The Elder Scrolls Online Beta

March 9, 2014

My impressions of the Elder Scrolls Online game, based on two beta weekends.  TLDR, some frustrations, some interesting decisions, I think I will have fun playing this for a month or two.

Downloading

Takes up ~27 GB, but I needed ~50 GB free to successfully complete the installation.

Character Creation

Main choices to make here are name, class, race, gender, faction, and appearance.

Name – this is a mega server, trying to get a unique name is going to be hard. The first dozen or so of my standard MMORPG names were all taken.

There are four classes. I only played Sorcerer and Nightblade in beta, so my knowledge of the other two options is limited.

  • Dragonknight (Melee – has a pull the mob to you ability like a WoW Death Knight’s Death Grip)
  • Sorcerer (Mage – can summon pets)
  • Nightblade (Thief/Assassin – can stealth)
  • Templarknight (Melee/healer)

Appearance – Okay. Mostly I’m interested in hair styles when it comes to appearances, and there were enough for me to have fun choosing.

Race – unless you pre-order your race will determine your faction. This can be important as racial bonuses are strong, and a min-max character will have to be of the “right” race for max bonus. I ignore this and just make something I like the look of (usually elves with white or red hair in fantasy MMORPGs, although the lizards/cat skins are tempting).Bosmer Bonus

Gender – no difference in gameplay.

Faction – choose one of three. Pre-ordering will let you play any race in any faction, and play the Imperial race (if you order the Imperial edition). This could be useful if your friends want to play a different fcation.

Character Development in Play

Elder Scrolls is the complete reverse of the direction WoW has taken in terms of character development. WoW has made it very hard to make a character who is functionally bad at their core role (Tank, Heal, DPS), in Elder Scrolls its possible to make decisions about skills and attributes that make your character a painful failure by level 10. Unless you like repeating starter zones over and over again, spending some time thinking about your skill point allocation is critical.

  • You want five, and no more than five, good active abilities.
  • Having a mix of magicka and stamina using abilities might be useful to start with, but I’m not sure if long-term you want to focus on one or the other
  • You want one, and no more than one, long cooldown ability
  • After that, Passives rule
  • At level 15 you can pick up a second weapon, that can be swapped easily, at that point you can start picking up some different abilities

The armour choice is also interesting. Light armour makes movement easier and is good for resource regeneration.  Medium armour is good for boosting damage. Heavy armour is good for absorbing damage.  No armour restrictions, mage in heavy armour, sure can.Armour Buff

You get skill points from:

  • Levelling
  • Finishing some quests (I think)
  • Collecting sets of three skyshards (found in the world, one use only, fixed location – you will spend the game with a webpage open with all their locations bookmarked)

Tutorial Mission (level 1-3)

This is done pretty quickly, and is the start of the main storyline that will take you to level 50.  Its quick and does the job it needs to.Tutorial Zone

Starter Zone (Level 3-5)

Both of the starter zones I have done have been Islands. Not too big, easy to get around, and finished in a couple of hours. Storylines were reasonably engaging, and I felt sad when a village got attacked and NPCs I had talked to were killed. You can sneak and one shot most enemies here with a bow.

First major zone (Level 5-15)

Compared to the starter zone this is huge, even after 12 hours I was only just over halfway through the zone. Mobs get harder, and are more often encountered in groups of 2-3. Although for my Bosmer archer, sneak shot, DOT, poison arrow, finisher usually works, and if I get lots of mobs, the Storm Astronach handles it. Killing a single mob in four key presses feels about right to me, a nice change from SWTOR where killing a pair of mobs could take 30+ key presses.

