Thoughts on the Occasion of TESO Beta
My time in SW:TOR has been serene and pleasant, if a little uneventful lately. The Guardian main’s health pool was not quite where I’d like it to be by current standards, and so I’ve spent some time grinding out the last War Hero’s Elusive mods to swap in. As an alternative to warzones, I am slowly plinking at the storylines of two alts – the Marauder and a Sorcerer. I enjoy the subversive nature of doing good on the former, and the comedy of unadulterated evil on the latter… evil backed up by an excellent damage dealer’s toolbox, even at the underdeveloped stage. I’ve always known in theory why the sorcies were so good at tearing me apart, but it is quite another thing to place one’s own hands on the controls.
Earlier in the week, however, a stone broke the surface of the pond: ZeniMax opened up the TESO beta.
I tossed my name into the hat, and it got me thinking about this next big themepark with a solid IP, and the first which had the benefit of drawing lessons from the roller-coaster ridden by the MMO industry in 2012.
For one thing, it is worth underscoring yet again that The Elder Scrolls Online is a themepark. I can think of no other modern brand that would lend itself better to a sandbox treatment, but here we are nonetheless. The themepark customer is the one being sought and, I suspect, will continue to be sought by the industry this year and beyond.
The predecessor from which TESO borrows most heavily is undoubtedly Guild Wars 2. Three factions. GW2-heart-like questing paradigm. Public quests with instanced loot. Weapon-based skill system. Reduced number of active abilities, radically-increased emphasis on their correct situational use. ‘Vignettes’ rewarding thorough exploration of the world.
Fully voiced quests, though. You’re welcome.
TESO-specific innovations include a single world (as opposed to realms/shards) with players assigned intelligently to phases based on a preferred-activity questionnaire they filled out (“eHarmony”, quipped a friend), guild allegiance and others they find themselves grouping with generally. To be honest, I am not happy with this, and not just because they’re injecting a Facebook/Twitter angle into it. I know that some people consider their existing friends’ list the only relevant social filter, but I like servers. I like the idea of meeting strangers in the wild in a persistent world and emergent server communities with distinct flavours. At least with a game like EVE, players, corps and alliances do end up sorting themselves geographically (astrographically?) anyway, achieving the effect of local colour. This, though? 15%RP/20%PvE/35%PvP/30%Exploration Phase represent!
Having staked out their single-shard position, ZeniMax immediately backtracks, sorting players who wish to participate in TESO’s Cyrodiil open-PvP area into separate campaigns which will be named after Tamriel’s cities, and sound awfully like realms. Each campaign will last for months and culminate in the capture of the Ruby Throne.
Cyrodiil sounds interesting, as such things always do when described by developers. Of course, one could describe the original Alterac Valley in WoW in similar language – paths for individuals, small groups and large groups to contribute to victory, some involving PvE rather than direct PvP activities, opportunities for asymmetrical warfare. What ends up happening in practice involves large zergs circling the area, desultorily gobbling up objectives and smaller groups of stragglers, and the most direct, uninventive route to victory (dare one say: path of least resistance?) being pursued with remarkable tunnel vision.
That said, it is going to be a huge Oblivion-sized map, and the campaign will be long term, so perhaps it will pan out differently this time. Some of the top men on the developer team come from Mythic, with DAoC experience, which may have a bearing on Cyrodiil’s design, but that lineage has been, perhaps unsurprisingly, downplayed by the team itself.
Another potentially refreshing feature of TESO is the emphasis on mob AI, which is supposed to be very aware of its surroundings and think synergistically. So, mobs attacking a fighter might try to kite him, whereas the same mobs might rush a caster; or they might assume tank and dps roles. Players are, it is said, going to get greater opportunities than in previous games for combining their class abilities intelligently, too. On top of all this, if I understand correctly, one gets directly rewarded for how skillfully one fought any mob, so even if you are alone, staying out of the fire gets you better loot or xp. Rewarding merit is always welcome, and it might break up the monotony of mob-grinding that sometimes afflicts WoW-likes, including my MMO of choice.
Incidentally, the Tamriel Foundry has done excellent work in compiling and maintaining early information on the game, so I take the liberty of outsourcing my sourcing to that splendid collection of fanatics.
While I have not yet played this game, and a lot of my notions of how it will play may be wildly off the mark, I do think it is fair to lump it together with Guild Wars 2 as part of a push-back against the WoW model. It reminds me of the recent fleeting fashion in American political commentary, which is to talk about how Bill Clinton’s acceptance of the Reagan rightward paradigm shift validated it as a true inflection point, whereas President Obama’s reversal has yet to be similarly entrenched. If there is something to the notion that a rival’s appropriation of one’s ideas is their best affirmation, then Guild Wars 2 may gain a little more credibility as genre-changer with TESO’s release.