The Elder Scrolls Online that Zenimax launched in the summer of 2014 left “a lot of work to do”, as director Matt Firor puts it now. One of its failings was that it couldn’t offer the same reactive infrastructure that distinguishes the single-player Bethesda games. While Zenimax outclassed their MMO peers in acknowledging player decision-making, they remained beholden to the fairground feel of their genre: outside of instanced areas, the ride had to be reset in time for the next hero to wander along.
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But stealth, it seems, has provided the impetus to deepen the systems Elder Scrolls players have come to expect. A year after illuminating The Thieves Guild and Dark Brotherhood in their developmental roadmap, Zenimax folded support for pickpocketing and NPC murder into their MMO - alongside an automatic justice system to answer player crimes. It was like the note the Brotherhood couriered to new killers in Skyrim: “We know”.
The first of those elusive factions will lend its name to ESO’s first major expansion of 2016, out March 7th, and the Dark Brotherhood is expected to break cover in the coming months. There may be no honour among thieves, but the way Firor sees it, that doesn’t mean there can’t be structure.
“We did the justice system back in 2015 to add a more sandbox, Elder Scrolls feel to the game,” he says. “If you look at it, your character has been freelancing thievery without any context or leadership. Now the guild will send you out to lockpick or pickpocket and things like that - things you've already been doing, but now you'll be rewarded for it.”
Zenimax have carved out a Hammerfell desert peninsula for the purpose, and built an elaborate merchant city named Abah’s Landing. That the guild are holed up in an oasis metropolis is no coincidence: the place is a network of back alleys, alcoves and precarious catwalks fit for stalking.
“Since of course this plays into the justice system, the guards are going to be looking for you any number of times,” Firor explains. “The city has been built so there are these alternate ways to get around.”
You’ll find that you can make your way across most of Abah’s Landing without touching the lava (metaphorically speaking; there’s no Oblivion level design here). That becomes crucial when your bounty is high - a more likely scenario now that guards recognise trespassing as a transgression.
Just as id and MachineGames lent their expertise to Fallout 4’s shooting, Zenimax have looked to Bethesda Game Studios for advice on sneakery.
“It’s funny after being on this project for so long, you’re the first person to ask that question. We have worked very closely with Bethesda,” Firor elaborates. “How do you best present the Thieves Guild in an online game? It’s not like they’re telling us what to do but they’re definitely sharing their experience, what worked in Oblivion, what worked in Skyrim. It’s a very close relationship.”
But it’s still fair to wonder whether ESO can match the sophistication of stealth in Skyrim - which pulled its three states of enemy awareness from Thief veteran Emil Pagliarulo’s Fallout 3 and added alarm-managing spells like Calm, plus arrows and dragon shouts as distraction tools.
“I think it’s safe to say we have our own complexity, with other players running through [an MMO setting],” says Firor. “We’re augmenting the systems that we have to make it more appropriate for what you're doing.”
The Thieves Guild’s new passive skill line provides greater potential for getting by unseen, and ESO now incorporates Assassin’s Creed style hiding spots: baskets and shadowy spots outlined in gold, where sneaks can hop in and wait for patrolling guards to path away. It’s a radar game of radius-dodging that forms the backbone of the timed heists available on the guild’s job board.
Heists are separately instanced, a matter only for you and your party and the relevant NPCs, but Zenimax have avoided turning stealth into a wholly solitary pursuit.
“If you’re just going around trying to steal something and another player distracts the guards, then yeah, that’s just part of the game,” reckons Firor. “There’s a lot of opportunity for players to interact with each other and help each other.”
The main thread of the Thieves Guild story finds players helping to turn around an organisation that’s become a little too obscure - even for a collection of criminals who prefer not to be seen. It takes players all over Tamriel, and concerns a good deal of political intrigue back in Abah’s Landing.
The guild in Skyrim, you might remember, had a central principle of non-lethality which doesn’t naturally lend itself to ESO’s kill-dependent XP system. But Zenimax have made an effort not to default to murder in their quest objectives. In an effort to improve your guild standing you might, for instance, pickpocket ten labourers who aren’t taking extortion seriously enough - reminding them that if they aren’t going to pay their dues, you can take them anyway.
“It’s not to say you can’t kill people while you’re doing that,” says Firor. “But you’re not gonna gain reputation by doing it.”
ESO dropped its subscription requirement nearly a year ago, and Zenimax plan to continue piling on the systems as the shadows grow long in 2016.
“I can’t be happier about where we are right now,” finishes Firor. “Our population is very strong, we’ve been doing very well and now we’re just trying to feed that population: give them DLC, give them updates, new systems, keep it rolling. If there’s an overarching theme we've been working on, it’s getting more players in and playing with each other quickly and happily.”
Perhaps Abah’s Landing is an appropriate setting for lapsed rogues to return to the now-free MMO and test a changed game for themselves.