After going hands-on with the game for several hours we got the chance to sit down with Nick Konkle, the Lead Gameplay Designer for The Elder Scrolls Online. We grill him on where single player meets MMOs, making players feel epic, and the game’s influences.
Strategy Informer: The obvious question for someone as influential as yourself on a project like this is... what are your influences? Based on what we’ve seen today this is obviously an Elder Scrolls game first, but there must be a lot of MMO and non-MMO influences jostling for space, too...
Nick Konkle: When you say that do you mean influences on the game, or for me personally?
Strategy Informer: A bit of both, really. Doesn’t one bleed into the other?
Nick Konkle: Well, that’s interesting... Hm! As you say, the first thing we looked at typically was the other Elder Scrolls games. It’s been the case that even over the course of this project’s lifespan that what an Elder Scrolls game is has changed, but they’ve always very much had this modern feel.
I think you’re starting to see this evidence of RPGs now – Modern RPGs – that are really the same, like – it better be VOed [voice acted], right? At the worst subtitles, but you need VO. Another - No one should be in a complicated menu screen in the middle of combat. You should be in the game. We want this experience of minimalist combat and minimalist UI.
These are the sorts of things that these games have been becoming – an immersive story, an immersive world – and that’s really both the game I want to play and the game I want to make. It’s really nice that those two things are the same and our project has really evolved around those same lines as ‘this is what a modern RPG is’ not ‘this is what an MMO is.’
I feel like we’re almost at the end of what an MMO is being different from what an RPG is... they’re almost at the same place now, and I’m pretty excited that we get to be at the forefront of that.
Strategy Informer: It’s a real interesting time, I mean, you’ve been working on this for... how long?
Nick Konkle: Well, I started... I started in February 2008. Let’s call it five years.
Strategy Informer: The MMO genre has changed a hell of a lot in that period of time. How have you reacted to changes around mid-development?
Nick Konkle: Well, I imagine the same way everybody else does. This is something that is unique to MMOs in a lot of ways because the development process is so long, but we’ve really seen a huge evolution of MMOs and RPGs in that time.
You bet we’ve changed. You bet we’ve looked at what competitors have done and been like ‘what can we take from that, what can we learn from that...’ not just any specific game, but all games in the way RPGs are developing. It’s important that when it comes out it’s not like ‘hey, this game looks like it was developed five years ago... so it’s changed.
Strategy Informer: More than that, though, you have the difficult task of merging what is an action-based game, Elder Scrolls, and the MMO genre, which is traditionally turn based. You talked today about how you’re doing away with aspects of the turn-based game for a more action-packed feel... How difficult was that to implement?
Nick Konkle: Extremely in some ways, because a lot of the lessons you learn from regular RPGs can’t apply to MMOs just for reasons of latency, but... not as much as I think some people might expect based on the gap between what MMOs have been for the last few years and what RPGs are now.
The key really was to just learn those lessons and just be like – no, actually, people don’t want cooldowns on their abilities, they just want to fire them. You can come up with different ways of limiting that mechanic that mean I don’t need to look at some interface element to know when I can do something.
It was just a process of asking what I want to do when I play an RPG. I’m a huge fan of the genre – so what if I just did that in an MMO? What would really go wrong? Every now and then you run into something where it’s just too hard to put in or would break too much but for the most part it’s actually pretty easy. Games are developing; technology is developing... that’s how that is.
Strategy Informer: The control scheme is brilliantly simplistic... and it’s one that could, with tweaks, work pretty well on a controller. Is that something you’d think about officially supporting? I’m not talking about console development, but PC gamers playing with a pad as they might in Final Fantasy XIV or XCOM or even Skyrim.
Nick Konkle: Indeed! I think another lesson we’ve learned from some other RPGs is that having 500 potential options on the table at any given moment isn’t actually a compelling choice. What is the compelling choice is that deck building – the idea of having a large set of things that you can do but in a fight let me make sure I have just this and have some strengths and some weaknesses... I combine the character in an interesting way.
The result of that is what I’d describe as a streamlined control system which is much easier to use than perhaps Morrowwind, where you have 20 different options and you’re pressing keys like shift and F9 and other things.
As far as controller development itself goes, there are a certain set of people internally who have used free third party mods – third party applications – to play the game with a controller and have enjoyed the crap out of it. It is something that's possible and something we’ve talked about, but in terms of official development there’s no news on that.
Strategy Informer: You talk about deck building – can you give us an idea of how many skills each of the different classes are set to have?
Nick Konkle: As always this is a game in progress, and especially when we’re talking about specific numbers anything can change, but I can give you a general concept. Generally speaking there is somewhere in the order of six to ten weapon skills that you can progress. Each of them contains around ten abilities; some of them active, some of them passive.
There are three armour types – light, medium, heavy – each of them contains about ten or so abilities, some active and some passive. Then there are an unannounced number of classes, and each of them contains roughly twenty abilities.
Each ability, whether it came from a weapon or an armour, which would be available to anyone, or a class, which is a choice you make at the beginning – all can gain in experience in more than one or two ways.
When we’re talking about different ways to do things, it’s like – How long have you been playing the game for, which things have you maximized, which way have you been playing up until this point? There’s a theoretical place, way out in the future, where you’ve really learned and maximized everything and are a super-powerful player... but even in that world, you’ll need to pick which set you’ll be using at any given moment.
That prevents late-game players from completely dominating the early game players – they merely have more variety and options.
