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 Elder Scrolls Online  director: MMORPG combat design lacks innovation
Elder Scrolls Online director: MMORPG combat design lacks innovation Exclusive
June 6, 2012 | By Kris Graft

June 6, 2012 | By Kris Graft
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    22 comments
More: Social/Online, Design, Exclusive, E3



When Elder Scrolls Online's creative director Paul Sage looks around at today's MMORPG combat mechanics, he sees that something is lacking.

Asked about his thoughts on modern MMORPG combat design, he told Gamasutra at E3 this week, "There hasn't been a lot of innovation in combat, from several games out there. I'm not going to name any."

Paul Sage is leading the creative vision for The Elder Scrolls Online, the first game from Zenimax Online. It's the sister studio to The Elder Scrolls developer Bethesda Game Studios, home of hit single-player RPGs.

"One of the things we're trying to do [with our MMORPG] is get that feeling of active and reactive combat. So my take is that you have to feel like, 'This is really kind of like The Elder Scrolls' [single player RPG] combat. It's really active. I'm actually surprised, and it's fun to play with other people.'

"I do think [combat] has stagnated from game-to-game, somewhat, but that's why it's a challenge to us. The gauntlet's been thrown down. Can we make it fun? Can we make it compelling?"

Sage said Zenimax Online "absolutely" seeks feedback from developers at Bethesda. "We do talk back and forth. We send things to them and say, 'Hey, what do you think about this?' And they're really good at responding and saying, 'We like this, but maybe if you tweak it this way...' Bethesda has been absolutely fantastic about having us work with their IP."

'MMO' is not game mechanics

Players have come to expect "MMOs" to play a certain way. But Sage said the studio is breaking away from the idea of an MMO as a genre of games. That frees up the development team creatively when thinking about how to implement satisfying game mechanics.

"An 'MMO' is not game mechanics, it's not a genre in an of itself," he explained. "You can have an MMO that has nothing to do with an RPG, necessarily.

"The big thing is that it has got to be a compelling RPG first," he added. "There has to be growth mechanics that compel you. As a player, you have to have that feeling of 'If I just stay up for another hour, I might get this one thing.' And if you don't have that feeling, it's not what we want. We want you to be compelled to think 'I want to find out that thing that's around the corner.'"

Aside from strong combat, he said exploration is a big focus for The Elder Scrolls Online. Sage added that the social aspect of The Elder Scrolls: Online is particularly important, but said the studio isn't revealing details of those features quite yet. "That is one of the cornerstones [of the game's design]. I will say that playing with your friends and meeting strangers, and being able to just do it in a way where you're informed, it's a big thing for us."

For more reports from E3 2012, be sure to check out Gamasutra's live coverage.


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Comments


[User Banned]
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Trent Tait
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swtor combat is fine, it's the fact the AI stands around waiting in groups of 3 in the middle of nowhere for you to attack them while other AI enemies stand 20m away watching totally oblivious to you slaying their friends, that is the problem. Like every other MMO. Not to mention the fact that lightsabers feel like glowing bats rather than the fearsome weapons from the movies.

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Matthew Collins
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"SWTOR combat is fine" in terms of it being an MMO of KOTOR.

SWTOR combat would not be fine in an MMO of TES, which already has an established combat system that we've seen successfully replicated in several MMO environments (Darkfall, Mortal Online).

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Jeremy Reaban
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Meh. When you spend 100s, maybe even 1000s hours playing a MMORPG, is turning combat into a chore a good thing?

The Elder Scrolls games are time sinks, but nothing compared to a MMORPG.

Nick McKergow
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Is having the combat boring from the start a solution to that? If anything, having an involved combat system would keep it from feeling like a chore.

R Hawley
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It would argue that Elder Scrolls doesn't need to be an MMO. Many players are already married to other games, squeezing in another one isn't going to work well for a story based game. (Where have we learned this lesson recently?)

Elder Scrolls needs multiplayer yes. Doesn't need to be an MMO at all. It's too much, descope it and ship it earlier.

Maria Jayne
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"The Elder Scrolls needs multiplayer yes."

Really? A successfull single player rpg for over a decade needs a feature it has never had?

I think your definiton of "need" is not my definition of need.

R Hawley
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It doesn't need to be an MMO either. If sharing stories is the next logical step there's no need to over-egg the pudding.

Eric McVinney
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I'd imagine that when you brought up "needs multiplayer" you mean "needs to be like Demon's Souls" :)

R Hawley
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Never played Demon's Souls but it sounds quite interesting after reading about it. I played a lot of the original Neverwinter Nights and now I watch all my kids sharing stories with school friends via Minecraft. Creating your own adventures and sharing them holds more interest than being channelled through MMOs which by their nature have to have barriers. Human nature being like water, tends to run to the lowest level.

With your own personal worlds you can choose to share adventures with friends, you can keep your mods. With anything goes, no limits and user created content you sidestep design issues. Making games is not a democratic process. But if I was working there then that would be my opinion on the roadmap.

Games as a service will likely (if it's not approaching this already) be at saturation point by the time such a project is completed. Risk will only increase with time.

Matthew Collins
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Not sure if "need" is the right word, but being able to play Skyrim with three other friends, in a Borderlands kind of set-up, would be pretty amazing and would likely bring a huge amount of new players to TES (like it needs any more).

