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Reichmar's Rant: Synergy, CC and the Fear of Ultimates
by Reichmar12, Member — Category: Editorials

In the weeks and months that we, the fans, have been waiting for The Elder Scrolls Online, one of the key features that gameplay hawks like myself have been anxious over is the push for synergy abilities to be actually … useful. Now, to be fair, synergy abilities aren’t revolutionary – Guild Wars 2, for example, has a combo mechanic that accomplishes [roughly] the same thing. But where Zenimax Online Studios, and Lead Gameplay designer Nick Konkle, differ is a desire for this mechanic to play a central role in both PvE and PvP combat -- an emotion that they conveyed in a recent Game Informer Interview. Another primary item in TESO combat is that of ultimate abilities – a mega power that you can fire off after building up a resource in combat. With the potential for these abilities to be really fun, but also really gamebreaking, Mr. Konkle made a point to defend their implementation and allay concerns over their use. Finally, the team made an effort to address crowd control with a little more specificity. In this rant, I dive into TESO combat and discuss the role of synergy abilities in combat scenarios, I look at ultimate abilities and what we know so far, and I revisit a favorite issue of mine: crowd control.

At a very basic level, synergy abilities allow a player to affect an ability used by another player. The clear intent behind this mechanic is to provide in impetus for closer cooperation between players besides “burn that guy down”. To give a recent example, in Guild Wars 2, if an archer shot an arrow at an enemy, and if that arrow passed through fire laid down by an ally, the arrow would inflict fire damage on its intended target. The same basic principle impacted other abilities and other classes from ranged to melee, and across the magic spectrum. It provided a neat little mechanic that added extra flavor and a little bit more “oompff” to abilities.

However compared to what we’re being promised in The Elder Scrolls Online, that mechanic appears lackluster in comparison. In a recent Game Informer video interview, Lead Gameplay Designer Nick Konkle started the segment talking about synergy, using a trap laid by a rogue character as an example. Now, in itself, laying down a trap is a very, very old concept. But where Mr. Konkle expanded the tradition was indicating that those traps can be influenced, or enhanced, by allies. Mages can plant a rune that silences enemies caught in the trap and warriors can drop caltrops (if you don’t know what those are, imagine being barefoot and stepping on the most painful Lego pieces you can think of).

This interactivity is not only much more in depth than what the MMO playerbase is accustomed to for the most part, but it points to a larger aspect of their over gameplay design. Using the traps as an example, Mr. Konkle points to the concept of ‘area denial’ – the ability to control the battlefield and fight battles where you want, and on your terms. Counters play a large role here. While synergy abilities can be devastating, they can also be mitigated with buffs and healing abilities – you might not want to walk through that firestorm now, but you’ll feel much better about it when a healer places an AoE heal over the same area, for example. In this way, large scale combat in ESO almost centers around the deployment of AoE abilities, synergies and their counters. Creature Combat Designer Maria Aliprando claimed that battles, at least in what they’ve been able to observe, tend to morph and progress around this aspect of gameplay.


This gameplay mechanic isn’t relegated to the world of RvR. PvE encounters, and the AI in general, are designed to make use of synergies and the tactics around their use creating a more ‘organic’ (their favorite word besides tactical) experience. Dungeons and raids are intended to be group vs group and not group vs mob. It appears that this is a constant and intentional attempt to bridge the gap between what players experience in RvR combat, and what raiders will experience in AI-driven content. In my humble opinion, this is one of the most positive and forward thinking goals in terms of game design. Players are pushed into tactical roles all the time – they’re forced to think on their feet, to use their spellbook wisely. As a theorycrafter, a hardcore raider and PvPer, and a fan of game design, there is nothing that I dislike more than players behaving like zombies – standing still and spamming abilities without thought. Anything that turns on the lights upstairs is gold in my book.

Another big component of TESO’s combat design philosophy is the use of ultimate abilities. Now, I’m going to be honest, I have concerns about this. These kinds of powers make sense and are fun in smaller group oriented games like LoL, but when you try to apply them in a setting including hundreds of players, things can get nasty. Game Informer’s Adam Biessener echoed my concerns when he bluntly asked, “How do you keep that from being unfair in PvP when you get ‘Ultted’ on by three guys, right? Is it your fault, just don’t get ‘Ultted’ on?” Logically, we all need to recognize that if you’re getting targeted by four mages and they all hit you with a powerful spell, you’re gonna’ have a bad time. There isn’t much you can do. But distributing IWIN buttons is something that should be done carefully.

My concern was addressed when Mr. Konkle flat-out stated that there are no ultimate abilities that simply do damage-on-activation. Their logic is that such an ability would simply add a layer to a rotation, and rotations are something they’re against. Ultimate abilities are, instead, duration oriented. They allow you to do something over X period of time, whether that be setting an area on fire, or summoning an Atronach, to use their examples. Because of these cases, I am led to believe that ultimate abilities are quite avoidable and able to be countered with abilities of your own. All of these facts make me feel more comfortable that ultimates aren’t instant IWIN buttons. That makes me happy.


One other thing that I found interesting was the discussion on crowd control and diminishing returns in the interview that I’ve been citing. Now, I’ve talked about CC before in my very first rant. I personally love the mechanic, and love it when it’s a part of greater strategy. One thing I don’t love is when you can be rendered useless in a fight through chain CC. We’ve known for quite some time that CC-breaking abilities are a big part of combat – using your stamina resource, you’re able to break out of a stun or other crowd control effect. In itself, that doesn’t reduce the risk of chain CC as you can still be hit again and again once you break free. Therefore, what I really enjoyed hearing was their intent on a 3-second immunity timer upon breaking a CC. While that doesn’t eliminate the risk of getting repeatedly controlled, it gives you a good window to be able to counter and strike, or escape and evade. It also plays into their desire to remove ‘chance’ from combat – citing examples of passive avoidance, or a hidden diminishing returns timer.

