Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Letters from Tamriel, Part IV - The War in Wabbajack

The following is the continuation of my brief history of the first Wabbajack campaign as seen from the eyes of a casual Daggerfall Covenant player. I play two to three nights a week, mostly on weekends, and my account will be coloured by own experiences and factional bias. I'm quite certain that EP and AP players will disagree violently with various details of this account, but that's the fun of writing these pseudo-histories – it will be up the reader to winnow the truth from the hyperbole and propaganda. For my sources I have used my own experiences, daily screenshots of the campaign map, scores and leader boards, the ESO Stats website, and the flame wars on the official Zenimax forums, which have required heavy moderation on the part of Zenimax due to the amount of sledging and trash-talking being thrown back and forth between the three factions.


Three factions clash. I am hidden at the bottom of the hill while AD and EP battle on the rise.

State of the Campaigns

The following graphs are pulled from the ESOStats website, and they provide a great synopsis of the various campaigns in progress. These screenshots were taken on the day the first campaign ended, and out of nine campaigns, four have been won by the Altmeri Dominion (AD), three by the Daggerfall Covenant (DC) and two by the Ebonheart Pact (EP). Out of the nine campaigns, eight have been landslides for the winning faction.



Wabbajack is clearly the most competitive of all the nine remaining North American (NA) campaigns, and it has been one of the most memorable PvP experiences I've had in an MMO to date. The Pact is poised to win in this screenshot, but until two weeks ago a Daggerfall victory was a real possibility. On the weekend of 20-21 June the Pact rallied in a big way and secured map control over the weekend, enough to create a 15-18k buffer and securing victory for them in the first campaign.

Campaign History


I. Early Days of the Dominion

The early days of Wabbajack were dominated by the Altmeri Dominion, but unfortunately I did not start playing PvP until 9 April, which means the record of who these early Emperors were are lost to this account. All I know is that when I entered Cyrodiil on this date AD were leading the campaign by a short margin, but were about to be eclipsed by DC soon afterwards.

II. Reign of the Covenant

DC overtook AD on the campaign scoreboard on or around 10 April 2014, and they proceeded to dominate the campaign for the remainder of April. There have been three Covenant Emperors in the history of the campaign to date – Whispers to Ravens, Johnny Hammersticks and Sabre Ali. Whispers was crowned on 9 April, and was able to maintain his position on the top of the leader board for about one week before being overtaken by Johnny Hammersticks sometime in mid-April. Hammersticks was the longest serving DC Emperor in terms of overall time spent on the throne, and he holds the DC record on Wabbajack for longest continuous reign as a Covenant Emperor (four days and nine hours). Sabre Ali was crowned Emperor in the waning days of Covenant ascendancy, and he holds the dubious distinction of being the last ever Emperor on Wabbajack. Before the rise of the Pact however, DC dominated Cyrodiil completely during the month of April, building a massive lead over the other factions, and threatening to run away with the campaign.

III. Rise of the Pact

On 14 April 2014 EP successfully crowned their first Emperor on Wabbajack (Fixate). At first I thought it was an aberration, as DC would soon dethrone the red upstart, and resume their domination of the campaign. As April turned into May however, EP resistance became stronger and stronger, and it soon became apparent that they were a legitimate threat. The Pact Emperor was no mere figure-head. Fixate's team gained more and more notoriety, as it became clear that they were an organised group of maximum level players with clear, well-honed strategies. They were also not shy at posting their exploits on the official forums, and a pair of videos showing their team wiping zergs of blue players made the rounds.


Fixate and his crew were not the only reason for EP's resurgence. There are also two or three other EP crews out there who are organised and capable, with the most prominent being the Vokundein guild who announced their transfer to Wabbajack with much fanfare on the official forums. Campaign transfers are a contentious issue in TESO at the moment, as the current cost for changing campaigns is extremely low – 15,000 Alliance points. This is a trivial amount and can be accumulated in a single evening if you are running with a strong group which can successfully cap or defend multiple times. Since there are 10 total campaigns it is very easy for players to desert losing campaigns and jump into others where their faction is dominating. This was predicted by everyone prior to launch, so it boggles the mind as to why Zenimax kept transfer costs so low. It also makes possible the exploits of some Oceanic AD guilds which are jumping from campaign to campaign in order to farm the title of Emperor (more on this later).

In late April and early May there was a massive diaspora of EP to Wabbajack, so much so that the EP guild Vokundein began to complain that the excess numbers were ruining their fun. By mid-May EP was firmly in control and ahead on the scoreboard, and by virtue of their continued success attracted even more EP to Wabbajack. EP only dominated one other campaign (Goldbrand), so there were dual incentives for EP players in the remaining campaigns to move to Wabbajack - leave a campaign where they were being trounced, and move to a campaign where they were actually winning. Similarly, DC also began to bleed players as the fair weather players migrated to Bloodthorn, Chrysamere and Volendrung where DC are the undisputed masters. EP began to pull away, extending their lead even further. Fixate and his team mate Nicolle became regular fixtures on the Tamriel throne, trading Emperorships every time either of them pulled ahead of each other on the Alliance leaderboard. I have to give respect to Fixate – that blasted bugger is EVERYWHERE, and he will fight on his own without his posse at his back on occasions. Fixate also holds the record as the longest serving Emperor on Wabbajack, clocking in at just over six days and two hours.


Hiding after a DC siege is destroyed by an EP counter. The burning remnants of our siege engines litter the field, while EP fan out in search of stragglers.

IV. Leaders of the Covenant

The silver lining in the DC exodus from Wabbajack was that it revealed which guilds had ticker (heart) and who would be sticking it out in the long run. In May I began to PvP on a semi-regular basis with the Order of Australia (OOA). Our very first PvP night was an amazing success, with lots of participants and commensurate success to boot. In my opinion our initial success was not based on the fact that we were super-organised and capable, but rather more the case of numbers and enthusiasm carrying the day against similarly inexperienced opposition. Since that time, however, numbers and participation have dwindled to almost nothing, and I've had to look further afield for an Oceanic guild to PvP with.

In addition to joining OOA's PvP events, I've also made the effort to join the other guilds around the Daggerfall faction in order to see how they operate. To date I have joined the following crews in their battles around Cyrodiil:

DC Elite (DCE) - Reevo
Einharjar (EHJ) - Bitaken
Eminent Gaming (EG) – Brandon-South-Ga
Jabbawocky (JW) – Senior Fluffykins, Egypt (?)
Psijic Aes Sedai – Hermaeus Mora
RISE – Prince Jarvan (quit?), Aareon (?)

I've not only joined the above teams on their roams, but also hopped onto Teamspeak (TS) in order to see how the guild leaders led their respective teams. For me the most impressive is Bitaken's EHJ crew, because Bitaken is not only knowledgeable and organised, but also accommodating, decisive and courteous on TS. Reevo's team is also impressive, but for different reasons. I've been with his crew when they engaged and wiped Fixate's EP team on a number of occasions, and they seem to be DC's answer to EP's “elites”. They are very similar to many top Rated BG teams I've played with in the sense that they only accept high-level players (VR5+, but I managed to sneak in as VR3+), and they would be what less charitable people term as “elitist jerks”. I have no problem with “elitist jerks” because for me competence trumps good manners up to a certain point, and Reevo's crew never crossed that threshold. In fact, when one of Reevo's crew pointed out that there was a level 30 in the group and suggested kicking him, Reevo defended him by saying “he's been with us for over an hour, he follows directions to a T, he's always first to our objectives and he uses his CDs when we need them – I ain't kicking him.” Of course, Reevo then erased the good will he had engendered by calling rival team leader Fluffykins a loser on zone chat, but ah well, nobody is perfect.

Senior Fluffykins is another prominent team leader whose guild has been in Wabbajack since the very beginning of early access. His crew numbers Egypt and Whispers to Ravens in their ranks, and I'm not entirely sure of their guild structure or organisation, or who actually heads their organisation. Egypt is a stalwart of the Covenant, always being active and encouraging on zone chat, and the scale of his contribution can be gauged on the fact that most EP teams know who he is (you can hear Fixate's team calling him out by name on their videos). Prince Jarvan of RISE is another excellent team leader, using his expertise from Guild Wars 2 and DAOC to good effect in TESO, but unfortunately for the Covenant I believe he has quit the game. Brandon-South-Ga of Eminent Gaming is the youngest of all the DC leaders known to me, clocking in at 19 years of age (Reevo is 30 and Bitaken I suspect is older than that). Hermaeus Mora of Psijic Aes Sedai is a quietly spoken but capable leader with big ambitions – nothing less than helping organise the Covenant on a unified front across all the campaigns. His guild has an all access TeamSpeak server for all the Covenant, and they have a war room in which they invite all the prominent leaders to confer and plan strategy.


