The Elder Scrolls Online
made its debut back in 2014, so in a very real sense it's something of an RPG institution. Since its debut, as with many games in the online-RPG or MMO realm, it’s reinvented itself or adapted on more than one occasion. Reacting to feedback and generally improving on a very solid foundation.
Then came the successful and intuitive console ports, with the game finding immediate success on both the PlayStation 4
and Xbox One
. The ‘Tamriel Unlimited’ update removed the need for a subscription, a few years after that ‘One Tamriel’ allowed players to adventure anywhere they chose. Around this time we began to see the annual release of full-sized and impressive expansions -- beginning with 2017’s Morrowind
That release, which presented a return to a classic Elder Scrolls setting, set the tone and feel for subsequent year-long narratives and chapters. Last year’s Greymoor took players back to Skyrim in the midst of a vampiric threat. This year, The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood
and the ‘Gates of Oblivion’ not only sees the return of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
’s main villain -- Daedric Prince Mehrunes Dagon -- but locations found throughout that Xbox 360 and PC classic.
“One of the things we love is having that sense of nostalgia, and the Blackwood zone stretches from the southern tip of Cyrodiil all the way to the eastern border of Shadowfen,” The Elder Scrolls Online Creative Director Rich Lambert tells me. “In terms of iconic cities that give us Leyawiin, which will act as a kind of home base. As you venture east, you’re going to also get to explore Gideon, which hasn't been seen in an Elder Scrolls game since Arena in 1994. Which means, it'll look a lot different than it did back then.”
This year, The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood and the ‘Gates of Oblivion’ not only sees the return of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion’s main villain -- Daedric Prince Mehrunes Dagon -- but locations found throughout that Xbox 360 and PC classic.
As The Elder Scrolls Online’s Creative Director, Rich Lambert was actually a part of the team that developed 2006’s Oblivion. In preparation for Blackwood, Rich pulled out an old copy of an Oblivion ‘Player’s Guide’ to re-acquaint himself with the feel of that game. Others in the team did the same, albeit in other ways. Some replayed The Elder Scrolls IV from start to finish, others watched Let’s Play videos that ran for several hours. “Across the board somebody on the team knows the answer to pretty much any question that anyone could ask,” Rich explains. “Not just with that game but any Elder Scrolls or what happened in a specific era or place. It's awesome working with a group of people that invested
in Elder Scrolls.”
Opening the Gates
“We were still working on the Greymoor chapter when Matt [Matt Firor, Game Director on Elder Scrolls Online] and I started talking about Blackwood,” Rich explains, noting that the annual release cycle means development and design for each major chapter overlaps. “We’re already talking about next year's chapter, even though we haven't yet launched this year’s. It takes a long time to build these things, to go through that approval process. We work closely with Bethesda
whenever there’s a big story like this, and of course, it also takes time for artists to create assets and content designers to create the quests and other elements. It's a year plus in advance of when we plan to launch to when it starts to come together.”
“We’re already talking about next year's chapter, even though we haven't yet launched this year’s. It takes a long time to build these things, to go through that approval process."
With annual expansions and new zones being added at a steady rate, the team at Zenimax Online Studios
begins in much the way any new adventure (or the epic nature) must -- with a map. “It’s one of the first things we do, create what we call the ‘Player Flow Map’,” Rich adds. “That outlines where the player is going to go, how much of the zone they're going to see, and how the quests tie in together geographically. Naturally, change happens throughout the course of development -- we adjust. If a particular space doesn't work, we'll either cut it or we'll move it somewhere else -- it's all malleable.”
Though there are of course elements that can’t be changed, on the account of Tamriel’s long-history being set in stone. Or, written on a dusty old scroll somewhere. Whether it’s Morrowind, Greymoor, or Blackwood, there are geographical and historical factors at play.
“It depends on the location and the areas that we're in, but in places where there's an established look and feel we can't change too much,” Rich notes. “We use the lay of the land to help influence the stories we want to tell, and vice versa. In cases where not a lot is known then we will come up with a story and let the team go nuts and make that area look cool. When you look at Greymoor [Skyrim] we knew there were caves established in the lore and previous games -- where they are, and what they might contain. So, could they be used for Delves and other quests? Taking our setting of a thousand years in the past, could they be different? What are the types of stories that we could tell? Can we include nods to future events.”
Sign O’ The Times
Landing on a location like Blackwood or Greymoor or Morrowind happens for any number of reasons, though here it all seems to stem from Rich’s soft spot for Mehrunes Dagon. “I think he's a cool Daedric Prince that doesn’t get enough screen time in The Elder Scrolls,” Rich says. “He’s known for constantly trying to invade Tamriel and take it over, he thinks that the land is an extension of Oblivion and rightfully his. He's always trying to find new ways to take over – so we thought it would be a great time to tell one of those stories. The Gates of Oblivion storyline is about making a deal with the devil, so to speak, it’s about deceit, it’s about Daedra.”
