For me, going hands-on with The Elder Scrolls Online yielded a dishearteningly un-Elder-Scrolls-y experience in places. Admittedly, however, it was only the first few hours, and - even in rooms so quiet that everyone angrily shushes mice for skittering by - MMOs don't generally demo well. With those things in mind, I aired some of my concerns to the game's developers - the full results of which you'll see at lunch today. For now, though, here's the big one: Why does everything feel so rigid? Where's the organic madness, the giants playing continental golf-hockey with wolves, pelting me with pelts while I fearlessly press on in a single cardinal direction, constantly stumbling into random adventure? Why not replicate that openness with actual, you know, people instead of NPCs? As part of a group interview, creative director Paul Sage explained the rather large gulf between the two experiences.
Sage, for his part, was quite clear in his explanation. It's not that such a game lies outside that all-too-rational kingdom known as the Realm of Possibility; that's just not the sort of experience Zenimax thinks most MMO players are looking for.
"I don't want to talk about anyone who's tried this experiment before and fallen flat on their face, but there have been a couple of times where people have said, 'Oh, it's a great idea just to have no NPCs in the world and let it all be players.' It fell flat. So I know better. I'm a little wiser now. I don't think that's actually what we want for the game," Sage said.
But what about a mixture? NPCs don't have to go entirely extinct, but what of a rare case where humans end up gradually eroding robots' jobs?
"Having worked on Ultima Online, here's what I can tell you about [complete openness in an MMO]," Sage answered. "In my experience, there's value there. There's a lot of fun to that freedom. But there's also a lot of anger. What happens is, by impacting other players – by having other people go in and kill that [important NPC] – you're like, 'NOOOO. I needed that NPC!' So you've got to be really careful with that. You have to allow just the right amount of freedom so you're not killing other people's experience.”
So then, what does Zenimax want for the game? Well, don't go in expecting the pilot episode of Skyrim And Friends, but there is apparently more going on here than simple A-to-B-to-C-to-D-to-A-again questing.
“There's things that occur out in the world," Sage pointed out, noting that our demo was sadly lacking in them. "Like, you'll see somebody who, let's say they're being mugged, right? And you walk out, and you have a decision. Do you want to save that person? And I don't mean there's a decision like, 'Oh, I'm gonna go in and hit a choice [button].' I mean you get to look at the scenario and say, 'Hm, seems like a good time to get money. I'll wait until they're finished, and then I'll [take what's left].' These vignettes kind of pop up throughout the world, and there's different things you can do with them."
"Yes, they're scripted in the sense that we created them, but they feel very dynamic in the world. You'll just run across the world and see someone getting mugged or committing a ritual, and somebody else may not see it at all depending on how you handle the outcome.”
And while the idea of livelier, more varied NPC behavior in an MMO is refreshing, it still kind of misses the point of being, well, multiplayer. So what about other people? For now, we're all playing glorious gleaming hero first and foremost, but Sage said he's hoping to make other, dedicated roles more viable in the future. So he replied when asked about player merchants and things of the like:
“Absolutely, [we'd be open to having players fill other roles]. I hope that we see that, and I think you can even see that now. So yeah, I think that's gonna happen.”
Ultimately, however, less potentially punishing fun comes first. "There may be a point where we open up more of that freedom later," he concluded. "But right now, we want to make sure people feel like they can depend what they're doing to where it's not killed by other players like, 'OK, I'm out, because that other guy just ruined my fun.'"
It's a brave new world. Here's hoping it also ends up being an interesting one.
Check back soon for multiple interviews, and read our impressions of The Elder Scrolls Online's first few hours here.