An Elder Scrolls Online Adventure

By: Benjamin "Foghladha" Foley | : 970

ZeniMax Online Studios Headquarters

I awoke before the sun rose over the horizon to travel to the far off land of Hunt Valley, Maryland. Nestled within the foothills lay the home base for ZeniMax Online, the studio that brought us the Elder Scrolls Online game. Two days of meeting and presentations lay in my path for the 2014 International Guild Summit. I will share with you some new features that were revealed to me as well as an inside look at ZeniMax Online studios.

Part of what I do as a Community Leader is collaborate with development teams and pitch new ideas that, with any luck, will spur ideas and bring new life to the games we know and love. This trip would be my second to ZeniMax Online, the first of which was in October of 2012. Being reunited with so many of my friends from over the years was an added bonus. The really fascinating thing about the gaming industry is how often people change companies. Matt Firor, Paul Sage, Gina Bruno, Jess Folsom, Brian Wheeler, and Kai Schober all came from different times in Gaiscioch history. Friendships that you make today tend to keep you connected over the years, especially in this industry.

The Mission

While I was requested for my guild leadership expertise to sit and brainstorm with developers from the team, I thought it also was a great opportunity to deliver some ideas and creativity fuel while I was there. I brought with me a 22-page document that I hoped would inspire the developers to help build a more social, friendly and dynamic Elder Scrolls Online. Contained within were ideas, suggestions, and perspectives that would help illuminate the challenges our guild faces as a gaming community.

Often times, feedback comes in one of two unnecessary forms. The first is telling them what they did wrong. The second type comes across as trying to act smarter than the developers are. Either way, that kind of feedback usually falls on deaf ears. Why? People don’t enjoy someone tearing down a project into which they’ve poured the last six years of their lives. They also don’t appreciate people with no experience at building games criticizing a process which they don’t understand. Both of these approaches are flawed as they demoralize the developers.

Instead, I've taken a different approach, one taught to me by my professional mentor, Gary Gardner. Sometimes, the best way to encourage change is to pitch an idea that spurs the receiving party to reach the mutually beneficial conclusion you want them to find. While you may think you know how to complete the task, you should never force your ideas on others. What works best for you doesn’t always work best for others. You do want to preserve their sense of personal accomplishment by allowing them to have a piece of the solution and personal investment in the idea. What you end up with is a functional version of your idea, and if you've lead them down the right path, it could be far better than you could have dreamed up. Leadership is not about telling people what to do, it's about inspiring people to strive for greatness.

Day One

On Wednesday morning, we met at the ZeniMax Online Studios office. After a healthy amount of paperwork, we were escorted to the Developers den, where we shared some coffee and refreshments before the days events. The last time I visited their studio back in October of 2012, it was mostly empty and confined to a couple floors. This time, it was full of people and energy.

Contrary to media reports, I can say ZeniMax Online Studios is not shrinking, it's growing dramatically. From my first visit to now, I have seen this company mature and grow well beyond what I had imagined. I met several brand new employees, and the team has about 300 developers. The building buzzed with life and energy.. We discovered a building full of concept art, memorabilia and fixtures from the Elder Scrolls universe. Visitors were able to wander by and view life size statues, wall sized canvas paintings, and, of course, a real life elder scroll.. I wonder how many buffs I would get for returning that one to my castle?

Joining me at the Guild Summit were representatives from many other prominent US and European guilds, as well as my friend from Tamriel Foundry, Atropos. It was great to meet such a diverse community. There were 10 guilds who were high-end min-maxer PvE focused groups that literally had documents and spreadsheets outlining the critical areas where the systems are being exploited and abused. The guild Noore had put together an 80-page document of suggestions, data, and things needing to be fixed. There were several roleplay-focused guilds, 8 PvP-focused guilds, and 2 casual guilds, including Gaiscioch. The mix was great, and we had people from all specialties and backgrounds there. Half of the groups were from Europe and half from the US. I even found three of these guilds play on the Ebonheart Pact side, which was a relief since I rarely get the chance to meet any of these leaders.