All up I think levelling to 50 is supposed to be around 400 hours of game play. After that there are Level 50 versions of instances, for around 150 hours of gameplay. At 50 you can also play through the other faction zones. After that its eternal pvp. Unless the “Adventure Zones” turn out to be some kind of long term PVE content, this will be a game to date, not a game to marry. While you won’t get new levels, skill development can continue, and there will be something called “Veteran Points” that improve the charcter by small increments. Or you could re-roll and try a different build of character. I think I just want to play one character, experience from WoW and SWTOR tells me that there are rapidly diminishing enjoyment returns from alts going through similar content.a

The Social Experience
About what you would expect,  lots of people saying bad things about other MMORPGs, lots of people with toons named after WoW references.  Not immediately obvious how to interact with people, you can’t click on them, you have to look at them and push F key.  You can belong to five guilds at the same time (why you would want to do this escapes me).  You gain a 10% experience buff while grouped with other players.  I did not bother joining a guild, and only grouped with people while in public dungeons.  Reporting people, you get the option to choose a general category, e.g. harrassment, a sub-category, e.g. bad language, and can attach a screenshot and write a text description. I reported someone for making a joke about anal rape.

With NPCs, you can get Persaude skill from joining the Mages guild and Intimidate skill from joining the Fighter’s guild, this gives you some options to resolve or resolve more quickly some quests.  I would hesitate to spend skill points on this before getting my five active abilities and ultimate ability set up.Persuasion

Looting, Harvesting, Inventory and Crafting
The default for looting is a two click interaction for each corpse.  Hit ESC for menu, then go into Settings/Gameplay, and make sure combined loot and autoloot are ON. That will save a few hours of your life. While you can vendor all the weapons and armour that drops, you can also reverse engineer everything for raw materials (but you need to be at a work station in a town, and not all towns had all work stations, and travelling back to town is painfully slow).  Harvesting – while there are no wasted inventory slots on picks and knives, the ability to harvest everything means your bags fill with crap quickly.  Inventory – 60 slots feels limited.  The first town after the tutorial zone will have a vendor who sells +10 inventory slots for 400 coins and +10 more slots for 2000. The other way to manage inventory is to just to not gather stuff ( I stopped picking flowers and mining).

You can spend skill points to improve harvesting, and I spent a point on making wood glow, as the grey/green log on the ground was really easy to miss.Harvesting

Bank – available in some towns, you can craft directly from banks, so you want to dump crafting mats here.

Crafting: moderately complex, potentially a huge time sink to research everything (six hour cooldown per trait type per equipment type), but at low levels is relatively easy to make armour and weapons that are useful upgrades.  My first bow using toon did not get a bow drop or quest reward in eight levels, so making my own bow upgrade every two levels was very useful.  There are lots of crafting stations hidden around the world where you can craft gear and have a small chance of unique abilities.

Movement

Movement – the teleport system is EXPENSIVE, really, really freaking EXPENSIVE. When mobs drop one coin each, and teleporting to the other side of the zone costs 64 coins.  Don’t expect you friends to come and hold your hands every few minutes in the starter zones.  Mounts are also freaking expensive at 17,200 to 42,700 coins for a horse.  That makes the Imperial edition perk of a cheap mount quite attractive. Tactical movement felt fine, and sprinting for a stamina cost was an interesting mechanic.

Exploration

Its significant xp when you reach a new landmark on the map, feels equal to a quest, so its well worth a quick trip sideways.  For the mages guild, finding books increases your rank.  You can also find random chests, and the lock picking mini game is fun (there was one thief style quest early on, but no immediate invite to join a Thieve’s Guild, but a hint one would come down the track).

Books

Mage Rank

Lock Picks

Stress test beta

It was a stress test, so not perfect, but that’s part of the beta experience.

