MMOG quests have come a long way since the days of rat-punching and hide-gathering, and The Elder Scrolls Online is no exception. Rather than tying you into rigid mission chains, for example, the game offers up pockets of non-linear content when you reach a new area, allowing you to approach the overall narrative at your own pace. “The way our content is set up is that there’s always a meta story going on, usually two or three,” explains game director Matt Firor. “You get these little groups of content – usually about thirty minutes or forty-five minutes. Each one solves the question you went into it with, but it’s generally asked two or three new questions, too. When you log out and log back in you still have that question to get back onto.”
The delivery system isn’t the only thing that’s changed, however. Creative director Paul Sage, a veteran designer of MMOGs and a man whose credits include Richard Garriott’s ambitious shooter hybrid Tabula Rasa, admits he spends a lot of his time on Elder Scrolls Online looking at how to move questing beyond the usual business of waypoints and combat targets.
“Ask me what a good quest is, and I’ll come back to Stand By Me,” laughs Sage. “'Do you want to see a dead body?' That’s a great quest. When we’re putting quests together, we get together in a room, and we look at an area, and we work out what the story is for that area. At the end of the day, a quest is a story: I want at the end of this quest to save this town from a werewolf invasion. On top of that, we put choices – you head into town to fight the werewolves, and then, hey, there are these people barricaded in a church. Do you want to help them out, knowing that, if you do, something else won’t be available to you?
"We spend a lot of time trying to work out how to give the player interesting choices like that. I’m okay with people being frustrated with not seeing the cool thing, as long as the thing they did was still cool. When both things are cool, people have bought into the experience. It’s when they don’t care we’ve lost them.”
And the key to not losing players? Don’t get too bogged down in lore, and remember to keep it personal. “When we talk to the content teams about building quests, I’ll say, “It’s great to be the hero of the world, but it’s better to be a hero in someone else’s eyes,” says Sage. “If your NPC says, “What you did for me was remarkable,” and you see the effect it has on them and that area, then you can go and add in the lore. You create a great quest, and the lore starts to come in naturally and works as this rich backdrop. What you should be concerned with is what’s happening now, though: you have to channel the lore through the personal stuff.”
The Elder Scrolls Online stars on the cover of our next issue, on sale June 6, and throughout the week we're taking an in-depth look at Zenimax Online's ambitious MMOG. We've already spoken to game director Matt Firor about his plans for the game, and the return of public dungeons, and there's plenty still to come – see our Elder Scrolls Online page for all our coverage in one place. If you still want more, PC Gamer's coverage is also well worth a look.