Interview with the creative director of The Elder Scrolls Online, Rich Lambert

Of all the negatives that come with a global pandemic, people working from home has offered some amazing insights during interviews. While some people have tried to keep their work area clearly divided from their private lives, some don’t have the space for that, or have embraced some of the joys that come from working at home. For example, I got to speak with the creative director of The Elder Scrolls Online, Rich Lambert, the other day. During the interview I could hear birds chirping and tweeting away happily the whole way through. At one point we pause for him to wave to an off-screen relative and right behind him, I can see a massive pillow against the wall.

I can’t help but watch as a beautiful Great Dane arrives mid-interview, quietly demanding some pets before lying down on the pillow behind dad. I learn later that there are two Great Danes, and they steal the show for a while. It serves as a great reminder that there are humans involved in making the games we play, and they are also dealing with being at home all the time too.

How have you found the reception to Greymoor?

Rich: It has been really really positive. Players absolutely love going back and exploring Skyrim again. There’s that sense of nostalgia where they are kinda familiar with some of the locations, but it is different. They love being able to go explore Blackreach. Nobody has really seen what we are showing there, so that is cool and they are really digging in on that. I think the big one, and this wasn’t a huge shock to me but it was really nice to see was how well the player base has responded to the Antiquities system. We knew that players would like it; I didn’t know they would like it as much as they do, which is awesome. Super fulfilling to go through that and push so hard to get that system in and then players really like it.

With there being such a positive response to Antiquities, are there plans to expand on it?

Absolutely. We will add more Antiquities throughout the life of the project. It is definitely one of those cool things where it reinvigorates the whole exploration aspect of the game and a lot of players enjoy going back to places they haven’t been to in a long time to go and find these things. It definitely hit the mark for us.

How has working from home changed things for the team?

Oh boy. How long do we have? *Laughs* In the grand scheme of things we still meet regularly, we still have our meetings, we still have our check-ins and whatnot but now we are all doing it from home. So it is definitely harder. I can’t just get up and walk three offices down to talk to somebody about something. I have to ping them and if they’re around I can chat with them. If they are not, I have to book a meeting, so it is a little bit slower in that regard. For me, the toughest part is missing a lot of water-cooler discussions. You know a lot of game development and solving problems in game development is simple conversations. Sometimes problems that you don’t even think about pop up randomly when you are talking about something else. So a lot of those have been a lot harder to do and a lot harder to catch. But outside of that? It’s pretty much status quo. We were able to deliver Greymoor with only a week delay, which is amazing. But that is because we have been doing this for as long as we have. We’re an always-on service. So we have a lot of these: something breaks on a Saturday on the server. People login and figure out what the problem is, and solve the problem and fix it. We have a lot of those procedures in place and now it is just doing it from home always. It is definitely getting old, I can’t wait to go back to work. I love being at home, I love being here with my family and my dogs and all that other stuff but I miss that face to face interaction.

We were able to deliver Greymoor with only a week delay, which is amazing. But that is because we have been doing this for as long as we have.

If you look at any patch notes, or the forums, you see mention of performance a lot. How are things going there?

I think we have done a very good job at communicating what we are working on. The most difficult part of the whole performance thing is that almost all of these problems are load-related and it is really hard to simulate the load of the live server internally or on a smaller server. So we have to be a little more open about that and let players know that and be more open to doing tests on the live servers. We actually just released a new performance improvement plan. Well, not a plan but an update to the plan: things that we are working on. As a test we had the engineering team do a write up to get a little more information about what is going on and what we are doing and why we are doing the things we’re doing. That seems to be going over pretty well. When you go and look at that post, there are nine/ten major performance initiatives that we are working on and they are being worked on by the people that can work on em. Artists can’t work on performance problems, they can only work on art-related things. Trying to manage that workload and get that stuff done is definitely not easy.

How are you finding the year-long system for content? Will we see more in future?

Yeah, we tested out the idea of a year-long story in Elsweyr with the season of the Dragon and this year with Dark Heart of Skyrim we took a lot of lessons learned from that and doubled-down on that year-long story and what it meant. So now all four updates are actually tied a lot stronger to the narrative. It seems to be working. Players liked it in Elseweyr and I’m sure players will like it in Dark Heart of Skyrim when they get to see the third and fourth quarter stuff. it has actually helped, at least internally, helped teams better understand what it is they’re working on and gets them all on the same page together. Artists are usually a year plus in advance of where the current content teams and engineering teams are. So having that year-long story helps frame conversations better.

