These are busy times for The Elder Scrolls Online developer Zenimax Online. The studio recently decided to include the Morrowind Chapter with the base game for free, and there's also a Free Play event running through April 26th where new players can jump into the game for free on all platforms and then pick up The Elder Scrolls Online at a discounted price should they wish to continue playing.
But the most exciting release of the year, the new High Isle Chapter, is coming in early June for PC and late June for consoles. I've had the chance to attend a remote presentation of High Isle featuring Game Director Rich Lambert, who was eager to reveal its main features.
To begin with, The Elder Scrolls Online may have surpassed the massive milestone of 20 million players across PC, consoles, and Stadia not long ago, but Lambert said the game is already approaching 21 million users. It's likely the figure will be reached soon enough. As usual with the game's Chapters, this expansion won't be just focused on veteran players, thanks to the scaling system.
Lambert then added that the explorable space and available content in High Isle will be comparable to previous Chapters, so don't be afraid of the tiny size of the Systres Archipelago on the maps.
Interestingly, the very existence of High Isle was previously only documented in a single map from the spin-off game The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard. This allowed Zenimax a great deal of leeway in how they expanded the existing Breton lore. The archipelago's main island was built to be the pinnacle of Breton culture and architecture, which is very reminiscent of Arthurian-inspired mythology with its castles and tournament fields. High Isle is also a resort vacation for the nobility.
The second island (Amenos) is essentially a prison, though. This is where political prisoners, criminals, and dissidents are sent off, and they have to fend for themselves once inside. The environment of Amenos is a lush rainforest, with the main prison set inside a caldera.
Overall, as hinted ever since the Chapter's announcement, the story will be one of political intrigue instead of the doomsday plots seen in Blackwood and other previous content releases. High Isle is hosting secret peace talks to end the Three Banners War, but a secret group of organized separatists called The Ascendant Order wants to disrupt the conference. It will be up to the players to stop them, of course.
Beyond the regular new content (including the pirate-themed 12-player endgame Trial, Dreadsail Reef), a significant addition coming with High Isle is undoubtedly the Tales of Tribute card game, a completely new activity that players can initiate from anywhere in the world. It'll feature a PvE storyline and even a PvP ranking system. Lambert described it as a competitive, turn-based two-sided resource deck-building game. Core to Tales of Tribute are Patrons, a series of cards thematically linked together. There are eight unique Patron Decks, four of which will be collected after completing the tutorial. Each deck includes 20 or so cards that come with their own mechanics, and some cards can even be upgraded.
Tales of Tribute has two victory conditions, Contested and Patron Victory. As you generate resources and Power during your turn, those get wiped out on the following turn, but with Power, any leftover from the previous turn will be converted into Victory Points. The winner is the first player to reach 40 points and successfully hold for a turn. The other victory condition is entirely different: a losing player could focus on gaining the favor of all four Patrons simultaneously, which is an automatic win regardless of the Victory Points score. There'll be plenty of incentives to play Tales of Tribute, such as gold, consumables, transmute crystals, furnishings, crafting materials, recipes, motifs, and cosmetics.
As usual with any Chapter, High Isle also comes with a free update, the game's 34th. It will contain several quality of life improvements like the addition of Mundus Stones to the Armory Station, a re-factor of the leaderboards system to make it a lot more reliable, a new quick select wheel for the keyboard & mouse that is now segmented like the gamepad UI, and lastly support for AMD's FidelityFX Super Resolution (FSR) on PC.
After the presentation, I've been able to chat at length with Rich Lambert about High Isle and The Elder Scrolls Online as a whole.
One of the things you talked about in your High Isle presentation was the pandemic's impact on your team, especially for the Greymoor Chapter launch. Can you speak a bit about how the team is structured now? Are you still working from home, or is it a hybrid situation?
We're in a really good place now. This is essentially our third Chapter working from home, so we've learned a lot over that period and learned how to be collaborative. But also, some of us have started returning to the office. We're doing a very flexible, hybrid-type system with the team. Some people are in the office, some people are still at home, and it's working really well for us.
That's great. Would you say that productivity has gone back to normal pre-pandemic levels?
It's certainly better than when we were still in full lockdown. There's still things that we can improve on to get back to where we were beforehand, but we've learned to mitigate a lot of those things.
It's always an interesting topic to discuss in the post-pandemic world.
Yeah, it's such an interesting thing. When you look at it, you take for granted just how many game development problems get solved by the one-off ad hoc water cooler conversations. And when you can't do those because you're all at home and you're all far away from each other, it makes it really, really hard, and you don't realize just how important those conversations were.
Jumping from hybrid to hybrid, the last The Elder Scrolls Online Update (33) introduced full hybridization for the game's classes. I'm curious about the feedback you got from the community after this rather major change for DPS classes.