After a short breakfast meeting, we were shown to the presentation room which was a 60-person movie theater. What we would see would likely shape the future of this game and the community that supports it.

Combat Responsiveness

The first presentation of the day showed some new refinements to the movement and combat system to help make the game play smoother and visceral. They have rebuilt most of the animations and have created ways that the animations interact with one another so that when you swing a sword,it looks like you’re making contact with your target. Combat speed has been improved as well. Two-handed weapons had the most noticeable improvement, since their lead-in was slow. However, once the momentum kicked in, they were fast and hit hard. The enemy took a substantial blow. The days of swinging a sword and wondering if it hit are over. With this improvement, you will have visual feedback that you smacked the enemy.

All of the weapons received a polish round to make combat feel more lifelike. They have added some alteration in how your character swings its weapon and how it interacts with the enemy. The end goal was to provide the user with more feedback to show the effects that each charged or quick attack has on his or her target.

Optimizing Your Client Performance

Additionally, the combat responsiveness team gave us some pointers on how to avoid lag and disconnects. Their first suggestion was to make sure to close the launcher. If it is left on, it will consistently ping the server looking for a new version. That can create a ‘hitching’ effect within the game. The second suggestion was to turn off your web browser’s hardware acceleration, since  it reserves a portion of the RAM, CPU, and GPU at all times. This happens even when you aren't using the web browser, and it can often lead to slowdown and occasional disconnects. Lastly, they said that the most frequent causes of poor game performance are bad or old drivers. They encouraged us to update them often.

The Crafting System

For the next presentation, Phillip Draven spoke with us about game systems. The first part of his presentation was on the improvements coming to crafting. These included many exciting new features:

  • Crafting Tutorials - These will walk you step by step through each of the parts of the crafting system. By completing them, or skipping them, you will receive your ‘crafting credentials’, making you an official crafter in Tamriel.
  • Crafting Writs - The crafting-based quests award you additional experience and gold in exchange for crafting items.
  • Survey Reports - Similar in function to Treasure Maps, these reports show you the location of large caches of materials that award bonus resources each time you farm a node. These are completely personal so that nobody else can see your cache and loot it while you're gathering. Once you discover its location, you alone can gather the resources.
  • Nine-Trait Armor Sets - Located in Upper Craglorn, the Twice-Born Star set can be crafted by max-level crafters who have all nine traits unlocked. This set will allow you to benefit from 2 Mundus stone effects at the same time.
  • Dwemer Crafting Style - Crafters will acquire the style by page or by book. Pages will be frequently found in Dwemer ruins and allow you to learn the crafting style of a single item. Additionally, you may find an extremely rare full collection of these recipes in the form of a Dwemer Crafting Tome. These recipes will require Dwemer parts to be converted into resources.
  • New Crafting Style - Players will be able to create Xivkyn (Imperial Daedric) sets.

He also gave us a sneak preview of some of the content coming in the future. Some of it was pretty exhilarating.

Provisioning Revamp

The developers will be revamping one of the most material-intensive crafting skills in the game. They will be taking a system that currently uses 150 different materials down to just 50 materials in the new system. The new version creates food and drink on a predictable format that helps ease the recipe component confusion and drastically reduces the number of different materials you need to gather and store. With this revamp, they are also implementing thousands of additional clickable objects including but not limited to apples, bananas and  loaves of bread. They also will be implementing a ‘see what you get’ system so if you pick up a banana, you will not get goat meat instead. Sacks will provide grain, barrels will give  liquids, and boxes will contain additives. Additionally, crafting items will be based on the zone, not your level. This will make lower level items accessible once again to higher level characters.

Down the road

The ZeniMax team has begun to lay the foundation for the all-new Glass weapons and armor, spellcrafting, poisonmaking , mount racing, and jewelry crafting. Most importantly, the Game Systems team showed us a sneak preview of the new collection system they are working on to house all of those miscellaneous items in your bank you have nowhere to place. Costumes, vanity pets, and gimmick reward items will now be stored in the collections tab which can be accessed from your main menu. Anytime you would like to use one, you can pull it out and equip or use it. You can even slot it to a quick slot.

