GDC 2018: Hands-on with Elder Scrolls Online’s Summerset and a chat with ZeniMax’s Rich Lambert
Perhaps that was for good reason, though, as not only did I get some hands-on time with Summerset, but ZeniMax provided us with capture cards so we could show you what we saw and did. It’s very much an early look. Yes, there are elves, but also mind traps and a new tutorial for those just entering Tamriel. It’s just hard to say much more, though, since the demo felt like it was aimed more at press/streamers completely unfamiliar with ESO. Don’t worry, lorehounds, I know enough to help you avoid spoilers (so maybe avoid the first 10 minutes of the video).
From sports to Skyrim
While I was able to pose a few questions to Lambert in person, the meeting started late and appeared to be mostly made up of people unfamiliar with the franchise and its MMO version, so note that I did send additional questions after the conference. You might not be aware that Lambert has a lot of experience working on sports games. It’s quite rare for me to talk to folks in the industry from that genre, even among people working at EA Games. I had to ask how his sports experience affected his MMO work or broadened his perspective compared to a more MMO-centric developer, but Lambert simply noted that “having a background in other types of games has definitely helped” him understand the development process and “deal with the unexpected.”
I asked Lambert if he had any particular MMO roots he wanted to share. Especially since ESO started out as a more generic MMO, moved into a more Elder Scrolls with multiplayer game, but became one of the more popular MMOs, I had hoped for some cool stories. Sadly, Lambert simply said that he’s “an MMO nut and gamer at heart,” and that he plays “a lot of different types of games, not just MMOs.” In fact, Lambert mentioned that the original ES series was the biggest source of inspiration, which reminded me of how Matt Firor said that the team had the same basic idea at E3 2017.
That being said, Lambert added playing other games is a “great way to learn, especially when you try to dissect why teams made the decisions they did and how those decisions impact players. Inspiration comes from many sources – games, movies, books….etc. ”
When I asked Lambert about how he was feeling about combat these days and how fans were reacting, especially after the February update, he was simply fine with it. I tried bringing up a concern some people had earlier this year (and before) about animations feeling off (perhaps people aren’t used to animation canceling?), but Lambert thought I was referencing an old Templar bug he noted they fixed. Between me, Larry, and Lambert, I got the feeling that yes, some people don’t get canceling and that may be where some animation complaints come from.
Naturally, on behalf of Larry and elf-haters everywhere, I had to ask why we were visiting Summerset after we just went to Morrowind, another elf-heavy zone. From the outside, it really looks as if ZeniMax has a strong, pro-elf agenda. Lambert reassured me that there is no elf bias going on; it’s just that Summerset allows for a lot of high fantasy from a barely used area of Tamriel that’s conveniently and geographically on the opposite side of the world from Morrowind.
But what about Skyrim? Considering how popular the game was, how it’s still getting new iterations, and how it brought a lot of new people to the series, it sounds like it’d be something the company would be using as much as possible or saving for a rainy day. In fact, though, it’s neither. Lambert revealed that the company doesn’t “have any specific rules about Skyrim usage and aren’t verboten from exploring it; there are just so many other wondrous places in Tamriel that haven’t been explored at this point.” That being said, Lambert did say that he’s sure that “one day, [ZeniMax] will probably get there, though.”
While Summerset may have been a surprise setting for some people, dataminers had already essentially informed us it was coming. When I asked Lambert how he felt about this, he said, “We generally don’t comment about speculation on future stuff – obviously we don’t love it, but it also doesn’t hurt us in any way.”
As I’d seen a lot of people playing with the new outfits system, I was curious how much more ZeniMax will want to do with it. After all, ESO is one of the few games that has “fun” stuff like stealing in the open world with a guard system. Couldn’t ZeniMax do something like World of Warcraft’s dev supported fashion show mini-game, Trial of Style? Lambert only said that the outfit system “is just a start” and the team has “plans to continue to add to it in the future.”
I also had to ask about lootboxes, not just because that’s what we do, but because we’re seeing Western governments get involved, especially after the Battlefront 2 fiasco. Apparently, though, Lambert and ZeniMax feel that the content of their boxes is fair. 2017’s drama didn’t seem to faze Lambert at all, at least in terms of what ZeniMax is doing with ESO. At this point, the silence from my incurious peers was deafening, so we sadly moved along to our demo.
If you haven’t noticed the small hints I’ve been dropping in our other GDC coverage, let me be blunt: I played the Summerset demo for 30 minutes and felt no desire to play more. The demo is what it is, and I’m not using that to judge Summerset as a whole, especially when what we saw was mixing textures and animations, and lacked a lot of the things that make MMOs great. Again, this may have been because as a core MMO player, I felt like I was outside the target audience for the demo. (I could fill up the rest of this article analyzing how to properly demo an MMO, but maybe, one day, I’ll do that for a soapbox.)
While I’m no pro, I’ve played ESO before. The demo ZeniMax brought in didn’t show me any new mechanics. The tutorial and quests I did were standard fare: kill the spider, search for that missing guy, talk to her. Lore fans might enjoy it, though. We have a fan-favorite character returning to guide/hire/bribe us to do his/her job (take your pick), and I’m sure fans will enjoy that, especially since Lambert made it sound like said lore character will be a major player/guide in our story. Sadly, though, I wasn’t able to test the new jewelcrafting system, PvP, or group up with my peers in new content. (How many times do you like to play tutorials for games you already know how to play?)
ZeniMax did bring a raid area, Cloudrest, but not only was it not the center of our journey (as I’d hope multiplayer would be the focus of an MMO demo), but I was constantly being steered away from it by the on-site devs there to coach us. While I understand it’s unfinished content (and the chief reason I’m really thankful ZeniMax let us capture in-game footage and bring it with us), there’s sadly no “wow” factor I can personally report. In the demo itself, anyway.
In fact, I felt more excited about the details you all read last Wednesday than what I was playing: 2018 styled Summerset. I saw imps and other faery types, plus magical animals. There’s some lore tension with the Altmer opening their gate to the outside world and how various people feel about that and the way the society is dealing with it. Click to reveal additional spoiler!
Again, the demo is an early build. There are missing textures, animations, and I suspect dialogue, with the previous (very light) spoiler hopefully being placeholder text until the writers can figure out something better. Heck, I even crashed my game client! So it’s hard to convey any solid impressions when, beyond what Lambert told us, so much of what I saw honestly felt like a placeholder. You can judge for yourself, but between being corralled by developers, being unable to group up with others, and being unchallenged by the demo’s content, I didn’t experience any revelations.
If you like ESO now, and you do, since the game has won our reader poll for MMORPG of the Year three years running now, then I bet you’ll still like Summerset because you’re getting more of that. If ESO isn’t for you right now, I saw nothing specific that will convert you. I’ll be curious to see if my peers found something I missed, especially if I’m wrong about their ESO experience. If you were hoping for a cool new mechanic, keep waiting for further reveals – like the demo being shown at PAX East later this week (where we’ll also be in attendance). There might be something there.