The Elder Scrolls Online is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game set in the rich, lore-filled universe of the beloved Elder Scrolls series. Developers at ZeniMax Online Studios took one of the most-heard requests from Elder Scrolls fans (wanting to be able to play with friends) and made a whole game out of it. Players will be able to explore Tamriel and occupy their time by learning skills and professions, buying and selling goods, and engaging in epic PvP combat, all with their friends and strangers. It’s a massive undertaking, and one that requires sensitivity to two different camps: Elder Scrolls fans and MMO fans. If ZOS sways too far into one fan base they risk alienating the other. It’s a fine line, and Nick Konkle said down with VideoGamer.com’s Christopher Bratt to give the latest on how the journey is coming along.
The entire interview is available here, but some key points have been pulled and are available below. Stay tuned to Elder Scrolls Off the Record for all the latest developments and our analysis.
Why an MMO?
VideoGamer: With some of the big guys, like World of Warcraft – and I’m sure you hear this all the time – they’re dropping numbers now. How do you see that from your point of view? An opportunity? A warning?
Nick Konkle: You know, in all honesty, I feel like the market space for MMOs is expanding. Maybe there was a time when there was only room for one big MMO out there, but honestly I see what a lot of next-generation MMOs are doing and I’m excited. I think this is really good stuff. We’re bringing what we feel is really important to the table: immersion, action and the game’s story, and I think other games are working on other elements. There’s room for us all.
VG: You’ve recently announced a subscription model for TESO. Why did you opt to go with that model, rather than a free-to-play setup?
NK: I think it comes down to the fact that it’s what felt right for the IP. With free-to-play your always thinking about gates to different content. Like okay, now we’ve got to hit this situation where players will want to pay more, because they didn’t need to pay initially. Elder Scrolls is very much about open-world exploration, doing and finding things. If you’re constantly getting into situations where you’ve say, found a cool item and then you need to pay $0.50 to unlock it or whatever, it just wouldn’t feel right. Instead we wanted to the player to be able to pay up front and now you can do anything you want to do with unlimited restrictions. The subscription made sense.
And the other part of it is that we’re super-committed to two things that the subscription model allows us to achieve. First of all, we want to offer ridiculous top-notch quality service. We have a huge additional office that’s completely dedicated to customer service and it’s ready to run a very committed live support team.
VG: How’s that going to work? Similar to Warcraft’s Game Master system?
NK: As far as I understand it, we’ve made some advances in terms of integrating it into the game, making it easier to get help without needing to call or wait around. There’s a number of things that will be coming online to make us a premium service when it comes to customer support.
VG: And you want to do a good portion of that in-game?
NK: Wherever possible, of course. There are some issues that may prevent players from getting into the game and we have support for that as well.
VG: Moving back to the benefits of a subscription model…
NK: The last thing I wanted to mention is having that subscription allows us to maintain a really large team that can produce additional content at a very fast rate. We’re targeting a DLC-level of content coming out every four to five weeks. That also feels appropriate to the IP. Making sure we can constantly fill out more of the world.
VG: What sort of things do you have planned for these DLC-level updates?
NK: At this point it’s speculation, because when the game comes out… anything could happen. But we just had a meeting recently where we planned out the first ten chapters of what would happen. If you’re going to have that kind of content coming out regularly, we needed to start well before we hit live. They tend to be things like additional packages of features. An example would be adding in The Thieves Guild questline: a series of story-driven quests for an individual player. Adding in a justice system within the game, so when people steal things, there’s a consequence to that action. And then adding in a skill line that lets you distract guards and that sort of thing, so you’ll have a package that includes story, some gameplay elements and maybe a new system. That’d be a patch. Some of them will be things like a new zone, or something for a large number of players. Each one contains different elements.
VG: Do you see these chapters telling an over-arching story as well?
NK: There is an overall arc to the ten chapters, including the ones that include the justice system and the Thieves Guild, that is part of the reveal as things go on. Some advance the arc significantly and some will give you hints. I’m talking about things that are pretty far from happening right now, but that’s what we’re committed to deliver.