The Imperial City and AvA

Our next speaker was Brian Wheeler, who gave us our first look of the Imperial City. This is the Elder Scrolls version of Disneyland. To open the city for your faction members to enter, you must control all six of your home keeps. Once you have all of your main homeland keeps, you will be able to enter the city gates where you will find yourself in a PvP Safe Zone. There, you can get an overview of what's going on within the city walls. There are dozens of quests, hundreds of places to explore, and countless bosses to fight. If your realm does not own any of the three key sections of the Imperial City, you will have to exit by one of the three entrances to the sewers. Each sewer entrance will allow you to enter the main city in one of three different places.

Once in the main city there are several attractions.

The 3 Main Districts

A massive dark anchor looms above the Imperial City. Each of it's three anchors serve as a gateway between Cyrodil and the Badlands. All forms of beasts and horrifying creatures spew from the portals. Travel into the Badlands and defeat guardians to receive the ability to destroy the three nodes circling each gateway. Once closed, your faction will kick the Draemoric out of the district and then gain access to a wayshrine, crafting tools, and merchants. You can even take over rival factions’ districts and lay waste to your foes in this fully PvP-enabled zone. Each district unlocks new quests and pieces of the story for you to explore.

The Arena

The Arena was my personal favorite. What can be better than standing in the arena facing wave after wave of terrifying creatures and then have to fight our opponents at the same time? If you survive the trials of the arena, you will be able to loot a chest found in the center of the area.  

Other items of note:

  • No forward camps in the Imperial City
  • Increased experience, gear, and gold in the Imperial City
  • All new crafting set - Xivkyn
  • Content Scaled for two or more players at VR rank 14.
  • Close gateways to the Badlands for additional rewards chests
  • Six new ruins of the Divines found throughout the city which provide eight hour bonuses.

More Improvements to AvA

There were also a wide range of improvements on their way including:

  • Tweaks to how and when forward camps can be used and acquired - They are looking into creative solutions to help reduce the instant reinforcements problem plaguing AvA.
  • Improved Experience gains.
  • Emperor and Realm bonuses only apply to home campaign. No more gaining buffs from one campaign and using them in another.
  • Oil pots will need to travel a certain distance before their AOE will be effective preventing people from using them in ways they were not intended.
  • Out-of-bounds boundaries have been added to ensure that players can not go where they're not meant to be.

Champion System

The last presentation and Q&A session of the day was for the new Championship system. For this system even to be possible, ZeniMax Online Studios has to to rebuild most of the skills and traits in the game. Additionally, they are using this as an opportunity to readjust the way caps work by removing soft caps altogether and redistributing the ratios of how we gain stats. Over the course of the next few patches, small changes will begin being deployed, many of which will cause players to say "Huh? Why did they do that?" These micro changes are the preparation for the champion system.

What is the Champion System?

The champion system is a secondary progression system that players will unlock at level 50. It will allow them to distribute points into various constellations based on Health, Magicka, and Stamina. There are a total of nine constellations, each with their own focus. Each constellation contains four player-chosen upgrades and four upgrades you unlock by distributing points into that constellation. New upgrades will unlock at 10, 25, 50, and 100 points that are distributed to each constellation. That’s not all. You will need to spend your points in a clockwise rotation moving first from the Health Constellation, then to the Stamina Constellation, then the Magicka constellation, and then you can distribute your next point back into the Health Constellation. You can distribute a maximum of 700 Champion Points per constellation, and each point should take around 1 hour to obtain.

Along with this change, the developers will be doing away with veteran points and moving all progression directly to experience. The long term goal is to do away with veteran ranks entirely. Each player will be rewarded for the experience they earned after level 50 when this change comes into effect, giving players a head start on the champion system. Additionally, the Champion system is account wide, so once you've unlocked it, every character on your account can begin to benefit from it.

Simply put for those that might be a little confused by this, think back to RIFT and remember Planar Attunement. This system is comparable, and you can expect to see some similar abilities unlock from it. This feature will allow those who have hit the max level to continue progressing and prepare for the future by improving their champion levels.