  • lots of UI bugs
  • a few crashes, followed by long in failures
  •  lots of bugged quest chains, and as there are so few quest chains, its easy to run out of content that your character can engage with
  • load times were reasonable, but if you crashed out once you crashed out a dozen times in a row
  • /reloadui command is essential to actually complete some NPC conversation interactions, as your character gets stuck at the end of the conversation
  •  Falling through the world, happened a couple of times on stairs.Beta

User Interface

Not a lot of customisation options here, but the default setting had the UI fade away when not targeting mobs, which helped immersion.  Five active abilities, one long cooldown ability, one quickbar slot … 7 buttons to push during combat, after having 60 keybinds in WoW and SWTOR this was a relief.  Compass at the top of the screen, more compact than minimap, but it takes getting used to. It felt a bit less cluttered than the one in Skyrim.Combat UI

Questing

  • NPCs can be phased to you, so they run up to you when you complete a section of the chain, kinda needed given how slow strategic movement is
  • Quest hubs are rare, you tend to find one NPC quest giver at a time
  • Mage/Fighter’s guild – You cannot afford not to be in these guilds, as they have major questlines and useful abilities associated with them
  • More than a few quests involve intrigue and betrayal
  • You get a lot of quests way before your character could ever hope to do them, both geographically or mechanically in game
  •  I had one stealth quest spawn a mob that was much higher level and killed me in a few seconds, damn it was annoying
  •  I had another combat quest which I could not solo, as while I could kite and stay alive, I could not do the burst damage required to finish the boss before it triggered a regeneration
  •  Collect X quests tend to be limited to collecting 3-6 of an item, and Kill X Rats quests are pretty rare
  • Some of the novelty quests are bugged or can’t be reasonably completed (a running race around an island, which you can’t actually complete in the time granted without a very high stamina score or massive stamina regen).

Dungeons

Its really hard to feel suspense or fear in a public dungeon when there are dozens of toons sprinting past you hacking the monsters into gibbets.

Sound
Some nice voice acting, music is okay.  NPCs are fully voiced, you are not, you can fast pace through dialogue conversations.Conversation

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Classic Housewar Revisited

June 22, 2011

Housewar was a play-by-mail (PBM) campaign I ran for three years in 1991-1993.  It was a gloriously baroque space opera, lovingly hand moderated, and somewhere around 30 odd people took part in its twists and turns.  At the end of 1993 I got an internet account, was elected to the student union exec, and ran out of time to continue a hand mdoerated game.  I had also figured out that my dream of making a living from running PBM games was not going to work – the future was going to be PBeM games, and I couldn’t code worth a damn.

One of the hard bits of shifting years later was throwing out all the Housewar game notes.  They filled a large trunk at the stage, well over a cubic metre of paper.  I still have a few newsletters and maps somewhere, and I think I only got rid of the five and a quarter floppy with the game files last year.

So its interesting to reflect on what I would do differently now, with a somewhat better educated brain, the wonders of modern technology, and a set of time suck commitments that mean that I can’t spend four hours each night rolling six-sided dice as House Illia attempts to repel House Dlan’s invasion fleets.  So here is a list in no particular order:

1. Build a CAD map with layers.  I used to redraw the map boundaries by hand every game turn for Classic Housewar.  Digital would get around that, and layers would allow a more focused display of particular bits of information.  Also, it could be in colour.

2. Have a supporting website, wiki, blog, and e-mail list.  Tempting to add twitter to the list, as the idea of running a game where all orders were limited to 140 characters has some appeal.  I used to get a paragraph of orders from some players, and 10-20 page manifestos from other players.  The shorter order sets usually did better, as NPCs had a bit more initiative.

3. E-mail battle results to the e-mail list, allowing players to verify combat resolution prior to confirming the final result.  This would save me hours of retconning hand moderation clusterfucks.

4. One move every two months, probably taking two weeks for resolution of a move.

5. A stable rule set.  I used to change the rules every turn, often in major ways, as I was reading a lot of military history and strategic studies books and this meant I was constantly finding better ways of making the game “more realistic”.  I’m sure at least one player observed that every turn of Housewar was like it was an entirely new game.  I’m a lot less obsessed by realism now, preferring a focus on particular themes and keeping everyting else simple.

