A year in retrospect with creative director Rich Lambert

The Elder Scrolls Online has now wrapped up its year-long adventure, Legacy of the Bretons, which saw the launch of the High Isle expansion. We spoke with creative director Rich Lambert to discuss ESO’s highs and lows in 2022.

It really has been a busy year for the teams at ZeniMax Online Studios, with The Elder Scrolls Online enjoying its fourth, and potentially final, year-long adventure in the form of Legacy of the Bretons. This introduced us to High Isle and Galen, the sixth Chapter to launch for The Elder Scrolls Online. Not only was the Chapter a refreshing change of pace to the usual apocalyptic nature of each year’s new content, but it also came as the first time Bethesda Game Studios handed ZeniMax the reins to a completely unexplored area of the franchise to date. With so much excitement having reached the lands of Tamriel this year, we sat down with The Elder Scrolls Online’s creative director Rich Lambert to discuss 2022’s victories, defeats, and everything in between.

The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle and the Legacy of the Bretons

The Legacy of the Bretons year-long adventure, as the name suggests, focused on the noble race of Bretons and the pompous lifestyle that accompanies the wealthiest of them. The adventure gave us a chance to explore the Bretons’ luxurious hamlet of High Isle in the Systres archipelago and the jungle prison island of Amenos with the High Isle Chapter, while the Firesong DLC dived into the lore of the Druids and wrapped up High Isle’s storyline, unmasking this year’s antagonist, the Ascendant Lord. Alongside the additional zones introduced with the Chapter and DLC, we also saw the launch of the fantastic Tales of Tribute card game, the Dreadsail Reef trial, and two new Companions: Ember and Isobel. Breaking up the launch of the two zones, 2022 saw the now-customary arrival of four new group dungeons: The Coral Aerie and Shipwright’s Regret in the Ascending Tide DLC, and Earthen Root Enclave and Graven in the Lost Depths DLC.

“You either absolutely loved it or you hated it, and there was nothing in between.”

“I really liked the story this year, it was a little bit different than what we’ve done before; it was a lot more grounded, and there was more mystery and intrigue to it versus the kind of cataclysmic ‘the world is ending’ kind of story,” Lambert told us. “So, it was kind of a breath of fresh air for us, and I think the team did a really great job.” ZeniMax took a step away from the apocalypse-style storylines we’ve seen introduced in most of the previous Chapters, which generally kept our attention away from the Three Banners War that has been raging in Cyrodiil since The Elder Scrolls Online launched. This year, that political war received the attention it deserved, with a focus on a shadowy organisation known as the Ascendant Order, who are attempting to disrupt peace talks between the three alliances by assassinating their leaders.

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While we loved the politically focused narrative of this year’s Chapter in our The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle impressions, it would seem, quite surprisingly, that the sentiment wasn’t shared by everyone. “It’s actually been a little bit more polarising than I kind of thought it was going to be,” Lambert admitted. “Some people are like ‘this is the worst story you’ve ever told,’ and other people are like ‘this is the best story you’ve ever told,’ and there hasn’t really been a lot of in-between, which is really, really interesting. Whereas in previous years there’s been kind of this gradient of sentiment if you will. We’ve tried to kind of dissect that and we’ve got some things that we’re doing in future stories that will hopefully kind of build upon that and improve on that… we’re going to try some things.”

The Legacy of the Breton’s most defining feature is most certainly the political aspect that it pursues, but the stark differentiation between High Isle and Galen is worthy of every mention. Travelling from the prosperous, pretentious, castle-strewn lands of High Isle to the humble lifestyle of the Druids on Galen makes for an intriguing change. In fact, Galen almost feels like a retreat of its own, offering adventurers every opportunity to revel in the wild nature of the island. ZeniMax’s additional effort of creating animated backgrounds like ships sailing along High Isle’s coastline, or the more natural animations of Galen’s wildlife haven’t gone unnoticed by our eyes. The next time you’re visiting the Systres archipelago, stop somewhere and check out everything happening around you, you might find something you hadn’t noticed before — not bad for the studio’s first shot at creating original Elder Scrolls content.

High Isle: A land of ZeniMax’s own construct

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Unless you’re a hardcore follower of Elder Scrolls lore, you’d be forgiven for not having any prior knowledge of High Isle, or even the Systres archipelago, as it’s an area that has only been mentioned within in-game books. So, not only did we get a chance to play through a fresh storyline, but we also got to visit an area that’s never been explored in any Elder Scrolls game to date, alongside our first taste of what ZeniMax can create itself. “We obviously work very closely with Bethesda Game Studios on this kind of stuff, and when we were pitching the ideas, one of the things that they really liked was that it’s very isolated, right? It was isolated to the island chain,” Lambert explained. “It wasn’t a ‘we’re going to change the world’ type thing, and because we’ve developed this trust with them over the years, they were like, ‘this is fantastic; it seems like a perfect setting.’ Carte blanche. Kind of do what you want, do your thing.”

