VideoGamer: It's arguably a difficult time to be getting into the Fantasy MMO market. What do you think makes The Elder Scrolls Online different? What makes you think there's room for it?
Nick Konkle: Well I think there's a large number of reasons. I think it all starts with the first one, which is it's The Elder Scrolls and you can play it with your friends. So many people have been asking for that - it's a common anecdote. I've played the game, I'm telling my friend about it, I really wish we could just be in the same place and this is the realisation of that game. It really provides that opportunity. Things that are the hallmarks of The Elder Scrolls series are available, like exploration, walking around and finding things that are interesting - not ping pong quests or anything like that. Immersive UI and the kind of action combat, the sorts of things that you expect from an Elder Scrolls game, but now with friends.
VG: So would you say your main audience is going to be The Elder Scrolls fans or people that already play MMORPGs?
NK: We absolutely want both. All the way along the development process we've been very aware of the fact that there are these two groups. And of course there are also people that play both, but there are a set of people that have only played single-player Elder Scrolls games and this might be their first MMO experience.
VG: So you know how to lure in the singleplayer guys. You can say Elder Scrolls with friends and you'll have their attention. What about those people that have only played MMOs within the same genre. What convinces them that TESO is worthwhile?
NK: It's interesting to hear that switch. For such a long time we were actually a little bit more worried about the opposite. Like, are we doing enough to support The Elder Scrolls players? But I think it's safe to say that during the last year, we've made some pretty significant pushes to ensuring that there are more Elder Scrolls things included. Things like adding the compass, putting in the first-person mode. Important parts of the franchise. As we've done that, the game has felt more and more like Elder Scrolls. That being said, it's not like we've abandoned all the original goals: providing a social experience, providing a significant amount of end-game for every style of play - solo, group PvE, PvP. Those all a part of the game.
VG: With some of the big guys, like World of Warcraft - and I'm sure you hear this all the time - they're dropping numbers now. How do you see that from your point of view? An opportunity? A warning?
NK: You know, in all honesty, I feel like the market space for MMOs is expanding. Maybe there was a time when there was only room for one big MMO out there, but honestly I see what a lot of next-generation MMOs are doing and I'm excited. I think this is really good stuff. We're bringing what we feel is really important to the table: immersion, action and the game's story, and I think other games are working on other elements. There's room for us all.
VG: You've recently announced a subscription model for TESO. Why did you opt to go with that model, rather than a free-to-play setup?
NK: I think it comes down to the fact that it's what felt right for the IP. With free-to-play you're always thinking about gates to different content. Like okay, now we've got to hit this situation where players will want to pay more, because they didn't need to pay initially. Elder Scrolls is very much about open-world exploration, doing and finding things. If you're constantly getting into situations where you've say, found a cool item and then you need to pay $0.50 to unlock it or whatever, it just wouldn't feel right. Instead we wanted to the player to be able to pay up front and now you can do anything you want to do with unlimited restrictions. The subscription made sense.
And the other part of it is that we're super-committed to two things that the subscription model allows us to achieve. First of all, we want to offer ridiculous top-notch quality service. We have a huge additional office that's completely dedicated to customer service and it's ready to run a very committed live support team.
VG: How's that going to work? Similar to Warcraft's Game Master system?
NK: As far as I understand it, we've made some advances in terms of integrating it into the game, making it easier to get help without needing to call or wait around. There's a number of things that will be coming online to make us a premium service when it comes to customer support.
VG: And you want to do a good portion of that in-game?
NK: Wherever possible, of course. There are some issues that may prevent players from getting into the game and we have support for that as well.
VG: Moving back to the benefits of a subscription model...
NK: The last thing I wanted to mention is having that subscription allows us to maintain a really large team that can produce additional content at a very fast rate. We're targeting a DLC-level of content coming out every four to five weeks. That also feels appropriate to the IP. Making sure we can constantly fill out more of the world.
VG: What sort of things do you have planned for these DLC-level updates?
