Plotting the Future of ESO’s Endgame

Note: this article was originally posted on Tamriel Foundry.

The Elder Scrolls Online community has been incensed with conversation focusing on the game’s current endgame, its shortcomings, and what the future will hold. Sparking new life into debates over the two pillars of the current endgame design – the Champion System, which is widely criticized for its rampant power creep, and Veteran Ranks, the unpopular post-level cap levels which were already promised to be in the process of being removed from the game – was the news that before it gets better, things are going to get worse, as the VR cap will be raising once again to VR16 in Update 7.

The news has prompted visceral responses from several prominent members of the Elder Scrolls Online community, ranging from Elder Scrolls Off the Record’s online petition that no further Veteran Ranks be added to the game to Deltia’s Gaming’s far more sweeping endgame commentary touching on both the addition of more Veteran Ranks and Champion System power creep via a blog post and accompanying forum thread which has gathered quite a bit of activity in support of the popular streamer’s position.

ZOS Community Manager Jessica Folsom has responded to the thread noting that the team at ZeniMax is currently working on ways to improve on the Champion System’s current iteration.

We’re currently looking into ways we can help those new to the Champion System catch up a bit, and also decrease the gap between those who are just starting out and those who have accumulated a ton of points. Once we have a plan scoped out a bit more, we will be sharing it and looking to get everyone’s thoughts.

Many people from all corners of the game’s community have chimed in with their opinions on how exactly the game’s current endgame could be adjusted to a healthier state, and with the endgame revamp that began with the Champion System’s original introduction still only partially complete, those conversations have a real possibility of influencing the endgame we’ll eventually inhabit together. There’s no better time to make your voice heard, so here’s my personal opinion on how the Elder Scrolls Online‘s endgame evolution could continue to make this game the best it could possibly be.

The Champion System

As many predicted before its deployment to the live servers, given a few months to fester, the Champion System has introduced an astounding amount of power creep as players with high Champion Points unlock more and more powerful passives. While stacking points into the individual passives has provided huge gains to individual statistics and given rise to phenomena like the infinite dodge roll builds PvPers so love and cherish, the ability to unlock more and more capstone abilities by fully progressing through multiple constellations has proven to be a huge factor in the ever growing gap between the haves and have nots of the Elder Scrolls Online, and when combined, they present a powerful barrier to entry for any prospective player.

Though the team at ZeniMax has implemented some diminishing returns to limit rewards from point allocations within the Champion System, they frequently aren’t enough to curb the significant advantages gained from maxing out a perk. For example, take the extremely powerful Mighty (the Ritual) perk: at 50 points, this talent provides a 15.4% increase to physical damage, only slightly dropping in marginal point value by the time it maxes out at 100 points for a 25% increase.

Further, as players continue to farm Champion Points, they will periodically unlock powerful capstone abilities like Unchained and Tactician. At this point, their power will spike rapidly above players who haven’t yet reached the 120 Champion Point mark in as many constellations (remember that because point gains alternate between the three types of constellations, players will effectively be unlocking three capstone abilities at once between 358 and 360 total Champion Points).

Beyond the obvious balance concerns raised by the Champion System so far, a greater concern may be the deterrent it currently creates for incoming players. While a player who has just recently joined the game should absolutely be less powerful than a veteran player, it should not be impossible to catch up, which is precisely the situation that the Champion System’s distant theoretical 3,600 Champion Point cap presents. Although EVE Online has many barriers to new players joining its ranks, one of the greatest deterrents new players list to trying out or sticking with the game is the feeling that they could never catch up to a player who’s been training their character for years – and this is in a game where progression is largely horizontal. In The Elder Scrolls Online, the Champion System’s straight vertical progression will create a far larger barrier if left on its current trajectory.

As it stands, a Daedric Titan is far less frightening than a player with a few hundred CP more than you.

As it stands, a Daedric Titan is far less frightening than a player with a few hundred CP more than you.

While I find the Champion System indescribably more appealing than a more traditional MMORPG’s gear treadmill, there are lessons to be learned from the successful endgame models of the past.

