Hack The Minotaur Chats with Rich Lambert
I recently sat down with Rich Lambert, Creative Director at Zenimax Online Studios for The Elder Scrolls Online. We chatted about ESO’s most recent chapter release: ESO Necrom, and what he and his team have planned for the rest of 2023 and beyond!
Necrom Chapter Release
The Necrom Chapter for ESO was well-received by most players for the sheer amount of content it added to the game, including a brand new class, the Arcanist, two large playable zones, two new companions, a new trial, and much more.
HTM: What would you say you’re most proud of with the Necrom Chapter?
Rich: A ton of effort went into the entire update! Obviously, the new Class, the Arcanist, is something that we’re incredibly proud of. It was a super long process of around two years to do this class. There were also a lot of technical challenges we had to solve. There were many thematic and mechanical challenges we also needed to solve. I also think being able to tell our own story about Hermaeus Mora was something that I’m proud of. There’s a really cool balance of nostalgia and also something completely new, and I think the team killed it!
HTM: You mentioned a lot of technical challenges. Was the biggest challenge the Arcanist class?
Rich: That definitely was the biggest.
For those that don’t understand why that’s hard to do, in combat, there’s a lot of things that you always have to have loaded or “pre-cached,” and that takes memory.
Whenever you add an entirely new suite of animations into something, those need to get loaded into memory. Finding ways to get that to load into the client so that you don’t see T-Poses or animations failing – that’s a big deal to solve. And so we had to get a bunch of memory back in the game client to be able to do that.
Building the new Arcanist Class
The Arcanist Class is ESO’s first new class since 2019’s Elsweyr Chapter which added the Necromancer. I asked Rich specifically about the development process for the Arcanist as well as one of my favorite mechanics with this new class: Crux.
HTM: Broadly speaking, for those of us that aren’t in game development, what does that process look like to bring a new class into an MMO?
Rich: What we do, and we’ve learned a lot over the years, every time we create something new, we learn. We’ve also done a few new classes at this point, so we’ve learned a lot.
One of the things we did really early on was to lay down some heavy guidelines or rules for the team to work with or “acceptance criteria.” The big ones we laid out were: it had to be thematically tied to this update (Necrom), it had to play differently than any of the other classes, and it can’t destroy performance.
From there, the team iterates on ideas. We come up with a ton of what we call “one-pagers.” You put as much information as you can into one page to get across what you’re going for, and then we start to narrow down the best ideas from there.
Next, we get into implementation, where we iterate on those things you saw on paper – now we’re putting them into the game and playing them and trying to find the right mix. It was a long process, and there were definitely bumps along the way.
We got hung up really early on on the name of the class, so much so that it was actually causing a lot of problems. We had trouble building things because if you call it a “bard” or a “sorcerer”, then there’s certain criteria that comes with that. So we ended up just calling it “Bob” internally, and then once we did that, it was incredibly freeing to the team.
“Bob” could mean whatever we wanted, and then we could come up with cool mechanics and interesting themes. We worked through that, and we landed on the Crux system shortly after that, and things continued on from there.
HTM: I was curious about how Crux got added to the Arcanist. Now that I have a ton of hours spent playing multiple different Arcanist builds, the Crux mechanic is one of my favorite aspects of the new class. Were there any different versions of Crux that were considered?
Rich: We tried a ton of different things. Crux ended up shaking out of that “acceptance criteria” bullet where we wanted the class to play differently than anything else we’ve got in the game. And so we focused on that as a big thing.
There were several variations of Crux. We considered Crux as a “hard” system where you couldn’t actually use abilities unless you had Crux. We didn’t like that because it wasn’t as inclusive as the “soft” system we’ve got right now, where you can always use your abilities, you just get bonuses for using Crux. That just felt better, so a lot of that shook out in playtesting, and we did a ton of it!”
Class Change Tokens and Class Updates
HTM: It reminds me a bit of the Necromancer class in ESO, which uses corpses, but more streamlined. I do like it a lot. Do you think you would ever go back to the base game classes and add that additional layer of something like Crux to add some extra depth to those classes’ combat options?
