Emphasis on Elder Scrolls, not on Online

I had a lot more fun with this past weekend’s beta test of The Elder Scrolls Online than I did with the previous one, and not just because I was promised a monkey. (Although the monkey, obviously, did not hurt.) People kept saying to stick with it until level ten or so, and then the game would really “open up.” I can say for sure that’s not what it was, plus I still don’t know what they mean by that, because I never got any character past level seven. It’s okay, that’s what I do with betas; I’m a lot more interested in a horizontal sampling to get a feel for things than I am in the vertical progression of a character who is doomed to deletion in a few weeks. And it’s a good thing, too, because it took me several characters in various combinations to figure out that my MMO mindset was causing me to do it wrong. And that is why I had more fun this time.

I knew going in, having experience with Skyrim, that the class and skill systems in ESO are very different. But even with that knowledge, I was still starting characters by picking a class first. And why shouldn’t I? Since the age when such things were conducted with dice rather than keyboards, class has always defined your character. This has been reinforced all the way through MUDs, to WoW, Rift, and countless others. GW2 made weapon choice important too, but it still took a distant back seat to class.

Here is my tip for other MMO veterans who may approach ESO the same way: don’t. First pick a playstyle. Then a weapon. Then a race. Then a hairstyle. Once you’ve got those really important details worked out, pick a class.

Okay, maybe it’s not that trivial, but it’s certainly not more important than anything else. Let’s say you want to be a mage, and by mage you mean, you want to stand back and fire off magical pellets of badness. What makes you a mage in that sense is one thing: holding a staff in your hand. That’s it.

And here’s why: because the class skills you put on your toolbar are not basic attacks that are meant to be spammed. If you start a sorcerer and then immediately look around for your fireball or shadow bolt or mind flay, you’re doing it wrong. Same with weapon skills, for that matter. The things you put on your toolbar are not part of a rotation or set of casting priorities as such; they’re geared toward a specific purpose – crowd control, finishing moves, DoTs, escape maneuvers, and so on. That’s why they only give you space for five. And that’s why your resource pools will not be sufficient to spam them non-stop.

Your basic attacks, the spammable ones you will use as filler when you haven’t got something specific to cast, are your light and heavy weapon attacks. And because of this, your weapon, more than anything else, determines your playstyle. You want to do ranged damage, all of the time? You will need a destruction staff or a bow. You want those ranged attacks to be sneaky? Only the bow will work for that. Which class you use these weapons with is a matter of preference and flavor; sorcerers make great archers, and dragonknights make great fire mages. Some classes have more in their toolkit for certain roles than others, but any class can be a tank, a healer, a stealth-attacker, a caster, a melee face-smasher, or any combination thereof (unlike other games, hybrids are okay, even welcome, here). What those roles do require is specific weapon choices.

So my advice is: figure out what you want to be. Then pick the best weapons (you can swap between two) and armor types (you can mix and match as you like, so have a look at the skill lines for all three) for the job. Then have a look at the options for class, weapon, and other skills, and decide what you want on your various toolbar sets – do you want to be extra slippery, like a lot of burst, prefer DoTs, need lots of panic buttons, enjoy kiting and CC? Let those things determine your class selection. As soon as I started doing it this way, I had a lot more fun coming up with combinations, and I was a lot more successful at the gameplay itself. (And who doesn’t have more fun when they’re crushing enemies and not dying?)

The other bit of MMO baggage I had to leave behind to have fun here was simpler and more basic: I had to have a Skyrim kind of attitude. In a single player game, you don’t rush. You do not want to level quickly. How is a game worth sixty bucks if you’re through it in a week, right? An MMO is the opposite: endgame is the game, and leveling is a chore to be completed as quickly as possible. When I tried playing ESO like an MMO, going from one quest to the next with a constant eye toward progression, I was bored and frustrated. As soon as I stopped thinking about leveling and just started playing – literally playing, like a toddler who isn’t trying to reach anything or do anything particular with that toy truck, but merely wants to goof around with it for a while – I started having fun. The way I have fun in Skyrim. I don’t feel like doing this quest? No problem. I’ll just run around over here for a while instead, and something is bound to happen.

I think the game needs more somethings of that nature: more to explore and collect, less gating behind specific quest chains. (Especially when the gate is bugged, so you can’t move on to the next zone, ever, because the quest is broken. I’m looking at you, Abomination of Hate.) So don’t rest on your laurels, ZeniMax. I am still going to need a house. Soon.