Lessons Learned from ESO

When I decided to patch up ESO on new year's eve for a laugh, I didn't expect that to turn into six months of subscription time for Zenimax, but that's what happened. That said, I did just allow my subscription to run out again, as my play time decreased significantly over the past two months and I'd really rather focus on other games as my "secondaries" over the summer. (Hellooo, WoW Classic!)

While I'm very much someone who focuses on a single game and is happy to call it home, I do think that it's good to dip your toes into the wider MMO waters at least every now and then, as it can expand your horizons in terms of what's possible but also helps to crystallise just what it is that you love about your "home" MMO.

Here are the main things I learned while playing ESO:

I really like an "explorable" world

Until my husband decided to get in on the game too and "forced" me to make some actual progress with my questing, I was extremely slow to get anything done in ESO as I found it very hard to focus on any given task. I would leave town to get back to where I last stopped questing and immediately be distracted by a gathering node, a fishing pool or a random chest, and before you knew it I had wandered off into a completely different direction. And I loved it!

Some of my favourite ESO memories simply have me thinking back to those days of wandering around aimlessly and marvelling at the beautiful trees in Auridon. Without wanting to change the game into something it isn't, this does make me wish that SWTOR rewarded random exploration like that a bit more too.

Combat matters more to me than I expected

I love old-fashioned hotbar combat and am not a fan of action combat at all, but I don't completely hate the latter, as I've spent years playing Neverwinter and having a pretty good time. However, until ESO I'd never really thought about why that is, or what makes the difference between tolerable and tedious for me when it comes to playing with a limited action set.

I'm still not entirely sure to be honest, but I do know that while I don't completely hate ESO's combat either, I noticed that it tended to get tiresome pretty quickly for me. The best way I could think of describing it is that it feels like all the abilities were conceived to be part of a classic hotbar system and were then simply mashed into an action combat framework without much adjustment.

What I mean by that is that in Neverwinter, as an example of action combat that I like, all the abilities on my limited action bar feel very impactful, usually serve very different purposes, and most of them have cooldowns. It feels good to execute them in the right order, watch the flashy animations, and top things off with a powerful ultimate.

In ESO, a lot of abilities actually feel pretty samey, and except for your ultimate nothing has a cooldown, with your only constraint being resources. In a game with classic hotbar combat, I'd be quite happy to have several abilities that do similar things, because I can have them all on my bar and choose the one that is best for any given situation, plus there are often cooldowns to juggle. In ESO you just find one thing that does a lot of damage and then spam it.

I tried to get a bit of variation in my rotation by going for several damage over time abilities, but the default UI makes it a pain to track them, and ever since the Elsweyr patch the game has stopped showing them to me completely (and yes, before anyone asks, the respective UI option is turned on - buffs and debuffs just flash up for half a second when I cast them and then disappear). It's all just not very fun. And it's surprising how off-putting that can be when seeing the next bit of the story involves slogging your way through a bunch of mobs to the other end of a cave for example.

Just give me classes, I hate skill systems

Again, this is something I'd long felt on a gut level. I never saw the appeal in Rift's much praised soul system for example. But playing ESO really drove the point home. People say that the freedom of picking and choosing your own skills is fun, but to me it's like someone handing me a bunch of cardboard and some markers to give me the "freedom" to build my own board game. That is not the fun part, and since I'm not an expert on game design, the result is unlikely to be particularly balanced or enjoyable to play.

That said, I also don't like looking up guides on how to build my character to be viable, so it's simply a lose-lose proposition from my point of view. I originally hoped that it wasn't going to be an issue in levelling/easier content, but you do start to notice a bad build dragging you down after a while when you watch the speed with which other people around you kill things.

Finally, while ESO technically has classes, they are not very distinct as the vast majority of skills are cross-class, most notably all the weapon skills. So you can be a Sorcerer wielding a staff, or a Templar wielding a staff, or a Warden wielding a staff... you get the idea. Apart from a few signature abilities such as certain pet summons, I generally can't even tell what class the characters around me are because they all appear so samey.

Character identity is also really important to me

I now have two level 50 characters in ESO, a Templar and a Sorcerer. Even though I intentionally made different choices while levelling them, the problem described above has made it difficult for me to feel like they have distinct identities, and in fact I largely lost the enthusiasm to create a third character because it feels pointless making more alts if the experience isn't going to lead to anything that I'm not already getting from my first two characters.

This was made worse by the questing. I've mentioned before that ESO's questing is very much plot-, not character-driven, which means there is some interesting stuff going on, but you're just a blank slate being steered around by more powerful personalities and doing what you're told to advance the plot. (Kind of similar to the way KotFE & KotET feel at times actually...) Moving from one quest giver to the next, you'll be recognised as a hero one moment and get mistaken for a servant the next, depending on what's convenient for the story being told.

Unfortunately that even extends to the factions. I originally thought that the game would surely foster a lot of faction pride, what with the three-way PvP zone being a big focus, but if that's the case then it's clearly limited to that game mode.