Rich: We’ve certainly had that question asked a lot, and there’s a delicate line to walk with that. Players are very particular to the things they have played, and they fall in love with their classes. Over the years, we’ve tried to make changes to abilities and animations, but it’s tough.
We made some changes to Templar. Jabs was a big one. We did some changes to Dual Wield (with Flurry’s animation), and there were strong reactions for and against. So I don’t know that I would say never, but we have to be very careful. Again, using Templar and Jabs as an example: I think it weaves better and looks overall better, it looks more modern, but there are a lot of players that say, “Whoa, this is the worst thing you’ve ever done!”
HTM: The other comment I’ve seen a lot since the Arcanist was released is the idea of a Class Change Token. Players that only have one main character, for example, were hoping for something like that. I understand the team said “No” initially, but could you expand on why? Is it not in the design vision for ESO, a balance issue, a technical limitation, or some combination of those things?
Rich: It’s more of a combination of those things. On the technical side of things, there are challenges associated with it. We are still, to this day, chasing Alliance Change bugs and issues on the live servers. So there’s that side of things.
On the design side of things, there’s not a lot of friction to your class choice right now, and class has a meaning and an identity. My fear with putting the Class Change tokens in there, outside of all the technical challenges, is then everybody just becomes whatever the flavor of the month class is at the time. That’s not good.
Apocrypha and Hermaeus Mora
HTM: Other than the Arcanist class, which is great, I think my favorite new addition to ESO with the Necrom Chapter is the zone of Apocrypha. I actually did a video showcase of the zone on the YouTube channel, in a new format for me, which was just walking through the zone exploring, and it got so much positive feedback.
Obviously, Apocrypha has been seen before in Skyrim DLC. Still, you added a new spin on things by including a visually stunning area of Apocrypha called Chroma Incognito which has never been seen before.
Can you talk about the balancing act of honoring classic TES content while still trying to add your own fresh take on things? In other words, how do you decide when to recreate something from a previous TES title vs. create something completely new?
Rich: That’s something that we’ve had to learn over the years. There’s a lot of nostalgia in the world. A lot of people have played Elder Scrolls games over the last 30 years. What we try to do is we always want to pay service to that, but we are also a thousand years before any of the other games have happened, and so we try to go into these things like “what would this area look like a thousand years in the past?”
In the case of the Daedric princes, one of the things we want to do is try to show the multiple aspects of them because in a lot of the single-player games there’s only really time to focus on a small part of them – because those are games telling a story and we get a little more flexibility than that.
We try to find that line between old and new, and where we can, we try to show you things that you’ve never seen before because it just excites people to dig in to the lore more and maybe see things they’ve only read about (in lore books).
HTM: Another standout to me with Necrom was the return of Wes Johnson in his role of Hermaeus Mora, which he previously voiced in Skyrim. Wes did an amazing job in the Necrom chapter! When did you decide you wanted Wes to reprise his role as the Daedric Prince of Knowledge, and what did that process look like?
Rich: We knew pretty early on that Hermaeus Mora was going to be a central figure in the story that we wanted to tell and we wanted to go back to that Nostalgia with Wes as the voice of Hermaeus Mora. It’s interesting – at launch, when we did some of the (base game) Hermaeus Mora content, because of scheduling, there just wasn’t a good opportunity for us to work with him. So we had to do our own thing then, but because they were smaller parts, it didn’t feel like it was going to be as big of a deal, but when Mora was going to be a big part of the Necrom story, we wanted to get him.
HTM: The entire cast of voice actors you chose for Necrom is also incredible, including Meln The Mouthless (@KamranNikhad), Scruute (@hezzy_starrVO), and Leramil (@TheMelaLee), among many others. How important is it to you to find the right voice actors when building content for ESO, and how do they help you successfully tell the stories you want to tell in this world?