NK: At this point it's speculation, because when the game comes out... anything could happen. But we just had a meeting recently where we planned out the first ten chapters of what would happen. If you're going to have that kind of content coming out regularly, we needed to start well before we hit live. They tend to be things like additional packages of features. An example would be adding in The Thieves Guild questline: a series of story-driven quests for an individual player. Adding in a justice system within the game, so when people steal things, there's a consequence to that action. And then adding in a skill line that lets you distract guards and that sort of thing, so you'll have a package that includes story, some gameplay elements and maybe a new system. That'd be a patch. Some of them will be things like a new zone, or something for a large number of players. Each one contains different elements.
VG: Do you see these chapters telling an over-arching story as well?
NK: There is an overall arc to the ten chapters, including the ones that include the justice system and the Thieves Guild, that is part of the reveal as things go on. Some advance the arc significantly and some will give you hints. I'm talking about things that are pretty far from happening right now, but that's what we're committed to deliver.
VG: Some MMOs struggle to find a balance between providing big updates for the PvE players and also the PvP players. How do you keep both parties happy?
NK: The short answer - that's hard to prove until people start playing - is that we want every update to be for everyone. Every update has to contain something for all types of players. Now we have something going for us, in the fact that a lot of our systems are tightly integrated. The skill progression system that you use when leveling throughout the world is still going to be useful in PvP. So if we add a new skill, like with the Thieves Guild distraction stuff, you know that PvP players are going to love messing with that. Certain elements to the game apply to all parts of it and so you make sure to keep those updated. But with the rest of it, we have to make sure that each time, if we're going to have the Thieves Guild then let's make sure we add a new siege type for the PvP, let's make sure we add an extra component to a dungeon, or a new dungeon. Each patch can potentially contain all of these things, to make sure that all players are receiving additional content.
VG: Later down the line, will you be thinking about fully-fledged expansions?
NK: As far as I know, that sort of thing is far enough into the distance that even I don't really know what we have in mind. The main thing we're focusing on post-launch is supporting the content updates for the game and progressing down the line.
VG: I've got a couple of queries following my time with the demo itself. I went for an Argonian rogue character who tended to get a little overconfident about his sneaking skills. At one point my character inevitably died and I had the option to revive immediately in the same position, or go to a nearby wayshrine. Is there a penalty involved when reviving immediately? There didn't seem to be one in the demo.
NK: For press builds we tend to keep the death penalty pretty light, just so people can progress through the game. There's some pretty varying skill levels... The cost in-game will basically be that you'll need a filled soul gem to revive at the same place, which you can acquire by getting an empty soul gem and using the Soul Trap ability which you'd expect in an Elder Scrolls game. So as long as you have those you can revive right there and then, but it's not like you'll have an infinite number of filled soul gems so you'll want to use them strategically.
VG: Speaking of consumable items and items that players can create themselves, what are you thinking in terms of player economy? How will it be structured? An auction house?
NK: Yeah, there's actually a number of different options. We have what you call a Guild Store, which isn't quite an auction house, as there isn't a bidding system. You just put something up for a price and people can either buy it or not. Basically eliminating the bidding aspect. Now you can be a member of multiple guilds and our expectation is that people will form trade guilds and use the Guild Store to, you know, produce and sell specific items or weapons. There will hopefully be an interesting friction involved, in which players try to buy from one guild and sell to another at a profit. If you don't want to be a member, there are locations you can go to in the world where you access certain guild's stores, that choose to put them up there. If you want to, there are options to take advantage of different markets being created for different things. If you're really interested in min-maxing the economy, as I know a few players are.
VG: The guilds you're talking about. They're player-made, right?
NK: Player-made, yup.
VG: You've also got the NPC guilds or factions as well, which work similar to the single-player games?
NK: Yeah we have the Mages and Fighters Guild at launch. Each of them has a questline for a solo player to play through in an episodic fashion. Every five or ten levels there's going to be a new chapter of the quest for you to take on. You can do it whenever you want, but it's unlocked at a specific time.
VG: Going back to the player economy, are you hoping that's going to grow and operate without too much influence from yourselves? You mentioned player guilds specialising in different items. If you look at an MMO like EVE Online, which has this huge, natural economy that's grown on its own accord. Is that what you're striving towards?
NK: Absolutely. I think our economy has some interesting player components and friction to it. I really think the people that like managing economies will be really interested in that. Maybe your average player will just go to one of the store locations and buy a weapon if they want one, or buy one from a vendor instead. But if you do really want to min-max the different components of it, there is an economy there to take advantage of and try out.