Riders of ROHAN! Erm, RISE! Prepare to charge! Messing around with Prince Jarvan's team.

If there are two words I can use to describe the relationship between the various DC teams operating in Cyrodiil, it would be harmonious dysfunctionality. Reevo and Fluffykins overtly dislike each other, and constantly harangue each other in zone chat. Bitaken, Hermaeus Mora and Reevo are all critical of Brandon, although they grudgingly concede that his guild serves a valuable purpose in organising random players into coherent groups. My own PvP guild leader, MouseKime, dislikes Fluffykins. And so it goes.

For me this kind of fractured community, with all its rivalries and jostling, has more in common with the real world than the kind of MMO utopia. Anyone who has ever worked in political lobbying of any sort, or tried to get various agencies or rival departments to cooperate together will know the kind of obstacles people confront when facing egos, entrenched privilege, and out and out idealists (or fanatics, depending on where you stand). And like in the real world, it is through the work of compromisers and bridge-builders through which real progress is made. In this make-believe world of Cyrodiil an appeal to the best interests of the Covenant (i.e. winning the campaign) is usually enough to make these various groups put aside their differences and work together. Reevo racing to Fluffykin's aid at is the best example I saw in which two rival teams work together to drive back a common enemy. Of course when it was over, zone chat dissolved into an acrimonious row over who had actually saved the day, but the pragmatist in me I was satisfied – the keep was secured, our supply line remained open, and EP had been driven back. Let them argue - the objective had been achieved.

V. Return of the Dominion

Out of all the factions I know the least about the Dominion, and my observations are based primarily on what I have seen when facing them on the field. For the longest time they were the whipping boys of the campaign, consigned to irrelevance as DC and EP traded blows for campaign supremacy. In or around 26 May, a group of AD ex-Emperors came to Wabbajack to farm the title of Emperor, and they succeeded in completely upsetting the balance of power.

The entry of the ex-Emperor team (as they would later be known in DC) made a dramatic impact because they were an organised and skilled team composed of high-level players. Many of them were ex-Emperors which gave them access to the Emperor skill tree, and furthermore they were able to exploit the guesting and campaign transfer system to the fullest for their own benefit. Possession of keeps and scrolls gives players various buffs while their faction maintains control of these items and locations in a player's home campaign REGARDLESS of whether or not the players are actually playing in their home campaign or guesting in another. In other words, you get the full benefits of the buffs your faction has won in your home campaign even if you are a guest in another. Their modus operandi, as far as I can tell, is as follows. Pay 15,000 AP to transfer to Wabbajack, which is a mere pittance. Bring your guild of ex-Emperors over as guests to assist you in order to maximise the benefits of the buffs granted by your AD-dominated campaign. Secure the Emperorship. Transfer off the campaign in order to let the next person in line to get their shot at the throne.


The most elaborate oil trap in history.

Between the period of 26 May to 18 June, the AD ex-Emperor team was able to successfully crown a line of yellow Emperors - The-Humble-Soul, Kurudin, Che, Xorvak, Cloneinnk and Dragonstar. This was no small feat – unlike the blatant Emperor farming occurring on the two week server of Celarus, these AD had to overcome significant DC and EP resistance. The AD ex-Emperor team on Wabbajack was the strongest team in the campaign in my opinion – everywhere they went they would basically win the engagements, and only through the application of overwhelming force and numbers could they be dislodged. Stalling or delaying this team became a legitimate tactic, and their location was always reported in zone chat in the latter days of the campaign. It was not until I ran with Reevo's team that I found a crew that could stand toe to toe with these yellow terrors, and even then our chances were barely even. We rated the ex-Emperor team higher than Fixate and his crew in terms of threat potential, and they posed a deadly threat to both factions because it became increasingly more apparent that the winner of the campaign would not be determined by DC or EP, but by whoever AD allowed to win. This led to a host of accusations on the forums where both sides accused the other of making a secret deal with AD to gang up on their respective factions.

As far as I am aware no deal was ever struck on the DC side, but there was a concerted effort to direct all our energies on EP only, and to leave AD alone. Some of my guildies are adamant that AD and EP were in cahoots, but my own personal observation is that yellow would stomp on whichever team was losing at any given point. If EP was pressing in for a scroll, it was almost certain that AD would attack the other (each faction has two scrolls), effectively double-teaming our faction. The reverse was also true - if DC ever pushed for a scroll we could almost count on AD taking the opportunity to grab the other. It became more and more important as the campaign wound down to present a strong front, so as to present a less inviting target to AD incursions.

VI. Ebonheart End Game

In the closing stages there was a real possibility of DC being able to overtake the Pact in the last two weeks of the campaign. At one point DC was only approximately 7,000 points behind, and given our recent momentum an amazing comeback was potentially on the cards. Alas, it was not to be. On the weekend of 21 and 22 June EP rallied, and in a tremendous display managed to secure map control and the Scrolls for the Pact. Their extended map control over two to three days blew out their lead to 20,000 points, creating an unassailable lead and securing their victory in this first Wabbajack campaign.

Armistice

The war is over, and the Pact have emerged victors. Congratulations to the Pact for their victory as well as for being such tenacious foes. This was a close run thing, and there have been many twists and turns in this campaign, as well as many amazing battles. The open world PvP in Cyrodiil is the best implementation to date of a persistent world where armies march, counter-march, lay sieges, defend sieges, break sieges, hold choke points, cut supply lines and carry out bold, impudent raids deep within enemy territory.

Fixate's EP team and the AD ex-Emperor crew have proven themselves as capable and excellent opponents and villains. I've enjoyed reading the back and forth on the forums, as well as getting to know the various leaders and guilds on my faction and fighting with their respective teams. I'm still only VR4, but this ain't WoW Arena, League of Legends, or Starcraft 2 – asymmetry is an inherent part of open world PvP, and one of the attractions of this format for me is trying to overcome existing disadvantages by any means available at your disposal. For me this involved working tightly with groups, utilising support abilities rather than being a front line soldier, and using siege engines in support during large group fights. Meatbag catapults and boiling oil can absolutely decimate groups, and they should be the first thing a lowbie arms him/herself with when they enter Cyrodiil. It behooves non-max level players to utilise surprise, terrain and local superiority to make up for level and gear differential. This game as it stands favours small, organised tactical groups of 12-24, and the numerous enemy zergs I have seen destroyed by determined and organised attacks attest to this fact.

Whether or not Wabbajack will remain as competitive in the new campaign remains to be seen. I know that most of the EP guilds will be staying, but some of the DC leaders have already signalled their intention to move to other campaigns, notably Veteran only campaigns (if implemented). EP might end up with a campaign like Auriel's Bow, which is completely dominated by AD and where there are no fights to be had anywhere. At the moment the optimal meta-gaming strategy is to migrate to a campaign where your faction is completely dominant, acquire player buffs through securing map control against minimal or non-existent opposition, then guesting into other campaigns for actual PvP fights. This might be the fate of Wabbajack unless Zenimax implements some changes to their campaign transfer and guesting systems, which are far too lenient in my opinion. For now though I count myself as being lucky in choosing Wabbajack as my initial server, and having been able to take part in some really memorable open world PvP. In my second post on TESO I mentioned that my sister unsubbed in a fit of disgust at the numerous technical issues plaguing the game, and only reluctantly resubscribed as a show of solidarity to our gaming circle. A couple of weekends ago, my sister, my guildies and I were on a vast field running for our lives, trying to cover Egypt who was carrying an Elder Scroll. Behind us were the vast teeming hordes of AD, more I had ever seen in one place ever, and to our right, streaming over the hill to the north were masses of EP intent on cutting us off and stealing our prize. During this biggest battle of my MMO life, surrounded by enemies on all sides and being supported by desperate DC reinforcing from the west throwing themselves at the oncoming masses to staunch the tide, my sister said to me, “Wow – this game is awesome.”


DC trying desperately to slow down the AD horde chasing down our scroll. People fight around me as I gallop past in a vain attempt to catch up to our scroll runner.

PvP might save this theme park MMO after all. It might not be enough to save it from an ignominious F2P fate, but it has salvaged it in the eyes of my gaming circle, and as far as I'm concerned, that's the only thing that matters.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Letters from Tamriel, Part III - Welcome to Wabbajack, Son

I bought TESO on the promise of its open world PvP, but my attempts to engage it on an ongoing basis have been sabotaged by the instability of the Mac client, which crashes every 10-15 minutes in Cyrodiil. While this period has been extended somewhat by recent patches (it now crashes every 20-30 minutes) it has led me to focus on the PvE side of the game, which was enough to hold my interest until level 50 (VR1). I finally bit the bullet and partitioned my Mac, and installed TESO on the Windows side. I can finally PvP without crashing, and more importantly, I can PvP with groups in Cyrodiil instead of having to go solo ganking. I can finally dive into the campaign with both feet, without having to worry about compromising groups by random crashes in potentially decisive moments.

