A little while back, I mentioned that when judging games the key question to ask is whether you’re enjoying playing the game… and that that is a subjective judgement. Nobody else can tell you whether you find playing a game fun. However, we can tell you why we find a game fun (or not), which might help you make a decision about whether it meets your definition of fun. It might even help some of the denizens of the Internet realise that when it comes to fun, your mileage may vary and what they personally like isn’t necessarily so for others (hey, I live in hope…) The fact that Zenimax have finally dropped the NDA on The Elder Scrolls Online for those of us peons who don’t count as “real press”* gives me the perfect opportunity to lay out my criteria for a fun game with a topical example.
First of all, I crave Freedom. Freedom to make my character my own way, freedom to go explore (and take the consequences if I stick my nose in somewhere that’s too tough for me), freedom to do what I want in a game session. That means I don’t want straightjacket character builds, but instead the game should allow for as many set-ups as possible to be viable. Areas of the game world should not be walled off behind a “your level must be THIS high to enter” sign, and I don’t really want all of the quests organised into nice, neat quest hubs with vector quests between them so that it’s all perfectly optimised and runs smoothly as long as you do what you’re told and follow the golden levelling path without fail. ESO score: pretty good, on the whole. Character build is incredibly free – use any combination of skills that you’ve learned, pick up any weapon, wear whatever armour takes your fancy. Your class gives you three skill lines that are unique to the class, but that’s all, and it’s your choice how you use them. The first (tutorial) section is very much on rails, but that’s in the nature of tutorials. ESO’s tutorial is… well, some of the hate for it is overboard but it’s very much a tutorial like the ones for just about every other MMO. Learn to move, pick up a weapon, kill a basic mob, level up for the first time, get transported to the main game world. The worst I can say about it is that it’s a bit “meh” and uninspired; the best I can say is that it’s workmanlike and uninspired. Once you’re past that, though, you get a lot more freedom. The second zone has its own story and (at least in the case of the two alliances I tried) you get to choose not only what order you do the sub-quests but also whether or not to do each of them. Decisions you make will affect your relationships with various NPCs – I’m not sure to what extent that opens up or closes off other stories down the line, but it looks hopeful. I also like that quests tend to be objective-based rather than task lists “go rescue so-and-so” rather than “kill ten rats” and it’s up to me exactly how I carry out the rescue and what body count that entails. It’s not quite as open as GW2 with its whole “wander the worlds and see what events you chance upon” vibe, but it feels pretty free to me.
Next, I expect a certain level of Quality. The game client should be robust and as bug-free as possible, and things should look like they were put together by people who cared what they were doing. Sloppy typos or continuity errors in quest text drive me nuts, and so does poor voice acting. If you’re going to use voice artistes, get decent ones – I shudder every time I play a Neverwinter character through their (workmanlike) tutorial and I get to the dwarf who announces “I have a GGGRRRRUUUUESOME task for ye!” in what some bloody Yank fondly imagines is a Scottish accent. I’m open to different art styles, but I want the artwork to be a good example of whatever style they choose. And I want the writing to be of a professional standard – by which I mean, I would pay for this if it were a book on Amazon. I understand the constraints on plot that being part of a game impose, and I recognise that the writers may not have as much scope for characterisation as they’d like in a game, but the dialogue should sparkle (or at least not come across as stilted and clichéd). ESO score: middling. I encountered several bugs that forced me to restart the game in the beta weekend. On the other hand, this is the one area where the “it’s beta!” excuse is valid – those are exactly the sort of problems that you should be running down and squishing as you get close to release (as opposed to more structural issues with design, where if it’s not pretty much right by now you’re screwed). Voice acting was good (well, look at the cast they hired) and some of the dialogue made me smile. There were some moral dilemmas that genuinely had me thinking hard about which is the “right” answer. So, on the whole pleased as long as they do fix the bugs by April.
I really appreciate getting a good level of Visceral Satisfaction from using character abilities in the game. This is a hard one for me to define, and better to give examples, but it comes down to using abilities that feel right and give a sense of awesome in the game. It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the animation and the sound and the general feel of using the ability making me want to go “Hell, YEAH!” A good case in point is my Sith Warrior in SWTOR using Force Choke. On paper, it’s a mediocre ability – it does no more damage than using my base attack over three seconds and builds less rage than the base attack over those three seconds, and yes it stuns the opponent for that time but it also immobilises me so that’s a wash. On the other hand – who am I kidding? I get to Vader the poor son of a bitch who dared draw a blaster on me! It looks right, and it sounds right, and it brings a smile to my face even if it doesn’t get me to the top of a DPS parse, so I tend to Force Choke whenever it’s off cooldown as long as doing so doesn’t severely screw my chances of winning the fight. ESO score: middling to unknown. I need to play more and try out a lot more abilities to see if there’s anything that truly grabs me.
I also want a sense of Heroism – I want to feel that it’s not a job, it’s an adventure. I’m playing MMOs for the escapism of being a Big Damn Hero (or Villain). I want to act bad-ass, and look bad-ass, and I want NPCs to salute, bow or piss their pants in fear once I’ve done something to earn it. I don’t want to dig through boar shit for some goblin in return for a handful of coins. I also don’t want to feel that I need to clock on, do my dailies and get my time card punched every day. I’ve spent years getting to a level where I function as a recognised expert in my real life job and don’t do the same monotonous grunt work very day… why on Earth would I want to play a game in my spare time that does make me do that? ESO score: pretty good so far. My characters felt competent, and the jobs they were asked to do were important ones (rescue civilians from an invasion, help bring down a corrupt local governor)
Finally, a good game should generate Engagement. Simply put, I should want to keep coming back. Maybe it’s to see what happens next (LotRO’s epic story did that through the Angmar and Moria eras) or to see what’s going on (GW2 maintains sense of not having seen everything there is to offer in an area for quite a while) or just because the activities here are fun in and of themselves and I’m back for more (DAoC RvR). Dailies or other content that needs grinding to earn tokens doesn’t cut it on this front – those make you feel obligated to come back to earn rewards rather than making you want to come back for the game’s own sake. ESO score: probably too soon to tell, but after playing in one weekend I’m looking forward to another and inclined to place a pre-order. Does that count?
* I’m not so much annoyed that “real press” got special access and were allowed to bloviate about the game before any of us guys who have pretensions and a blog with five hits per day were allowed to do so. I’m more pissed off that the output of some of those “real journalists” (naming no names) is considerably shallower and more amateurish than that of many of the bloggers. Consider this more a rant about the state of games journalism than one about Zenimax’s PR strategy.