My time at this year's PAX East was amazing for a number of reasons, but one of the more standout experiences was getting to know the lands of Tamriel in The Elder Scrolls Online. I was lucky enough to ingest a two hour hands-on demonstration with this highly anticipated, upcoming MMORPG the morning of the first day and even had a member of the development team guiding me around the Isles of Stros M'Kai. Unfortunately, not all were so lucky. The most noticiable pressence at PAX East 2013 was the massive line of antsy RPGamers, some of whom waited up to three hours for an unguided fifteen minute demo. Where not everyone would be interested in waiting that long for behind the scenes information, we caught up with The Elder Scrolls Online's Lead Gameplay Designer, Nick Konkle.
Trent Seely (RPGamer): Firstly, thank you for taking the time to chat with us about The Elder Scrolls Online.
For those unfamiliar with this upcoming MMO, could you provide a quick rundown of what the title will be like?
Nick Konkle (Lead Gameplay Designer, ZeniMax Online Studios):It is exactly as it sounds. We really wanted to take the elements of what is considered "standard" for Elder Scrolls and put that into an online world. The intention was never to make an MMO and sprinkle Elder Scrolls in as an afterthought. There were a few key things we did to accomplish this.
We wanted to make sure that the world was incredibly immersive, because that's a hallmark of all Elder Scrolls titles. So, there isn't UI in your face and the settings are both beautiful and incredibly detailed. We [also] have reactive and action-oriented strategic combat. Instead of just cycling through your rotations, [in The Elder Scrolls Online] you look around, see what monsters are doing, and counter their actions in real-time. That experience gets harder and harder as you level up. Open progression — where you can pick up anything, use any armor, and be any character — is another hallmark of the franchise that has been implemented. Of course, all of this is wrapped into the social experience of being in an online world.
TS: The Elder Scrolls has been widely embraced by fans and critics alike for quite some time. Why did you choose right now to create an online entry in the series?
NK: It's a variety of factors, but it really boils down to now being the right time. I think technology had to reach a certain level in order to deliver an experience that is as believable and immersive as an Elder Scrolls game should be. That said, it definitely helps that the Elder Scrolls world and lore has been so fleshed out by this point.
TS: We know the story takes place about 1000 years before the events of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Could you provide a bit of context around the time period and what's happening in the world?
NK: There are a couple key stories. The first is the centered on the player's character. Your soul is stolen at the beginning of the game and its a fight to get it back from Daedric Prince Molag Bal. It escalates in terms of the number of allies you gain and his growing ranks of lieutenants trying to stop you, but entire time you're also trying to figure out why he took it from you in the first place. It's a central quest which occurs episodically throughout your playthrough and is solo, but really you can do it whenever you want to.
As far as what's going on in the world, this is a time before Tiber Septim lit the Dragon Fires and united the world — starting the Third Era. So, there's a massive struggle between three alliances to crown an Emperor. During this time, if you read the lore books, there were a number of pretenders to the throne that rose, but none of them were able to hold it. So we're having that war in the PVP battles — you're trying to make someone in your alliance the Emperor, but it's challenging to hold onto if you do.
TS: Ever since I saw the initial trailer for The Elder Scrolls Online, I've been eyeing the game's logo. It bears a striking resemblance to an ouroboros (an ancient symbol of a serpent eating its tail — representing cyclicality and persistence). Can you explain why you chose that as your logo?
NK: Good eye [laughing]. Yes — it is an ouroboros. There are three heads to [our] ouroboros: a dragon, a lion, and a griffon. These are the flags of the three alliances in The Elder Scrolls Online, so it is symbolic of the world's lore. As you know, every Elder Scrolls games has a symbol associated with it that represents the story. With Oblivion it was the Oblivion Gate, with Skyrim it was the dragon, and with us it is the three alliances biting at each other's heels.
TS: Considering the game's incorporation of areas from other entries in the franchise. How big is the world?
NK: The area that you were playing today (Isles of Stros M'Kai) takes about ten whole minutes to run, not walk, from end-to-end in a straight line without stopping. That said, that area is probably 1/100th or less of the game’s physical world. It's enormous. I've been developing the game for five years and I haven't even come close to seeing it all.
TS: In terms of character development, there are no fixed classes or race limitations — much like the previous Elder Scrolls titles. Why did you take this approach with an MMO?
NK: Actually, it was fairly straightforward. You'll start the game with fifteen skill lines, and as you play many more will be added that you can advance. Of those initial fifteen, only three come from your class. Similarly true with those that relate to your race. So, you can have a set of skills that are unique to your initial choices, but if you decided to completely switch lanes [with your play style] or play as an orc mage, for example, that isn't really an issue either. There's a lot of flexibility because we wanted gamers to do what felt natural, while still having subtle differences.
TS: What does PVP currently look like?
NK: It's a territory control game, but there's a lot more to it than just taking land. You can seige enemy keeps, hold large scale battles over many fronts, sneak behind enemy lines, cut off transit networks, steal resources, and more. There are numerous goals and ways to approach PVP. It's a large, persistent world and your experience will be all about what you make of it.
TS: Zenimax Online is taking a different approach to MMOs by putting a single "megaserver" in place. Can you detail why you chose this approach?
NK: I think a lot of people have a hard time with MMOs because they end up picking the wrong server. Depending on the server they choose, they could be forced into waiting in queues or being cut off from their friends. No one wants that. We definitely don't want that. So, all you have to do with The Elder Scrolls Online is jump in. There are a few things that the game is doing behind the scenes to place you near the people on your friends list or in your guild. However, you can easily jump to anywhere and play with anyone in the world. That's the biggest benefit of the megaserver.
TS: Anything else you'd like to add?
NK: Yes, actually. In terms of development, there's this one character progression anecdote that I like to tell about a massive company playtest in the PVP area. We just gave everyone access to all of the armours, weapons, and skills. All we asked was that everyone "just make something," before heading into a massive battle. When the dust settled and we walked into the QA pit, everyone was post-gaming their builds. They were all just talking about which races, weapons, abilities, and spells they tried. That's when we knew we had it. Nothing created was the same. It was a great moment and I'm excited to see gamers start discussing what choices they made with their characters.
RPGamer would like to thank Nick Konkle for participating in this interview. The Elder Scrolls Online will be out for Microsoft Windows and OS X sometime this year. Check out the official website for further details and media.