The real issue is this: if you can't make a proper TES MMORPG with the mechanics everyone loves from the SP games (either through lack of vision, laziness or technological issues - which are proven invalid by past MMOs that do those very things) then do not make one. Wait until you have the funding, talent and technology to make it happen properly instead of just basically making a DAOC sequel with the TES IP.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I remember in Morrowind you could put a rock on your keyboard and come back a couple days later and be max level. I remember asking Todd Howard why the game was designed that way at the 2002 E3 and his face turned red but he never answered me. I guess it beats paying for powerleveling.

Eric Geer
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I hope that the combat is better than their single player experience...

...it leaves much to be desired.

Matthew Collins
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Sure it does, but it is thousands of times more involving and exciting than anything ever done in a AAA MMORPG. The only good example of great first-person combat in an MMORPG is Mortal online. It is sublime, and anything you can do on the ground you can do on a mount as well. It's like a better Mount and Blade system, in an MMO.

If ESO had looked at that, and perhaps Darkfall, that would be incredible to see in a TES MMO, but they don't because those games are niche sandbox games. Sadly that's not because they're bad, it's because they have tiny dev teams, almost no funding and zero brand recognition, so they get ignored. If TESO took inspiration from those games it could be a major hit and push the AAA MMORPGs forward, but sadly, this seems like nothing more than a shameless cash-in.

Josh Jones
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As a former USMC I will say that every combat action is a dance.The dance however is a dance to the death, not a dance in "a chore" This is my little addition to this topic. This is not directed directly at this game in general but more of a overview on the topic.

If you want players to feel combat then you have to give them the sense of accomplishment. Giving them chores and putting them in a world of redundant combat is not how any type of real combat works.

I have went as far as to say and I have no issue with after so many deaths your character can die and you take points earned and rebuild a new character. Wow I know horrible..what am I thinking?
Think back to D&D, it should be devastating. We still talk about those days when you had to rip up those character sheets, why are you taking that feeling away from this generation? Oh they are to emotional?
In a nutshell,if you want combat to change you have to start by addressing what combat is
It is a dance to the death and if the player does not feel like it then you will always have a "chore"

How much stock are you going to put in your healers? How long are you going to take to plan out your attacks? How long are you going to make sure you have the proper equipment and seek the best advice before you go in that cave?Man does this sound like real life? It does when your character sheet is on the line....

In real combat your always surprised you made it back, if your trying to get that same feeling in games you should make it as such.
Just my thoughts...

Dave Bellinger
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First of all, thank you for your service, I admire the Military immensely, and Marines are among the most iconic our country has to offer.

The disparity between actual combat and entertainment or game-based combat is directly related to the amount of time needed to prepare the combatant. I would be extremely interested to see a game based around combat that not only makes you prepare, practice, react, and execute the necessary actions for the sake of achieving a positive outcome, but also holds those necessities up against the consequences a user will experience should they fail to 'dance' properly. This is not, however, a commercially attractive concept, at least on the surface I believe. Demanding more interaction and care out of a consumer also puts on the pressure to make the product that is delivered ultimately worth it.

When entering into an environment that then pits the commitment, care, and practice against other users, the market can shrink significantly. Virtua Fighter, an extremely technical fighting game can be a good example of this when compared to the more casual systems in place for Tekken, Dead or Alive, or Soul Calibur's, which use the same gameplay but more relaxed learning curves. I'm not implying this is empirical fact or anything, just the perception I've taken from the situation.

Bart Stewart
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The central problem of all computerized RPGs is "how do you replace an human GM who's good at inventing fun and player/group-appropriate content on the spot?" Trying to answer that is how we got features like "aggro management" and having 60 or 80 or more character levels, which turned into stale conventions, which metastasized into arbitrary requirements.

So breaking away from that sounds good, but how far does that go?

Why dutifully copy the "growth" notion? It's part of the single-player Elder Scrolls games, so maybe it's justifiable that way, but TESO isn't a single-player game. Why not take the opportunity to make an RPG that doesn't include the one thing that promotes grinding and locusting through the core content to reach the "win" state as quickly as possible?

Exploration sounds good, but a lot of MMO developers say that. Are we talking "exploration" as just mapping a physical terrain? Or slowly perceiving patterns in deep systems that can't be fully mapped by brute force and persistence?

Zenimax Online licensed the Hero Engine from Simutronics at about the same time that BioWare also licensed it for SWTOR -- is that still the basis for TESO? If so, won't it necessarily share many of the functional characteristics of SWTOR?

I'm not trying to preemptively find fault here. I hope TESO is a hoot and a half. But gamers have heard "our MMORPG will be different" before.

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Matthew Collins
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So if Paul knows the reality that MMOs are not a genre unto themselves, why are they trying to stick so closely to those MMORPG conventions when there are plenty of MMORPGs that are inspired by The Elder Scrolls (Both Darkfall and Mortal Online have said to be directly inspired by TES)?

There seems to be a serious right-hand left-hand disconnect here.

Left-hand: "We're unique!" Right-hand: "We're like all the MMOs you love!"

Left-hand: "We have the Elder Scrolls feel!" Right-hand: "We are not an Elder Scrolls game, go play Skyrim if you want that."

Left-hand: "[Insert possible mechanic here] is impossible!" Right-hand: "[Insert possible mechanics here] are not our focus right now."

I feel that both Matt and Paul are stuck in "we want to make DAOC 2 but we have to put the TES label on it for people to invest in it" mode. It is sad to see them basically destroying the potential of what a TES MMO could have been by selfishly using the IP of TES to make what amounts to a spruced up DAOC.

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