It's actually been really positive. I know many of the initial reactions were like, what are you doing? But players have had their hands on this for a while now and they really like the freedom of choice. Newer players especially really like it because they don't make as many mistakes in choosing the wrong skill. They just pick a skill that they think sounds cool to them and it works now. Then at the top end, players are starting to figure out and play with more is they can do this hybridization to help solve some of the resource issues they were having at the higher end. It's this really neat, interesting kind of game of min-maxing for those groups now.
Yeah, I'm personally playing a Magicka Templar now, but I've also picked up lots of Stamina skills. It's fully hybrid right now, and it feels pretty good. Are you planning to do more work in that area to improve hybrid builds further?
We're certainly looking at other things. We're definitely looking at player feedback, definitely looking at balance issues. I don't think I can say with an MMO that we will ever be done because we constantly get new players, players keep finding new things, and we keep finding things we wanna fix.
That makes sense. With Update 33, you also overhauled a couple of skills that weren't up to snuff, like Power Bash and Lotus Flower. Do you have any more of these skill overhauls coming to The Elder Scrolls Online in the near future?
Yeah, we're certainly looking at stuff. Most of the Update 34 things coming alongside the High Isle Chapter are balance oriented, but we are looking at some skills for Update 35 and 36, for sure.
Just to see if we can dispel one of the myths running within The Elder Scrolls Online community, is it true that you'd have problems introducing any additional skill trees due to the limited memory of old-generation consoles (PlayStation 4, Xbox One)?
Nothing is impossible. I mean, we do have to be careful. There's only so much memory on those consoles for sure and we have to be smart about what we do. We do have a focus on performance and making the game run really well. So there's a balance.
Okay. But it is not impossible that new skill trees may be added to The Elder Scrolls Online in the future.
It is not impossible, no.
That's good to know. Since you mentioned performance, that's a big thing that you've been doing under the hood for quite a few years now. How is that going, particularly with the data center update?
Well, we are much further ahead on the client-side of things, in terms of things like memory usage and frame rate and whatnot. Server-side, it is a very, very long slow process. Like Matt Firor mentioned at the end of last year, we're reworking a lot of things on the back end, so that takes time. Server-wise, in terms of data center refresh, we're getting really close to that. One of the reasons why we actually moved up our EU sharding maintenance was so that we could un-gate the team to start working on the server refresh stuff. So, exciting times ahead.
I know there have been some server issues, first with the North American megaserver, and then later there were a few issues with the European megaserver as well after the sharding update. Were those related to the sharding after all?
The North American issue actually was a result of faulty hardware. We initially thought it was due to the sharding because it started to happen around that time and we poured over the code and started digging through things repeatedly. We ended up finding the problem, and it was essentially a bad network port. Once we replaced that, the North American server got better and hasn't had any issues since. The EU server problem has mainly just been due to load. There's just been an incredible number of people logging into the game these last few weeks, so we're dealing with that right now.
That's good to know from the standpoint of the game's health. I also wanted to ask about crossplay, which is getting more prevalent in games, but you have said in the past that it's not possible for The Elder Scrolls Online because of the megaserver structure. Is that still the case? Could there be a way to introduce crossplay between PC and consoles at some point?
I don't think anything is impossible. If you spend enough time and resources, you can probably find solutions. But it is a very, very thorny problem to solve. We just celebrated our eighth anniversary, but we've been in development since 2007 and some of those decisions we made back in 2007 are very, very hard to undo at this point. Outside of the technical challenges, though, there's also, like you said, the mega servers and there are whole communities on there that have all of the social circles established, have all the economic circles established. What happens if you start taking some of those people out of those and putting them in others? It is definitely a thorny problem and we don't have any plans right now to do that.
Okay. Matt also talked about PvP additions being delayed until the server restructure is completed. How is that going? Can you provide an update on this ongoing process?
We're still working on it. As I said a little bit earlier, it is very, very slow because it requires a lot of, you know, rewriting and reworking of a lot of backend things, but the team's working on it, and hopefully in the near-ish future, we'll be able to talk a little bit more about that and what the plans are.
To switch topics a bit, one of the things I enjoyed the most when I got back into the game was Endeavors because they allow people to just play the game and potentially get some stuff that is usually only available in the Crown Store. That said, I've seen that it takes quite a bit of time, even doing the daily and weekly Endeavors on a regular basis, to get to a level where you can actually buy something really interesting. I'm wondering if there is any plan to increase the number of Endeavor points that can be earned. I saw that there was a significant bump for the weekly Endeavors last week. Was that just a one-off?
We're constantly looking at that and playing with numbers, trying to tune and tweak the numbers. I think right now we're in a pretty good state just in terms of overall balance, but we're constantly tinkering. We don't have any plans to increase them dramatically, but I would definitely pay attention in the coming weeks and months to the numbers because we tweak them a lot.