PvP Campaigns

There are 10 PvP campaigns in TESO for each region (North America and Europe), and 9 of them are 90 days in duration, with the last campaign lasting only two weeks, presumably as a sop to complaints on the official forums that campaigns were too long. The two week campaign (Celarus) was introduced with the 1.1.2 Craglorn patch in late May, and it actually replaced an existing 90 day campaign (Scourge). Zenimax intended to phase out Scourge over a period of time in order to allow the inhabitants to migrate to other campaigns, but in a monumental blunder typical of TESO's bug-infested release to date, they accidentally deleted the whole server with the release of 1.1.2 and replaced it with the two week campaign. Zenimax's apology is below:


To say that this is a /facepalm moment is a massive understatement, but I couldn't help but laugh. If you want to peruse the understandable anger this debacle wrought, just follow the link above to the official forums.

Fortunately for my gaming group, no such calamity has befallen us as of YET, but I'm not holding my breath. We are based in the North American Wabbajack campaign, and we play on the Daggerfall Covenant (DC) aka "the blueberries", which is the one of three factions available on TESO. The other factions are the Altmeri Dominion (AD) aka "the bees" and the Ebonheart Pact (EP) aka "the raspberries". I can say with a lot of confidence that it is one of the most active and most competitive campaigns in North America, with each faction having held the lead in the overall campaign score at one point or another. Each faction has also crowned its share of Emperors, and Wabbajack consistently has the highest population out of all the 90 day campaigns in North America. Here is a snapshot of the comparative populations of Cyrodiil on Saturday 7 June 2014 North American peak time:

Taken on 7 June 2014 1048 Japan Standard Time, which translates to 2148 Eastern Daylight Time. US East Coast Friday evening. Wabbajack is full, Bloodthorn is almost full, Auriel's Bow is dominated by AD, and the rest of the campaigns have low populations. The Altmeri Dominion are yellow, the Daggerfall Covenant is blue, and the Ebonheart Pact is red. Bees, blueberries and raspberries.

I have been tracking the populations of the campaigns via twice-a-day screenshots, and it appears to me that out of all the remaining 90 day campaigns the most active is Wabbajack, followed by Bloodthorn. The rest are much lower by comparison. Matt Firor stated that the maximum number of players allowed in Cyrodiil is about 1800, with each faction allowed to bring up to 600 players. Assuming this number is correct, we could say that one bar equals 1-300 players, two bars approximately 301-599, and a locked symbol denotes that the population is capped at approximately 600. This is pretty good, considering that the biggest battle ever fought in MMO history occurred in EVE Online in July 2013, where over 3000 to 4000 players fought a massive battle in 6VDT-H (with many more waiting in the wings to warp into the system). 1800 might be less than half that number, but at least TESO players are not playing in 10% time dilation. Well, most of the time anyway. Lots of players still complain about lag, but the TESO client on Windows has run beautifully for me for the vast majority of the time. This still doesn't let Zenimax off the hook for the unstable Mac client, though, which is a piece of crap by comparison.

The Early Emperors

As alluded to above, I have been religiously taking screenshots of the map, the scoreboard and the population at approximately 7 am and 7 pm Japan Standard Time (JST) everyday since 9 April 2014. This date coincides with the first day my gaming group entered Cyrodiil for the first time. Up to this point, from early access onwards AD had been dominating the campaign, with DC coming a close second and EP in last place.

The Wabbajack campaign score as of 9 April 2014, the very first time we entered Cyrodiil. Campaign scores are evaluated on an hourly  basis, with 10 points being awarded per keep, 5 points per outpost, 1 point per resource (farm, lumber mill or mine) and 25 points per Elder Scroll held. The winning faction will be the one which has the most number of points by the time the campaign duration ends, which in this screenshot will be in 78 days.

Based purely on dumb luck we were able to take part in the crowning of the first ever DC Emperor. The first DC Wabbajack Emperor was Whispers to Ravens, and he was an Argonian Nightblade (NB) healer. It was a bit strange to have an Argonian become leader of a faction comprised primarily of Bretons, Orcs and Redguards, but since the disgraced leader of the Fighter's Guild in Tamriel was an Argonian named Sees All Colours, I was able to use the power of wishful thinking to believe that this was acceptable lore-wise. For me the early days of the campaign will always be associated with running with the Emperor in our midst. It was never hard to pick out Whispers – the golden armour and the big waggling reptilian tail made him stand out of the zerg.

All hail Whispers to Ravens, the first ever Wabbajack Emperor of the Daggerfall Covenant!

Any pretence of role-playing was destroyed by the ascension of the second DC Emperor named Johnny Hammersticks sometime during mid April. No amount of wishful thinking would make this name acceptable lore-wise, and worse, the name Johnny is irrevocably linked to The Karate Kid in my mind. Anytime I saw Hammersticks on zone chat I had to bite back the inane impulse to shout out, “Sweep the leg, Johnny!” I also saw Hammersticks talking about how large his e-peen was on chat in Rivenspire shortly after his ascension, and that for me removed any kind of budding factional loyalty I might have had for our new Emperor. To be fair to Johnny, he was an encouraging and active Emperor in Cyrodiil zone chat during the time DC was on top. Recently, however, I have not seen hide or hair of him, and it has been up to other DC leaders like Bitaken, Reevo, Egypt, and Senior Fluffykins to organise groups and take up the slack.


Regardless of my opinion of our newly minted Emperor, Hammerstick's reign coincided with a period of dominance by DC which would continue until the end of April. DC was able to keep Hammersticks on the throne for a Wabbajack record of exactly four days and  9 hours between 15 April to 19 April 2014. Unknown to most of us at this time of DC dominance, however, a major threat was looming in the east. Not only would there be a veritable diaspora of EP coming to Wabbajack from other campaigns, but even more dangerous would be groups of organised leaders who would make a decisive impact on the course of the Alliance war. Hammersticks' record would be threatened by a Pact Emperor named Fixate in the following month.


15 April 2014 2059 JST (0759 EDT) at the height of Hammerstick's reign. Blue represents the Daggerfall Covenant. Red is the Ebonheart Pact, and yellow is the Altmeri Dominion. This is the best any Alliance can do in Cyrodiil - all possible keeps have been taken, and all the Elder Scrolls are in DC hands. The home bases in the corners of the map cannot be captured. 

But that, my friends, is a tale for another time.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Rise and Fall of WoW as an E-Sport

I love WoW ladder PvP. In my eyes it is a fast paced game of skill and teamwork which requires a deep knowledge of the meta in order to succeed. To anyone who complains that WoW is too easy I would give them the following challenge – go forth and break 2k in any of the formats, whether that be 2s, 3s, 5s or Rated BGs. This is something I have never been able to do despite literally years of trying, and while I have come close, this milestone has always eluded me. So if you think the game is too easy and you want a challenge in WoW, give ladder play a shot. I'll wager you will get all the challenge you want and more.

There are of course players who have already done this, and perhaps they are now all sitting around complaining that the game offers no challenge to them. To these people I would say that the beauty of ladder play is that you can always go higher! If you have 2k then I'd say go for Duelist (top 3%) or even Gladiator (top 0.5%). The ladder is region wide now, so there are no excuses. Pit yourself against the very best. As for the top dogs on top of the ladder, they have the opportunity to become e-sports stars, earning real world money on the tournament circuit. They can become pro-gamers like Starcraft 2 stars SoS, Polk and Jaedong, and travel to international tournaments in Brazil, China, Germany, Poland and the US. How cool would that be?

Oh wait. Can they?

The purpose of that over-long preamble is to set the stage for the theme of this article, which is the rise and “fall” of WoW as an e-sport. I will cover the history of WoW in e-sports, speculate on the reasons of its demise, and make some predictions as to the future of this format. The idea for this article germinated sometime during the month of March while I was watching the Yaspresents and Armageddon WoW Arena tournaments on Twitch. Armageddon was held on the same weekend of March (15-16) as the finals of Intel Extreme Masters for League of Legends and Starcraft 2, and I couldn't help but compare the teeming crowds (see the picture below) at the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) with the small production on offer at Armageddon. I dimly recalled the team of Evil Geniuses standing triumphant at the very same Extreme Masters event a few years ago, and started wondering why Arena was no longer represented at these premiere e-sports events.

