“I have one designer who is all about taking story elements to inform boss fights,” Mike Finnigan, Lead Encounter Designer on The Elder Scrolls Online
tells me. We’re discussing what goes into designing boss encounters, those long protracted and involved combat scenarios found across the game’s many dungeons. “They’ll ask why is this boss here? What is their motivation?” he continues, noting that some team members go full method – channelling their inner Al Pacino or Daniel Day Lewis.
“Another designer might take inspiration from other games they’re playing and ask themselves how they might incorporate some of that into The Elder Scrolls Online,” Mike adds. “It's different by designer, and whatever designer we have on a boss fight dictates the approach. Really, I just let them run with whatever method works best for them, but at every stage in the process we're always bringing it back to theme.”
This year the Elder Scrolls Online takes players back to Skyrim
, with the Dark Heart of Skyrim
storyline presenting a sinister take on the beloved Tamriel hotspot. The theme in question here is dark, gothic, and chock full of vampires, werewolves, and the red stuff.
Following up from the Greymoor
expansion released earlier this year, which presented a new campaign and storyline to playthrough, the team at Zenimax
are now ready to unleash the Stonethorn DLC Dungeon Pack
. Which introduces a couple of brand-new locations, stories, and PvE challenges for players in the form of the Castle Thorn
and Stone Garden
The Dungeon Drawing Board
“The first thing I think about when we're designing a new dungeon is the story,” Mike reiterates, noting that having these two dungeons present a Gothic Vampire Castle and Mad Scientist Laboratory nails both the tone and theme of Elder Scrolls Online in 2020.
But, in designing a new dungeon the setting isn’t merely there as backdrop. “We want to tell a complete Elder Scrolls story with every dungeon we create,” Mike continues. “That's a complete story that happens during a dungeon run, where you see and figure it out all the way through to the end. So, when you complete a dungeon, there’s that additional feeling of [narrative] reward.”
"We want to tell a complete Elder Scrolls story with every dungeon we create. That's a complete story that happens during a dungeon run, where you see and figure it out all the way through to the end."
“Of course, there’s context for the future too,” Mike adds. “Going back to the Dark Heart of Skyrim, the base game, you might find a familiar face and they'll reference how you helped them in Stone Garden. But you absolutely complete a ‘mini movie’ -- so to speak -- with each dungeon.”
With a pair of dungeons to create, there’s also a sense that each of these ‘mini movies’ should have its own distinct flavour. At face value the gothic castle and creepy laboratory evokes classic Hollywood productions like Dracula and Frankenstein. Two variations on a theme.
“In Greymoor there’s this central story about an ancient army of werewolves and vampires that was defeated centuries ago,” Mike explains. “We were coming in with that core tenant, that there’s this army. With two dungeons we of course were always going to tell two very different stories, but in keeping them around this theme of vampires and werewolves and armies – and not wanting something as simple as the same monsters and enemies to be seen across both – we split them up.”
A simple design decision where, as Mike puts it, “one dungeon could focus on vampires and the other werewolves''. That said, visually distinct locations with different enemies and different boss battles is pretty much Dungeon Design 101. In Stonehorn, Castle Thorn and Stone Garden are complemented by stories that dive headfirst into Elder Scrolls lore. “When you go through Castle Thorn, you have Gwendis. She's a Vampire Hunter and she’s also a Vampire. And the story sees you and Gwendis go through Castle Thorn to defeat Lady Thorn and stop her from spreading her army.”
The Difference When There’s Two
“With Castle Thorn the art helped inform the design,” Mike says, confirming that the ‘vampire dungeon’ in Stonehorn came to fruition by simply looking at some of the concept art that was being cooked up for the Greymoor expansion. “When we saw the fixtures and big castle pieces that were being created for Castle Greymoor we were like, ‘we’ve got to do something like that’. But we wanted to put our castle high up in the mountains and evoke everything that people think about when they imagine a gothic castle – lightning, storms. If we could have that and have it be night the entire time -- that would be perfect.”