Ultimately, without being able to see the implementation of these mechanics, I can’t make a definite argument as to their successes or failure. However on the surface, and based on what we know, I’m pretty happy with what I see. I’m not going to be naïve though: I’m still pretty concerned about how ultimates can drive a battle. I’m envisioning scenarios where everyone holds their ultimates and dumps them at the same time, which forces those on the receiving end to counter with their own, leading to a situation where a ton of cool sparks fly, but nothing ends up happening because they’re dumped almost simultaneously. Essentially, I’m concerned about them being a layer of combat that devolves into redundancy. I’m also still concerned about synergies and their balance, but I trust that ZoS understands the risks. I’m not losing sleep over their CC decisions though. Those are great.

But what I really came away with was a rekindled confidence in their design philosophy over tactics. I really believe that they’re trying to turn players into players and not into button-spamming zombies and that, my nerdy friends, is a beautiful thing.


What do you think about the Synergy abilities in TESO? What's your opinion on Ultimates? Do you agree with their decision to have a 3 second immunity after every CC break instead of diminishing returns?



The opinions in this article are those of Reichmar and do not reflect the views of TESOF.com, Zenimax Online Studios or any of its subsidiaries.
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Comments on Reichmar's Rant: Synergy, CC and the Fear of Ultimates
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Ebonheart Pact (Dunmer)
I can see where you're coming from, here. Zenimax is certainly dancing around a fire with their combat design decisions. I, personally, like what they're saying, but they're clearly risking a lot with these decisions. Not that I have much experience with team play in combat-oriented MMOs, though. I'm basically hanging on for dear life and hoping for the best at this point.
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Absolutely love the article, and I have similar views to which you have outlined. The CC in my opinion is good I always hated getting stunned and stunned and stunned ..... Yeah you get my drift, so yeh this to me sounds great, but im worried it may lead to, with other aspects of the combat, repetitiveness. Assume we have like a 3 second stun. Stun, powerful attack, attack, defensive spell/skill/ultimate, unstun, avoid stun for 3 secs and repeat. I just hope that, this 3 seconds is enough and due to management of magicka and stamina that this repetitiveness won't happen. Also this is only likely to happen for 1v1 as a 2nd player would just render that idea null.

My view on synergys is a positive one however, I'm looking forward to seeing how these will affect combat and the different combos they have, although I feel we will end up seeing really common ones happening in every combat. I also hope that the AOE is a smaller size than than entrances into keeps or similar structures, otherwise the attackers will have to go through synergy after synergy and it could get quite tiresome. Although I say that, I have heard Nick state there will be numerous destructible parts of structures to prevent bottle necks and even scaling for another route in.

All in all I'm holding high hopes for these aspects and the combat system. Really looking forward to it.
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AoC worked via immunities, but it was an immunity based on specific CCs. Say if you got knocked back, you couldn't get knocked back again for x seconds, but you COULD get stunned, and then you get a stun immunity for x seconds, but with both KB and stun immunity you were still able to be rooted, etc etc etc.

It worked out simply because most classes typically only for 2 types of CC, so once they blow both they can't somehow pull out a third to stun you AGAIN, and it turned into a case of using these CCs at the right moment.
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Reichmar12
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I agree with Zenimax 100% and something new in the franchise is great for me and what there intensions are for this.
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in terms of CC, they should just copy the Warhammer online system and rework / update it. make 2 different CC types (eg: knockback, root - stun, silence) and add 2 different immunity timers, duration scales with the CC duration x5 eg: 3 sec silence: 15sec immune to stun / silence, so you can still be rooted or knockbacked.
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Reichmar12
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I LOVE the emphasis on synergy. I think it's a perfect way to take Elder Scrolls to multiplayer and still give it that same feel. This concept really adresses the challenge of REALLY making an Elder Scrolls game truly multiplayer, and not just a game played by a bunch of people together at the same time.
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regarding the ultimate. I really dont want to see ANYTIME ultimates that can be used right when the fight starts. IF they are doing it how i think they are it would be similar to the mechanic in Wahammer that built up as the fight went on or maybe just build as you landed hits or achieved something in combat. In that case using the ultimate would be a reward for what you did and should be very powerful or even ALMOST and iwin button.
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(January 23rd 2013 02:41 PM)Pirhana7 Wrote:  regarding the ultimate. I really dont want to see ANYTIME ultimates that can be used right when the fight starts. IF they are doing it how i think they are it would be similar to the mechanic in Wahammer that built up as the fight went on or maybe just build as you landed hits or achieved something in combat. In that case using the ultimate would be a reward for what you did and should be very powerful or even ALMOST and iwin button.

The only scenario where an ultimate would be usable at the start of a battle, from what they've said, is if you build one up, finish a battle without using it, and run to another battle to dump it.
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Synergies: I like the philosophy behind Synergy abilities, still holding out for implementation. I can't stand games that emphasize the "one-man-army". I play multiplayer games for a reason.

Ultimate's: Like you said, can't judge the mechanics too much until we see their implementation. I like that they're not BOOM-HEADSHOT abilities, and that you can counter them if you're quick/informed on game mechanics.

CC: I would actually prefer a 100% timed immunity. Say for instance, if you get rooted and you break free you're immune to roots for 30 seconds, but I'm also coming from a DAoC background so I'm partial to that mechanic. I've watched a lot of interviews and really get the feeling that the devs understand the game, understand what's competitive and balanced, and are paying close attention to that aspect of the game. It means a lot to me to see that the first beta event will be a PVP one. They really want to get that right. That is, afterall, the endgame to a large extent.

P.S. Very well-written commentary. I think I'll stick around the forums and see what else you guys have put together.
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