A Brief (and Dodgy) History of WoW Arena as an E-sport

Football game? Nope, it's the crowd at the Starcraft 2 Intel Extreme Masters in Poland on the weekend of 15-16 March. 
It's pretty awe-inspiring to see how far e-sports has come over the years. The players earn more, the shows are becoming slicker and more professional, and the crowds are starting to look like...well, sports crowds!  Who would have thought that one day the best teams in the world would walk away with purses in excess of $1,000,000 for first place? Yet that is exactly what happens at the very top tier of the most popular PvP games out there such as Defence of the Ancients 2 and League of LegendsTournament prize money is also just the tip of the iceberg. Nowadays there are professional teams, salaried players, corporate sponsorships and broadcasting, all of which are beginning to rival, and in some ways eclipse, traditional sports. DOTA 2's annual tournament offers a prize pool of $6 million dollars, with the winning team taking home a staggering $3,000,000. That amount is mind-boggling, and rivals anything on offer from professional sports. There are quite a number of organisations hosting e-sports leagues and tournaments, but my intention in this article is to focus primarily on the Electronic Sports League (ESL) based out of Germany, the Korean E-Sports Association (KeSPA) in South Korea which sponsored the now-defunct World Cyber Games (WCG), and Major League Gaming (MLG) based in the US. These three organisations were chiefly responsible for supporting WoW Arena during its run as an e-sport in 2008-2011. 

The very first Arena season began in February 2007. It was introduced in the first WoW expansion of The Burning Crusade, and I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time. Speaking for myself personally I have to say that the only reason why I remained a WoW subscriber was because of ladder PvP, despite my own limitations as a player. Blizzard was able to secure seven more years from me as a subscriber based on the presence of their ladder PvP system. It came at a price, however, and that came in the internal schism between PvE and PvP which continues to this day. Balance, class design, population, playstyle and gear were all impacted in a way which radically changed the game forever.

Ladder PvP quickly carved out a large demographic of its own, effectively creating a game within a game. There now exists a large and vocal demographic in WoW which only plays the game for the PvP element, constituting enough of the subscriber base that Blizzard has continued to cater to them over the past seven years. It wasn't long before the big organisers took notice. The golden age of WoW Arena as an e-sport was between 2008 and 2010. During this period ESL, MLG and WCG supported the Arena format and made it part of their regular circuit. This period also coincided with the peak of WoW's popularity. In October 2010 during Wrath of the Lich King WoW peaked at over 12 million subscribers world-wide, a figure which will surely never be surpassed again.

Evil Geniuses, at the last ever ESL tournament to host WoW Arena in Hanover, Germany in March 2010.

Arena had a three year run at the top, but sadly it wasn't destined to last forever. Both ESL and MLG dropped WoW in 2010. The last ESL tournament featuring WoW was the World Championships held in Hanover, Germany in March 2010, and this is actually the tournament that I remembered when I first started thinking about this article. MLG soon followed suit by dropping WoW from their National Championships in Dallas in November 2010. The last MLG event featuring WoW was in October 2010. WoW's last hurrah on the pro-circuit was in the World Cyber Games in 2011, held in Busan, South Korea. Since that time WoW has been restricted to Blizzard's own Blizzcon tournaments, which to be fair, are nothing to be sneezed at. The 2012 Battlenet World Championship was a particularly grand production in Shanghai China, on par with many of the bigger events hosted recently, complete with sizeable prize pools, an opening ceremony, and a march of the athletes (erm, players) walking out with their national flagsWhile the scale of Blizzcon continues to rival any events held by third party organisers, it is not the same as being recognised and legitimised by established international cross-gaming leagues such as ESL, MLG and WCG. WCG itself folded earlier this year, so perhaps even the legitimacy conferred by these organisations are a paper distinction at best. There is a big difference to the state of WoW now, however, and to its exalted position in 2008-2010 where everyone wanted to play it, broadcast it, watch it, hold tournaments for it, and pay the top players good money for doing well at it.

Limitations of WoW as a Spectator E-Sport

In my opinion. WoW Arena had a number of fundamental limitations which prevented it from establishing itself as a staple of e-sport:

I. Bad Spectator Client

The biggest obstacle in my mind is that the Blizzard viewing client is poorly designed. The standard client utilises a player point of view (PoV), which continually changes between players as the game progresses. It would have been better served by a top down view or a floating camera above and separate from the players, such as the one utilised by the Yaspresents tournament. Such a client would have created a stable frame of reference for spectators. As it stands, the first battle spectators have to fight is to understand the spectator client itself. The constant jumps between PoV to PoV is tremendously confusing. Movement and positioning are crucial elements of Arena play - one of the biggest defences a healer has against offensive CCs is positional play in the use of LoS obstacles or range management (i.e. moving away from Cyclone attempts or short range Blinds). Similarly, DPS have to have good situational awareness in order to avoid overextending into bad positions, or to swap onto enemy targets who are vulnerable. One of the things that separates good DPS from great DPS is their ability to recognise when one of their team mates are in trouble, and “peeling” (i.e. using defensive CCs to buy them a few seconds, or swapping onto the enemy to relieve pressure) for them. Unfortunately, attempts to showcase this in a logical manner are scuppered by the horrendous spectator UI. How can anyone appreciate great positional play when we have no idea where the players are standing at any given moment because of the rapidly changing PoV? Having a static camera would quickly establish several paradigms of Arena play which are not immediately obvious with the current spectator client. People would see how healers are careful about not being too exposed; they would see how DPS are careful about not overextending, and how overextending is brutally punished; they would see how players move in to CC to set up kills; they would see the counter-moves by the healers to avoid being CCed; they would see when a team is in full aggressive kill mode, and when a team is playing super defensive; the list goes on.




Spectators will eventually be able to learn how to “see” these things with the current spectator UI, but this is a demand the game shouldn't impose on newcomers, especially if we want to grow our audience base. Conan O'Brien's attempts to commentate on tournament matches during Blizzcon 2013, while being derided by some, clearly illustrates the barrier this client imposes on potential spectators. While it was amusing to see O'Brien ham his way through the tournament, it should be obvious that the current client is a massive impediment to the growth of WoW as a spectator-friendly e-sport. The spectator client is not for the existing fans, because they will put up with whatever crap gets thrown at them because they like the game already. The client should be designed with newcomers and casual spectators in mind to showcase the game in a way that is easy to understand. By this criteria the UI used by Blizzard is an abysmal failure.

II. Obscure Decision Making

Decision making in SC2 is easy to understand. Base building in the first two to three minutes tells the spectators what build and army composition each player is going to utilise, and player skill on both the micro and the macro level are easily apparent. The slow ramp up time of SC2 gives the commentators time to explain the build, units and possible ramifications, and the top down view is intuitive enough that spectators who don't play the game can still follow the action. Decision-making in WoW Arena, by contrast, is much more obscure. Even if you know the game it is difficult to follow what is actually happening. WoW Arena is a death match. Coordinated burst, pressure and crowd control are used to force defensive cooldowns (CDs), and eventually land a kill. Viewed in this way WoW can be seen as a game of CD management, with the majority of kills being landed by the team which manages its CDs better. The problem with this game as a spectator sport is that the use of CDs is something that happens largely off-screen, and it happens in super-fast succession. It's not like a card game like Magic or Hearthstone where the ability being played is quite obvious (i.e. visually represented by the card played on the table). CDs have small visual cues and icons associated with them (i.e. players who are bursting turn red, or a recipient of the monk's Life Cocoon becomes surrounded by a massive green bubble) but unless you are an experienced player who knows the meta-game quite well, these cues in of themselves won't mean anything. Further compounding this is the fact that CDs are used quickly and in rapid-fire succession, which makes it even more difficult to follow what is happening if you are a newcomer to the game. Even experienced commentators like Azael can be taken by surprise by sudden kills which seemingly come out of nowhere. Experienced players can see kill opportunities or know when their team is on the back foot, but the ability to read the play takes hundreds of games to develop. I subscribe to the Skill Capped website in order to watch videos of high level matches being broken down and dissected by top players. It is not uncommon for the commentator to spend 10-15 minutes explaining their decision-making in a particular match and have the actual match play out over 30 seconds when played in real-time.

Unlike Magic the Gathering, the use of CDs in Arena is hard to follow, happens largely behind the scenes. and occurs in super-fast succession.