Rich: It makes all the difference in the world. The emotion in the voices and the actors really bring everything alive. It’s a huge treat for me when I go on the live servers to play it because that’s usually the first time I’m actually hearing the final voices. All throughout development, we have what we call “Robo VO,” where it’s just a robot reading the lines to help with pacing. It takes a while to record the dialog, and we only want to have to do that once so that comes in at the tail end after all the text is locked and we’re happy with the quests.
It always blows me away how different and how much better it feels, so voice acting is a huge part of ESO, making the world feel the way it does.
Necrom’s Mic Drop Moment
HTM: I want to talk about the Necrom ending. This was actually a surprise! I won’t include any spoilers, but this ending has major implications not just for ESO but also for the future of all TES games, so anyone who has not experienced it yet definitely should!
Matt’s Studio Director’s letter last year mentioned that ESO would go back to longer story arcs, so can we assume we will see some continuation of what was revealed in Necrom’s story in next year’s 2024 chapter as well? Will it be Necrom part 2 involving more of the same characters or something more loosely related?
Rich: I won’t spoil anything because we still have plans on how we want to announce this stuff, but I think it’s a safe bet if you played through the storyline and you saw the ending, which really was basically a “mic drop” – we want to do something different and tell stories in a different way, and we’ve never done this before, and so we wanted to try it and see how it would work and how that would resonate with players.
The story will continue. Maybe not necessarily in the way you think it will, but it will continue. As we get closer to announcing the next chapter, we’ll talk in a lot more depth and detail about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
Ditching The Year-Long Adventures
HTM: We’ve all become accustomed to that year-long adventure cadence for ESO releases over the past several years. How has it been now for the team to move away from that schedule?
Rich: Change is always scary. We had gotten into this routine, if you will, almost to the negative side of things. It was brought up by a lot of players in the community that it almost felt formulaic. So that was a bit of a wake-up call, and we wanted to change some of that.
We also just wanted to improve the game overall and put more time into fixing bugs and stability issues. These changes all help do that and help make ESO as good as we can.
We are just now starting to realize the fruits of those labors. The team is already working on next year’s chapter and has been for a while now, so we’re already seeing some of those changes, and I think they’re going well overall. The game is in a better state than it’s ever been, and we had one of our best launches ever with Necrom in terms of stability. We had no hotfixes at all from launch. No major surprises or issues, so it was definitely better.
A Break For Bugs
HTM: In the third quarter of 2023, which will be ESO’s 39th update, the focus for ESO will be on quality-of-life updates and bug fixes. We’ve already seen the Patch Notes for Update 39, which include over 40 pages of bug fixes and improvements!
The ESO team typically squashes a few bugs every update, so how has this update been different? Was there a specific strategy or focus?
Rich: It really depends. Every team has a backlog of bugs to fix or tasks that we want to get done. We told them to get as much as they can. What you see as 40 pages of patch notes is actually many things combined, especially on the world-building and art side of things. So there might be a line in there that says, “fixed a bunch of floating things” and that’s 1000 bug fixes in itself.
We just tried to make sure our teams had time to go through their backlogs and prioritize them and hit them, starting with the highest-priority bugs and working their way down.
We also tried to triage those issues in terms of risk. Some things are more risky to fix. I’ll give you a good example: stuck in combat. We saw people say, “how come you didn’t fix this issue on PTS?” – because it’s risky and it touches a lot of things, and because it’s not a simple thing to solve. And we have been trying to fix it for years with various things and it hasn’t worked. So there is a game of triage in there as well.
What’s Next: ESO’s Endless Dungeon
HTM: For ESO’s 4th Quarter Update this year, we’ve had a few more hints dropped suggesting that a new game mode will arrive and that this is some form of 2-player Endless Dungeon! This is exciting for several reasons, including a 2-player content focus which is new to ESO. What inspired this idea, and why is it a good fit for ESO?
Rich: Yeah, so this idea has been floated around for a very long time now. Maelstrom Arena was originally pitched as a solo, duo, and group arena.