The Dinner Party

After a long day of presentations and Q&A sessions, we finally got a chance to relax and have casual conversations with many of the developers over some steak and seafood. I managed to sit between Creative Director, Paul Sage and Jason Barnes, one of the masterminds behind the Dragonstar Arena.

Paul told us a wonderful story about driving fast as a young ignorant youth in a computer delivery van. He was on a delivery taking 60 computers to a local business when he realized he was about to miss his turn. He made a hard right turn, but his back tire clipped the curb. The van rolled over four times before it finally stopped. He likely would have been killed if it hadn’t been for the for the pure steel computer cases giving Paul a fantastic roll-cage. Computers quite literally saved his life. As if having his life spared wasn't enough, the computers still worked. Seems things back in the olden days were built to last.

Many topics of conversation arose about their pasts and the things they want for the future. As the night progressed, I managed to mingle with a few of the game systems designers and learn about some of the challenges they face. Being able to see the inner workings of a development studio and understand the difficulties they have to overcome was quite interesting, and I am certain that in the future you will see a new series of articles talking about game systems and technology.

Day Two

Itemization and Gameplay

Day two began with a huge topic of Itemization and Gameplay. The developers started talking about abilities, weapon and armor builds, and how they are changing things in future updates. These changes have come not only from their study of players’ use of skills, weapons, armors, and potions but also comments and complaints from players and guild leaders.

  • Adding to  Build Diversity - ZeniMax doesn’t want players to feel like they’re locked into one specific type of build in order to be successful in a dungeon or in AvA (alliance vs. alliance) play. The developers are going to improve Stamina-based damage so that it is in line with the Magicka-based weapon damage. This will raise the viability of stamina builds and diversify the types of weapons and builds that players can use and still be just as effective.
  • Weapon Abilities - Abilities that rely on Stamina will receive a major overhaul, and weapons will restore both Magicka and Stamina with heavy attacks. This will substantially boost Stamina-based damage and bring them in line with their Magicka counterparts.
  • New AvA Abilities - If you have been frustrated with some aspects of AvA, the developers have heard you. They are looking at solutions to problems and examining ways to make AvA even more fun for those who love this kind of game play. Some of the things they are looking at include adjusting AoE (area of effect) damage, stealth detection, healing debuffs, and adding in Stamina-based heal abilities.
  • Ultimate Changes - ZeniMax has been examining how abilities generate Ultimate Points for the Ultimate Abilities. The developers want to optimize Ultimate Abilities to make them effective for all styles of play, not just a few.
  • Class Ability Updates - It’s no secret that certain skills are used a lot more often than others. For the next update, the developers are hard at work on balancing lesser-used class abilities to make them more feasible to use in game play. In addition, synergy skills will only appear to players who actually can activate them. This will save players who can’t use those skills wasted time trying to activate a skill that they can’t use. In a heated AvA combat or tough dungeon fight where every skill firing correctly at the right time is essential, this might turn the tide of battle. ZeniMax is looking at the interplay between class abilities and Stamina builds, with an eye towards improving those so that players who enjoy playing Stamina-heavy classes can be just as effective in PvP and veteran dungeons as other classes.
  • Some Language Clean-up - The developers are going over all the ability descriptions in order to make them more clear and easier to understand. They will also edit out errors or misspellings in order to prevent confusion.
  • Blocking and Ability Use - Casting or performing an action while blocking at the same time will reduce the effect of the ability triggered. Additionally, ZeniMax is looking at  giving blocks a limited duration or cost to use.
  • Area of Effect (AoE) - ZeniMax will be removing AoE damage caps to help spread out groups who stack and take advantage of the current six person AoE limit. Currently, if a large group of players stack in one spot, AoE skills will damage only six of them. If the cap is removed, everyone in the spell’s radius will be affected, not just six players. This will encourage players to move out of a small radius. AoE healing will remain limited to six players, however.