Healing is also an integral part of Arena, but the problem with this mechanic as a spectator is that it is largely invisible. Monks are the most spectator-friendly of healing classes, because their channelled heals create a clear graphical link between the healer and the recipient. Other classes have no such mechanic, which further adds to the enigma of Arena to the untrained eye. People can watch one match and see two melee train a target to no discernible effect. These people could watch a similar game and watch two melee absolutely flatten the same target. The difference between the two examples could be attributed to five factors - i) whether or not the melee were using burst CDs; ii) whether or not the target was using defensive CDs; or iii) whether or not the healer was free casting or in CC; iv) whether or not the healer was using healing CDs to bolster their healing effectiveness; and v) whether or not the healer was in LoS. All the factors which determine whether or not a kill is landed are largely invisible, or require a deep and specialised knowledge of the meta-game which newcomers are not privy to. The use of LoS is not immediately apparent because there is no graphical representation of the healer healing his/her target. Even spectators who are conversant with the use of LoS have a hard time determining the relative positions of the players because the spectator client jumps around from PoV to PoV. The gauge of effective healing is displayed primarily by the movement of the health bars, and the simple fact that the character doesn't fall down and die. This does not make for exciting viewing, and it also seems to make landing kills random when it is anything but. There is rapid-fire decision-making happening behind the scenes which differentiates the good and the great, but spectators are not privy to this.

III. Constantly Changing Meta

WoW Arena imposes a further demand on potential spectators based on its constantly changing meta. Unlike pure PvP games which can devote all their energies to balancing around player combat, WoW has to juggle between the conflicting demands of PvE and PvP. There is ample evidence that Blizzard found it extremely difficult to balance the PvE and PvP elements of the game, leading to the famous comment by Rob Pardo in 2009 in which he stated that Arena was the biggest mistake in the game's history. Add to this the pressure to innovate with each new expansion as well as the need to balance between nine, ten, and eventually eleven separate classes each with three specs apiece, and it's no wonder that balancing was a nightmarish task for Blizzard's PvP team. WoW is notorious for “flavour of the month” classes and compositions. The current MOP meta is dominated by wizard cleaves, meaning compositions composed primarily of spell casters supported by either resto druids or resto shamans. Looking at the team comps in the finals of the last three major Arena tournaments, a theme starts to emerge:

i) Blizzcon 2013 – MiR (frost mage/resto druid/shadow priest) vs. Skill Capped (affliction lock/resto druid/shadow priest);
ii) Yaspresents 2014 – Skill Capped (affliction lock/elemental shaman/resto druid) vs. Started from the Bottom (affliction lock/elemental shaman/resto druid);
iii) Armageddon 2014 – Skill Capped (affliction lock/elemental shaman/resto druid) vs. Three Amigos (affliction lock/frost mage/resto shaman).

Not a melee in sight, and if you're a paladin, monk or priest healer you are out of luck. More importantly however, the changing meta creates further demands on would-be spectators which limits the game's accessibility. Even if a spectator took the time to learn the meta, he/she could find that everything he/she knew was redundant three to four months later with the release of a new patch or expansion. To be fair, SC2 and LoL also have a constantly evolving meta, but the advantage that these games have is that they only have to balance for PvP, and their evolution is usually incremental in nature. WoW is a PvE MMO first and foremost, and the demands of the PvP base is not their first priority. Furthermore, changes to the WoW meta can be quite radical, leading to far-reaching changes to play style, composition and even viability.

IV. Competition and Alternatives

Competition from other titles presents the biggest barrier to the return of WoW Arena as an e-sport, and oddly enough, most of the competition will be coming from in-house. Blizzard recently just launched Hearthstone, and is planning to release their own multi-player online battle arena (MOBA) in the form of Heroes of the Storm. When you factor in Starcraft you can see that Blizzard has three titles they can push as tournament games, with WoW Arena making up a fourth. It makes more sense for Blizzard to devote most of their resources to their newer titles rather than to allocate them onto an ageing 10 year old gaming format. MOBAs represent the current apex of e-sports at the moment, and while WoW Arena can be described as a type of MOBA, it is old, arcane, and competing with younger, sleeker and established titles such as DOTA 2 and LoL.

The End of WoW as an E-Sport

The question for me becomes not one of why WoW was dropped as an e-sport, but rather how it became an e-sports at all given all its disadvantages. How does a game which is hard to watch, difficult to understand and requires an up-to-date knowledge of a rapidly changing meta become an e-sports at all? For me, the fact that WoW Arena was an e-sport during the halcyon days of 2008-2010 appeared to be a historical fluke based on its amazing popularity at the time. WoW was at the peak of its popularity, having peaked at over 12 million subscribers world-wide, and the big organisers at ESL, MLG and WCG probably wanted to tap into this demographic. Blizzard already had an impeccable pedigree when it came to producing popular e-sports by 2008. Starcraft had become a global phenomenon, and the current MOBA craze which is enthralling millions of players around the world has its roots in Defence of the Ancients, which began its life as a Warcraft 3 mod. Perhaps ESL, MLG and WCG thought Blizzard was onto another e-sports winner in WoW Arena, and they acted as all sensible organisers would by jumping on the proverbial bandwagon.

Whether the game could establish itself at the highest levels was basically up to the game itself, as it certainly had its shot in the big leagues. In my opinion, the limitations of the game as a spectator sport meant that the game could not sustain itself at the highest level, and as WoW began to wane in popularity and DOTA and League of Legends began their own meteoric rise WoW was dropped from the circuit. It also has to be pointed out that while WoW had over 12 million players at its peak, not all of these players were PvPers. It is hard to know what percentage of the player base actively pushes rating on the ladder or are actually interested in WoW Arena as an e-sport, but apparently it wasn't enough for the decision-makers. ESL and MLG dropped WoW at the end of 2010, followed shortly by WCG in 2011.

In hindsight it appears to me that WoW Arena did not have the critical mass of players required to ensure its growth as a viable e-sport. Starcraft was adopted by Korea while DOTA became a massive hit in China, and the support of the gamers in these countries fuelled the growth of these respective games both domestically and on the international stage, which in turn made the amazing world-wide success of League of Legends possible. WoW Arena's best hope was to be adopted by North America and Europe the same way Korea took to Starcraft and China embraced DOTA, but for whatever reason, the game failed to capture the imagination of the e-sports viewing public during its run in 2008-2010.

The Blizzard Conspiracy

There is an alternative hypothesis as to the fall of WoW as an e-sport, and it is hinged on the premise that Blizzard itself pulled the plug. I mentioned Rob Pardo's quote about Arena being the single greatest mistake in WoW's history, and it is worth re-stating here:


It has to be stated that this was said in 2009 at the VERY height of WoW's popularity as an e-sport. Pardo realised that it was no longer possible to cut ladder PvP from WoW now that the genie had been let out of the bottle, but the same wasn't necessarily true for supporting the format on a tournament level. Perhaps they recognised all the issues Arena had internally, and rather than putting a flawed product out on the world stage or spending the resources to fix it, they decided to pull the game instead. Adding weight to this hypothesis is the fact that the Armageddon tournament in March 2014 was the FIRST Arena tournament since MLG in 2010 to be officially sanctioned by Blizzard. It is hard to understand why Blizzard would not sanction any tournaments for FOUR years, unless it was for the simple reason that they just didn't want to. Perhaps Blizzard got fed up with balancing the game for an international stage. Perhaps they didn't want to spend the resources on developing a spectator UI. Perhaps they asked for too much money from the organisers. Perhaps they wanted to spend their time and money on SC2, which was already a proven success. Whatever the reason is Blizzard remains silent about it. I have been unable to find official statements from either ESL or MLG as to why they decided to drop WoW, but there are a few clues scattered here and there on ageing forums. One theory proposed is that the ESL and MLG were waiting for Cataclysm to launch (December 2010) before they reinstated WoW back to the active roster. Another theory is that they were waiting for Blizzard to create a new spectator client. If either are actually the case then it is apparent that four years on and two expansions later, they are still waiting.



Fast-forward four years to the present and we suddenly see an about face from Blizzard. Brian Holinka (lead PvP designer) and Kim Phan (head of Blizzard's e-sports division) gave a very frank and illuminating interview at the Armageddon tournament (linked above) in March 2014 in which Holinka commented on the topic of playability versus “watchability” which lies at the heart of Arena. From the interview, Blizzard seems to be adopting a supportive but “wait and see” attitude – Holinka acknowledged the defects of the spectator client and identified it as the problem which most urgently needs fixing to make WoW Arena viable as a spectator e-sport. As to whether or not Blizzard will be actively pushing Arena, Phan made it clear that they are handing the ball to the community, and will react based on the level of support generated by the audience base. Kim Phan also stated on record that MLG has approached them with the proposal of reinstating WoW Arena once the new spectator client is introduced in Warlords of Draenor (WOD). This is great news for Arena fans, and if it pans out, it will be the start of the road back to e-sports recognition.