6. Less is more. Start small, allow growth to a manageable point.  Housewar III in particular suffered from a bloat, with unused map portions, way too many rules, and vast fleets of time consuming uselessness.

7. Use Matrix game arguments to establish random events, rather than having a random event table.  Based on past experience, I would be careful to outline the limits of this, e.g. no black holes, supernovaes, or dinosaur killing asteroids.  Also, while it sucks to ahve bad shit happen, seeing that it was other players doing it to you, rather than cruel dice, is I think better in a social game where people will tell stories about it in later years.

8. Balance the initial economy, rather than generate it with random numbers.  In hindsight, taking an economic system from a WWII game where units took 6 turns to build was not great.  Its really hard to plan that far ahead.  Nor was allowing people at war to build 2-3 times as much as people at peace, without them paying some price for it.

9. Limited warfare.  Housewar battles were fairly bloody, being a mix of WWI and WWII naval game mechanics.  Winners tended to take light casualties while the losers were wiped out.  In turn this meant a few defeats led to elimination of a player.  With a design intent that was more looking for persistent inceremental gains/losses moderated by diplomacy and the balance of power, I would aim for a combat system which produced win/lose without always generating massacres.  My current idea here, is that ships automatically put up a bubble shield wall when damaged, that guarantees they survive to the end of that round of combat, at which point the commander may choose to run away.

10. Less bean counting.  No more logistics points.  Only Seth ever got that the logistics subgame meant you needed enough supplies for consecutive turns to gaurantee a successful invasion.

11. Exploration.  Was never really handled well, and for a space game with wormholes you need a clear idea of the costs/benefits of exploration.  Also, changing the map hard copy was tricky. Probably easier with a CAD map.

12. Scenario.  I think I’d want a bit more in the way of background, and what the motivations for the Houses are, beyong survival and power.  Currently I lean towards a “reconstruction” atmosphere following a Saberhagen Beserker style invasion triggered during a diaspora from Terra.  So there would be a rehtorical space for “unity against the alien menace”, even if I never had said menace show up in the game again (because whichever playergot selected as the invasion point would have to be obliterated by it, otherwise no one would take the green gooks seriously, see point 7 on RNG).

13. Leaders. Used to be in quite limited supply, I think I’d make it trivial to recruit at least one more per turn, so that initial poor luck in random talent generation does not ruin a House’s shot at glory.

14. Diplomacy. Could possibly be handled with matrix arguments.  Depending on how leaders work, I might add a dynastic marriage requirement.

15. Technology.  Inextricably linked to stable ruleset.  Allowing players to create new forms of combat unit always leads to a revolutionary change in rules.  Evolutionary change is much easier to handle, where units get minor bonuses/penalties, rather than being instantly invinceable/obsolete.  Could also be handled with matrix arguments.

16. Declarations of war.  Matrix arguments again, and require the players to articulate their war aims (with some defaults if the players have a complate imagination failure, e.g. attacker wants to take over a system, defender wants to keep them), so once accomplished or failed, a subsequent matrix argument can lead to peace.

17. Balance.  A lot more care at setup, power differentials of +/-10% not +/- 100%.  Ultmately still relies on the players, once you push the go button on the game, balance goes out the window.

18. Mars Convention. Make it explicit in interstellar law, “No use of WMD on human colonies.”  In hindsight, I should have realised that having a x2 economic multiplier for war status, and a x3 for DEFCON 1 status would lead to players declaring war on each other and then having a limited exchange of nuclear weapons to boost economic growth in both states.  All very 1984, but it broke the game badly.

19. Ansible. Be a bit more explicit about how the FTL communications work.  I used to handwave it as telepathy between House leaders, but it does affect how non-leader controleld fleet units should work/react.

20. Limit the number of players to 14.  20+ was a bit too much for me to handle.  Can always have a waiting list, or a reserve list for players who forget to submit orders.

Yeah, someday I’ll run Housewar IV. Someday.