"We wanted to put our castle high up in the mountains and evoke everything that people think about when they imagine a gothic castle – lightning, storms. If we could have that and have it be night the entire time -- that would be perfect."
For Castle Thorn, it's design plays perfectly into the self-contained aspect of The Elder Scrolls Online dungeon; a single location fleshed out with character, story, new mechanics, challenges, and engaging boss battles. “Right off the bat we were planning on simply taking those Gothic pieces and assets and using them,” Mike admits. “But we realised we had to work a little closer with the art team because of how Greymoor works – it’s built into the structure of Blackreach. We had to work together with them to get that style out from underneath rocks to make it fit a skyline.”
Leaning into story when it comes to dungeons and having the story then flow into the base game is still relatively new for The Elder Scrolls Online, as is the concept of a yearlong theme and narrative that ties each individual piece of new content together.
“When I started with the company, I was on the dungeon team,” Mike recalls. “And this was eight years ago or something like that. The approach back then was that we wanted interesting mechanics, we didn't have story integration at the top of the list. As we've evolved the game over the years, integrating the story for each dungeon completely into ESO, and inside the dungeon itself, has been huge. Even something as simple as incorporating NPCs into the actual boss fights, so that they're doing something rather than disappearing and when you're done, they come back and say ‘Look, you did it!’.”
Less stopping to talk to NPCs and having that dialogue happen as you move from room to room also adds flow and better pacing, lessons learned over the span of many years. “Looking at the mechanics of the game, and how to use those in a dungeon was another thing,” Mike continues. “A good example is synergies, which were exclusively player driven for the longest time. That is where someone throws an Ultimate down and another player can come over and hit X to synergise with it. So, we took a chance when we asked ourselves if something like that could work in a boss fight.”
The ESO Content Cycle
The Elder Scrolls Online has, to borrow a music term, found its groove in recent years. Annual large-scale expansions, smaller story drops, new dungeons, all wrapped up in themes and yearlong narratives focused on various locations found throughout Tamriel. In terms of pure economics, the release cadence is impressive. Every few months brings something new and exciting to the table. Which brings up the question of how the team manages to keep up its pace?
"As we've evolved the game over the years, integrating the story for each dungeon completely into ESO, and inside the dungeon itself, has been huge."
“It's roughly three months, but it's not a linear three months,” Mike explains when the subject of dungeon development time is brought up. “I have a ramp up period where I write what's called the Zone Design Doc, which is this overarching document on what the dungeon is going to be. We get it in front of the team, and we brainstorm ideas and we do a bunch of prototyping and stuff like that. Because of the nature of where we're at with cycles and reacting to feedback for whatever’s current, we’ll break away and come back to it. It's this nonlinear three months per piece of dungeon content that we do.”
“We have a dedicated group to test throughout the process too,” Mike continues. “If a boss designer goes, ‘hey, I’ve got some ideas that I want to work on’ -- they’ll ping our QA group. The QA team then grabs the work in progress content, puts four people on it and tests it thoroughly. We have this great collaboration with our QA team where we bounce ideas back and forth and implement new things and they’re able to test it all real quick. And all that happens before something has effects and dedicated animation.”
It’s this collaboration that drives experimentation and has seen The Elder Scrolls Online evolve to where it is today – where story, mechanics, and player feedback continues to drive the team and the game forward. Of course, there are limitations. Or at the very least an overarching plan. Which makes the job of Lead Encounter Designer worth its weight in gold.
“If somebody comes in and says, this Vampire Lord is going to turn players into bunnies,” Mike concludes, bringing things back to boss design. “For me, I’m not sure that will work. We're very collaborative though, so as someone on the team puts together a boss design we’ll send that out to everyone to critique it or add something to create a cool boss. Or, remove something that doesn’t quite fit.”