“[Mehrunes Dagon]’s known for constantly trying to invade Tamriel and take it over, he thinks that the land is an extension of Oblivion and rightfully his. He's always trying to find new ways to take over – so we thought it would be a great time to tell one of those stories.”
For a Daedric Prince like ol’ Dagon, lore, precedent, and canonical appearances have painted the picture not only of his appearance, but manner. Red in colour, four arms, it’s no wonder he’s seens as something of a devil. “He’s the Daedric God of destruction and change and ambition and we use that to influence the story and how his realm works,” Rich tells me. “In the main story chapter, you will see Mehrunes Dagon on as you kind of expect to see him -- one of the things we constantly look at when we're creating spaces and stories in our game is what bits of lore can take and what bits of lore can we make our own.”
Making Oblivion feel different in Elder Scrolls Online and Blackwood goes beyond the story being set centuries before the events of Oblivion or Skyrim -- Mehrunes Dagon’s realm, the Deadlands, will feature new and unique never-been-seen biomes. In other words it won't be the fireball-infused tones seen in Oblivion. Portals will transport players to various pockets of the Deadlands, and for those wondering -- no there won’t be Oblivion Gates to close.
“The giant Daedric Gates you saw in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion aren’t here,” Rich explains. “Dagon hasn't quite figured out the science yet, so to speak. ESO and Blackwood is set about 800 years in the past, a time when Mehrunes Dagon could open portals to allow for travel between the realms. The Deadlands are a major part of our year-long narrative, and in the fourth quarter DLC you're going to spend all your time in the Deadlands.”
A New Player Has Joined the Party
No doubt portals will act as the catalyst for storytelling, World Events, and rich story quests in Blackwood -- but the major story chapter and expansion for 2021 will also see the introduction of a new element. Companions.
“They are your adventuring buddies, and that’s the best way to explain it at the top level,” Rich says. Companions in Elder Scrolls Online will work in much the same way they have in single-player Bethesda RPGs, they’ll become available after completing certain story quests and can be used anywhere in the world -- except PvP.
Companions in Elder Scrolls Online will work in much the same way they have in single-player Bethesda RPGs, they’ll become available after completing certain story quests and can be used anywhere in the world -- except PvP.
“We're still working on balancing and running performance impact assessments, but our goal is you could use them everywhere -- except PvP,” Rich continues. “Companions are the buddy that maybe you don't always have access to in real life, they can level up, you can assign roles to them. You can have them focus more on roles like Tank, Damage, or Healing. You can assign abilities and equip their gear.”
Currently the team is balancing and testing exactly how Companions will work mechanically but the team is leaning towards companion-specific abilities, albeit modelled after player abilities and skills.
In the midst of a global pandemic the Elder Scrolls Online team has effectively been working from home, in full, for almost a year now -- something that is as strange to Rich as the additional burden it places on the more ideal and, well, ‘normal’ situation that is a full team in a large studio-space.
“We've worked through a lot of the ‘gotchas’ early, stuff that slowed us down,” Rich recalls. “We missed the Greymoor launch by about a week. What we’ve discovered though, over the past year, is just how much the development process and how many problems are solved with simple water-cooler chats. You're sitting down at lunch having a chat or you walk by somebody's desk and you see something that doesn't quite look right. You address it then and there, and it takes two seconds or five minutes or whatever.”
"What we’ve discovered though, over the past year, is just how much the development process and how many problems are solved with simple water-cooler chats."
A small thing to note, but for the team it has put extra effort in recent months to create opportunities for members to chat, look over each other’s work, and bring that element of being in a dedicated workspace. Even with the additional pressure that has come from working from home, the Elder Scrolls Online team plans to not only release Blackwood on time, add new elements like Companions, but also revamp the end-game ‘Champion Points’ system, and continue to tweak and improve the overall experience.
“We have a backlog of things, some of it is player generated feedback, some of it is from the team,” Rich tells me. “We play the game and we run into the same ‘pain points’ too. All that goes into a giant backlog and we go through and prioritise what we think is important. This year one of the things we're still focused on is performance and getting the client in a better and more stable place. We did a lot of work on that last year and it was very difficult work. Some of it was successful, some of it wasn't. Some of the work this year is actually cleaning up a lot of that and fixing bugs.”
And all, without fostering a culture of crunch -- something Rich is quite proud of. Understandably so considering the yearlong narrative and full story chapter coming. Not that there’s a lot of room left on the development plate, but we still can’t help but wonder about the planned Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 ‘next-gen update’ on the cards.
“We’re also still hard at work on the next-gen client,” Rich concludes. “But we're not quite ready to talk about it yet.”
The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood arrives on PC June 1 and on Consoles June 8