ZAM speaks to Matt Firor about developing ESO, beta, AvA and more
As part of my visit to the hive of activity known as ZeniMax Online Studios last week, I had a thoroughly enjoyable chat with the driving force behind The Elder Scrolls Online, Game Director Matt Firor. We talked about how the game is progressing, what we might expect from Adventure Zones (or whatever they end up being called) and more.
After having played the game for the second time in the past six months, it was immediately noticeable how ESO (as it’s officially abbreviated) has moved forward since October. As we began our conversation I mentioned how much more responsive and engaging the combat was compared to the previous build. I asked Matt what the main focus of development has been since then.
“The main difference between the version you played in October and this one is the UI with progression. The progression system was in the build you played, but the UI didn't really present it, so when I say UI it's really making the systems comprehensible.
Combat polish, animation and effects, making that feel much more grounded in reality and not kind of floaty, like it was; those are the biggest things right there. There's a lot of world development too, but mostly systems wise and the feel thing that you're talking about is really understanding what you're seeing because the UI represents it.
Of the features we are still learning about, Adventure Zones are one of the most intriguing. I asked Matt to talk about what we could expect in those areas and when we might see them.
"Probably not ready for launch. And I talk about them with the knowledge that launch day is just another day for an MMO, I mean it's a super important day but we're committed to this. We will have worked on expansion content, post launch content for months into the game launch; we'll have already been working on stuff.
I would rather put fewer really solid systems in now than put in a whole bunch of stuff that doesn't really work together, just to make launch day. We want the core of the game to be good, the core of the game to be fun, hundreds of hours of PvE gameplay, a great PvP system and then work on it from there.”
With the three alliance areas surrounding the central, massive land of Cyrodiil, I asked where we might see those zones.
"If you look at our map, you can start to see that the alliances are the civilized territory; they're mainly on the coast. There are vast parts of Tamriel, they're explored but they're not really part of the alliances and those are the areas where adventure zones are. There are parts of Argonian Blackmarsh, I mean parts of Blackmarsh are under alliance control but there are massive parts that aren't. That's a good place for one. Hammerfell and the Alik’r desert; yes we have a big part of Hammerfell, but that's a huge province that's mostly wasteland, desert. Those are the kinds of places we would [see them]."
With the introduction of these huge areas, one would expect a lot of content variety to be present that appeals to players who want to roam away from the main alliance-related content streams.
"Exactly. If I'm tapped out, I’m high level. I've played through all the alliances, or I want to take a break from playing through the alliances and I want to go to some other high level content, I'll go there. And I'll know there are people soloing at max level. We probably won't use the term “raid” but a large group, large encounter, there will probably be people there recruiting for one. There’ll probably be a looking for group system so you can just go right there; those are the things you're doing. I can go do a daily, get a quest to do something right there, that's the kind of stuff you're talking about."
To understand the concept of what form these “large encounters” would take I asked if these opportunities for large groups to come together would be open world or instanced.
"So part of it would be an entrance to a giant public dungeon you can explore around. There are probably some quests and some story, but once you go in for that experience [large group encounter] we need to make sure it's scaled for the right number of people."
With ESO being focused on generating social interaction, guilds are of course the classic way of ensuring social stickiness for most MMOs. I asked what form these would take.
"We'll probably call them guilds. DAOC had player and non-player guilds, so we'll do the same. We're really not ready to talk about the guild system yet, mostly because that is now starting to be our focus and anything I say may change, but they'll be important I'll tell you that. Just the PvP system alone mandates they'll be important."
With no Adventure Zones at launch, I asked Matt what kind of initial PvE content there will be for guilds to coalesce around.
"The economy, crafting there’re a whole lot of things they can be used for, but again I don't want to go into specifics, not that I'm actually holding anything back. I'm just afraid it's going to change. And adventure zones are highly speculative; we have a design, we love it, but we want to finish the base game first then those might change, but that's our thinking right now.”
As ZeniMax has been clear about already, the current ongoing beta is not just an early chance to play the game. Focused and important testing will be the priority for the team and I asked what systems were being fleshed out the most as beta ramps up.
"Our social systems, those are the big ones. And that's guilds; with a megaserver it puts a lot of pressure. Sharding has only one advantage and that is technically it cuts your problems by the number of shards you have. In megaserver, everyone has access to everyone else.
A 30 person friends list is probably fine on a sharded server. What do you do when you have access to everyone who is playing the game in the world? That's a lot of people, that's a huge UI problem, that's a huge...these are not insolvable problems but you stack a lot of them on top of each other and there's a lot of work. These are the things we're doing right now, all of the social systems. How do I find someone that I want to be a friend? There's got to be some kind of search function, it's all of that."
With alliances as obviously cool as the Ebonheart Pact (hey, you know I’m right), would faction imbalance be a concern? I asked how the game is set up to take care of any problems with player proportions in the alliances.
"The only place that has an effect is in our PvP system, so really that's where the joy of three sides comes in. Yes, in two sided PvP system 51% to 49% is deadly, one side wins all the time. In 3sided it's a lot hazier than that. One system that let's say one side has 40%, there's still 60% of the world against you, these are still overwhelming odds. Even if at 50%, you still have 50% of the world against you; they're not all going to be on the same team, but they're against you. There are things in the game we can do, like travel times and respawn times, mobile graveyards to make it easier to catch up so you're not getting beaten up over and over."
One of the big moments of the day was the video reveal of full first person perspective combat, with visible hands in all their whirling prestidigitation soaked glory. Most of us thought the classic Elder Scrolls RPG combat style was not destined to be seen in ESO, I asked why we were just learning of this feature.
"We've known we were going to do it for a long time, we just wanted to wait and not announce everything at once. This is a game where you're going to have to make a choice on which perspective you want to be in. People will try it [for PvP] and, depending on your role, maybe it's appropriate, but if you want to see the sneaky guy behind you who is burying two swords in your back...and yes I know we can put hit indicators to show [their attacks] are coming from the back, but the point is you want to see him before his attacks not after.”
Moving from RPG to MMO has led to a number of questions, including how stealth will work in ESO’s AvA (Alliance vs Alliance) PvP. I asked Matt how those who love to be the sneaky pain in the backside in PvP will enjoy The Elder Scrolls Online while balancing stealth’s power.
"Every character can stealth and it takes a lot of stamina, if you want to get your stealth good enough to be effective in PvP you need to devote a lot of your skill points, which means you’re a sneaky guy, but you're not quite as good as a fighter. Yeah, you can get the first shot off and you might be able to kill someone but you're not going to live very long when you're visible. You want to give them a role and be disruptive but not be overwhelming."
As a quick question to end our interview, I asked about the robust LUA system that will allow players to jump in with their mods to change the UI of the game. Devs can be very wary of allowing a lot of manipulation with the game. With ESO so focused on receiving information within the game world I wondered if there were concerns about players watching bars fluctuate rather than the world itself.
"If you like the game, you want to do it with this stuff, that's fine. I've got no problem with that.”
Matt Firor’s response to that question was indicative of how the team and the game are approaching the fan base; at each level there seems to be an abundance of choice in how you want to play the game. After speaking to Matt, Paul Sage and the rest of the development team, it’s pretty clear that ZeniMax is adamant in delivering something special that will bring Elder Scrolls and MMO fans in general together.
Keep an eye out here at ZAM for lots more The Elder Scrolls Online news, views and interviews.