“It was really freeing to be able to kind of go in without many restrictions to try to tie things in.”

“So, what we generally do when we do those kinds of things, is try to look for little nuggets of lore in there, and we were able to tease out some of those; with the Druids especially, there was definitely some lore around that,” Lambert continued. “We use that as kind of the bridge to our overarching story. And then we wanted to focus on the Bretons and tell more stories about their culture to let you see more of that because we didn’t really do that at launch. Most of the Breton stuff was more focused around the war or these existential threats to the Bretons in those areas. Just being able to start fresh, as I said, and then just tease the little elements really kind of helped tie it into this cohesive whole.”

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The “cohesive whole” seems like it could be one of the biggest challenges of developing content for The Elder Scrolls Online, as the game has a huge amount of content that continues to grow each year, which is then further complicated by the game’s non-existed timeline. As perfectly described by Lambert as a “construct of the player,” any location of the game can be explored by any player at any time, so creating a timeline that seamlessly flows from one story element to another in any linear manner is all but impossible due to time being completely controlled by the player.

“The player’s progression through the world is what actually changes the time, so it’s kind of this weird, heady concept, right? But time never really advances on its own and ESO; it’s all the player’s journey,” Lambert said. “And so one of the pillars for us, when we’re telling the stories, is, ‘well, they could have done this story over here in Galen and High Isle, but not done the main story or maybe they’ve done the main story.’ All of those stories still have to make sense, tie together, and all of the characters and NPCs that are a part of those stories need to react appropriately. It’s a lot of work, but we think long and hard about that kind of stuff.”

Tales of Tribute was a winning hand

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Each year, ZeniMax treats us to a new feature within the Chapter content, something that incorporates the entirety of Tamriel, not just the zones being added. This year introduced the Tales of Tribute card game, which can be played with both NPCs and players. Exploring the content found in High Isle and Galen, as well as playing Tribute itself unlocks new card decks to use during matches.

“We have some incredibly invested players in it, where I’m pretty sure that all they do is eat, breathe, and sleep Tribute, which is fantastic!”

While we’ve heard Lambert enthusiastically talk about the game before, we were interested in how such a vastly different feature to what’s been added before has been received by players. “It’s been really good, our players are enjoying playing it,” Lambert proclaimed. “Our intention with it was to add another way to play ESO and to experience the world, to really learn more about the lore, but also just have an alternate activity because we’ve got lots of quests and lots of killing already.”

Combating the combat changes

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It’s certainly been an exciting year for new content to tackle, but it’s not all been fun and games; a rather large swathe of combat changes was announced, which didn’t quite sit well with the community and stirred everyone up like a hive of Fetcherflies.

Creating a game like The Elder Scrolls Online, which allows the player to experience its content in whatever order they wish, can be daunting to anyone yet to begin playing. Just one look at the 155 The Elder Scrolls Online achievements gives the impression that it’s a huge game, and we see players regularly wondering just where to start when attempting to begin their journey. It’s something ZeniMax is aware of and has begun implementing some changes this year to aid newer players, albeit to the initial dismay of the game’s current player base. “That’s something that we’re we’re very mindful of and I don’t think we do a fantastic job of. We say yes, as a new player you’re free to do whatever you want, but then that’s also just an overwhelming amount of choice that the new player coming in has to deal with,” Lambert said. “And while that works really well for, you know, your traditional Elder Scrolls player who is very used to ‘I’m gonna do whatever I want, however I want, in any order I want,’ people that don’t play those types of games struggle trying to find their way initially. We have to pay special care to that. And like I said, we don’t do that fantastically right now, but it’s something we’re trying to remedy.”

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The first step in creating a more new-player-friendly experience was to give The Elder Scrolls Online’s combat a slight overhaul, which came into effect in Update 35 alongside the Lost Depths expansion. The update introduced numerous balancing changes to light and heavy attack damage values and damage-over-time abilities were nerfed. This created a fair amount of uproar from the community, as prior to the patch, players who focused on damage-based roles relied on ‘weaving’ light and heavy attacks between their ability casting to pump out vast amounts of damage. The changes practically killed that off, as it was a user-created system of damage output and forced players to adapt to that one way of playing if they wanted to partake in endgame content. While the initial reaction was indeed a negative one, once the patch was live, players realised that it hadn’t affected them as much as previously thought.