New Item Types

Undaunted Monster Helms - These much-sought-after helmets are the beginning of a new system that will reward players for exploring veteran dungeons. Each of the bosses in the veteran dungeon will randomly drop an Undaunted Monster Helmet which will look similar to that boss’ head. These helmets, when combined with their shoulder equivalent, gain an ability from that boss that triggers randomly.

Undaunted Monster Shoulders - These can be earned by completing the Undaunted repeatable quests that will be introduced with Update 5.

Future Updates - There are plans to add these to normal dungeons as well. That will come after Update 5, however.

Additional Itemization Plans:

Improved Gold Drop Rates - Apparently, the enemies of Tamriel have filed a grievance with their union, and they are demanding higher salaries. With Update 5, you will find that humanoid enemies now leave you more than a measly 1 gold. They will drop random amounts of gold within a set range. Additionally, varied rates of gold can be found in the Rewards for the Worthy bags in AvA.

Trait Updates - Several armor and weapon traits have been improved and had their abilities updated.  Reinforced,Ornate, and intricate armor traits have been improved to nearly double the reward. This will make armor with these traits much more useful. Exploration, Charged, Weighted, and Sharpened traits will also receive some additional love.

Ability-Altering Weapons - ZeniMax is working to introduce new weapons that are directly related to the monsters you kill. If you’d like a sword, you’ll want to look for enemies who wield swords. If you prefer staves, you’ll want to attack creatures that use staves. . A collection of unique weapon versions  will be introduced based on the monsters who wield them. On top of that, these new weapons will now give player certain stats and have special unique effects and abilities.

Trials, Dungeons, and Arenas

Next at the summit, Jason Barnes and the dungeon team took the stage to give us some previews of some of the exciting new changes coming to dungeons. They have targeted three issues they hope to resolve: player incentives, game balance, and play experience.

The first major change is the introduction of dungeon scaling. Dungeon scaling allows a dungeon to increase or decrease to the level of the group leader. So, if you missed Fungal Grotto on your way through Stonefalls, you can return to it and give it a whirl at Veteran Rank 14 and have the dungeon adjust t o your current level. This will also update the ‘looking for group’ tool, so that regardless of the dungeon you choose to enter, the ‘looking for group’ system will find you a group in your level range for added adventures. This makes many of the favorite lower level dungeons replayable for high level characters.

Next, they are making some of the more popular requested changes to the way dungeon quests work. You can now share quests and also join a group at the point they are at in the quest lines already if you were late to the party.

The second major change is the addition of Undaunted Enclaves.  These will be found in each capital city and lead you on quests to explore normal and veteran dungeons. You can earn one of three levels of rewards based on how well you complete the dungeon. Each completed Enclave quest will reward you with a gold, silver, or bronze key which can be used to open the gold, silver, or bronze chest inside the Enclave.

Third, the developers announced that the Veteran City of Ash will be launching in update 5, along with an all-new City of Ash i"Undaunted" item set which rewards Stamina / Magicka hybrid builds. In the veteran City of Ash, you will join the Undaunted expedition that is lead by Fingaenion to assault the Deadlands, the realm of Daedric Prince Mehrunes.

Further down the ZeniMax time line comes the Imperial City Prison. This new area will take you back to the tutorial zone of Oblivion and see what it  looked like before the events in that particular Elder Scrolls campaign. This dungeon is located within Cyrodil, but it will be a single group dungeon instance and not a PvP Dungeon.

The Justice System

By this time in the presentation, we were all excited to see what they had in store for the new Justice System. What we were shown threw me into a total identity crisis. This system came complete with a good ol’ fashioned game of cops and robbers. When I first heard about the feature after Quakecon, I thought this would be purely a PvE-based system similar to the one in the Elder Scrolls Series. Little did I know that they planned to add an entire PvP element to the chase.

Players can choose to join the Enforcers or Outlaws for a set amount of coin. By joining one or the other, they are given the ability to commit crimes or solve them. This system brings a whole new cat vs cat mini-game to Elder Scrolls Online. Enforcers can hunt and kill Outlaws, Outlaws can hunt and kill Enforcers. The system is entirely opt-in, and being able to commit crimes will be something you can turn off to prevent the chance that you would accidentally commit one if you click on the wrong person or item.

