The Elder Scrolls Online today announced its next expansion, High Isle, which will launch for PC, Mac, and Stadia on June 6 and on June 21 for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
This starts a new chapter for the MMO, with a year-long story focusing on the fantasy world’s Bretons denizens. The Legacy of the Bretons will include four major updates, including High Isle.
The Elder Scrolls Online takes place in the fantasy world of Tamriel. While most of the game happens on a single continent, High Isle takes players to a Mediterranean-inspired island chain. ZeniMax Online Studios is hoping to set players on a new adventure with a focus on classic Elder Scrolls medieval intrigue as opposed to the world-ending threats player have been dealing with.
High Isle also introduces Tales of Tribute, a new in-game card game and two new companion characters. ZeniMax Online Studios is also releasing a Spanish language option for the MMO on June 6, which will make game — and its massive amount of text and dialogue — accessible to many more people.
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MMOs are experiencing something of a renaissance, with many looking to their online worlds for entertainment and socialization during the pandemic. And while World of Warcraft has been on something of a decline, other MMOs like Final Fantasy XIV and new games like New World have benefitted. The launch of High Isle gives ESO, which has already attracted over 20 million players, a chance to attract more people.
I had a chance to talk with ESO’s creative director, Rich Lambert, about High Isle, the MMO’s future, and its efforts to welcome new players while keeping current fans happy.
New and old players
GamesBeat: Is High Isle focusing on welcoming in new players?
Rich Lambert: I would say that’s always a focus for us. Growth is incredibly important in an MMO’s lifespan. We’ve been focused on new players really since 2016 and One Tamriel, where we removed the level restrictions. We ungated world exploration and turned it into a game you can play at your own pace. But you’re right that the storyline is probably a lot more accessible to those players that aren’t big into Elder Scrolls and the lore. It’s much more grounded. It’s more focused on politics. You don’t need to know a lot about the world to grok it and understand what’s going on.
GamesBeat: You talked about an experience for players that is less about world-threatening plots. Is that a response to fatigue from that sort of thing happening too often? We’ve seen players of other MMOs criticize their games for getting too big and epic, constantly tasking players with stopping the end of the world.
Lambert: [laughs] Yeah, I think it’s a bit of both, for sure. I know the team in general has been itching to do something a little different than “the world is going to end if you don’t do this thing.” That cosmic threat. And we did a lot of those kinds of more grounded stories around launch, and just after launch. We kind of got away from that. This is our way of getting back to our roots and telling that more grounded storyline, a more personal storyline.
GamesBeat: We know that there’s been a lot of growth in gaming during the pandemic. MMOs have benefited from that. Can you talk about what that growth has been like for ESO in the last couple of years?
Lambert: There’s definitely been a noticeable bump in our population. The gaming industry in general has seen that, because people can’t go out. The best way to combat that, at least in my opinion, is to play games. MMOs especially, because they allow you to interact with other people and be social. That’s the magic of MMOs. Being able to play a game at your own pace, level your character and whatnot, but interact with other people on a regular basis. I met my wife playing EverQuest, just so you know. We’ve been married 20 years now. But those social ties and bonds that you develop last a lifetime.
GamesBeat: Usually when people are thinking about locations for ESO, they’re thinking about the counties and Tamriel. Here we have something different with this island chain. Can you talk about the development of High Isle and this archipelago?
Lambert: The big thing is, when we were talking about what we wanted to do, where we wanted to go next, we wanted it to feel unique and different. As we started poking around the world and looking at things, we found this island chain that nobody had ever heard of, or never even really read about — because there’s nothing really written about it — from Redguard. There’s that little archipelago there. We sat down and worked with Bethesda Game Studios on that to make them understand and have them understand why we thought it was important to do that now, focus on that now. They agreed. They helped us work through some of the lore concerns. And then we were off to the races, creating this story and building High Isle so that it felt very different than anything we’ve ever built before.
A different kind of world
GamesBeat: Is there a connection between High Isle and High Rock, or is that more just a naming coincidence?
Lambert: There absolutely is. High Isle and the Sisters Archipelago is Breton. They are a part of the Breton/Daggerfall Covenant alliance. They report in to King Emeric, or High King Emeric. But because they’re off the main continent, they’re kind of left on their own to do their own things. This area is the epitome of High Breton society. It’s full of pomp and grandeur and tournament grounds and castles. When you go there, it’s going to look and feel very different than the rest of the Breton things you’ve seen.
