The Elder Scrolls Online is preparing to launch one of its biggest updates: a whole new chapter of the game that brings in the island of Vvardenfell from The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Recently, I got the chance to head out to ZeniMax, see what’s new, and chat with the Elder Scrolls Online’s game director Matt Firor.
EGM: You’ve been calling Morrowind a “chapter,” not an “expansion.” Could you expand on that?
Matt Firor: ESO in many ways is not like other MMO-type games. We’re not level based. In all those other games, EverQuest, World of Warcraft, Morrowind would be called an expansion, which has a connotation of being for end-game players. We don’t really have that. We have no levels; anyone could buy this game. So we decided, if you’re a new player, you can buy it and start in Morrrowind, if you’re an existing player you could just go there and play, or if you’re an end-game player you could take your character there too.
EGM: So, you don’t have to have played either Elder Scrolls Online or Morrowind, the original, to jump in.
MF: Correct. You can just go to the store and buy Morrowind and you’re in and have all of the new parts of the game and you have the old game as well.
EGM: If you’ve already been playing ESO, how does the story of Morrowind fit in with the rest of the game?
MF: It’s a separate storyline. Completely separate. It’s actually a physically separate part of Tamriel, the continent where the game takes place. They’re very insular and they don’t care what happens on the rest of the continent. But, at any time, you could go to the old part of the world and kick off that storyline, too. Just like in Skyrim, you had the storyline with the dragons, and you had the storyline with the civil war. It didn’t really matter what order you did them in, they were completely different.
EGM: We have seen some tie-ins in the trailer. Naryu the assassin, for example.
MF: In the launch version of Elder Scrolls Online, we have two zones of Morrowind. Not on Vvardenfell, on the mainland. Naryu is a Morag Tong Assassin that you meet while doing the Ebonheart Pact storyline through those zones. We picked her to be your guide to Vvardenfell because if you played the base game, she’s familiar and she’ll welcome you and ask what you’ve been up to lately, and then go help you with getting set and getting moved over to Vvardenfell. But if you’re a new player, she walks you through the tutorial. She’s just a cool character. It’s a great way to use a character that a lot of people really love to maintain continuity between the two.
EGM: What will players see first when they enter the new area in Morrowind?
MF: If they come in as a new player, they’ll see a new tutorial. You can always see the Red Mountain in the background. Always. You’ll always know that you’re on Vvardenfell. There’s a tutorial that Naryu helps you with. If you’re an existing player and you just want to start, you take a quest in the main part of the game and you go right over to Seyda Need where you started in Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.
EGM: What was it like making the new content with all these pre-existing places, like Seyda Need, to work with? Did sticking with the original map change how things were designed?
MF: Well, we kind of did that with Cyrodil as well when we did the original base game. We used the map from Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. This one is an older game, though. Elder Scrolls III was from 2002. We took their height map and edited it to fit the modern tech. It gave us a great baseline. Like, 700 years from now, we know there’s a town here. What’s there now? Is it a village? Is it nothing, but there’s a guy saying “Hey, I’m gonna found a village here?” Like Vivec City, which is a bunch of islands in Elder Scrolls III, in our game, it’s in the same place, but it’s being built. So some of the islands have construction equipment on them and some aren’t even built yet. It gave us the cool thing of, we know players are going to expect something to be here, so let’s make sure we give them something to look at.
EGM: Were there any lore complications that came from setting the game 700 years in the past?
MF: Yeah. I mean, there always are, but we built the whole game based 700 years in the past. We’ve been doing this for several years now, so we’re very comfortable with that. A lot of the lore in Vvardenfell is a little different, but it’s still part of the same world. We had done all of our research when making the base game so we just applied that to Morrowind. But we had to make sure that character ages were appropriate, characters were old enough to live through both games, and so forth. It was a lot of research, obviously, but it was also a lot of fun.
EGM: You’ve said that there are a few fun Easter eggs hidden in there too, right?
MF: [laughs] Well, Easter egg might be the wrong term. It’s more sentimental moments. And if you run across them and you’ve played Elder Scrolls III you’ll go, “I know what they’re talking about!” You’ll feel it. If you haven’t played Elder Scrolls III, it’ll still be a cool thing. You just won’t get the reference.
EGM: Elder Scrolls III is a game that’s very nostalgic for a lot of people. How did you help capture that nostalgia?
