When Elder Scrolls Online launched back in 2014, there were a lot of doubts about how the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) would survive in a world where even the most established games in the genre were struggling to keep an engaged player base. But 7 years, 1 major game-wide revamp, 5 chapter expansions, and 16 DLCs later, ESO is still going strong while many of its competitors are wrapping up their content or implementing new gimmicks to lure back old players.
Part of ESO’s appeal is its connection to the Elder Scrolls universe that millions of gamers already know and love thanks to games like Skyrim, Morrowind, and Oblivion, while its lack of a monthly subscription or level requirements make it a much more friendly option for casual players. Of course, that’s aided by a fleshed-out and fully voice-acted world created with the usual of depth and lore that goes into Elder Scrolls games, which is why next month’s Flames of Ambition DLC — which serves as the prelude to June’s Blackwood chapter — already has fans eager to take a trip to what looks like Tamriel’s version of Hell.
SPIN caught up with Rich Lambert, the game’s Creative Director, to chat about the new chapter, building upon the Elder Scrolls universe, and his 14 years working on the title.
SPIN: Perhaps more than any other MMORPG, Elder Scrolls Online can really be played as both a single-player experience and also the traditional MMO. What went into striking that balance between the two?
Rich Lambert: It’s been a lot of iterations to get us to that point. When we initially launched ESO, we weren’t there yet. We didn’t have all those systems in place to support that “go anywhere, explore at your own pace, don’t worry about other players” play style, and our players really let us know that it wasn’t quite the Elder Scrolls experience they wanted. We slowly went through and started adding new things like the battle leveling — which removed the level progression through the zones, like your traditional MMO — so now you can go anywhere, like you would in an Elder Scrolls game. If you see a mountain out in the distance, you can run to it and go there. It doesn’t matter what level you are, you can still go and have a good time. Couple that with the fact that you can always play with your friends, regardless of how long they’ve been playing. I could be a brand new player, and you’ve got 400 hours in the game, but we could play together and still make meaningful progress for both of our characters. That was definitely something we did not have at launch, and it really, really changed the foundation of the game, and how you could play the game once we put that in.
What has it been like to really revamp everything from the gameplay to the overall plot line of the game with each annual chapter expansion, like this year’s Blackwood?
I think it’s invigorating for the team, because every year they’re doing something different. It’s not just the same old stories. We get to push new ways of doing things. We get to play with new tech as it comes online to make our lives easier. And the stories that we tell add to the world. With the last couple of chapters specifically, we’ve been able to go back to lands that players are intimately familiar with and love from other games and kind of make them our own. We’re almost 1,000 years in the past [compared to other Elder Scrolls games], so we can still have that familiarity where you walk into Solitude from Greymoor, for instance, and it feels like Solitude from Skyrim. But it’s different at the same time, because it’s older. Same thing this year with the Blackwood chapter, where one of the most iconic cities in that chapter is Leyawiin from [The Elder Scrolls] IV: Oblivion. You walk in there, and you’re instantly at home, but it feels different because it’s so it’s so far in the past. Being able to do that kind of stuff is just tons of fun for us.
Speaking of building on that universe, how does it feel to be able to create these new stories and scenes in the Elder Scrolls world without being confined to where it has to be exactly like people have seen it in the past?
Well, we definitely have limitations, but we do have a lot more leeway in what we can do because we’re so far in the past. It’s special for us because we get to add to the Elder Scrolls universe and contribute to this behemoth of a game franchise. The things we do are forever a part of that world and that lore, and it’s such a cool place. It’s such a believable world, because the lore is written from the perspective of the people that are living there. It’s not told from some omnipotent God that says “This is the single source of truth.” It’s all through the eyes and the lives of the characters that are there, so you get to play a lot with different perspectives and give the players a lot of opportunity to come to their own conclusions and their own interpretations on what really happened.
Obviously one of the major additions coming with the Blackwood chapter will be the new NPC companions that can join players on their quests. What can people expect from them?
Well, once you have companions unlocked, they’re essentially your adventuring buddies. We have a lot of players that play ESO solo, and that’s a perfectly valid way to play it. It’s a true Elder Scrolls experience where you don’t have to group up with another player if you don’t want to and you can still go through all the stories and experience the world and explore and whatnot. The hope with companions is, for it to help get some of those players into some of the more social aspects of the multiplayer content. They’ll have a buddy with them at all times, so they can get some extra tanking to soak up some damage from some monsters, or give them a little bit of extra healing or damage. The players can control all of that and set which abilities they use, the order that they use them in, equip gear on them and so on. The companions themselves have their own unique likes and dislikes, so that kind of rapport system allows players to develop bonds with them, which unlocks further stories about those companions. It’s just another way to play the game, so to speak, but also to role-play your characters and give some people more access to some content they couldn’t necessarily do by themselves.
One thing that really stands out about Elder Scrolls Online compared to other MMORPGs — and even some single-player RPGs — is that even the most simple of fetch quests generally has a fleshed out story behind it. What’s the motivation to continue adding these elaborate narratives with every DLC and expansion?
I think that comes down to our philosophy and what Elder Scrolls is all about. Our philosophy when we’re designing anything is that your journey through the world is the most important part. Our game doesn’t begin when you get to max level and have to chase down max level gear. Our game is all about exploring the world, learning about the people that live there. experiencing the stories and, yeah, collecting, fat loot and mastering the game. But the first and foremost pillar is that journey.
Is there anything else you’d want people to know before they check out Blackwood?
The big beats for this are the new stories within a familiar world. There’s something in there for everybody. Not only do we have new stories, but we have a new trial for our veteran players — which is the coordinated, 12-player, “go kill the big baddies” type of thing. Our veteran players are always looking forward to new challenges like that. Other than that, the concern I always hear from anybody coming into the game is that it’s an MMO that’s been live for 7 years, so it’s too late for them to start because they’re so far behind and will never catch up. But no, that’s not how our game works. You can pick it up and put it down at any time. You can jump in and play the newest content right away if you want. You don’t have to spend 4 years leveling through the old content to get to the new stuff. You can just jump in, play what sounds good to you, and then when you’re done, you can put it down knowing that anytime you come back, you can pick up right where you left off. And you can always play with your friends, regardless of the level.