Harrowstorms are either pretty tough or over in a flash. What is the solution to this?

Harrowstorms and in general overland content (I call it overland for public content) is very tricky to balance because players can trivialise the content by just bringing more players. The Harrowstorms that are over in a flash are usually of 30 to 50 people being in there, and our Harrowstorms are designed for a good group of four people or a ragtag mixed group of eight people. And they will scale up to 12, but once you get past the 12 it gets easy because you have so many people. The only way you can control that balance is to instance it so you can control the number of people there or you do something like adding more monsters and sclaing that has a chance to blow up the servers. We picked the option more on the performance side and if players to trivialise it they can bring more people. If we want to have really delicately balance things, we put them in an instance. That’s what our group dungeons are fun, that is what our trials are for.

Are there any plans for the Champion Point system?

There are. And we are actually getting really really close to being able to talk about that stuff. The team has been working on what they want to do with it for just over a year now. We get that question a lot. People are like “You stopped adding CP increase a year and a half ago now, when are we going to find out more?” We are almost ready.

We get that question a lot. People are like “You stopped adding CP increase a year and a half ago now, when are we going to find out more?” We are almost ready.

The Elder Scrolls Online is a few years old now, do you ever feel like you need to change things up?

We definitely made some decisions way back in the day. We have been working on the game since 2007, so it is 13 years old technically at this point, even though it has only been live for 6. Now that we are smarter there are things we would totally do differently. We definitely look at what we can do to improve the game and what we can do to optimise. A lot of the performance improvement stuff is based on that. We have rewritten things like items. We had a huge item overhaul to the database about a year ago now to allow us to have more items and a manage items in a more efficient way. We have worked on the loading systems and the looking for group finder. So yeah, we do do that. There are some things that we can’t really ever change but we are always looking for ways to improve the game.

Players can pick their own way through the world with the One Tamriel sytem, what extra work did that cause for the zones?

It is scary because people can go anywhere and do anything in any order. We’re less worried about it now because we have a good grasp on how players play but we have to think a lot about what is the critical path? What do we consider the critical path story-wise? How do we balance that so that a level 3 player goes through this content versus a max level CP 810 player goes through it. Those are the types of things we really think about when we are planning our stories and the base monsters and what our rewards are and how items work. Changing how items dropped was a big thing. Changing how resources dropped in the world was a big thing. We had to think really hard about how we wanted that to work. I think we landed on a pretty good solution overall in how the items scale and they are based on the player rather than the zone you are in and that has worked really well and players love the freedom. They love being able to go anywhere and play the content in any order.

Do you prefer working on places with well-established lore, or going into less charted territory?

I think it depends. Any developer, any designer will tell you that creating something from whole cloth is a little more fun because it is your own thing. But going in and expanding the world and expanding on already existing lore is also a lot of fun. It has its own challenges. When push comes to shove sure, we would much rather do our own thing. Being in the second era affords us a lot of possibilities to tell our own stories while still hinting at what’s to come, which is awesome.

Do you have a favourite place in the game?

Yes. Maelstrom Arena is my favourite piece of content in the game. I still go back and I still run it. We released it with Orsinium, so that was the second DLC we ever released I think. I just love it because it is me on my own competing against myself and it is time based so there is always something for me to chase. How do I shave off a few seconds? I love that kind of competitive aspect to the game. Where it is just me against myself rather than having to rely on other people working with me. I like that aspect but I love playing against myself. I think that is why I love golf so much because it is me against myself instead of me against other people.

What other games do you play?

I play all kinds of games. Everything from idle games to sim type games. Right now I have been playing Hardspace: Shipbreaker. Its a really awesome game. They just released an update I have to go and play where they got rid of the time limit and the oxygen drain so you can actually take your time taking ships apart. Totally tons of fun there. Lots of MMOs. I started playing Phantasy Star 2 again. I just kinda dig in to see what I have been missing over the last few years. The best way to learn is to experience other things. Other games and it is awesome seeing what other people are doing.

If it has the letters RPG in it, I am there. Still battling with balancing trying to play every single game that grabs my interest, getting 100% in a JRPG, and devoting time to my second home in Azeroth.

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