Elder Scrolls Online Creative Director Reflects Back On Rough Launch, "We Didn't Have An Identity"
When The Elder Scrolls Online game was first announced, there was significant interest in being able to enjoy a journey in the world of Tamriel with friends. When the game launched, however, it was a convoluted mess. From a higher-than-average monthly subscription fee (that was fairly quickly revoked) to a bland base story that felt like too much and too little at the same time, there were many reasons why Elder Scrolls Online failed to capture the magic of this beloved franchise. Instead of giving up, however, ZeniMax took the Final Fantasy XIV approach, committing to retracing steps, reflecting back on past decisions, and letting creative energy completely loose for future expansions. That work paid off, transforming the MMORPG into a highly successful online experience.
We sat down with Elder Scrolls Online's creative director, Rich Lambert, to reflect back on the evolution of the MMORPG as we brace for the road ahead with Gates of Oblivion. From admitting to the team playing it too safe trying to satisfy two completely different markets, to just plainly stating that the game didn't have an identity, we talked about it all. Oh, and more on romance for the future.
Game Informer: The ESO launch was a chaotic one, especially with the premiere pricing. Can you talk a little bit about the choices that led up to the decisions for Elder Scrolls Online's start?
Rich Lambert: Yeah, I mean, I think the biggest thing is we were, at the time, building a game where we were trying to satisfy both sides of the coin, to satisfy the MMO player but also the Elder Scrolls player. The MMO player is typically used to a subscription, so that was easy for us to understand; that's just what it was. That's what all of the competition we were looking at was doing. So we're like, "Okay, we'll do this." That decision was made before we even launched. And we kind of went that route, and then we launched the game, as you so astutely noted, it was, yeah. It was a little bit chaotic. But it wasn't the game that our fans wanted to play, and that was important. So we had to rethink a lot of things.
We were also trying to figure out how we were going to make ESO on consoles work at that time as well because we were only PC at launch. So we went through a lot of different back and forth discussions. One of those decisions was to go to a different model with the optional subscription. This was really important for console players too, because they had to pay twice to play the game [with the subscription] when paired with PS Plus or Xbox Gold, or whatever. That was our sort of genesis for the new monetization model, the fact that we were releasing on console. From there, it became about really listening to what our players were telling us and watching them and what they were playing and what kind of content they enjoyed.
GI: You said that it didn't feel like the Elder Scrolls game fans were hoping for. From your perspective, what was it about ESO that wasn't coming across as an Elder Scrolls title?
RL: I think the biggest thing is we didn't have an identity; we didn't really know the game we wanted to be when we first launched because we were so focused on trying to please everybody and be in the middle. And so we didn't necessarily commit to the game, and that was one of the things we decided early on, after we launched, that we needed to decide what Elder Scrolls means. It means there are X [amount of things needed] to write great storytelling. It means the freedom to explore, to play the way you want to play. It's easy to kind of pick up and put down. Those are all the things that [factored] into a lot of the decisions we made at that time.
GI: When the team realized ESO "didn't have an identity," what was the process of going back to the drawing board like? Did you look at previously cut ideas, or did you start from scratch?
RL: We definitely looked at things we cut. We looked at a lot of things that were on the original design board. Things we originally dismissed as either too hard or too risky. For example, player housing was a big one. That's such a huge part of Skyrim. Then the question became, "How the hell can we do this in an MMO like other games have done?" But they didn't. They didn't give you a lot of freedom that you had in Skyrim to build the thing the way you want to, to muck up space however much you want. So we put that on the backburner early on because it was an unknown, and there was a lot of uncertainty there about what you can pull off in the MMO space.
Some of it, though, was completely starting from scratch. Rethinking about how we tell stories. The launch was an excellent example. We were so focused on earth-shattering, world-changing events and quests where you go into an area, and it was populated by monsters, and then you complete the objective. You'd save the city and all that other stuff, and yeah, that's great. But a single-player game doesn't work in a multiplayer game because you separate players from each other, and they can't play together. So that was a big area for us to rethink; how do we tell those types of stories and find new ways to do just that without separating players?
GI: That sounds really hard.
RL: I spent, you know, six months with a team just solving what we had implemented at launch and undoing a lot of those things where we weren't completely redoing all the quests – getting rid of all of those layering issues and player separation issues. It was tough. We took a lot of lessons learned from that launch and implemented that all into each new thing we built. That's what we do every chapter, every DLC. Each time we get a little bit smarter. You mentioned yourself – that shows. Every time we do something, we want to get better at it.
GI: Were there any other challenges specific to bridging the gap between single-player and multiplayer?
RL: A lot of the storytelling early on. I mean, we're all huge fans of the Elder Scrolls games, obviously, but we play other games as well. Most MMOs at the time were a lot of text, just loads and loads of text. It almost could feel like a click adventure; just click as fast as you can to move onto the next thing. Elder Scrolls games aren't like that; they are fully voiced. That was a big challenge that we committed to early on to make everything fully voiced. But then it became: How does that work? None of our tools and pipelines are really set up for that, and so we had to build all of those while we were making the commitment to learning how to just write for voiceover. Dialogue is very, very different than reading a book, and so we had to re-learn that process.
GI: Were there any just absolutely bats--t crazy ideas that were left on the cutting room floor?
