The Elder Scrolls Online didn't shine at launch: can it succeed in the shadows with the Thieves Guild?

The Elder Scrolls Online

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.

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“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.

The Elder Scrolls Online

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 Elder Scrolls Online

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 Elder Scrolls Online

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.

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1 Year ago

I think it's ESO that taught me that the vast majority of those who play MMOs have little care for story or writing. Which, I suppose, speaks volumes of the average MMO audience.

Honestly, the Aldmeri Dominion has -- hands down -- some of the best writing I've been fortunate enough to experience in such a game. I'm not saying that it's New Vegas, not at all, but that as far as MMOs go, it's really as good as you're going to get. Coupled with the, frankly, sublime instancing that rewards you by actually changing the world around you? I still remember the Thalmor College mission and how cathartic and fulfilling that was on so, so many levels.

When you have an MMO that sits you down for a quiet talk, starting off with how xenophobia is counterproductive and how the widespread stupidity of the hive-minded crowd can allow for injustice, fascism, and corruption to rot a peoples from within, doing more damage than any outside force can? You know you've got something a little special.

The average MMO quest is, after all, more along the lines of:

- "Them centaur's, they's different than us good folk. They's gone bullyin' our kind long enough. Kill 'em. Kill exactly six of 'em though, not one more lest'n the forces of the Universe yadda yadda yadda. SIX centaurs."

- One proceeds to the field to see a bunch of centaurs prancing through a field, minding their own business, and certainly not doing any bullying. There's not even any property damage!

- And in disappointment, one closes the game.

ESO is nearly the opposite of that. For me, it takes all the silken, silven promises made by ArenaNet of Guild Wars 2 and makes them real for all to enjoy. It has the 'dynamic world' that was supposedly so important.

Though as I said, ESO taught me that the majority care not for these things. They will have no truck with a dynamic world, they would turn their noses up at an evolving world that changes based upon their actions, they would snort and turn away at the thought of good writing, and then... and then? Well, there's that Skinner Box over there. So shiny. So alluring.

Bitter? Oh, a bit. I can't help it, really. I just realise that except for a niche (and apparently a loud one), the vast majority just want another grindbox. Though one that tries to trick them and have them feel powerful and good about themselves with numbers, that vanilla WoW didn't do that was it's only error, really. Modern WoW has that down pat. As do all the truly successful MMO titles.

I just wish there were more people who appreciated well written games where choices at least have SOME effect, that one can play with buddies. Sigh. ESO is the closest anything has come to a truly multiplayer New Vegas-esque game. I can't help but admire it. And I can't help but feel sorry for it. It deserves better.

As always, WoW isn't the MMO we need, but the MMO we deserve. As even the option for anything better is snubbed in favour of what's familiar and comfortable.

Here's hoping it can last as long as it can before they desperately turn to ruining the game to try and make what little they can from microtransactions before shutting it down.

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