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The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle - The Big Interview
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 04:19pm 02/05/22 | Comments
We sit down with Zenimax Online Studios to discuss The Elder Scrolls Online’s latest year-long adventure, adding a competitive card game to the MMO, and more…


The Elder Scrolls Online first launched back in 2014 on PC, which saw Bethesda’s traditionally single-player fantasy RPG series enter the realm of the massively multiplayer online experience. Even though it may have looked like Bethesda and Zenimax Online Studios’ version of, say, World of Warcraft, it immediately captured a feel that was more in-line with Skyrim than the latest cataclysmic adventure into Azeroth.

Which is probably why The Elder Scrolls Online feels as great to play on console as it does PC, so much so that recent PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S enhancements make it look and feel like a totally different game to what we saw eight years ago. Over the years the development team has refined and improved on that first taste of The Elder Scrolls Online in more ways than simple visual overhauls. Each new expansion has felt more confident in the style of experience ESO delivers.

In recent years the cadence has shifted to year-long adventures, stories told through new dungeons, zones, and characters to meet; bolstered by a major expansion release. High Isle is the latest expansion and its one that not only brings a new region to ESO’s massive recreation of Tamriel to explore, but one that hasn’t been seen before in a mainline Elder Scrolls game.

Sitting down with Zenimax Online Studios’ Creative Director Rich Lambert, we discussed High Isle in detail, the continuation of the companion system introduced last year, adding a legit CCG to play in-game, and the shift away from narratives that deal with world-ending threats.


With the yearlong updates and the shift to developing from home over the past couple of years, has the development process changed?



Rich Lambert: We've learned a lot in the last two years working from home, Greymore was the first one that was partially done at home and partially in the office. High Isle has been entirely in this new model of everybody at home. And so we were able to learn a lot of things. The biggest thing is just trying to relearn how to be collaborative when everybody is at home, because you can't just walk up to somebody's desk and say, ‘hey, what's that, show me this’. I wouldn't say that we lost anything as a result, or we changed the way we tell stories. We just had to learn how to do all that [in a new setting].

High Isle as a new location for an Elder Scrolls game is something we haven’t seen before. Also there seems to be a shift away from world-ending threats, how does that contrast with the nostalgic stuff and big bad enemies?



Rich: It's a different kind of challenge. Going back, the nostalgic kind of thing, there are clear guide rails of what you can and can't do. Because those other games are out there. With High Isle we had to figure out all of that stuff. Also, with the last couple of years of stories we wanted to tell one that was different. We wanted it to be less, the world is gonna end and more focused on politics and more grounded in real-world things. Once we figured that out, we started digging into the story in detail. How do we make this different, what are the challenges for this particular kind of story.


Is it easier to have a ‘world-ending’ story, having a big bad villain, or is that a crutch. Creating a more politically driven story, how do you keep that engaging? Are there points of inspiration for High Isle in particular?



Rich: The trick is to try to make it feel as interesting and as compelling as “the world is gonna end if you don't do a thing”. I wouldn't say that world-ending plots are a crutch. They are one way to tell a story and instantly everybody understands the stakes. With the story that we're telling this year, it's more about how to get players interested in the story and feel like they're a part of it. There's a bigger focus on characters and character development, interesting characters that make you want to interact with them. And they pull you into the story.


"We wanted it to be less, the world is gonna end and more focused on politics and more grounded in real-world things. Once we figured that out, we started digging into the story in detail."



With Blackwood, it was Mehrunes Dagon, this giant red Daedra that was going to destroy the world. But, you know, the flip-side to that comes when you begin to look at accessibility and entry points into a story. With the type of story that we're telling this year it's a lot easier for people outside of Tamriel to get into it. People that aren't familiar with Elder Scrolls. This is more Athurian Legend, classical fantasy, a murder mystery. More people understand that, whereas some simply look at a big red giant demon and not really get what’s going on, but simply know that the world's gonna end.

It sounds fascinating, a political murder mystery, classical fantasy. How does that tie into the quest design and the need to go out and kill a bunch of things?



Rich: That’s where the Ascended Order came from, the “bad people” faction. That faction or group that is constantly causing a thorn in your side and giving you that reason to go and do that. That's ultimately where that group came from, to provide the conflict on top of all of the mystery stuff.


Visiting the High Isles, how much of that history existed within Bethesda Game Studios? The history of the Bretons, was that fleshed out in collaboration with BGS?



Rich: There's pretty much nothing on High Isles, a spec on a map, no books. And so we basically had the whole cloth to do what we wanted. We spent a lot of time early on with BGS talking about what we wanted to do, the reasons why we wanted to do those things, and then tried to figure out what was on or off the table in terms of deep lore. We just started kind of working through all of that and it made sense that this island chain, which is somewhat close to where Thras was rumoured to be, the home of the Sload, would have been a staging area.


"There's pretty much nothing on High Isles, a spec on a map, no books. And so we basically had the whole cloth to do what we wanted. We spent a lot of time early on with BGS talking about what we wanted to do, the reasons why we wanted to do those things, and then tried to figure out what was on or off the table in terms of deep lore."



It was like, ‘Hey, Second Era’, the Sload have recently unleashed this plague, so this Navy staging area was kind of our tie-in to the world. And then we just started riffing off that, those events happened a long time ago, that’s how the Bretons came in, they're stewards of the island, and it just kept going from there.

That must be exciting, to be able to take a corner of this established world, Elder Scrolls, which you yourself have been a steward of for so many years now, and help create a new bit of history, so to speak.



