ZeniMax Online Studio’s Gameplay Lead Rob Garrett shares his team’s philosophies and vision for both class identity and combat in The Elder Scrolls Online.
Class identity has long been an important topic, especially in recent months on the ESO forums, in social channels, and on the dev team. This loaded term can mean different things to different people, and we all can agree it’s an important element in creating a satisfying combat experience. In an effort to improve how we communicate our vision for combat in ESO going forward, we thought this would be a good topic to dive into and share our perspective.
When our team uses the term "class identity," we're referring to what makes the experience of playing a class feel unique from other classes, regardless of what role the character may be fulfilling. We break down that experience into two primary components: power fantasy and play patterns.
Power fantasy refers to the fictional justification of your character's power and how it’s expressed through the look and feel of abilities. Necromancers draw their strength from death magic as they manipulate souls, flesh, and bone. Templars call upon the power of light and the burning sun. Every class should have a clearly defined source of power, and class abilities should reinforce that fantasy through their descriptions, animations, visual effects, and audio. When you see a player using class abilities, you should have little doubt which class they are playing, and it should look awesome!
The Dragonknight brings flame and fury
This power fantasy, however, should not dictate or constrain your character's role in battle. One of our mantras for ESO is "play the way you want," and in this case, it means any class can fulfill any role (tank, dps, support/healer). To better achieve this ideal while also maintaining the unique fantasy flavor of each class, all class kits need to include the basic tools required to fulfill each role. To be clear, our goal is for every class to be viable, not necessarily optimal, in any role without heavily relying on non-class skill lines. Currently a number of class kits don't succeed in this goal, particularly when it comes to Stamina choices and Healer builds, and those cases are prime candidates to receive additional attention and more significant changes in future updates.
The second component of class identity focuses on play patterns, which are the specific mechanics and behaviors you have to learn, engage with, and master to achieve objectives in battle. While all healers might have an objective of "prevent ally health from reaching zero," you can achieve this through several effect behaviors: direct heals, heal over time, damage shields, and damage reduction, to name a few. Each of these effect behaviors exhibit benefits and limitations that, when combined with a triggering method, make them more or less effective in various contexts. Direct heals, for example, can quickly replenish an ally who is low on health, but you have to wait until the ally has taken damage to use it and risk a loss of cost efficiency if you overheal. You can apply this same model of thought to damage and tanking abilities.
In ESO, we want you to play your way
The triggering method itself is the other major factor of play patterns since it defines the inputs and conditions you must satisfy to trigger the effect behavior. Most abilities include conditions related to range, targeting, resource type, and resource cost. Some abilities, such as the Nightblade’s Grim Focus and the Sorcerer’s Crystal Fragments, include additional custom requirements. Custom requirements can be very effective for creating a unique feel for an ability, but can also easily wander into territory where they feel too gimmicky, unnecessarily complex compared to abilities with similar effect behaviors, or misaligned with the power fantasy of the character. Successful ability design demands a healthy relationship between the triggering method and effect behavior. The new design for Bound Armaments in Update 24 represents one of our recent attempts to achieve this within the Sorcerer’s kit for Stamina builds.
That combination of triggering method and effect behavior establishes the mechanical feel of an ability, and when you string together several abilities in conjunction with core mechanics (movement, attack, block, etc.), a play pattern emerges. These play patterns are critical to reinforcing class identity by differentiating the experience along three axis: playing the same role with different classes, playing different roles with the same class, and engaging in PvE vs. PvP activities. To temper expectations, it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever reach a point where every class, in every role, feels equally unique in both PvE and PvP. But it’s an ideal we can continue to strive toward as we revisit class kits and skill lines.
Now you may be asking yourself how non-class skill lines fit into this theoretical world of strong class identities. After all, if class abilities are the embodiment of power fantasy and class kits include all the basic tools required to fulfill a role, why would you bother with using abilities outside those kits? The team is still exploring this problem space, but our current thinking is that non-class lines should fulfill two primary purposes. First, they should allow you to “fill gaps” in your build when your class kit doesn’t provide the exact behaviors you need or are comfortable with. Second, they should open up the possibility space of your character’s build, both in terms of power fantasy and play patterns, by mixing and matching from the large pool of available abilities.
Class kits should provide critical tools for every role
What we don’t want is to create scenarios where, to be effective, you feel obligated to fill a majority of your hotbar slots with non-class abilities. Forfeiting your class identity should be an option, but not a requirement to engage in PvE or PvP content. We acknowledge this is not the current reality for many classes and builds, and it’s one of the major areas for improvement we intend to tackle.
The team’s immediate focus on this front is to look at some of the more significant outlier cases where classes are lacking unique play patterns and over-rely on abilities outside their kit. The aforementioned Bound Armaments change, as well as the update to the Warden’s Growing Swarm morph, are a couple recent examples of this effort. We consider these changes to be stop-gap measures while the team evaluates more holistic improvements for each class in the future. We’re not yet ready to share details on those long-term efforts, but the team is excited to push toward a future where class identities are unique, coherent, and satisfying for all players in all roles.
Hopefully we’ve shed light on how we use the term “class identity” internally. In summary, we define success as delivering class kits that combine cohesive, satisfying power fantasies with unique and effective play patterns. The end result should be the ability to fill any role with any class while retaining the look and feel of that class. You can expect future updates to include changes with this goal in mind. As always, your feedback is welcome and we appreciate your continued support.