to give the developers some benefit of the doubt that there may still be some major adjustments on the way, but as it is right now, it feels like ESO is trying to have the best of both single and multiplayer worlds.


Crafting Jon Bolding, (Escapist Senior Editor)

Crafting is one of those spots where Elder Scrolls games have always excelled – giving you the feeling of really going out and collecting materials, as well as building up the skill required, to make powerful artifacts. From what I experienced from levels 1-15 of the beta preview, crafting is a robust and interesting system.

Though, at first, it doesn’t deviate far from its roots as a WoW-inspired “collect from nodes, refine, build” system, it quickly adds some interesting variations. First, you’re able to break down any items you get into components for further crafting – whether it’s swords for blacksmithing or unused enchantments for enchanting. Second, the various things you can place skill points into really start to change what crafting means for any given character. For example, I placed points into having hirelings for several of my skills, which means that I got sent a small parcel of rare materials once daily. It was great, and allowed me to make steady progress on my crafting skills without investing extra time beyond what I picked up questing. I augmented that with skills that allowed me to get bonus materials for breaking down items, and I felt like crafting was a flowing part of my MMO play experience instead of something I had to stop questing to do. On the other hand, if you like collecting materials you wouldn’t have to buy those skills. They’re completely optional.

In a stark contrast to the early levels of some other MMOs, the gear I was making in The Elder Scrolls Online was consistently and constantly better than the gear I got from quests. It was very rewarding to sink time into alchemy, for example, and have better potions than the ones I was finding on dead enemies. It was strange, however, to spend the same skill points that would otherwise be giving me new spells or attacks on crafting boosts, especially in a game with such a strong player versus player component. I didn’t ever feel quite crippled, or behind, because of my many points in crafting boosts, but I did feel somewhat limited compared to others with huge repertoires of combat abilities. Oh well, at least I had better gear than everyone I met by leaps and bounds. Whether that’s the case in the late game? That remains to be seen.


PvP (Paul Goodman, Escapist Video editor)

The primary goal of PVP in The Elder Scrolls Online is to capture and secure the various keeps that dot the map in Cyrodiil, a triangular shaped region in the middle of the playable world. Surprisingly, there’s a good deal of strategy involved in conquering or defending a keep beyond just capturing a flag or control point. All of the keeps are surrounded by three additional locations; a lumber mill, a farm, and a mining site, each of which provide bonuses based on how long they’ve been under your (or your enemy’s) control. If you’re on the offensive trying to capture a castle, it’s an important strategy to capture these areas first to deprive the enemy of bonuses or reinforcements.

Taking on castles themselves is a long and involved process that requires a great deal of effort from the players involved, and can actually be a dull experience – at least at first. To even get in the castle, you have to break down one of its gates or walls, and this is where player-operated siege weapons play an important role. Taking the form of trebuchets, ballistas and battering rams, you can purchase siege weapons and equipment from special merchants located in each friendly keep, costing you either gold or the currency you earn from competing in PVP. All of the siege gear acts like a consumable (that you can thankfully pick back up if you need to move), and there’s a handy indicator that appears on the ground to show where you can deploy them. Using any of the siege weapons is surprisingly easy, as you can simply use your mouse to aim and there’s guidelines that show where your projectile will land. But at the same time, it’s not terribly engaging to click on a target, fire, and then wait for your catapult to reload over and over.

Unfortunately, whittling down doors can take a long time, and if you’re not manning siege weapon or trying to snipe enemy players with ranged attacks, it’s not the most adrenaline pumping experiencing. Once the doors are down, however, then the pacing of the game can pick up, as melee-based characters can get the opportunity to get into combat with any enemy defenders inside.

The PVP events I participated in were limited – I only encountered about a dozen enemy players throughout my several hours of play, and the group of friendly players I joined up with only numbered around 30 or so. Despite being a mixed bag of waiting long stretches of time followed frantic close quarters combat, I did enjoy some of my time in combat with other players and conquering keeps, but I probably would’ve had more fun if the game had scaled my character up to a level on par with the NPCs. Regardless of its current state, however, you can definitely see the potential ESO has for some really enjoyable PvP action once there are hundreds of players all vying for control of Cyrodiil and battling each other in large scale battles. If the idea of fantasy battles on a massive scale piques your interest, you’ll probably want to keep an eye out to see how TESO‘s PvP evolves once the game hits launch.

Greg says: In closing, many people have written about the blandness of the first few hours of Elder Scrolls Online, John Walker of Rock, Paper Shotgun being the most notable, but I don’t really agree with that criticism. Yes, some of the writing and voice acting falls flat, but there are also memorable characters and stories being told. I enjoyed the engaging stories you don’t really get from MMOs, and the pure game-making craft of the game can’t be denied. Not every part of the game is perfect by any means, but ESO does feel like an incredibly polished experience. I still don’t know if playing it is worth the $15/month subscription fee, but it’s definitely a CRPG experience you don’t want to miss.

Walker is right though, John Cleese is wasted as voice talent with his little bit in the opening sequence. Pretend he’s not there.

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