Rich: It’s super exciting and a lot of fun. It's a new set of challenges because we're doing something from whole cloth, but honestly, it’s something that the team really needed to rejuvenate the creative process. If you keep telling the same stories over and over and over, you start to get a little bored. Sure, they're cool and fun, but they start to feel formulaic and this is very different. It completely changed how we had to think about things. Magic can't be the answer to solve all problems. How do you keep it grounded? The team loved it.


High Isles sees the return of companions, are they going to be this new element going forward? Dealing with their backstories and journeys, has the team grown more confident tying them into the story?



Rich: The companions feature was something of an experiment for us in Blackwood. Players loved it, and we wanted to do more. Here it was figuring out what types of characters we needed, what kind of personalities. With this next group of companions, Ember and Isobel, we wanted one of them to feel kind of very traditional and fit directly into High Isle. That's Isobel, a Knight, she's the best of the best if you will. Her story is really focused on Breton Houses, and Knights.

With Ember we wanted the antithesis of that, something chaotic. And so we landed on this Khajiit Mage who grew up on the streets, who doesn't have a… Well, she has a moral compass but it's very flexible. A chaotic mess of a character, she's gonna do whatever she can to survive.

Speaking of experiments, you’ve now got Tales of Tribute, a game-within-a-game. A collectible card game within The Elder Scrolls. How did this idea come about?



Rich: The concept of Tavern games has been something we've wanted to do for as long as I can remember. I remember pitching something back in 2009, when we were still very early in pre-production. So yeah, it's something we've always wanted to see in the game. And honestly, this year, we were looking for another way to play ESO. Another way to experience the world, be a part of the world. We have lots of questing, we have lots of killing, we have lots of other types of activities. What we were missing was an activity that could also be social.


"The concept of Tavern games has been something we've wanted to do for as long as I can remember. I remember pitching something back in 2009, when we were still very early in pre-production."



And so that was where this idea came from, a two player competitive card game that you can play casually with a friend. You can sit down, you can have a drink, chat, and play this game. Or, you can go really competitive where there's these seasonal leaderboards, ranking, and progression.


Testing and building a competitive card game is no doubt very different, and led to different processes for the team. Are card games something the team is passionate about?



Rich: We went through a lot of different iterations. Some paper prototypes, and we went through a bunch of versions in Unity. Actually quite a few before we landed on the style of game we wanted. And then once we landed there was iterating on rules and mechanics and things like that. The idea of Patrons wasn't something that was a part of the original concept until we started going through mechanics.

Iteration is important. The sooner you can fail on something and move on to the next thing, the better. The sooner you can prove an idea, the better. That was a huge part of the process and we had help from our special projects group within the studio because they had expertise in Unity and creating these smaller, mobile-style things. Plus we have a lot of passion in the studio for games and card games, especially. It was definitely a chance to get a lot of people who are really passionate about those kinds of games to be able to flex that creative muscle.

What are the long-term plans for Tales of Tribute, what’s the dream scenario for the team?



Rich: Our number one focus right now is polish it, get it onto the live servers, iterate on it and get more player feedback. I would be lying if I said I hadn't thought about what comes next and what we wanted to do. If this hits, do we make a standalone version, a physical edition? There's all kinds of potential. But, our number one priority right now is let's get it out there, let's get it into the world. Let’s see what people think, and if they love it we're going to support it just like we support all the other things. We're adding two new companions, we keep adding antiquities, we're going to keep making more of what players want us to make more of.


Yearly narratives, quality of life updates, performance improvements, and the current state of The Elder Scrolls Online. How do you continue, after so long, to make changes and improvements. Finding the time to address feedback and look at systems. Can we improve that? Can we rebuild this?



Rich: That's the challenge, because we don't have infinite resources. Prioritising and trying to get to the biggest things or the biggest issues, and the way we do that is we play the game as often as we can on the live servers to experience the game as a player. And with that we run into the same frustrations. We know performance in Cyrodiil isn't great. That's why that’s a priority and why we're not adding more stuff [to the location] because we don't want to make it worse. The team is working on it, and some things are easier to solve than others. That's a really hard one, but implementing new rendering technology like the FSR stuff with AMD, is simpler.


"Iteration is important. The sooner you can fail on something and move on to the next thing, the better. The sooner you can prove an idea, the better. That was a huge part of the process and we had help from our special projects group within the studio because they had expertise in Unity and creating these smaller, mobile-style things."



It's still a complex problem, but it's finite and you can test it right away. We try to hit some number of new features every year for each of the different types of players that we have. The PVEers, the PVPers, the group folks, people that like housing, the role players. We have a big list and we try to make sure that over the course of a year we have something for each of those groups. With the time leftover we look at where are the things that need to be shored up and kind of like a Tetris game. Trying to prioritise that and spend that time as wisely as we can.


A new major update hits the PT server, how important has that become for the final push?



Rich: We can jump in and test on live with everybody else, but getting hundreds of thousands of players to jump into PT and test things, that hour one is already more cumulative testing time than we can put in internally. More than the year plus time that it takes for us to build one of these updates. The more eyes the better and we use that time as efficiently and as effectively as possible to make sure that when the content launches, it is as clean as we can make it.

Fitting that into a long term roadmap and being able to adapt, is that something that has become easier over time?



Rich: Getting the story roadmap figured out is one thing, getting a features roadmap is a little bit harder. We're already working on 2024 story stuff, feature stuff goes out pretty far but not as far as that. But, we're certain about next year's feature work and the next few years of story things. And we do have room in the schedule to address things that pop up, like a server having stability issues. We should address and solve those ASAP, so we make sure we plan for that. It all gets fuzzer the further into the future you go, because you never know what you might want to change based on player feedback.

The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle Chapter will launch June 6, 2022 for PC and Mac, and will make its Xbox and PlayStation debut on June 21, 2022.
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