The PvE content actually starts out really strong, with each faction having its own dedicated levelling path that introduces you to its different cultures, which is very interesting and did help me form an attachment to my faction at the beginning... but then you're given a quest to do the story of the other two factions too, because why let good content go to waste reasons, and the DLC content doesn't give a damn about any previous loyalties, happily sending you to slaughter soldiers of your own faction without as much as acknowledging that this might not be something a character of your background might want to do.

I actually found that worse than if there had never been any concern for factions at all. If I'm just some random adventurer, who cares, I can be a sellsword for hire by anyone. But to build me up as the Saviour of the Dominion for example, just to then send me off to kill soldiers of that same Dominion with abandon raised my hackles.

Anyway, all that might sound very critical of ESO, and it does explain how the game fell short of my expectations in several ways. However, I wouldn't have paid for a subscription for six months if I hadn't had any fun, and I'm still planning to go back to see more of the story eventually.

The whole experience really drove home for me though that I'm a very picky customer when it comes to MMORPGs, to the point that even a well-made game that does a lot of things right can fail to be "sticky" for me if it doesn't manage to hit certain notes that are important to me on a personal level.


  1. I still wonder why you haven't given Guild Wars 2 a try, it has explorable world, much better combat and more distinct classes.

    1. One word: aesthetics. I really don't like Guild Wars 2's art style when it comes to character models, gear etc. I also strongly disagreed with some of their core design decisions at launch (everyone is dps, no quests etc.) though I guess they've walked back on some of those since then.

  2. The reason why they opened up the other factions' questlines is --I believe-- part of the One Tamriel update. If you had just the one faction's worth of questing to work through, it's a very short questing experience. I took longer to level my first SWTOR toon (back in the "old days" before SWTOR went F2P) than to go through one faction's worth of questing in ESO. I think they had to do something fast, and opening up all the quests to a single toon meant that you suddenly got triple the content without having to create new toons.

    1. Yeah, I totally get that it's practical to recycle content like that. From a lore/immersion point of view it sucks though.

  3. Unholy bananas, Shintar. I've read in quick succession both this post and then the older one from 2014, the very first inference was: if I were to approach anything (gaming in particular, life in general) with a mindset similar to yours, I'd go berserk fairly soon. Through rationalization I develop a limited comprehension of the propensity to rules, without being able to actually appropriate it whatsoever. You prefer a well-defined system of rules, laws, judgements of value, patterns, traditions. It constitutes a stable and ordered universe to you; whereas to me it's tedious, exhausting, joyless. If we were to employ the tongue-in-cheek metric of the D&D alignment system, I'd certainly lean toward being chaotic thus we'd be rendered immiscible like oil and water. :P

    1. Okaaay... but what does that have to do with SWTOR or ESO? :)

    2. The comment above wasn't directed at SWTOR or ESO, I play neither of them. It was directed at you instead, illustrating my surprise at the way you approach gaming. There's a very conspicuous rhythm of ping-pong to it, from what I understand based on your posts: "I like A but I dislike B; I like C but I dislike D; I like E but I dislike F." It seems overly organized and methodical (to the point of mental/emotional rigidity) to me, as I'm used to a much more free-form approach. Perhaps this will surprise you in turn, gaming is to me (like many other things in life) an exercise in ambivalence. I can effortlessly associate any given feature of any given game to both an advantage and disadvantage simultaneously; more often than not, to me it's "normal" to both like and dislike at once a given aspect of a given game.

      At times, I long for the beautiful simplicity of the way judgmental types conduct themselves. At times, I do wish I'd be able to integrate into their universe. But growing older I've realized the irrevocable nature of the immiscibility I've evoked earlier on. I feel the loving embrace of a boa constrictor within your stable and ordered universe, whereas mine is perceived as chaotic and incongruent to you.

      Hehe, a chatty Fancypants like you may even concoct a blogpost on this very topic! A topic of divisiveness in gaming, without addressing the usual culprits such as gender, and resorting to the analogy of the "lawful versus chaotic" schism in the D&D of yore. :)

    3. I don't exactly disagree with you - I always saw myself as trying to be lawful good on the classic D&D alignment chart - I just don't see what exactly about this set you off on this philosophical tangent.

      I'm not prescribing how anyone, even I, should feel, just trying to spot and describe patterns that I see in order to understand myself better. Dabbling in the science of my own gaming so to speak.

      They might turn out to be wrong (we don't always know what we want after all) or change over time. I don't see that as any more restrictive than saying that the sky looks very blue today. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  4. SWTOR and ESO are basically my secondary MMO's at the moment, behind Elite Dangerous (only sort of an MMO!).
    I agree a lot with your sentiments above but find I'm actually playing far more ESO than SWTOR recently. I didnt even know there were guild levels in Swtor until I saw your other recent post!
    ESO's combat has all the flaws you mentioned but I actually prefer it to Swtor though that may not have been the case a couple of years ago.

    1. The two games seem to appeal to similar audiences for sure, as I know quite a few people who play or have played both. And I do think that ESO is a good MMO, even if this post came across as quite critical.


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