RL: Oh, we always have bats--t crazy ideas. We went down a path, and you know that Todd [Howard] really laid the letter of the law down on this stuff, but we went down the path at one point where we were exploring Dwemer stuff. Everyone wants to know about that, and we wanted to know about it too, and we were digging into that, and Todd kindly reminded us that this was something we will never do, we will never come out and spoil the mystery and the secrets of the Dwemer. But we did explore it just so we had a good idea of how this works.
We've gone down that path with a lot of different things, with the Dark Brotherhood, as well. And when we were doing the Dark Brotherhood storyline, that was as DLC. We thought we had nailed it down because we played Oblivion and whatnot. And we kind of knew it backward and forwards because we had all of this research done. And then we actually sat down with Emil Pagliarulo, who was the lead on the Dark Brotherhood, and he was the director at Bethesda Game Studios. He told us what we got wrong, and it was like nine pages of notes. His notes were bigger than the doc that we sent him. So, it was good to have them in our corner and good to have them as a resource.
GI: How do you approach DLC and expansions? There is so much lore to pour through and so many varying details; one small misstep could unravel everything. What's that process like?
RL: That's why we have a loremaster; that's their full-time job. They make sure we are on the straight and narrow, and when we had questions, they would be the conduit to Bethesda Game Studios. They would reach out to them, too, to make sure we got everything right.
GI: With the modding community being such a huge contributing factor to games like World of Warcraft, and Skyrim being one of the most-modded games out there, did your team ever collaborate with modders? Was there any inspiration there?
RL: We looked at all kinds of places for inspiration. It can be books, TV, sports, movies, whatever. But one of my favorite places to go is the Reddit lore forums. Going in and just kind of see[ing] what people are writing and why they're writing it, to see how they interpret certain things. It's really interesting to see their takes on certain aspects and what they think they've figured out. Our modding community comes into play in ways, too, especially with the UI interfaces. We pay very close attention to those for quality-of-life improvements. We've implemented over the years a number of those things into the default UI. Like the scrolling combat text, that is something we never had. That was one of the first things that I put in when I became creative director because that was one of the topmost downloaded mods on PC. We've done that over and over, and we're doing it with Blackwood. We're essentially implementing a version of the Action Duration Reminder, which is a very popular mod. This mod basically teaches players the most efficient way and helps notify them when the ability durations are up and retest them. It's pretty cool!
Modders are ingenious; they have the ability to very quickly react to sentiment or what the community wants. It's very interesting to see mods pop up over the course of time; there are a ton.
GI: It's honestly amazing to see the collaboration, especially with the line between the gaming community and the devs being smaller than ever before. You've got Discord, Reddit, Twitter; it seems like collaborations with these large communities are almost inevitable.
RL: Yeah, it definitely is. I think the big thing out of all of this is that gaming isn't just a hardcore thing now. For the longest time, it was only geared towards hardcore MMO players. A little bit of pain here and there to play was kind of okay. But now that it's more mainstream, accessibility is a huge part of playing games. And what the mod community is able to do is provide that accessibility for games that haven't necessarily been able to deliver that up to this point. I think you'll see that as things progress further into the future, more and more games will be more accessible. Just watch.
GI: Right now, a lot of World of Warcraft players feel like Blizzard has stopped listening to the community a little bit. Lore cohesion is something that's often talked about. Is that something your team is concerned with?
RL: It terrifies me. It terrifies me to think about losing the pulse of the community and feel like they might think we're not paying attention. You know, as I said earlier, one of the biggest reasons why we're in the position we are in today is because we listen to them. And we're a part of the community, as well. And so the game got better because of that. You know, I think if you don't play your own game, you're not going to be in tune with the game; you're going to not be in tune with your community. That's just going to be harder to make the game better. So yes, it's something that sometimes keeps me up at night. Luckily, we play the game a lot. We have obviously been playing other things, too. I just finished plaything through Outriders and I had a blast.
GI: Outriders has some unique aspects to it. Was there anything about that online experience that you thought, "Oh, we should look into that?"
RL: I don't know. I'd have to dig into thinking about that a little more. I enjoyed playing through the story; I'm kind of a big nut for that sort of looter shooter. I love Diablo and Path of Exile. Those types of games are fun to chase gear in. So those are the things I really dig, but I'd have to think about that one a little bit more.
GI: You mentioned being really invested in the community, is there any sort of fan feedback that impacted ESO the most?
RL: There has been so much through the years. I've been the creative director essentially since launch. I think there are so many different pieces of feedback, but I think it's some of the little things like watching a Twitch streamer that adores housing and loves building things. He was in a stream, and he made a comment, it wasn't even directed to me, about how there was some pain in being able to tweak the placement of items in a specific way. He was using a mod to make that better for more precision placement. I challenged the team to be like, "Hey, you know, there are these amazing tools that the community is desperate for; they're downloading this mod all of the time, how do we do something like this with our own UI?" The team found a way to make it work and put it in there, so yeah. It's those little things where you're watching a player and seeing what they are doing and see what they are struggling with or not happy with and learning how to fix those issues.
GI: Last question! Last time we talked, you told me that the companions were the stepping stone to possible romance in the game (seen here), what's the status on that?
RL: [laughs] Well, I mean... nothing is certain, but I will say that it would probably be a pretty big miss if we didn't deliver on that. Take that how you will.