GamesBeat: A lot of areas in Tamriel and Elder Scrolls can be more on the darker side, maybe even the dingier side. This place looks pretty. It’s even described as a vacation resort for the rich. Was there a desire to make something a bit more beautiful, more relaxed as a destination for the game?
Lambert: Absolutely. That goes back to when we were looking at building new locations. We want them to feel very different. There’s not only just visuals, but that feel and vibe. When you look at Blackwood and the Deadlands, and then you look back at Greymoor and whatnot, those were very dark and sinister. I don’t want to say oppressive, because that has poor connotations. But dark and gritty. We wanted something, like you said, that’s a bit more light. It looks very different. It’s got a different feel and vibe to it. That’s how we ended up where we’re at.
GamesBeat: I know that a big focus with Elder Scrolls Online is that players can do the content in any order they want. Are there ways this story will be different for people who’ve been doing all the expansions, all the yearly adventures so far?
Lambert: There are definitely bits and pieces that, if you’ve done various parts of older content, NPCs will recognize you. You’ll get different responses. That kind of stuff. That’s how we make the content feel different. The NPCs will recognize your efforts.
GamesBeat: You’re also adding this new in-game card game with Tales of Tribute. We’ve seen these in other MMOs and RPGs before. What makes this one stand out?
Lambert: First and foremost, we have a pretty good track record of integrating these new systems across the entire game, and not just in one particular area. It feels like it’s always been a part of the world. But for me, the big difference between Tribute and other games is just how it’s played, and how, when you go into a match, you start on even footing against your opponent. By that I mean, at the start of the game you choose two decks of cards to put into play, and your opponent chooses two decks of cards to put into play. Those decks are all shuffled together, and then you are playing, both of you are playing from that one communal deck. It’s not about whoever has the best cards. It’s about the strategies you employ and how you deal with the draws you get.
GamesBeat: Often when you talk about islands, pirates come to mind. Are pirates or piracy going to have a part in High Isle?
Lambert: There are definitely piracy options and elements throughout the storyline. The new trial, Dread Sail Reef, is very pirate-themed, heavily pirate-themed.
GamesBeat: Are there any updates on cross-play or cross-progression systems beyond the generational ones that are in place already?
Lambert: Not for this. It’s definitely something we know players want. They ask about it a lot. But there’s also a lot of technical issues that we have to sort through on that. We started working on this game in 2007. Some of the decisions we made back in 2007 make it very difficult. We’re working through those, how they could work, if they could work. But yeah, definitely nothing for this year.
GamesBeat: Speaking of adding features to a game that you’ve been working on for so long, I know the Spanish translation is coming in June. Can you talk about the challenges of translating something with this much dialogue?
Lambert: It is an overwhelming amount of work, first and foremost. But I think the hardest part is just the sheer volume. The other difficulty is ensuring that the translations are faithful and actually make sense. It does no good if it’s just a direct word for word translation. Languages have different quips, different mannerisms to them. In order to do it right you have to translate the game so that it suits the audience. Fortunately we have learned a lot over the years in terms of localization and how that works. We’re in five languages right now. And then adding Spanish is another big part of that. It’s definitely a lot of work, though.
GamesBeat: It’s mentioned in that reveal video that this expansion and this year of adventure are meant to feel like a classic Elder Scrolls experience. What do you mean by that?
Lambert: It’s more of a grounded story. More grounded in reality. I think one of my most favorite quotes from [Bethesda Game Studios director and executive produce] Todd Howard, when talking about Elder Scrolls: “If magic suddenly disappeared from the world, most people wouldn’t notice.” That’s the vibe and the feel we’re trying to get with this, where it’s a more grounded story. It’s more focused on the politics of the Bretons and the various noble houses. Less so on these cosmic threats that are going to enslave or destroy the human race, so to speak.
GamesBeat: I’m not expecting any earth-shattering reveals about The Elder Scrolls VI or anything, but is there any communication with that team, since you guys are developing so much lore and so many locations, establishing old ones, creating new ones? Is there communication to make sure there’s no redundancy or contradictions?
Lambert: We’re separate teams, first and foremost, but I talk a great deal with the team down there. Any time we do something new, any time we want to tell a story, I sit down with them. I pitch them on what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, what we think is important, and they work through any problems they have with us on that. We have an exceptionally good collaborative working relationship.
GamesBeat: Speaking of teams, your parent company, Microsoft, is soon going to be the owner of another major MMO with World of Warcraft. Yeah, I found a way to work this in.
Lambert: I was wondering! You’re the first, I’m just saying.
GamesBeat: I’m so bold! But should fans be worried at all about the parent company of ESO owning WoW? Would that have any impact on the future of their game?