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Elder Scrolls Online Faces the Future with Morrowind Expansion

The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind is taking the MMORPG back to some of its most iconic roots, while injecting a fresh round of new features. At a presentation at ZeniMax Online's offices, Shacknews had the opportunity to see the new Chapter in detail, and talk with developers about Elder Scrolls Online, the Morrowind expansion, and the future of MMOs.

ESO: Morrowind is being consciously referred to as a new Chapter of the saga, introducing more than 30 hours of new story content. The emphasis on it as a starting point is mean to welcome in new players, who can jump straight to the Morrowind content without any previous ESO experience. Meanwhile, veterans and lapsed players have a chance to experience the new content, and the play anywhere level structure of the One Tamriel expansion means everyone will be properly scaled. ZeniMax is aiming for a Chapter of similar scale roughly every year, in addition to smaller quarterly updates.

Aiding in easing new players is a new class, the Warden, which serves as a well-rounded and versatile addition. This is the first class added since ESO's launch, and its variety of abilities make it remarkably flexible. It also comes equipped with a pet, the War Bear, which promises to make an easy entry point for new players who may lack a team.

Finally, ESO: Morrowind will be adding Battlegrounds, a 4v4v4 arena battle mode. It will launch with three maps, and three game types: Capture the Flag, Domination (capture point), and Team Deathmatch. Zenimax promises a variety of rewards, and suggested Battlegrounds will probably be gated at level 10, though that's still under consideration.

I talked with creative director Rich Lambert about what we can expect from this return to Morrowind.

Elder Scrolls isn't quite traditional European fantasy, and you make an effort to differentiate it. What goes into that?

I think some of that is there. You all touched on that a little bit, we have the Bretons and the Imperials, but we also have a lot of other cultures in the game as well. With Morrowind in particular, it's an alien world. There's giant mushrooms, and these bug creatures, they have all this really complicated inter-house politics. The Telvanni mages who are these snooty aristocratic mages who are very high-magic, and then we have the Ashlanders who are almost Native American in that they worship the land and their ancestors. I think the thing that separates Elder Scrolls from your traditional medieval fantasy is there's a whole bunch of different cultures, it's not just one culture.

The game has gotten quite a few updates on this quarterly schedule. How has the long-time player community responded? Are they generally satisfied, or has there been some whiplash?

I think early on we were a little bit gun-shy about what we could and couldn't change, just because we didn't want to rock the boat too much. Like when we introduced the justice system, we were pretty sure that was going to be a big thing, but like, stealing in a massively multiplayer game, that's a big crazy thing, right? And then as we've understood the game and what players love about it, I think we've been able to identify those areas that players think are lacking, and then use that to help guide where we're going next.

One Tamriel is a perfect example. We knew that battle leveling worked in PvP, we didn't know it worked in PvE. So we tested it and the response we got was, holy s--- this is amazing, he's level 20 and I'm level 50. So we definitely look at that stuff and understand it a lot better than we did at launch.

Elder Scrolls is traditionally about you as the singular hero, so how do you balance that against the needs of an MMO?

The thing that we always try to make sure of is when you're out there questing–because generally you always quest on your own–we try to make sure you feel like you're the hero or you're the most important person. And where we start to diverge from that is where we get more into our group content and our trials. So if you look at the quests that are in those, they always refer to you and your party. In the solo, quest-centric stuff they refer to you in the singular. 

Warden feels like it's targeting that self-sufficiency, since it's a jack-of-all-trades class. Was that the intent, to make it friendly for new players to hop and feel like they're having a single-player-like experience?

I think that was part of it. On its own, it can do a lot of things. As soon as you add a pet, so you have a companion, you're instantly in a group. We wanted to make sure that the abilities you had would benefit both of you, or if you have other people with you they all get that benefit. 

Since this is a multiplayer game it's all about balance. So you have this class that seems especially attuned to a single-player game but you also have to keep the multiplayer balance. Are there any significant tweaks you had to give other classes to make everyone play nice with each other?

No, not really. We already have a pet-type class with the Sorcerer. You can have daedric pets that you summon and they'll do things. So we did learn a number of things with the Sorc that we were able to transfer. One of those is, it can be a little unruly to control your pet. He doesn't generally go where you want him to. So with this one, you can always direct where you want your pet to go by heavy-attacking your target. We put that in to solve the Sorcerer problem, but now that we have the Warden we need to make sure they all work the same way, so the Sorc pets will do the same thing as the Warden pet.

When you're doing a Trial, what is the role for a Warden? It doesn't neatly fit into the holy trinity of classic MMOs, but it feels like it can do all of them a little bit.

We've had them perform all of the main roles in our tests, so they can be a main tank, they can be a main healer, they can be a main DPS. Where they really start to shine is more of the off-tank or off-healer, where we don't really need a full tank or two full tanks for the entire run, so you can have an off-tank who can bring a lot of utility and support for certain things. That's where they really, really shine, but like I said, we've had them performing main as well.

You mentioned Battleground rewards. What kind of rewards can we expect for winning a Battleground, and is there a consolation prize for losing?

