Over the last ten days or so, I've now had good opportunity to try the group play in Elder Scrolls Online. Unsurprisingly, finding a guild in ESO proved much more difficult than finding a corp in EVE -- the structures in place right now are completely primitive. That, I'm sure, is going to improve over time. And that leaves the group game play itself.
Which is horrible. It's wretched. It's awful. It justifies every complaint about this aspect of the game that's been leveled at Zenimax Online.
I'm certainly familiar with those complaints and up to this point, I've been of the opinion that many of them have been unfairly leveled. And for much of the game, I believe that is still true. For instance, it's been a common accusation that Zenimax doesn't "get" Elder Scrolls games. And for the most part, I've found that untrue (except for housing, which I've already mentioned, and the criminal aspects of ES games, which I'm quite confident is being saved for a future expansion). I've said that the more that you play ESO as a world ready for exploration, the happier you'll be... and that's still true.
But exploration by its nature is something that is done on one's own, or perhaps with one companion.
Group play, on the other hand, is aimed at a different target entirely. I've been reluctant to link it, but the more I mess with ESO's group play, the more I think that the Angry Joe review of ESO might be the most accurate one around:
He briefly makes the complaint that Zenimax doesn't get Elder Scrolls games, but makes it only very briefly. The rest of his complaints are about group play and immersion... and I have to say that I think he's pretty much nailed it. If you have 38 minutes to give to something today, go ahead and give it a watch. It is rather funny in places.
For the tl;dr (tl;dw?) crowd, though, I'll summarize my views of ESO group play into two easy statements:
- cooperative play isn't; and,
- group play doesn't reward groups.
The core of group play in an MMO is the ability to cooperate toward a common goal. While ESO generally succeeds at this in the formal and informal group dungeons(1), when players actually group up to take on ESO's general content, it fails utterly. In particular, if you have completed one of ESO's quests, you cannot go back and redo it, nor can you help anyone else through it. Only if all players in a group have not started a quest can they cooperatively complete it.
This is something that Guild Wars 2 gets amazingly right and ESO gets amazingly wrong. In the former game, a highly-leveled player can come back to starting areas and help a friend level through those areas. GW2 even rewards you for doing so by occasionally giving you level-appropriate rewards for your assistance. Not only does ESO not do this, but you cannot assist at all if you've completed the earlier quests. There is therefore not only no motivation to help friends just starting out, you have no ability to do it even if you wanted to do so without rewards.
This. Is. Dumb.
Not only is it dumb, it's actively counter-productive. How exactly am I as a ESO fan supposed to encourage my friends to start playing ESO? My only option is to start a new character at the same time they start theirs and only play that character when my friend is on-line and available to do so. While this is a viable alternative for room-mates and couples, it's not very workable outside that scenario. At best if you enter an earlier level quest with a lower-level player, you will not see them but will instead see an arrow representing their location in their instance of the quest. At worst, you won't be allowed to follow them at all. In neither case can you help them.
So what happens if you actually join a group and complete those quests as a group? Does it get any better?
No, not really. The group play does not reward groups. While the treasures for defeating enemies are shared and available to all players in a group, these rewards are quite paltry. Often, the actual rewards associated with ES quests are found in chests, "crafting sacks", and resource locations. And these items are first come, first served.
Once again (say it with me now): This. Is. Dumb.
It creates an environment where group cooperation is not rewarded and is actively discouraged! If you and I are in a dungeon fighting a mini-boss, just beyond which is the dungeon's only treasure chest, you and I are both motivated to position ourselves very close to the chest so that the instant the mini-boss falls, we are instantly competing for that chest. This creates an absolutely crazy dynamic where you come to resent players that you're playing the game with! I had a somewhat similar experience with Warframe. In ESO, this experience is exacerbated and magnified.
More than this, though, I half-expected an Elder Scrolls game to further encourage group play by increasing the challenge of monsters faced when playing as a group. You see a bit of this in the (badly-balanced) solo quests on the main quest line. Several of them assign you a partner and then scale the difficulty of the encounters to reflect the fact that you have a partner.(2) ESO's group play does not do this except in the previously mentioned formal and informal group dungeons, which are balanced for groups, not for solo players.
Whew! This post is going on for longer than I intended. Let's wrap up.
Anyway, in the meantime this means that Elder Scrolls Online is best played in one of two formats: either solo, or in the PvP areas. I haven't mentioned the PvP areas at all yet and I'm finding them (with one glaring exception which I'll get to in a future post) to be quite fun and engaging. But the rest of ESO play is best enjoyed on your own, avoiding tormenting yourself with the awful group play. This is highly ironic for a game that touts itself as "Elder Scrolls! But with your friends!" But that's where things stand right now.
As I said at the beginning, color me highly disappointed.
(1) ESO has both formal and informal group dungeons. Formal ones are marked as such on the map and there is one per zone. But there are also between one and three informal group dungeons per zone where it is quite advantageous to bring a 4-person group, but not technically required to do so.
(2) In the main quest line, your partner is useless and does not engage. This is obviously a major bug and presumably will one day be fixed. In the meantime, this makes the main quest line quests more difficult than was likely intended.