Strategy Informer: Is the intention behind this system for you guys to also be more easily able to add more skills through patches and content updates as well? It’s easier to ship a new skill if it’s attached to a new weapon type, for instance...
Nick Konkle: Yes, absolutely. I feel like that’s the big strength of our progression system – because it’s so open – we can be like ‘We want to add a new weapon set’ or ‘We want to add a new armour skill’ or ‘We want to add a skill to each of the classes.’ That just sort of instantly branches out, because getting an ability isn’t the end, as then you’ve got to master it and everyone can do that in a different way.
I think it really lends itself to that sort of end game well.
Strategy Informer: A large part of Elder Scrolls is all the little things you can do. The thing that instantly comes to my mind is lockpicking, for instance... how much of that have you endeavoured to include?
Nick Konkle: We have endeavoured to include everything. That is absolutely what we’ve done. I’m glad you’ve picked the example of lockpicking – you bet that’s in the game. It’s a fun little mini-game – I’m not going to get into the details on that as I’m not sure what the official word is, but lockpicking, crafting – different types of crafting, enchanting weapons, making potions...
It goes all the way down to ‘there is a loaf of bread on that table, let me pick it up. There’s a cup. What could that cup do? Let me pick it up and see.’ That’s the Elder Scrolls experience – this is a world – it’s not playing a game with some nice decoration. You can do all that in our game, in our world, you can walk up to a crate and be like ‘what’s in this crate?’
Strategy Informer: Was that difficult to level against the MMO concept? Where does the single player style stuff end and the MMO begin?
Nick Konkle: The process of taking some things that you see in the traditional single player Elder Scrolls franchise like being able to pick up anything or there’s lockpicking... the answer is yeah, it was difficult. Each system like this that we put in that’s associated with a single player sandbox-type world we’ve had to make sure that we put in these large social systems or corrective mechanisms so that it doesn’t just fill your inventory with junk or so a bunch of people aren’t standing behind you waiting while you pick a difficult lock.
Each of those things has a mechanism that prevents those things from occurring and even can turn it into a social experience, because that’s what MMOs bring uniquely to the table. It’d be great if all the things I can pick up in Skyrim I could then give to my friend where it’d be useful to him where it’s no good to me as I’ve built my character a different way... and that’s how our game works.
Strategy Informer: One of the things that fascinates me about this game is that you’re pulling in areas from the whole of Tamriel, this massive, massive universe. From a gameplay perspective is there any material difference between the different zones other than Cyrodiil being the PVP area?
Nick Konkle: As far as the gameplay experience of content goes there’s similarities across all the different alliances, but each of them has a very different flavour. The alliances have very different personalities. When you’re in the Aldmeri Dominion content there’s a much more martial, superior style of interaction with NPCs in the subject matter of quests, in the things you’re doing.
On top of that in each alliance there are a number of things that are really unique to it as far as gameplay goes. I don’t want to give any of it away, but... it’s safe to say that each alliance has a unique flavour in terms of both story and content.
Strategy Informer: One thing I did today was save one group of people and sacrifice another, and that was a choice. How deep do the repercussions from that go? Would my choice open up some later quest lines and close down others?
Nick Konkle: It varies hugely depending on the mission! To use the example you gave, you’re choosing between supporting the people at the fort or those at the docks. This is within one zone, and there’s a set of people at each.
As you unravel the story of that zone, it unravels differently depending on who you saved. Depending on who is alive – the military fort or the civilian dock workers – the decisions made by the survivors can be different later in the story.
Each zone has pockets of content associated with them and they’re all interrelated in terms of both the overall story of the zone and in terms of the actions you complete which can either give you information, allies, different types of items, abilities – all things that could be useful elsewhere in the zone.
The choices you make – sometimes as simple as ‘will I go here first or there first’ can completely effect the way you experience the story or the world.
Strategy Informer: We’ve talked about marrying single player and multiplayer Elder Scrolls, but one thing stands out – there, you’re the hero. Here, you’re one of many. How do you retain that epic feeling?
Nick Konkle: There’s a lot of ways to answer that question! I’ll start with the traditional answer, which is that we’ve implemented a layering technology where the actions that I do – if, for instance I save that town or sacrifice it – will impact that town uniquely for me later on.
That’s not anything new for MMO players, but we have it, and I want to start with that because it’s really important that we use it. It’s absolutely the case that every time you go through one of our pockets of content and complete it in a different way that will forever be different for you. That’s huge.
We also have in addition to that a main story that is local entirely to you and is completed not in a world space with other players but indeed in a solo space for you. That continues throughout your entire levelling progression episodically, and that is where we really put in very single player type experiences – massive allies and problems you’re coping with that could only be in a single player game – and there’s quite a few hours of that.
The last part of that is the gameplay – how you get someone to feel like ‘ok, this is pretty cool, these skills are pretty awesome.’ The answer to that is... this is a time in the Elder Scrolls lore that’s often referred to as the age of heroes.
This is a time when it’s more prevalent to see high magic, powerful users. We have access to all the more gritty stabbing and bashing – and that’s perfectly effective – but you definitely have more opportunities in this time frame to really utilize magic and hybrids of magic and martial prowess that I think is unusual and exciting in the Elder Scrolls world.
A lot of people have that question – there’s always been this feeling in the Elder Scrolls lore that something that came before was actually potentially more awesome. We’re there. You actually get to see what that looks like. We’re not as far back as some things people are curious about, but it’s definitely an era of war and magic where a lot of awesome stuff is happening.
Some of the stuff in this game is pretty impressive – you got a taste of that today – but that’s just the tip of what is possible.