One key component of the treadmill model of endgame in a traditional MMORPG is that, much like its namesake, players on it never really go anywhere; while in those games every gear upgrade feels like a step forward, the introduction of continually higher quality starter tier pieces in new content patches (colloquially known as ‘welfare epics’) has proven incredibly effective at making sure that while a fresh-to-endgame player won’t be the best, they’ll never feel that they’re far behind. Further, the delayed introduction of new tiers of progression has served to keep all players at a fairly equal playing field, where everyone is given plenty of time to reach their optimum setup before another tier (and new, better baseline starter gear) is introduced. Eventually, the board is wiped clean with a level cap raise – but this is only necessary to combat the growing disparity in a freshly level capped character’s questing gear and the easily accessible starter tier, as these have grown further and further apart as the starter tier has been improved with each patch.

The problem with the Champion System as The Elder Scrolls Online‘s endgame model is that it makes absolutely no effort whatsoever to provide accessibility to either new or returning players – those who fall behind stay behind, and that’s not a healthy place for the game to be in. Fortunately, there is a way to adapt the key components of the treadmill model to fit the Champion System, providing accessibility and an even playing field without ruining the awesome progression and customization that it introduces.

The solution comes in two parts:

  • Cap the maximum attainable Champion Points at any given time to a certain number shared by every player. This cap will be raised periodically (effectively creating seasons), either on a monthly schedule or as part of content patches.
  • Introduce dynamically scaling experience requirements on a logarithmic curve that will automatically adjust to fit new Champion Point cap increases.

The Champion Point cap will function similarly to tiers of gear in past MMORPGs, creating a clear, attainable level of maximum progression that will provide new players a target beyond a virtually endless race in which they start out miles behind, give every capped player the peace of mind that they are standing on an even playing field, and drastically increase ZeniMax’s ability to balance the power creep currently running amok by managing its flow as an input faucet.

Veteran Rank Removal and the Gear Economy

Varying collectible sets are a form of horizontal gear progression already in game.

Varying collectible sets are a form of horizontal gear progression already in game.

When you get down to it, whether or not ZeniMax increases the Veteran Rank cap to VR16 in the next patch does little to affect the ultimate evolution of The Elder Scrolls Online‘s endgame, so long as the decision does not prove the harbinger of Veteran Ranks being retained as a permanent endgame fixture. Given that we have no reason to believe that it will, I will continue under the assumption that Veteran Ranks are being removed – as they absolutely should be.

The Veteran Rank system exists essentially as ESO‘s equivalent to progression tiers, providing entry to higher item-level gear without requiring that you complete a specific raid or other progression event to gain access. Critically, the Veteran Rank system does not currently allow for gear resets via level cap raises, so the gap between a fresh endgame player and a veteran continues to grow further and further. Worse yet, the increases in gear attributes are scaling multiplicatively with the bonuses provided through the Champion System, making the gap even larger and compounding the problem of Champion System power creep.

An endgame based around vertical gear progression makes sense in a traditional MMORPG, but as The Elder Scrolls Online has moved so much verticality to its Champion System, retaining a vertical gear grind only serves to further push power creep into increasingly unmanageable levels. With that in mind, The Elder Scrolls Online should move to a flat gear system similar to Guild Wars 2‘s – only better.

With vertical progression already handled by the Champion System, all current endgame gear can effectively be scaled down to level 50, where the lower stat pool will help mitigate future power creep as the Champion Point cap is raised. So how do we keep gear interesting? With the continual introduction of new gear traits and set bonuses, as the team at ZeniMax has already been doing throughout the game’s life.

It’s extremely important that gear retains value beyond being a stat sick, and that new gear is continually introduced that players are excited to pursue. Maybe a new crafting trait will be found in Orsinium, or maybe the next trial will introduce compelling new set bonuses you can’t obtain anywhere else. These types of additions will be more effective at keeping gear focused players happy than Guild Wars 2‘s aesthetics based “fashion meta” without introducing unnecessary power creep, as well as providing endgame players with a tangible progression objective that extends beyond hitting the Champion Point cap every time it is raised.

Going Forward

The Elder Scrolls Online has seen tremendous improvement since its launch in April of 2014, but the team at ZeniMax still have a few more kinks to iron out before the endgame is in a truly healthy state. The good news is we’re close – closer than we’ve ever been before -, and with the right set of decisions to reign in runaway power creep and preserve accessibility for new players, the game may yet hit the sweet spot of MMORPG endgame perfection.

 

Do you agree with my endgame concept for ESO, or do you have a different idea altogether? Let us know in the comments below!

 

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