With High Isle, fans of the Breton race will finally discover some additional lore on this fascinating culture. Can you tell us if there will be any familiar faces that folks who've completed the Glenumbra and Stormhaven storylines will recognize?
There are absolutely some very favorite and near and dear to our heart characters coming back with this.
Do you have an estimate on how long it'll take to complete the story in this Chapter?
To do every bit of story content in the High Isle Chapter is about 30 hours, so it's about the same size and scope as the previous chapters.
Is there going to be a way to get the Outfit/Costume of the Ascendant Lord (High Isle's main villain), either in the Trial or some other way?
I'm just gonna have to say, you're gonna have to wait and see on that one!
Fair enough. Of course, one of the big additions is the card game Tales of Tribute. Aren't you worried that the activity will take away players from the game world?
We’re not worried because we want the game to be full of options. The more ways players have to enjoy the world, the better.
Can you talk about the player's ability to interact with the treasury? That was something mentioned in the slide, but the presentation actually didn't go into it.
Sure. The treasury is essentially a fifth patron. It's part of kind of the starter deck. The treasury allows you to convert your starter gold, which is worth one, into a writ of coins, so to speak, which essentially upgrades it to two coins. It's a way to just generate income faster because you're getting rid of your starter cards and upgrading to more powerful ones.
You've mentioned that there will be Seasonal PvP within Tales of Tribute.
Absolutely. Yep. Seasonal leaderboards.
Do you already have an estimate of how long the seasons will last?
I believe right now they are 30 days, so kinda like the Cyrodiil 30-day campaigns.
You've listed quite a few incentives to play Tales of Tribute, from gold to motifs and whatnot, but are these rewards unique to the card game, or are they shared with the other activities?
There are a number of unique rewards here, but stuff like the crafting materials and gold and transmute crystals are obviously kind of shared things that you can get in multiple locations.
High Isle also includes a new Trial, Dreadsail Reef. You said that it'll be roughly the size and scope of Rockgrove; is that correct?
Does that mean it'll feature three main bosses and some mini bosses?
Yep. It'll follow the same kind of pattern as Rockgrove. The big differentiator between this and Rockgrove, however, is that there are some environmental challenges that you have to deal with in Dreadsail Reef as well. The team definitely took a lot of lessons learned from Rockgrove and made some pretty dramatic changes.
Do you expect it to be tougher to complete than existing Trial content?
I always make a statement on difficulty and players always prove me wrong because that's how players work. I think right now, balance-wise, it's about the same difficulty as Rockgrove. Players seem to think that rock was pretty on point in terms of balance, especially at the high end, for the Hard Modes. So that's what we're shooting for.
With regards to companions, will there be any new levels, skills, or loot to acquire in High Isle?
Our focus on companions was to make the overall experience better. We emphasized things like more dialog so they repeat less, better stories, smarter interactions/comments on the world, and adjusting various combat situations.
You've said that High Isle will add support for AMD's FidelityFX Super Resolution. Is that the 1.0 or 2.0 version, though?
FSR 1.0 is what is shipping with The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle Chapter this June.
Is there any specific reason why the game is available on Game Pass for consoles but not on PC? Will it ever be available on the PC side of the subscription service?
There are technical reasons as to why that is. It's a lot easier to just "drop" the build into the console ecosystem, as Microsoft handles all that on their end, plus there is no required development work. With PC, there is a lot more work to do and pipelines to set up. It is something that we (ZeniMax Online Studios & Microsoft) would love to have happen at some point.
The final question is kind of a pet peeve of mine. I love the questing in The Elder Scrolls Online and I've often compared it even to single player RPGs for its quality, but there is a downside that lots of players have been discussing on Reddit and other forums. That's the difficulty level of questing, story, and Overland content; it's just too low even if you are not fully decked in Trial gear. So my question is, did you consider adding an optional Veteran-like mode for those who'd like to play, for example, the storylines or even Overland content with a greater level of challenge?
That's a difficult one because difficulty is definitely subjective. We have millions of players that play The Elder Scrolls Online, and a large portion of them find the game hard and the Overland content challenging, especially as a new player when you don't have gold, all the gear, and Champion Points. Ultimately it comes down to, if we make the game harder, what are the incentives for players to play it at the harder level? That opens up a whole huge can of worms. I also look back and remember we had harder Overland content. We had Cadwell Silver, we had Cadwell Gold, and players really didn't like it. It was too hard for them, and when we did One Tamriel, we ripped all that out based on player feedback. Like, nobody did it. So it's a challenging subject and a difficult question to answer. All I can really say is we're definitely looking at it, but we don't have any major changes planned for the Overland difficulty.
I did see that there is a pinned Overland content topic on the official forums where you are gathering feedback, right?
Yeah. It comes up pretty often. It is definitely a hot topic right now.
Okay. Well, I do hope there will eventually be an optional harder difficulty level for those who'd like that kind of challenge even while questing.
Thank you for your time.