We didn’t see Elder Scrolls Online’s first-person mode until last week: here’s why
Disclosure: Bethesda paid for air and ground travel, as well as a two-night hotel stay.
The Elder Scrolls Online doesn't quite reflect what comes to mind when one thinks of Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series – at least not yet. The press was invited to ESO developer ZeniMax Online's studio in Baltimore last week, where we not only had several hours' worth of time with a beta build, but were allowed a tour and interviews with the game's creators as well.
I chose to speak with Matt Firor, the game's director. You may recall the Report interviewed Firor earlier this year, but now that details were finally being shared, this was a change to clear up a few things. So, first thing's first: about those hands.
When I wrote about Elder Scrolls Online back in January, I was told that the game supported first-person, but players would not be able to see their character's hands or weapons. In other words, it would support first-person – a feature many players clamored on the forums as being essential to the Elder Scrolls experience – to the same degree that World of Warcraft supports it.
So, were the weapons and hand animations added in response to player feedback? “Yes and no,” Firor said during the group Q&A. “The problem is, we really couldn't do it anyway until we had our animation rigged, all set up, with most of our animations set up so that we knew what it was that we were going to be doing to animate the arms, is the technical answer.”
“Obviously we heard the feedback too, but we wanted to do it all along, it's just we really needed to work out all the kinks.” Later, when I had some one-on-one time with Firor, I asked what he meant by that. What were some of the problems he and the team had run into trying to get the game running in first-person?
Note: We still don't have official assets to show you what first-person in Elder Scrolls Online looks like, but I can tell you it looks a lot more like Skyrim, pictured above.
“We're not going to be wholly third-person or wholly first-person. You'll do it as you will. Skyrim was designed to play in first-person. Sometimes it was fun to go out to third. But Skyrim is a single-player game, you don't have to worry about stuff spawning behind you, you don't have to worry about players running up behind you and stabbing you in the back,” Firor said. “In our game you do. So in certain cases you're going to want to roll the mouse out and you're gonna want to see yourself, especially in PvP.”
“If you clear an area and you… we have seen this with some of our focus tests… in Skyrim, you're going down a road and bandits spawn in front of you, they almost never spawn behind you, and as you fight them, you back up a lot,” he explained. “If you do that in our game, you'll run right into monsters that are behind you. We didn't change that. You need to be more aware of the world. We gave you the tools of going into third-person so at least you can see a little bit, and made it real easy to move the mouse around to see.”
A weight off the shoulder pauldrons
Talking about the inclusion of first-person seemed to be a relief to Firor and the ZeniMax Online team. I asked why they couldn't have come out and said that the first-person system was something they were working on, but weren't ready to show yet. Couldn't they have saved themselves a lot of grief that way?
Firor said that it was important they space out their announcements, and that they've always tried to leave the door open for first-person game play. “If you read between the lines, we said, 'As it stands now,'” Firor told me. He said the team didn't want to show off something that didn't look good, and things like field of view and texture resolutions had to be altered in a way that didn't violate system memory.
Firor stretched out his arms wide. “The effects need to be cool-looking from this far away…” He brought his arms in close. “And cool-looking from this far away. What looks good at this far away is overpowering when you view it from this far away. So we had to make sure we cull out a lot of the particles when you're in first-person view so you don't just look at a purple cloud the whole time you're playing.”
“That's why it wasn't playable today. Yeah it looks fine, but man, you're looking at huge effects all over the place, and it's just not tuned yet. It's not a good experience.”
The first-person mode will be available to play at launch, but we were told not to expect it during beta.
“It's not just like waving a magic wand and suddenly, first-person works fine.”
In the shadow of Skyrim
Skyrim was an immensely popular game, and there's no doubt it's colored expectations with ESO. Firor made many references to the game during both our one-on-one time and during the group Q&A, but I wondered if maybe he was getting sick of getting compared to a game he and his studio didn't develop.
“It's flattering. Skyrim is an amazing achievement. We know people, that's gonna be their last impression of what an Elder Scrolls game was. But that team also had the same problem, with everyone knowing that Oblivion was the last Elder Scrolls, and Skyrim was different from Oblivion. So it's not like they're gonna make the same game every time, and we're not either,” he said.
“We're not trying to remake Skyrim, or Morrowind, or Oblivion. I think that's the basic statement. You can go play Skyrim; we're never going to make a better Skyrim than Skyrim. So we're not trying to copy anything. We're trying to take what's best about that experience and the best about seeing other people run around on the screen and kind of make one work with the other.”
The concept of merging two genres was present throughout my time at ZeniMax. Firor had shown a quick Powerpoint presentation before I started my hands-on time, outlining what he said players wanted from an Elder Scrolls game, and what they wanted from an MMO. The two lined up just a little too neatly, and I asked him about it during our one-on-one. Was that really what players had told him? Had they gathered feedback from players of the games?
“We did do some testing like that, but that can lead you down very strange paths if you listen to people,” Firor said. “You really need to go in with a really strong idea of what you want to do, and then use your knowledge. We're all Elder Scrolls players, and we're all MMO players. We know – we play all the MMOs and have played all the Elder Scrolls games – we kind of know where the MMO market's going, we know that you can only do so much with the giant 40-button UIs and that's been done.”
“What we did mostly is, we got our design team down, and basically did a kind of exercise where we wrote down, 'This is what Elder Scrolls means to me.' We didn't do so much with MMOs, because we kind of live that, so it was 'This is what it means to me,' and then it was, 'How do we do that?' That's kind of where that came from, so it was kind of a focus group of ourselves.”
Firor said the design process was a matter of compromises and finding where already-existing game play mechanics could line up. He said that MMO players are starting to get tired of rotation-based combat that focuses on cooldowns, so it was easy to slot in a combat system that approximates traditional Elder Scrolls combat on PC, where left-click attacks and right-click blocks. Firor said that implementing single-player designs into the MMO space wasn't so hard, but typical MMO design hampered the ESO experience.
In my hands-on time, I noticed that enemies glowed yellow when they were about to perform a power attack, and red when they were about to use a charged up attack. Elder Scrolls players know that's not how things work in the single-player games, but Firor said those designs exist for a reason: Instead of looking at a button-intensive UI or watching for a block prompt, players are paying attention to the world.
“MMO players love information, and Elder Scrolls players love the world, and there's no crossover between the two,” Firor said. “We had knock-down, drag-out arguments over, 'Does the UI fade?' The clear design direction is you want to look at the world, so the UI should fade, but some people really don't want the UI to fade. Those are things we talk about a lot.”
Hungry like the (were)wolf
This was the first time Elder Scrolls Online had been given significant time in front of the press, and the first hands-on other than the closed beta and internal testing. I asked Firor how he felt things went.
“I think the number one way to see how these go is when lunch is delivered and you announce it, everyone jumps up and runs immediately, you know you might have a problem,” he said.
I can tell you, no one got up when lunch was announced. While I'm not totally sold yet, I'm looking forward to playing more of the game.