One has to ask, however, why Blizzard waited so long. It is hard to reconcile the theory that Blizzard pulled the plug on e-sports Arena at the end of 2010 with the supportive tone now espoused by the current team of Holinka/Phan in 2014. It seems slightly schizophrenic and self-destructive, but it has to be remembered that companies are not unified, monolithic entities – they are composed of people, people can have disagreements, and opinions can change over time. My own personal “tin foil” theory is that even at the height of its popularity in 2008-2010 an internal battle was taking place within Blizzard over the role, and even legitimacy, of ladder PvP within the greater game. The image that comes to mind is that of someone grabbing a tiger by the tail, and wondering how to let go. Blizzard introduced Arena, suddenly realised how much work it entailed and the problems it introduced, thought about dropping it, then watched in horror as it took on a life of its own and grew its own audience and became an e-sport supported by the big leagues. Realising that they couldn't just arbitrarily remove ladder PvP any more, they did the next best thing and pulled it from the tournament circuit in order to keep the various issues associated with Arena in-house and away from the e-sports limelight. It is one thing to be criticised by your own player base; it is another to be criticised by the entire gaming world when your game is held up to close scrutiny. The great tragedy of this ideological battle (for PvPers) is that by the time the dust settled and PvP became an accepted part of WoW's identity, the chance to establish the format on the world stage had been lost. Regardless of whatever steps Blizzard takes in WoD now, it would seem that they squandered a golden opportunity when they failed to introduce an accessible spectator client at the opening of Cataclysm.

Future Directions

Watching all the remaining die-hards on Twitch make earnest and passionate declarations to grow the community fills me with mixed feelings. I'm a big fan of WoW Arena, but I have serious doubts as to its ability to ever make it back to the big time. I still watch all the tournaments on Twitch TV, and keep track of who the top players are for each of the classes. Nonetheless I am quite pessimistic of WoW Arena's ability to make it back as a top tier e-sports outside of Blizzcon and community run tournaments for all the reasons enumerated above. There is hope in PvP-Live's continued support of the format, and in the proposed changes in Warlords of Draenor. The addition of a spectator-mode promises to make tournaments more accessible, but this is a feature that has been implemented almost four years too late. If this feature had been implemented in 2010 or earlier then one of the major impediments to WoW's success could have been circumvented. The period between 2008 and 2010 is not just WoW Arena's golden period. It also represents a missed chance to educate the public about the game. Perhaps Arena was never destined to stay at the top given the issues listed above, but there is a school of thought that says that there was a tremendous opportunity to establish the game and its meta at the top in the same way Starcraft had captured an audience. As it is the window of opportunity has closed, and it may never come again.

Arena already has a devoted community, and as long as Blizzard keeps hosting Blizzcon Arena will always have a large premier tournament in which the top players can showcase their skills. It cannot be underestimated how large Blizzcon is as an e-sports event – the prize pool on offer has been on par with the biggest events any of the other major organisers have offered, and Blizzard has adroitly positioned it as the apex of the World Championship Series of Starcraft 2. However, while Starcraft has taken on a life of its own outside of Blizzard, WoW Arena seems destined to remain the province of a hardcore audience, and its eventual fate tied to the fortunes of the MMO and the parent company which spawned it. The ONLY major tournament hosting WoW Arena this year will be Blizzcon, while Starcraft 2 is played all year around and supported by both ESL and MLG with numerous tournaments boasting prize pools in excess of $100,000. By contrast both Yaspresents and Armageddon struggled to raise a $10k prize pool for their respective Arena tournaments. Whether or not the proposed changes in WoD as to the spectator client and the overhaul of class mechanics will revive the flagging fortunes of WoW Arena remains to be seen. As it stands 2014 is another write off for WoW Arena as a major e-sport. I can't help but feel some sympathy for the players who have worked their way to the top of the Arena ladder and experienced the highs of tournament play. While SC2, DOTA 2 and LoL players continue to be lauded and rewarded for their excellence in their chosen games, the top WoW Arena players can only look on in quiet envy. Their fate is akin to ageing prize-fighters reliving their prime, as the golden years of their sport fade further and further into the past.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Letters from Tamriel, Part II - The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

TESO has now been out for over a month, and I thought this would be an opportune time for me to add my own personal thoughts to the pool of opinions wallowing around on the Internet. My avatar is now Veteran Rank 1 (level 50), I have completed the main quest and spent more than 20+ hours in Cyrodiil. I have devoted enough time to the game to give it a fair shake. Prior to release I adopted a cheerfully optimistic view of TESO, disregarding a number of blogs and early reviews as being hasty, based on limited play time and beta experiences only. TESO also had to battle against the move away from the theme park zeitgeist, which meant that they were releasing into a critical environment which was growing hostile to this paradigm of MMO design (at least in the world of blogging). None of this deterred me in the least – for me the open world PvP of Cyrodiil was the clincher which would ensure that I would at least try the game. I'd actually unsubscribed from WoW to give myself more time to play TESO. I've sampled other MMOs in the past (EVE, Warhammer Online, Rift, The Secret World and SWTOR), but this is the first time I have actually unsubscribed from WoW in order to play another MMO. Now a month onwards, it is time to see whether my optimism was warranted, or whether I was just being wilfully naïve.

Trapped in the clutches of Molag Bal, can our heroine prevail? Pfft, of course she can.


THE GOOD

The Best Single Player PvE MMO Ever

TESO is the best iteration of the single player MMO to date, which is a back-handed compliment of sorts, given that one of the most pervasive criticisms of recent MMOs is their emphasis on soloing and convenience at the expense of social interaction and true multiplayer gameplay. If you like theme park single player MMOs however, TESO sports the best realised implementation of this paradigm to date. So much so, in fact, that it almost seems to discourage grouping at times. The main quest, the Fighters Guild and the Mages Guild quest lines can only be done on your lonesome, and phasing frequently renders group members invisible to each other. There have been a few instances in where I have tried to render assistance to someone but was unable to help them because the mob in question was invisible to me or the other player was in an instanced space inaccessible to me. Taken as a single player game, however, TESO has high enough production values to stand on its own two feet, which makes questing interesting and engaging. Graphics, sound, music, ambience and voice acting are reminiscent of single player RPG titles. The game itself is breathtakingly beautiful. It puts many single player games to shame, and I have many “Oooo, look at that” moments where I simply stop and stare. In gameplay terms, I actually prefer the solo play in TESO to The Witcher, which I had begun prior to launch as a time filler – I find the combat, the crafting, the questing and the environments all superior to the single player title. I'd also rate TESO over Dragon Age 2, but place it well behind Dragon Age 1. TESO is very reminiscent of Dragon Age in terms of lore – the separation of worlds (the Fade in Dragon Age, and Oblivion in TESO) and the theme of mortals living in a world constantly meddled with by terrifying supernatural beings (the Daedric Princes and their ilk) are very similar.


Wow. This game is preeeetty.
The fact that I am comparing TESO to single player titles at all is a testament to the quality of its solo gameplay. It is the best single player MMO so far, surpassing the attempts by SWTOR to establish the “fourth pillar” of story within MMOs, and its approach to storytelling encompasses the use of extraneous details which add depth. You can zerg through the quests in a single-minded A to B fashion, or you can take a more lackadaisical approach by reading journals, letters, and exploring optional side quests which add further layers to the story. Furthermore, it is a nice touch to see NPCs you have interacted with appear in other zones, and they remember you based on the decisions you have taken. Regardless of the merits of its single player gameplay, if theme parks represents the ultimate evil of MMO design for you then TESO has nothing new to offer. If theme parks still divert and amuse, however, you will find that TESO has some of the best rides around.

Customised for Small Group Play

Despite its insistence on forcing the player on some solo paths, TESO on the whole is very friendly to small group play. There are public dungeons, world bosses and dark anchors to encourage grouping, and dungeons are tuned for four players. Travel to each other is fast and easy, and phasing issues can be sidestepped by keeping in careful step with each other. Zenimax are also planning to directly address the phasing issue in their upcoming patch to allow party members to “see” across different phases. The planned Adventure Zone of Craglorn is designed for four people, as are Arenas, which will be TESO's four person version of 12 person Trials. All in all TESO is a good fit for my regular gaming group, which consists of 5-6 people at most.

Meaningful Crafting

Crafting is engaging and meaningful. Crafted gear is supposedly the best gear in the game, which means there is ample motivation to spend time developing it.

Action Based, Non GCD Combat

Combat is fast and dynamic. Some commentators have argued that it has no weight, and I find that this is not true at all. My tank's charges hit home with force, the controls are responsive (I click, it happens), my shield bashes are suitably meaty, and collision detection in PvE puts a wrinkle in combat which I'm not used to. Sometimes you want to charge that healer in the back and you just can't, because his buddies are blocking your way. Non-GCD based combat also took some time getting used to as well, and I find that you can actually weave in your abilities between your weapon swings to increase your dps. My fingers are still learning to keep a beat with my light attacks, while interspersing abilities between the gaps. I did miss the floating numbers in the UI, which I artificially added by downloading the Foundry Tactical Combat add-on. TESO is more FPS than WoW, but that's not a bad thing for me personally. For me WoW has the best and most responsive GCD based combat, and Warhammer, Rift and SWTOR all suffered because they were pale imitations of WoW's e-sport tested system. For TESO to go down a different action-orientated route sets it apart from WoW, and makes it its own game, although I could see why this would be a turn-off for some.