Obviously, there were tons of technical challenges associated with that, and there’s time associated with all that as well, so we ended up just saying it’s a Solo Arena. So that idea has been around for a very long time.
When we decided we were going to focus a little bit more on fixing bugs and trying to come up with some systems that were not so one-off, it just fit the bill for what we wanted to do.
I won’t get into all the details yet, but I’m really excited about it. It blends some of my passions. I’m big into rogue-likes and those dungeon-crawler-type games, and so there’s a really cool blend there that I think players are going to be really excited about once they get in and start playing.
HTM: That is super exciting! Just a clarifying question on that. You’ve said it’s for two “players.” Can I bring a companion, or is it just for (human) players?
Rich: You can bring a companion, or you can bring a (human) player.
HTM: Okay. I think that’s a great call considering how many people like to play solo, or their friends may just not be online at the time. Can you confirm if this will be paid DLC or part of the base game?
Rich: I can’t talk about that yet, but players will be happy.
Mega Server and PVP Updates
HTM: I want to switch topics briefly to discuss ESO’s mega servers. I understand that the work happening behind the scenes regarding server hardware updates is still going on, planning to roll out upgrades for every ESO mega server in 2023 (other than PC NA, which was upgraded in 2022).
For players that might not be aware, can you explain what this process entails and how it will benefit their gameplay experience?
Rich: The mega server when you get down to it, is just a series of PCs connected together in pods that run the game. There’s database servers, there’s physics servers, there’s instance launchers. All these things wrap into the “server for ESO,” and that’s what the client connects to.
That hardware is getting old. It’s near end of life, and we had to replace it. Most of the replacement stuff has been done. I think there’s one server left that hasn’t been finished – maybe two.
Really what that means is it’s new hardware that gets in there – current-gen stuff. It’s a lot more powerful, and it can just do things faster, and so the game and the servers just run better.
Where you’re going to see that is things like latency or how long it takes the server to load something from the database. We’ve seen, especially in Cyrodiil, a marked improvement in overall performance, which is really good. You will still run into issues with lag, but it’s nowhere near as bad or near as long as spikes used to be.
HTM: You mentioned Cyrodiil, so I’m curious about PVP performance and content. Now that new mega server hardware is getting implemented, do you see ESO bringing in new forms of PVP content other than item sets? Things like a new mode or new PVP maps? Is that more likely in the future now with the hardware upgrades?
Rich: Absolutely. I’ve always said that performance is our first priority. Now that performance is in a much better place, we can start putting more time into that and getting more PVP modes and different game types. I can’t promise when that’s going to happen because it takes time to do that, but yeah, we are looking and working.
What About That “Maintenance Mode” Rumor?
HTM: Final question. When you guys announced the new release cadence for this year, some people immediately became suspicious that ESO was entering a new stage of “maintenance mode,” meaning less support and fewer updates overall for the game. What is your response to that, and what can you say about the ESO team’s dedication to maintaining and improving ESO content over the next few years?
Rich: “Dead game!” We hear that all the time. Like I said earlier: change is scary. It scares everybody, and it scares us too. We had to answer those questions internally as well. “What do you mean we’re not doing this? Are we putting the game on the shelf?”
No. We’re not doing any of that stuff. As long as people want to play the game, we are going to continue to support it and add to it and build on it. ESO is a vibrant game with an amazing community, and it’s still growing. Why would we kill it? That doesn’t make any sense!
We do have to look at things and reevaluate what we’re doing and make sure that it continues to make sense. This latest change, a lot of that has stemmed from things we have to work on. There’s things we need to improve and get better; Bring the stability up, make sure performance is better, and that is going to take away from some of the other things we’ve done. It doesn’t mean we’re never going to do those things again. It just means there’s higher priorities we have to focus on in order to make ESO as good as we can.
HTM: That’s all the questions I have for you, Rich. I really appreciate your time, and good luck with the rest of the year!
Where to go next
Don’t forget to check out our Arcanist Builds to help you get started exploring this powerful new class in ESO! And don’t forget to watch our complete Arcanist guide to learn all the basics!