“People are going to disagree with the decisions you make, right? And that’s fine. Like, we’re not perfect. We don’t always get everything right all the time, and we want that constructive feedback.”

“We knew that there were going to be some things that a portion of the player base was not going to be super happy with, but because it was something that we thought was better for the long-term health of the game, we wanted to do it, “Lambert explained. “You saw a lot of really negative sentiment before anybody had even jumped onto the PTS (Public Test Server), right? It was that kind of initial reading, that kind of initial shock going, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t play the way I’ve been playing. This is terrible. It’s going to ruin the game.’ But once Update 35 got on and people started playing with it, they started realising that they weren’t as bad as they initially feared.”

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Just because many players, including myself, have come to see that the changes weren’t as bad as we initially thought — damage output seems to be holding steady in the post-Update 35 version of the game — that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement in the future. “We can’t always make everybody happy, and we have to try to do what we think is best for the entire population of ESO, and not just a particular portion or a small portion. But that being said, we take that feedback, and we try to dig into it and figure out, ‘OK, what is it they’re really complaining about, or really upset about,'” Lambert explained. “We’ve actually used some of that feedback to do some of the stuff that we’re planning for Update 37 in terms of combat and whatnot. So, we’ll be talking about that probably at the beginning of next year. We’ll do another kind of ‘here’s an overview.’ Alec, who’s one of our combat designers, usually writes up a post saying, ‘here’s kind of the ‘overview of some of the changes that are coming in 37 and players will see that some of that feedback is in there.”

Change is certainly difficult at the best of times, but can strike particularly hard for someone, such as an ESO player, that has been playing a particular way for the last eight years. I’ve put around 3,000 hours into The Elder Scrolls Online, playing solely as one character, a damage-dealing stamina-based Warden, and for the majority of that time, I had learnt to play the game in a specific way, something that changed quite drastically when Update 35 arrived… and something which I’m still attempting to re-learn. ZeniMax, though, needs to consider the experience for players just coming into the game, casual players, or players that can’t ‘weave’ for any reason. It’s in considering the community as a whole that has brought on the readjustment to the combat systems.

“That’s something that, you know, at least for me. I never really thought about when I was a player, and I wasn’t in games [development] and whatnot. It was like, ‘well, I play this way. Therefore, everybody must play this way,'” Lambert confessed. “You can’t really wrap your head around that if there are millions of players playing a game and me and 10,000 of my friends play it this way, or even 20,000 of my friends play it this way, that’s a very small portion of the overall player base. Right. And that’s a hard kind of concept to wrap your head around until you start actually seeing that and trying to please everybody, you know.”

Lessons learnt and the future of The Elder Scrolls Online

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Creating a game as large and as popular as The Elder Scrolls Online is a challenging endeavour for the most seasoned of developers. Each year adds new content, refreshes ever-growing features, and has a robust player base that needs to be nurtured. “We learn something every time we build a new zone, and we try to put that into practice,” Lambert said. “Just in terms of building zones, building stories, how to tell them, and what resonates with the players. So, we take a lot of player feedback and try to incorporate that into the next time around. There was tons of stuff even on the process side for us; things that players don’t get to see, how we develop it, what we do, how we work with the individual teams.”

One standout learning curve, and one that regular players would have noticed this past year, has been the bumpy rollout of each update, which has seen myriad bugs and server issues plague the general experience. As with other developers who’ve had to delay their games due to adapting to the rapid working-from-home transition brought on by the pandemic, ZeniMax has had to adapt to new working procedures as well — and while The Elder Scrolls Online’s content has rolled out in a timely manner, it’s not been all sunshine and rainbows.

“I wish we did a better job on the overall rollout of the updates; they were bumpy. There were obviously, stability issues and there were more than normal numbers of bugs, right? It’s just finding ways to do that better,” Lambert said. “That’s definitely going to be a focus in the year ahead.”

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The highs have been high and the lows have been low, but at the end of the day, the bad guy is dead, Tamriel is safe, and the community continues to thrive. Many of us will be looking forward to seeing what ZeniMax has in store for us in 2023, especially with the recent announcement that the year-long-adventures will be retired in place of contemporary Chapter expansions like Morrowind, the Thieves Guild, and The Dark Brotherhood. Additionally, Update 37 sounds like it’ll offer us another opportunity to look at our combat styles, although, with less impunity, this time around… hopefully.

What have you thought about the Legacy of the Bretons and The Elder Scrolls Online in 2022? Drop a comment below and let us know!

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