Outlaws

Outlaws can sneak around pick pocketing locals, steal goods from local merchants, trespass in locked homes, and even commit murder. By doing so, they build a bounty and heat.  At different levels of heat, guards will accost you or even begin searching for you. Furthermore, any Enforcer that witnesses the crime can hunt and kill you, then steal your contraband to return it to Enforcer headquarters just outside the city.

Your goal as an outlaw is to pillage the village and make bacon for the local outlaw den (in the form of one of several entrances located around the city) to pawn off your stolen goods. As you level up your Outlaw rank, you will begin to earn new Outlaw skills. These skills will help you become more proficient in larceny and avoid the local enforcers.

If you are caught by the city guard, you will be required to either run, in which case the price is death, or pay the fine and lose all of the stolen merchandise you are carrying.

You may murder any NPC except for key figures in the story. Quest NPCs and merchants are local to your individual character. This means that if you kill a quest NPC, only you will see him die. However you still will be marked as a murderer to any Enforcers and guards nearby. This is to prevent griefing quest NPCs or impeding on another player’s enjoyment of the game.

Enforcers

Enforcers can head to the Enforcer Headquarters located outside of every major city to purchase a license to track down Outlaws. By signing up as an Enforcer, you will be given an Enforcer tabard that you must wear to be able to hunt Outlaws. Upon putting your tabard on, you will be flagged for PvP and killable by any local Outlaw. You can choose either to hunt the local Outlaws or take a mission to discover an Outlaw den and slay a key figure of the Outlaws. These dens are mini-dungeons designed for solo or group play and are discovered through map clues much like the hidden caches. Only Enforcers who have the quest active will be able to enter these dens. Groups of Enforcers can team up for these and raid the place, uncovering contraband and items. Enforcers then can take these items to the Headquarters for a reward. By completing quests and retrieving contraband, you will raise your Enforcer rank.  This will unlock new active and passive skills to aid you in catching thieves and murderers on top of retrieving stolen goods.

Additional things of note

  • Fast travel is disabled while in possession of contraband or wearing an Enforcer tabard.
  • Enforcer tabards take several seconds to apply, and the player may not move while it is being applied.
  • You must witness a crime to be able to kill an Outlaw.
  • Outlaws and Enforcers will not be available in Cyrodil.
  • Counter-griefing measures will be in place to prevent large raiding parties from slaughtering entire towns. All NPCs will respawn, and loot is based on each person.
  • You can leave or join anytime for a fee.

This system has me in a complete identity crisis. Both sides seem like a blast, and I can’t decide whether to play as an Outlaw or an Enforcer.

After Thoughts

All in all the trip was wonderful. I managed present my ideas to the developers and  get a behind-the-scenes look at the changes coming to Elder Scrolls Online. There's no doubt in anyone’s mind that ZeniMax has a lot of work to do to restore ESO into the limelight, but I am confident they are on the right track. They are introducing several key updates that should help a lot of the critical situations and are continuing to fine-tune the game as new bugs and situations appear. Time will tell whether these new features are a hit or not, but at least I can walk away knowing they’re doing their best not only to resolve the issues that have been plaguing ESO over the past 5 months but also to make the game even more fun for more players.



Published: March 19th, 2015

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About the Author

Benjamin "Foghladha" Foley
Managing Editor & Designer

Benjamin founded the Gaiscioch Social Gaming Community in 2001 and has since been the founder & activities director for this well known community. His role has gone beyond just running the Gaming Community and now includes running the Athletics Program in Portland, Oregon, as well as acting as the Managing Editor of the Gaiscioch Magazine, and is the Lead Producer on the Gaiscioch Livestream Productions. Additionally he networks with game developers to form relationships between Gaiscioch and development studios.

His experience in publishing dates back to helping his Grandparents who operated a printing press for over 40 years. In high school and college Benjamin excelled in journalism and played an active part in the school newspaper. Benjamin currently works full time as the director of technology for a franchise trade publication & education company.

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