MF: We started by making sure that the map was similar, so if there was something there [in Elder Scrolls III] there would be something similar in [Elder Scrolls Online]. A lot of the characters were based on situations that happened in Elder Scrolls III. We made sure Vivec was one of the main characters, who is of course one of the gods in Elder Scrolls III. The coolest thing about it is that the island itself is really the main character of the game because players know it so well. It’s full of discovery and depth, lots of mystery. It’s a lot of fun to explore.
EGM: Do you have a favorite part of the island?
MF: I think the most sentimental part for me is the Ashlands. When you go across the Ashlands, it feels very much like, “it’s 2002 and I’m playing Morrowind.” You can see the tech advances in some of the other parts of the world, like the mushrooms are much more highly detailed with more polygons, but you go into the Ashlands and there’s lava and soot and it’s great.
EGM: What other upgrades did you make to the map, either just to keep with tech advances or to style it as an MMO?
MF: We did a lot of that work in the base game, but some things we had to change. Buildings have to be bigger, because they have to fit a third person camera, and they have to fit more players than just the one player. But the outsides we really kept as similar as we could. We did make the decision that hey, 700 years ago, the Red Mountain hasn’t erupted quite as much, so the Ashlands are a little smaller, and there’s more lush stuff on the coast for farms and things. But other than that it’s pretty much straight-on.
EGM: Morrowind is also introducing a new class, the Warden. What can you tell me about him?
MF: The Warden’s the first new class since launch, so it’s a big moment for us. Really, it’s a chance to introduce a thematic character. Every character, every class we’ve had has had a theme so far, but we’ve never had that warden-druid-nature guy. The Warden is definitely that nature person that can have animal friends, who can heal with nature and do damage with nature.
EGM: And the Warden’s abilities have some tie-ins to Elder Scrolls III as well. I think I saw some Cliff Racers?
MF: [laughs] Yeah, yeah, Cliff Racers. The scourge of Elder Scrolls III. The Warden has the ability to call one down and do damage to his opponent. We definitely did that as a call-out.
EGM: Way back in the day, some fans found mention of a Warden in the game’s files. Is this Warden similar at all to that one?
MF: It was actually in the beta; we had a class called the Warden which was data-mined. Players went in and unpacked our stuff and looked at it. But that was more a name than a class. This is so much different than what we were thinking about then.
EGM: Just for fun, do you have a favorite class that you like to play?
MF: I usually play sneaky classes in all RPGs. My main is a Nightblade. I don’t really have a favorite race, but I’ve played so many different character combinations in the nine or ten years I’ve worked on this project. My main is a Breton; I dual-wield. So I’ve got that. But I think I’ve played every class to max level at this point. Not a Warden yet, but I’m working on it!
EGM: Are there any other parts of Tamriel that you want to revisit?
MF: I really don’t know, because we’ve hit almost every region. But if you look at Tamriel, the map, our map, there’s lots of unexplored space left, so we’re very much looking forward to filling that in over time. We do have to fit in the world, so we have to make sure the stuff that comes later [in Elder Scrolls VI and beyond] won’t be affected by that.
EGM: Is it possible that something you put in Elder Scrolls Online could end up in Elder Scrolls VI?
MF: When we’re working on the lore, I think that we’re already part of canon. So that’s already been done in the sense that Molag Bal’s invasion, and so forth, I think all of that is official Elder Scrolls lore. So that could pop up in future games.
EGM: Is there a possibility of bringing other mainline Elder Scrolls games into Elder Scrolls Online with the same kind of focus as Morrowind?
MF: Well, Oblivion we kind of did with Imperial City. It’s a different type of zone. Daggerfall we already have in the game. If we knew then what we know now, we might have done it differently, but we’re always going to pick hallmark areas that people want to go to for future content.
EGM: In addition to future DLC, will we see other big chapters like this one?
MF: Our plan is to do one a year. We’ll see if we hit that cadence, but we want this to be an annual thing. Our plan is to do two or three DLC a year, smaller and bite-sized, and the chapter will be a massive new area and new systems.
EGM: Any hints on that new DLC?
MF: Not yet! But we will have one in third quarter and one in fourth quarter 2017.
EGM: Now for the most important question. How come you can’t just play as the Warden’s bear companion? I want to be a bear.
MF: [laughs] That would actually be pretty funny! I dunno. Mostly because the bear is an AI, and it’s on its own, and it’s always going to do what the AI is telling it to do. If a player is controlling that, it becomes much more powerful. And probably unbalanced. And lots of fun! But we’re not thinking of doing it.