The Elder Scrolls Online has successfully run for over five years now, with 12 DLC game packs and three additional chapters released for it. This past June, as part of its Season of the Dragon event, the chapter Elsweyr was released.
The Elsweyr region of Tamriel is where the Khajiit, the catlike people, hail from. It has not been featured in an Elder Scrolls game since the original, making its return uniquely fresh in the Morrowind-Obvlion-Skyrim era. This chapter also places dragons into ESO.
During QuakeCon 2019 I had the opportunity to sit in a roundtable interview with Rich Lambert, creator director at Zenimax Online Studios, and ask him about the challenges and excitement of working with the lore.
“It’s a lot of fun for us," Lambert said. "We get to kinda leave our mark on Elder Scrolls history, which is really fun. But it’s also really entertaining to be able to dig in and portray some of the races in a different light. The Khajiit in Elder Scrolls have always been kind of these nomadic travelers, sneak thiefy type people. And in Elsweyr, we really explore their culture and their spirituality, and it’s a very diff [sic] side of the Khajiit.”
Whether it’s with Elsweyr or Summerset, Lambert and his team have the opportunity to delve into one of Tamriel’s people and geographic locations. They’re working in one of the most loved compendiums of lore out there. Curious about what it’s like to be given such an undertaking, I asked Lambert what it was like working with the Elder Scrolls lore, not just with Elsweyr but going all the way back to the launch of ESO.
“We were obviously a little bit nervous—[The Elder Scrolls] was a giant IP, [it] was a beloved IP, and we didn’t want to screw it up. But over the years, we’ve gotten a lot more comfortable in working in that area, and we understand the lore a lot better."
Though ESO launched in 2014, Lambert's work on it goes much further back than that.
"I’ve been working on ESO for 12 years now," Lambert said. "I have a really good idea of where the lore is, what Bethesda would do in terms of types of stories they would tell. And we work really closely with them. So if we’re not sure about something, it’s a phone call away, or it’s a drive down to Rockville to sit down and talk with them. So at this point now it’s more excitement than it is nerves. Like it was very nervous at launch, and now it is, ‘Hey, we get to go to Summerset, and explore Summerset, you’ve never seen that before, what does that look like, what are the types of stories we’re gonna tell?’ and that’s a ton of fun.”
As an Elder Scrolls fan myself, it does sound fun to be given the reigns of a significant part of that world’s canon. But working with lore is not always fun—sometimes, it can be very difficult. I asked Lambert what it was like to implement dragons into this MMO, both in terms of technology and story.
“Dragons were a very, very long pole for us. I think it was almost a year of implementation time and tech time to get them in. And they’re these giant large monsters, and with large monsters it’s hard to make them look believable and move in believable ways.”
If the technical implementation was hard, the lore tweaking to bring dragons into ESO was as difficult.
“Lore-wise, we worked really closely with Bethesda Game Studios … and we went back and forth a few times on where dragons were, how we could do this, because in our timeline we’re a 1,000 years in the past. In our timeline [dragons are] not really around—they’re not gone, and that was the thing that we worked out with Bethesda is, where could they be, why are they in hiding, and how could we get them into Elder Scrolls Online," Lambert said. "And that’s where we came up with this Season of the Dragon, and how it was more of an isolated incident rather than this massive invasion of dragons.”
For over a decade, Lambert has been leading a team to accomplish feats like reintroducing dragons, exploring the Khajiit’s spirituality, or developing underexplored locations of Tamriel. I asked him what it was like to lead Zenimax Online Studios while shouldering such an endeavor.
“[It’s a] lot of meetings," he said while laughing. "A lot of meetings! No, it’s a lot of fun. My job as the creative director is very diverse. I get to review a lot of things. My mornings are basically play sessions, playtesting new content, giving feedback on stories and player flow, and things like that. Working with the design and combat teams on balance and ability changes and whatnot. But then it’s also: I get to work with marketing on things, I get to work on PR, and talk about the game that I’ve worked on for so long. So it’s always something different, and it’s a lot of fun.”
I’m someone who hasn’t given The Elder Scrolls Online much a chance. Though a passionate Elder Scrolls fan, I don’t enthuse easily over MMOs. Lambert's enthusiasm for the work he and his team has tempted me to give it a try, and it convinced me it’s more of a serious part of The Elder Scrolls canon than I had thus far thought.
I didn’t just ask Lambert about The Elder Scrolls Online. Given the mood of QuakeCon’s “Year of Doom,” I had to ask him what role that classic id title might have played in his gaming life and his path in the industry.
“Doom has always been one of those types of games that I played but never really, really got into," he said. "For me, Quake was the thing that really got me into multiplayer gaming. I was a huge Team Fortress player. I played it competitively … And that really got me into the competitive side of gaming and playing with friends moreso than some of the MMOs that I had played up to that point. … I love the multiplayer aspect of games, how do we go from there, how do we get better at that, and that got me into game development and into, well, where I am today.”
The Elder Scrolls Online: Elsweyr launched this past June. ESO's Season of the Dragon event will continue with the Scalebreaker DLC game pack, coming soon this year.