VG: I noticed when I met a few other players to try out some of the PvP there wasn't an option to duel at the item. Is that a limitation of the demo?
NK: That's certainly on the list of features of things that we could support at some point. I expect that one will make it, because it's not too hard to implement. We'll see, but the way that PvP actually works is specifically in certain locations. Once you hit level ten, you can go to Cyrodil (the entire province) and PvP is completely enabled there. That doesn't just include the Dark Age of Camelot style of taking keeps, there's also town and cities in Cyrodil that give quests. So if you want to try to complete those quests whilst having that air of danger that somebody could gank you at any time, you can do it.
VG: With the three factions that players can pick and the idea of open PvP, are you worried about server balance? How do you encourage players not to just pick the most popular faction?
NK: We have a few things going for us. First and foremost we have the main server, so all the players are all in one place. So we can actually distribute things to ensure an even balance as need be. But that being said, this is one of the beauties of using the three faction system rather than the two faction system. If on say, the Friday night, one faction has less players log on, or one faction has more players and gains a lead, you can guarantee the other two factions will gang up on them. It won't necessarily be an alliance, but more of a temporary truce whilst you stop the other faction. This is what made the PvP in Dark Age of Camelot work so effectively and what we like about this type of system. It's self-regulated.
VG: With the skills systems that you have in place, there's the classic approach as you level up and earn more skill points to spend, but you also The Elder Scrolls idea that as you use a skill it improves. How does that work?
NK: Absolutely. So a skill point is just a way of acquiring a skill, but the skills also advance and allow you to get new abilities based on how you used them. It's very similar to the perk system in Skyrim, if you're familiar with that. Unlike Skyrim where the perks are directly tied to your level, you can get perks all over the world: from doing a quest; or finding certain shards scattered across the world and make them into a perk; you can get them for doing PvP. There's no end to the number of abilities you can ultimately learn.
VG: There isn't a cap on that?
NK: No you can keep getting new skills. You can theoretically, if you had a whole lot of time, get every ability in the game. It would take an extremely long time to do that, but I'm sure some players will aim for it over some extreme period.
VG: So will it be the limited skill slots that keep the game balanced and ensure that a character doesn't become too powerful?
NK: It's always five skills and one ultimate and then the potions of course - so seven abilities. But at level 15, you'll unlock a second bar, which you can use with a different weapon. So if you wanted to use a restoration staff and healing abilities, you could swap to that and use those skills, or you could go for a melee weapon and a ranged weapon and alternate between them. There's no cost to doing it, other than the time it takes to swap the weapon out. It starts to really allow you to experiment with different combinations of builds.
VG: Is there any cost of actually switching your abilities out when out of combat? Replacing abilities on those skills bars with different ones?
NK: Nope. You can't be in combat, but that's the only restriction.
VG: But you can play any of the traditional roles of an MMO?
NK: If you were the person that had managed to acquire every ability, you could switch between a tank and a healer whilst in combat, for example. Out of combat and providing you have the appropriate gear, you could switch to anything you wanted. It gives you plenty of options, but you still have to make the smart choice to make the build that works well.
VG: You mentioned the idea of switching between a tank and a healer. In the PvE content, are you expecting groups to form in that traditional style? Having a tank, a healer, and the rest of the players being damage dealers?
NK: Well it's interesting. Because of the way the progression system works where there isn't a class that actually defines that, instead your role is defined by what you choose to use. I was wondering what would happen when people aren't presented with a class that should be the tank and a class that should be a healer. But what we found, oddly enough, is that people tend to assign themselves those roles anyway. One will wear heavy armour and use a sword and shield and it doesn't matter what class they are: they can be the tank. They can go and stand in the front and make sure the enemies hit them.
VG: Some classes will be better at that than others though, right? I was playing as a rogue. Wouldn't more of a classic warrior be a better tank?
NK: I would say the only thing you get from going with a stealthy character is more breadth, as far as that goes. No, you can absolutely start wearing heavy armour, use a sword and shield. You'll be as just as good a tank as anyone else. All the tools you'll need will be in there.