Faction Based PvP

I find PvP in TESO to be fun and engaging WHEN IT WORKS. It's a paradigm shift from WoW and requires a different approach to meta-gaming, grouping and playstyle, but once I made the leap in my mind I was hooked. Unfortunately it is spoiled greatly by client instability on my Mac platform, which I will go into further detail below. TESO PvP and its meta requires its own post in the future, but for now I will just say that I am a fan of the old-fashioned factional PvP implemented in this game, which is unashamedly derivative of the realm versus realm model made famous by Dark Age of Camelot (DAOC). If the single-player PvE experience is resolutely theme park in its approach, then its world PvP is akin to a watered-down version of Darkfall and EVE, meaning that is more sandbox and player orientated, but without the hefty death penalties and losses associated with these other titles. The landscape of Cyrodiil is completely player-driven and constantly shifting, and it is interesting to see the emergence of the meta-game in its embryonic stages. I am in the Wabbajack campaign, and while it was dominated early by the Daggerfall Covenant (DC), meta-gaming developments have ensured that both the Ebonheart Pact (EP) and the Aldmeri Dominion (AD) are now major forces to be reckoned with. EP took the lead sometime last week thanks to the migration of a few large guilds, followed by a massive influx of rank and file EP who appeared to be influenced by a large call to arms on the Zenimax forums. AD, on the other hand, seem to have the support of a few V10 guilds who occasionally guest in from their AD dominated campaign on Auriel's Bow and sow carnage wherever they go. This is when the game becomes more than just shooting or stabbing random strangers in the wilderness for me. Once personalities begin to emerge from the background and bonds begin to form between once-wary guild members, the seeds of a healthy and thriving PvP community are sown. People are starting to know the name of the Emperors and the leaders of the more prominent guilds, and as more and more people hit 50 and join the war the player base is starting to collectively weave the story of Cyrodiil. I've been out on a few roams (to use EVE parlance) with the guilds I 've joined, and the mandatory sizing-up period is slowly giving way to familiarity, camaraderie and team work. Some commentators have cited the lack of community as a reason for quitting TESO, and I had to laugh at this. I guess they were expecting a fully formed community, complete with heroes, villains, friends, enemies and notable personalities, in the first month of the game. I think it is grossly hypocritical for commentators to attack the lack of community in MMOs but at the same time fail to make any effort to engage, build or otherwise interact with fledgling communities within the game. Community is bottom-up - it is built by players, and the more time I spend in Cyrodiil the more I see a meta start to emerge, and it bodes well for open world PvP in this game.

Open world PvP in this game is dynamic, fast-paced and fun.



THE BAD

The things which I didn't like about TESO:

Average Soundtrack

The soundtrack is average, but to be fair, it is competing with Jeremy Soule's amazing Morrowind theme, as well as the rousing Dovakhin score that came with Skyrim. There are moments when I hear that familiar refrain in pieces of music, but overall there is nothing memorable here for my own tastes.

Inventory Management

Inventory management is a bit of a nightmare in TESO. You will need to implement a system to sort out your stuff, or otherwise you will end up throwing away or vendoring crafting materials which might prove valuable later on. I ended up creating six bank alts to manage inventory bloat, but I still have to devote a good amount of time sorting my gear instead of questing or PvPing.

Guild Store UI

I support Zenimax's decision not to implement a global Auction House, but I find their guild auction house UI somewhat clunky. When you sell something in TESO the gold just arrives in your mail without a notification as to what item had just been sold. Seems like a small oversight, but it adds more work for the player, as I have to check my listings in order to work out what I have sold. The fact that you can also join five guilds is a good thing, but the fact that you have to individually search each guild's auction house is a pain in the ass. I can understand why selling has to be done on a per guild basis, but if you were buying would it not be a good quality of life change to consolidate purchases under one search engine? That way if you bought something the relevant guild and guildie still got the gold, but it would save each individual player the time they spend loading and searching each guild's separate auction house. Just a small quibble.

THE UGLY

As you can see, I am struggling to list anything which I think is really bad about TESO, and overall I think the core game is something I enjoy playing. Unfortunately, there are fundamental issues which go beyond the game itself, and they are all basically rooted in the fact that the game wasn't ready for release in April, especially on the Mac client.

Bugs

The bugs. For God's sake, the bugs. Some of them have been addressed, but the number of bugs I have personally encountered on my playthrough to Veteran Rank 1 (level 50) is quite significant. There have been a number of issues with the voice acting in TESO, ranging from NPCs that change voices, speak in German, or don't speak all. I've personally experienced about 15-20 of these instances in my playthrough to 50. I've also encountered NPCs in strange poses. These are relatively infrequent (I experienced less than 4-5 of these) but the most alarming was when King Emeric spoke to me with his head tilted back in a neck breaking Exorcist-style pose. This was repeated when I spoke to another NPC called Stibbons, and the screenshot is included below.


Yeah, OK, what's up with this?

The more jarring bugs have to do with broken quests which stop progression. There are actually several of these, and I estimate that I have encountered at least ten quests which I couldn't complete due to bugs. Luckily the nature of TESO is such that you could just skip the quest and do something else. There are soooo many bugs in this game that when something doesn't work or isn't clearly obvious I almost immediately assume that it is a bug. Broken quests I can cite off the top of my head include the assassins in Daggerfall, the non-dropping essences in Bethnik, the non-responsive bonfire in Pariah Abbey in Stormhaven, and the non-existent sailors in Al'akir (which meant you had to spec into Intimidating Presence to finish the quest). Most of these have been fixed now, but there are still broken quests here and there especially in the later zones. At the moment I am in Coldharbour where I have killed the world boss at the Daedroth's Larder three times, and still have not been awarded credit for it. There's also a quest just outside of Wayrest which requires you to break open droughr (?) cocoons with your fists. The funny thing is that once you break open a cocoon your avatar keeps swinging away with his fists, so you end up doing a Rocky impression as you roam the world shadow boxing at all and sundry. This is a more extreme version of another common bug I encountered, in which my toon would sometimes get stuck in a combat pose and roam the world with her blade raised in a threatening manner at everyone she met.

Maintenance

There have been a lots of maintenance periods, so much so that TESO has given early subscribers five extra days of game time as acknowledgement of the disruption. Maintenance on the megaserver used to occur during Tuesday and Friday morning US time, which translated to peak Tuesday and Friday Oceanic time. Furthermore, any additional maintenance (of which there has been many) were scheduled during the early hours of American time, which again, left many Australian, New Zealander and Pacific players with nothing to do in their evenings. You can imagine how this went over on the Oceanic crowd, who have begun dubbing the game “Elder Scrolls Offline” (at least in the Oceanic guilds I am in). To Zenimax's credit, they have moved their maintenance times to Monday and Thursday mornings, which means Oceanic players can now enjoy TESO on Friday nights. So despite the appalling state of the game, the developers are apparently listening. They're just moving at the speed of constipated tortoises.

Gold Sellers

Gold spammers. ZOMG. I don't know how many gold spammers I reported in the first two weeks of release, but it would have almost been close to 100. I don't know if Zenimax was ready for the scale in which gold sellers would infiltrate their game, but they descended on TESO like a pack of vultures, spamming zone chat, creating pseudo guilds and issuing ginvites, sending whispers and writing personal mail to players. It was blitzkrieg assault of unprecedented proportions, at least in my experience. There were packs of bots running around everywhere, with names like “adsdsdfd” and “sdfette” mindlessly farming mobs and materials in all the zones, and especially inside the public dungeons where they would wait for bosses to respawn before descending upon them like ravenous zombies in search of living flesh. Zenimax's countermeasures seem to be working, as the frequency of spam on all levels has noticeably dropped since those initial weeks. The scale of the assault was such that Zenimax stated that they spent almost 80% of their customer service time fighting bots, and they had to resort to arming Gamemasters and sending them into the world to ban bots on the spot. Wildstar developer's should take note, and have their own anti-gold seller measures ready, because if gold spammers hit Wildstar the same way they hit TESO they will be in for a similar experience.