There will be gear, so there are some new sets coming in for that. There are cosmetic things, there are furnishings for your home. We tried to make sure there was something there for everybody.

That seems like the most easily repeatable, check-in-every-day kind of content.

Yeah, one of the things we saw some of the population do was, instead of having those 50 on 50 on 50 Keep sieges, they would go out with a small group and roam the countryside looking for ways to pick off other players. You know, they'd capture a resource and wait for people to come in and take it over. It's something that players have definitely wanted and have been doing in Cyrodiil. So with the Battlegrounds, what we're doing is giving them that opportunity but making it much easier to find and do. Just queue up with your group, do your thing. Maybe you play more than one match, maybe you only do one a day. It's your choice.

There will be new Battlegrounds modes and maps. About how frequently are those coming, and will they be free? 

We will make sure that we continue to update with new maps. Maybe not every update, but maybe every other update, we're still figuring that stuff out. But you will be required to have Vvardenfell.

There are a lot of avenues to Elder Scrolls, and probably more on the way. Has there been any consideration to tying them together, lore-wise, or with reward mechanics? 

We have considered it, yes.

Elder Scrolls is known for being a clockwork sandbox where you can get to know a character's routine. And actually a lot of Bethesda RPGs are like that. Fallout, too.

You kind of get to f--- with the simulation.

Yeah, you get to know, this guy wakes up at this time, he goes to his shop. You can interrupt it and make mischief. In an MMO, how difficult is that to do?

There's a couple of things. One is just performance, right, like that simulation is actually running in the single-player games. That's a huge overhead and having that simulation run. In an MMO or persistent state world, that's really obnoxious for the player, because what if you're the player who only logs in when the dude's asleep? That's the kind of trade-off you have to think about when doing this kind of stuff.

We learned there were hints about this in the last update, and so there are probably hints about the next update in this one. There's a meta-story, as you called it. Does that meta-story have a climax or an end-point in mind?

Yes, definitely.

How long-term is that plan? Ten years? 

No, it'll be much sooner than that.

Where do you see MMOs going? MMO DNA is in everything these days.

It's changing and morphing. Now it's more talking about the technology than the style of game. I definitely see games, especially newer ones coming out, that will be much smaller in scale and scope, to focus on the social connections. The thing that keeps you playing the online game, when you've completed all the content, is the people. That's what really keeps you coming back. Peole are really going to leverage those social aspects. 

Even this update seems like it's starting to respond to where you see MMOs going. When you started Elder Scrolls Online, everyone was responding to World of Warcraft. This one is introducing something that's very reminiscent of a shooter–capture the flag modes and things like that. 

One Tamriel was the big one. I can play with anybody regardless of alliance, regardless of race, regardless of level. That's the big social thing. Don't separate players, let them play with whoever they want, however they want. Then, start adding new systems in that support that.

If MMOs are heading more towards a social space, what do you think is going to be the next leap in that space? How are you looking ahead to be ready to respond to that? 

Finding ways to utilize what I'll call second screen–everybody's roaming with a mobile phone. How do you make a companion app or something that to easily communicate with somebody or your friends when you're not in-game? I think that'll be the next leap, tying together those experiences.

So that's not something you're necessarily actually planning.

No, that's just spitballing. We have no plans for it but I think that's the next logical step. When I look at my family, we all have cell phones. So the way we communicate is through text message. 

What's your main?

I have a ton of characters. 

Are they all max level?

Yeah, I have like six max-level characters, 720 Champion points. 

Do you have a time log for each character?

I actually have a report that I had the guys do for everybody do in the studio so I know exactly how long everybody's played. So yeah, I have well over 1100 hours played. I gravitate a little bit more towards my stamina Sorc and my magicka Sorc. I do have a magicka Nightblade, magicka Templar. I have one of every class, so eight characters who are all max level. In PvP I tend to play my magicka Sorc and in PvE I tend to play my stamina Sorc more.

In a game like this, an MMO, what's it like for you? As someone who knows all the nooks and crannies but you're seeing the community react to it for the first time.

It's really exciting to watch them dig through things and theory-craft on possible builds. That's the stuff that I really love. I love the story as well, but I really love the, 'oh, this is the most effective way to build a character' or the way to take item sets and synergize them with abilities.

Do they ever surprise you?

All the time, and that's the stuff that's the most entertaining. Seeing people get in there, take what they do, even taking a niche item set and building a character around an item set. That's really exciting stuff. 

How does that feedback loop play into what you're planning next?

It's interesting, every time we do a balance pass you see some flavor-of-the-month builds. Those shift based on the tuning and tweaking that we're doing. With One Tamriel we introduced a bunch of new item sets, monster sets. And they had cool abilities that would go off. One of the things that we knew was going to be a potential issue was the damage that they could do. What we saw was a lot of people in PvE loved them, and in PvP, a lot of the guys just instantly gravitated towards them because it was a lot of extra damage, burst. In PvP, burst is king. So we added this mechanic, we thought it was great, it's really strong in PvE, and it's even stronger in PvP, but we didn't necessarily think that would happen.


This Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind preview was based on a pre-release, hands-off demo of the game at an event where food was provided by ZeniMax Onine. Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind releases June 6.

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