ESO dev explains long road to success: "It's a different game now"

ESO dev explains long road to success: "It's a different game now"
Images via Zenimax Online Studios

Written by 

Joshua Boyles


12th Apr 2023 15:00

As I sat down with the creative director of Elder Scrolls Online, Rich Lambert, I was brutally honest with my experience of the game so far. Having not played ESO since 2014 when it launched in a fairly sorry state, I was curious to see how the upcoming Necrom expansion and the updates before it might have turned the ship around. 

“It’s a different game now,” explained Lambert, and after a few hours of previewing the new Necrom expansion, I’m inclined to believe him.

A new era for ESO

Elder Scrolls Online Necrom Interview
Click to enlarge

Since ESO first launched almost a decade ago, the MMO has seen six expansions and countless additional DLC to bring it into the limelight. Necrom is the upcoming seventh expansion for the game and is set to take players back to an area that hasn’t been seen in a very, very long time.

The Telvani Peninsula last appeared in an Elder Scrolls game during the early days of Arena in 1994. This eastern pocket of Morrowind is home to the Telvani people, who Lambert describes as “powerful, all about knowledge and the studying of magic”. Necrom may be returning to Morrowind, but it’s shedding a much different light on the province this time around.

Something for Skyrim fans to be excited about is that Necrom is also making a return to the realm of Hermaeus Mora - that’s the Deadric god with lots of tentacles and eyes from the Dragonborn DLC. Here, you’ll be working alongside Mora once again to uncover the secrets of both the Telvani Peninsula and Aprocypha - the Oblivion plane he resides in.

This combination of settings has given the art team a lot to work with. The consoles of the time didn’t give Arena many choices in how it depicted the Telvani Peninsula with the bare minimum pixels, but art director CJ Grebb explained that the team had lots of fun designing around that: “There are the walls made of books and the idea of a land that was so full of books that you could form the walls of buildings and structures could be made from this.”

On the flip side, the realm of Hermaeus Mora invokes something a little more Lovecraftian, which is a dream come true for any designer. “Our artists came up with some new ideas for expanding on what was done in Arena and Dragonborn, and then our world builders went absolutely bonkers in the delves, objectives and dungeons to make something that I think is unique and people are going to love seeing.”

In fact, the world design of Necrom is something that Lambert was initially worried about in the early stages of development, “I was terrified when we said we were gonna build everything out of books - that’s a lot of draw calls! How are the textures gonna work?!” 

Thankfully, the efforts of the whole team have paid off. The final product is something that invokes an immense amount of nostalgia as someone who adores Skyrim, but also a new sense of wonder as we blow off the dust from areas of Tamriel that have been untouched for over a decade.

New class, new rules

ESO Necrom expansion Arcanist class
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A huge addition to the Necrom expansion is the new Arcanist class. This will be the newest class addition since the Necromancer class was added in the Elseweyer expansion in 2019. So, why has it taken so long for a new class to arrive in ESO?

Lambert explains that “Necromancy and dragons didn’t really go together. They’re cool and we found a way to make it work, but they’re definitely not as tightly integrated as the Arcanist is to Necrom.”

The Arcanist is a spell-wielding class that draws its power from the realm of Hermaeus Mora. As one of the more visually striking classes in ESO so far, it’s also set to be one of the more versatile. Players can choose to spec their skills into one of three branches, which will let you play the character in more of a healing or damage playstyle.

It seems that the team has certainly learned from past mistakes as the Arcanist feels the most grounded in its surroundings of any of the available classes in ESO so far. The green magic spell effects and sounds blend with the environment perfectly, invoking a sense of power that few MMOs can really convey.

“I love those sessions where we’re talking with a concept artist about literally ripping words out of pages and throwing them at your targets,” Lambert reminisces about the design process of certain Arcanist spells. “That didn’t work for animation reasons, but you still have that feeling when you’re shooting enemies out there”.

How do you start playing ESO in 2023?

ESO Necrom expansion world
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So, the scene is set. Necrom is arriving in ESO in June 2023 with what seems like more content than ever before. The community and player base surrounding the game is a dedicated one, but how does the team expect to continue bringing in new players to an MMO that’s been running for almost a decade?

“We have a really amazing core base of players, but you have to feed the beast, so to speak, and continually bring in new players,” explains Lambert. “I think we’ve done a really good job of that, but I think we can also do better. That’s where a lot of the quality-of-life improvements come in when a new player can play and not be so overwhelmed by that initial experience.

“Because it is daunting! The game has been live for nine years and it’s very much a traditional Elder Scrolls game where you play the tutorial and then go out on your own.”

Grebb also chimes in by explaining that the forums are an excellent place to start if you’re thinking about jumping into ESO for the first time. “You’ll get community members immediately drop into threads like that and say ‘It’s ok, jump in, you’ll find help, DM me if you have questions’”.

What’s next for ESO?

ESO Necrom key art
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What strikes me about Lambert and Grebb while speaking with them is just how much they seem to adore the world of the Elder Scrolls as much as their players. While they deliberated amongst themselves about which era the Telvani derive from and where they lineup in the timeline of the ages, an immense love for the lore radiates from them.

“I’m a huge Elder Scrolls nerd”, explains Lambert. “I’ve been with the company for 18 years now, so Elder Scrolls has been one of the mainstays in my life. I probably don’t know as much as some of the players out there, but yeah - I love it.”

As for where ESO heads next, it’s anyone’s guess. However, Lambert and Grebb made it clear that they’re not ready to walk away from Tamriel anytime soon. “Surely you can’t just keep on asking new regions forever?”, I asked jovially. It was met with an enthusiastic “Why not?!” from both of them.

“There are nearly limitless and infinite possibilities with the Oblivion realms, so we definitely don’t have any shortage of ideas. I’ve said consistently for the last nine years that as long as people want to play it, we’re going to continue to support it.

“There are lots of cool stories to still tell,” Lambert puts it succinctly.

Grebb feels similarly: “I’m in no hurry to walk away. There’s so much more to do, so many more places that we want to go, so we’ll keep making it.”

If you needed any more convincing that ESO is worth a try in 2023, it was recently nominated in the Best Evolving Game category at the BAFTAs. On this, Lambert says that it’s great to see the game receive such recognition even years after launch. “It’s been nine years and the team has put a lot of effort into the game. 

“Just seeing it grow from launch to where it is now and seeing the community grow too, it’s super rewarding and exciting.”

The Necrom expansion for Elder Scrolls Online launches on June 5 for PC and Mac and June 20 for consoles.

For more Elder Scrolls coverage, keep reading GGRecon.

Joshua is the Guides Editor at GGRecon. After graduating with a BA (Hons) degree in Broadcast Journalism, he previously wrote for publications such as FragHero and GameByte. You can often find him diving deep into fantasy RPGs such as Skyrim and The Witcher, or tearing it up in Call of Duty and Battlefield. He's also often spotted hiking in the wilderness, usually blasting Arctic Monkeys.