Vampires

Vampires. Another running joke is the phrase “Elder Vampires Online”, because of the popularity and the dominance of vampires in PvP at the moment. Vampire were hit with a nerf bat in patch 1.07, but up to that point there were packs of vampires running around Cyrodiil spamming the Batswarm ability and wiping out groups. The most vicious combo were Dragon Knight vampires who would charge into the middle of enemy groups, spam Dragon Claw to root the group into place, drop their banner, then spam Bat Swarm until everyone died. The current meta employed by “successful” guilds appears to be the use of numerous DK suicide bombers spamming roots and AOE supported by healers behind. AOE is grossly overpowered in TESO, and I support Zenimax's decision to limit the number of targets affected to six (that's plenty enough to keep the current meta viable). When the pinnacle of your PvP gameplay becomes running mindlessly into a crowd and spamming one ability then it's time for a change in mechanics. I have to say that I don't understand the argument used by some people in the Tamriel Foundry which states that spamming AOE equals skill, especially coming from a Rated BG background where single target focus and coordination were the hallmarks of a successful team.

Glitches

My main is a Nightblade, and her passive abilities sometimes don't work for some reason. I can't nail down when and where this occurs, but sometimes I look at my character screen and my crit chance, which is nominally at around 30% due to my passives, drops back to 0% on occasion. I don't know if this is a display issue or whether it actually reflects my passives not working, but who the hell knows, at this point anything is possible. I hear other Nightblades bitching bitterly about this in zone chat in Cyrodiil, so I know I am not alone in this.

Another glitch occurs when I enter and leave Cyrodiil. When in combat and looking at your menus the edges of the screen flash red to warn you that your avatar is in danger. Unfortunately after leaving Cyrodiil the edges of the screen randomly flash red for no reason, regardless of whether or not you are in combat. It is remedied by logging out and logging back in, but it is becoming a bit of a joke how relogging and reloading one's UI has become a necessary element of questing in TESO. Quest not working? Relog. Mobs not dropping loot? Relog. Can't see an NPC? Relog. Passives not working? Relog. Animations getting stuck? Relog. They should add a relog button in the abilities bar, so you can weave it in as part of your rotation while you play the game.

So, I logged in, fell through the world, landed above it, and died. Awesome.

These are by no means the only glitches I have encountered in this game. There is also the falling through the world glitch, where you log in and promptly fall through the world and die (see above). This has only happened to me twice, but comments in zone chat tell me that I'm not alone in experiencing this unique form of avatar death. There is the “stuck on the steps” glitch in Cyrodiil, where horses inexplicably hit an unseen barrier while running up the steps. Move your horse off the steps onto the hill itself and suddenly the wall disappears. I have a shield in my inventory which doesn't know what it looks like (see below) and I also have a weapon with an incomplete description on its tool tip (again, see below).

Not game breaking, not even that much of a big deal really, but if only these were the only problems. Alas, they are just the tip of the iceberg.

There are also some connectivity issues in Cyrodiil where adding party members leads to temporary lag spikes and even disconnects within the whole party or raid. Leaving a raid is also fraught with danger, because you might never be able to rejoin it again (you become stuck in a loading screen). This was the maddening fate of several of our raid members last Saturday when they tried to swap toons during a guild PvP session. These poor bastards ended up having to stay outside the raid in order to play, although they were still able to communicate via Teamspeak. Taken individually these glitches are just a minor annoyance – when taken as a whole it reflects poorly on the state of the game because there are so many of them.

Crashes

Crashes. Especially on the Mac client. Rykester and I both play on Macs and we have the same issue in that we basically cannot play PvP consistently because the Mac client crashes every 10-15 minutes in Cyrodiil. This is a known issue with a thread devoted to it – someone much more clever than I has pinpointed it as a “memory leak” problem, and given us poor Mac users a work around of sorts which requires us to restart the game once our virtual memory starts approaching the “crash” threshold. Luckily for TESO I was more interested in levelling and taking my time in the game, because otherwise this would be game-breaking for me. I am now VR1, and my client still crashes, which means this is now a serious problem for TESO. I started writing a diary of the Wabbajack campaign early in April, and instead of producing a player-driven account of the war in Cyrodiil what Zenimax might get is a piece entitled “The History of Bugs in TESO”, “The Buggiest MMO of All Time” or “How I Didn't PvP in TESO Because I Have a Mac.” My PvP sessions basically consist of me logging into Cyrodiil, setting a timer for 10 minutes, then logging out and logging back in to reset my virtual memory. If I don't do this the game cheerfully reminds me by crashing soon afterwards. This can be ameliorated by not grouping at all, which is just pouring salt into the wound. Go into Cyrodiil by yourself, don't group with anyone, and the crash threshold increases dramatically to about 30 minutes to an hour. Of course you can't see where your team mates are, you don't engage in any kind of meaningful team play, nor do you share in the kills the group scores while they are together. I told you TESO encouraged solo play, didn't I?

FINAL THOUGHTS

My sister unsubbed from TESO in a fit of disgust two weeks ago after a frustrating Sunday play session. We played PvP with our usual MMO foursome, and we started in Cyrodiil with high hopes – a patch had just been implemented, and perhaps the long awaited for Mac fix was in. They were soon dashed when my Mac started doing its crashing routine every 10-15 minutes. This was compounded by my inability to log back into my main character in Cyrodiil (the “stuck in loading screen” issue), but rather than ruin the fun for everyone I told them just to PvP without me while I pottered around on an alt. Once I was able to log back into my main we decided just to do some dungeons, but then we hit the “no experience” and “no loot” bug for my sister (she was level 39 in Blackheart Cove, which is level 40-43). No problem, we thought – she simply reloaded her game, and amazingly, the mobs started dropping loot for her. We went into Blackheart Cove with a 47, a 43, a 39 and a 34, so we were slightly underpowered. We persevered, however, finally getting to the last boss and downing him after several wipes. The straw that broke the camel's back, however, was that neither my sister or her husband were given credit, loot or the achievement for the kill, while Rykester and I were. She logged off and unsubbed that very instant. She has since resumed her subscription, but made it categorically plain that she was only doing it to hang out with our crew.

My regular gaming crew. On the mandolin is my sister, Sally Mander. My Redguard Nightblade is on the drums, Rykester is on the lute, and dancing and singing is Taranakii.

If you haven't bought TESO yet, I would actually recommend it with the following caveat. Buy it in a few month's time, when all these issues have been resolved. This game was not ready for release, and Sunday was the first day I changed from being a “true believer” to a “burned consumer.” There are many things I like about TESO – it's a pity that there are so many jarring issues which ruin the experience for everyone. I was such a big fan of the TESO IP and the promise of their open world PvP that I was quite willing to tolerate literally a litany of bugs, and it took the poor opinion of my sibling to shake me out of this blinkered infatuation with the title. Once I started listing what issues I encountered in this game the flood gates literally opened, and I'm seeing the game for what it is instead of what I was hoping it would be.

72, which is less than the 80 I predicted prior to release.

In the first post of this series I predicted that TESO would score over 80 on the Metacritic scale. As of 17 May 2014 TESO currently hovers at a score of 72, which makes my first prediction well short of the mark. My other predictions still stand however, but my confidence in them has been shaken somewhat given my own experiences. Free-to-play is now a definite possibility, but I'll stand by my prediction that this game will still be sub based by April next year. The one good thing going for TESO is that Zenimax is responding and patching as often as they can. I've been impressed by their responsiveness – they added collision detection based on player feedback in the beta, actual GMs are now in the game patrolling for bots and gold farmers, and they moved maintenance from Friday to Thursday to accommodate disgruntled Oceanic players. Unfortunately, they're like a bunch of oarsmen frantically bailing out a sinking boat with numerous holes in it, and the question becomes whether they'll be able to salvage the ship before the passengers decide its time to cut their losses and swim for other lifeboats. Wildstar is less than two weeks away, and this is a critical time for a significant number of subscribers who might be on the fence about both games.

In further news Zenimax has delayed the release of the console version of the game for six months, moving it from June to sometime in December. This comes as no surprise at all, given the extremely rough state of the game as it stands at this point. Despite my disappointment at the state of the game I am still foolishly optimistic that all these issues will eventually be ironed out, and the game can live up to the potential I saw in it. If my sister unsubs again, however, our foursome will join her. Our team of players has always migrated together from MMO to MMO, and if one is out, we are all out. Zenimax doesn't have to impress me, because I'm an idiotic sucker who just likes the idea of playing a PvP MMO in the Elder Scrolls universe. TESO has to impress the more rational people out there who like getting what they paid for, and who have become accustomed to the level of polish Blizzard has displayed as a standard in all of their games. A number of people have told me that WoW was equally buggy at launch, but since I wasn't around for that, I can only compare my experiences with the launches of Warhammer Online, Rift, SWTOR and The Secret World, for which I was present. I can say categorically that while these other titles had their own issues at launch, none have had as many and as game-breakingly damaging as TESO has had. I still can't play PvP consistently for fuck's sake, which is the main reason why I bought the game. Yet, I'm still here, I'm still foolishly hoping, and who knows, maybe my faith will be vindicated further down the track. Hopefully there will still be players around when that happens.