VG: Later down the line, will you be thinking about fully-fledged expansions?
NK: As far as I know, that sort of thing is far enough into the distance that even I don’t really know what we have in mind. The main thing we’re focusing on post-launch is supporting the content updates for the game and progressing down the line.
VG: I’ve got a couple of queries following my time with the demo itself. I went for an Argonian rogue character who tended to get a little overconfident about his sneaking skills. At one point my character inevitably died and I had the option to revive immediately in the same position, or go to a nearby wayshrine. Is there a penalty involved when reviving immediately? There didn’t seem to be one in the demo.
NK: For press builds we tend to keep the death penalty pretty light, just so people can progress through the game. There’s some pretty varying skill levels… The cost in-game will basically be that you’ll need a filled soul gem to revive at the same place, which you can acquire by getting an empty soul gem and using the Soul Trap ability which you’d expect in an Elder Scrolls game. So as long as you have those you can revive right there and then, but it’s not like you’ll have an infinite number of filled soul gems so you’ll want to use them strategically.
VG: Speaking of consumable items and items that players can create themselves, what are you thinking in terms of player economy? How will it be structured? An auction house?
NK: Yeah, there’s actually a number of different options. We have what you call a Guild Store, which isn’t quite an auction house, as there isn’t a bidding system. You just put something up for a price and people can either buy it or not. Basically eliminating the bidding aspect. Now you can be a member of multiple guilds and our expectation is that people will form trade guilds and use the Guild Store to, you know, produce and sell specific items or weapons. There will hopefully be an interesting friction involved, in which players try to buy from one guild and sell to another at a profit. If you don’t want to be a member, there are locations you can go to in the world where you access certain guild’s stores, that choose to put them up there. If you want to, there are options to take advantage of different markets being created for different things. If you’re really interested in min-maxing the economy, as I know a few players are.
VG: Going back to the player economy, are you hoping that’s going to grow and operate without too much influence from yourselves? You mentioned player guilds specialising in different items. If you look at an MMO like EVE Online, which has this huge, natural economy that’s grown on its own accord. Is that what you’re striving towards?
NK: Absolutely. I think our economy has some interesting player components and friction to it. I really think the people that like managing economies will be really interested in that. Maybe your average player will just go to one of the store locations and buy a weapon if they want one, or buy one from a vendor instead. But if you do really want to min-max the different components of it, there is an economy there to take advantage of and try out.
VG: With the three factions that players can pick and the idea of open PvP, are you worried about server balance? How do you encourage players not to just pick the most popular faction?
NK: We have a few things going for us. First and foremost we have the main server, so all the players are all in one place. So we can actually distribute things to ensure an even balance as need be. But that being said, this is one of the beauties of using the three faction system rather than the two faction system. If on say, the Friday night, one faction has less players log on, or one faction has more players and gains a lead, you can guarantee the other two factions will gang up on them. It won’t necessarily be an alliance, but more of a temporary truce whilst you stop the other faction. This is what made the PvP in Dark Age of Camelot work so effectively and what we like about this type of system. It’s self-regulated.
VG: With the skills systems that you have in place, there’s the classic approach as you level up and earn more skill points to spend, but you also The Elder Scrolls idea that as you use a skill it improves. How does that work?
NK: Absolutely. So a skill point is just a way of acquiring a skill, but the skills also advance and allow you to get new abilities based on how you used them. It’s very similar to the perk system in Skyrim, if you’re familiar with that. Unlike Skyrim where the perks are directly tied to your level, you can get perks all over the world: from doing a quest; or finding certain shards scattered across the world and make them into a perk; you can get them for doing PvP. There’s no end to the number of abilities you can ultimately learn.
VG: There isn’t a cap on that?
NK: No you can keep getting new skills. You can theoretically, if you had a whole lot of time, get every ability in the game. It would take an extremely long time to do that, but I’m sure some players will aim for it over some extreme period.