GDC 2018: Hands-on with Elder Scrolls Online’s Summerset and a chat with ZeniMax’s Rich Lambert

    
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Elder Scrolls Online: Summerset was announced during GDC 2018, which may or may not have surprised you, depending on how many spoilers you’d already seen. As I still haven’t gotten back into ESO, I didn’t mind the spoilers; I knew I was going to talk to the game’s Creative Director, Rich Lambert, so I’d need to be prepared. After consulting a bit with Larry and discussing how hard to push the anti-elf agenda, I was released into the wild… but had that information gagged until today.

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.

Demo disappointment

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!

(However, how some human whose family has lived in Summerset for generations has a cousin from the outside world he somehow had contact with was also just invited to come over makes no sense to me.)

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.

Massively Overpowered was on the ground in San Francisco for GDC 2018, bringing you expert MMO coverage on everything (and everyone!) on display at the latest Game Developers Conference!

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Exxar

I adore ESO. It is an awesome game. But one little detail prevents me from playing it beyond dabbling a couple of days every half a year or so. And that’s the stamina/magicka split. You have to focus on either one or the other, which means half your skills which you can otherwise freely mix and match, are off the table. I simply can’t get past that.

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Tandor

Only if you’re a min-maxer. Hybrid builds are just fine for all but the most competitive players. I strongly recommend playing the way you want to play, Youtube videos and live streams just tell you how other people play and have no bearing on your preferred playstyle unless you absolutely have to be among the top few elite – which I’m guessing isn’t the case if you’re only playing occasionally. Don’t let other players spoil your enjoyment of the game!

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Exxar

I am a min-maxer :(. Not that I want to be competitive, at the bleeding edge among the best players or anything, but I’m an optimization junky, a bit OCD-ish in that regard. Oh well. We’ll see if I’ll get back once I get tired of Warframe.

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Schmidt.Capela

I strongly recommend playing the way you want to play,

That is kinda why I can’t get into ESO; when playing an Elder Scrolls game I typically use a hundred or more mods, some of my own making, to make the game fit the way I like to play, and ESO obviously doesn’t (and can’t) allow it.

And yeah, I do have ESO installed (got it as part of a bundle). I can’t get into it, though, as I find my modded versions of Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim more enjoyable to play (I’m currently going through Skyrim again, with a few new mods to spice things up).

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Baemir

ESO is not really an Elder Scrolls game, it’s just set in (its own version of) Tamriel and it borrowed some mechanics from the Elder Scrolls franchise. For the most part it’s a standard western MMORPG, and as such, mods will never be allowed.

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Schmidt.Capela

Yep, I know.

Ironically, if ESO was exactly the same game, just not set in the Elder Scrolls setting, I would likely enjoy it. But it being an Elder Scrolls game serves as a constant reminder of everything I can do in all other Elder Scrolls games but will never be able to do in ESO.

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Tandor

I don’t understand the references here to mods not being allowed in ESO. The PC version has masses of mods (called addons in the case of ESO). I have never needed them in any TES game and don’t use them in ESO but there are plenty of players with dozens of them installed. They’re not, however, available for console.

Personally I think ESO is very much an Elder Scrolls game (I’ve played them all from the first one, Arena). What it is not is (a) Skyrim Online or (b) a wholly traditional MMORPG (or WoW clone).

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Schmidt.Capela

The PC version has masses of mods (called addons in the case of ESO).

ESO addons aren’t even in the same ballpark as mods in previous Elder Scrolls games. In those older games I can completely revamp core mechanics to my liking, add new NPCs and quests, new companions with advanced mechanics and comprehensive stories, custom housing, even whole new world spaces. I can bend the game to my vision of what is or isn’t fun, instead of having to hope the vision from the devs matches my own.

Heck, I consider the console versions of Elder Scrolls games to be about unplayable due to the lack of modding (modding for the console version was only added with the XBox One and PS4 versions of Skyrim Special Edition, but it’s so limited compared with what is possible on the PC that I still consider those console versions not worth wasting my time even if I got the game for free).

We value Elder Scrolls games for different things. For me, an Elder Scrolls game without the kind of modding support that the PC offline ones offer isn’t worth my time (which means I certainly don’t want Skyrim Online, as without being able to customize it I would find the game borderline unplayable). And yeah, I tried, but ESO just won’t click for me.

(BTW, despite not being able to stand Elder Scrolls games without mods, as long as I can mod those games I love them. Steam tracked over 600 hours I’ve spent with the offline Elder Scrolls games, and that doesn’t take into account the time I spent playing the non-Steam version of the older games back when they were first released.)

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Ben Stone

Pretty much every class skill has a stamina or magicka morph. Yeah they are slightly different, but for the most part the only thing you are locked into is weapons.

MagmaFist
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MagmaFist

For how much I play or don’t play, I’ve got more than enough content to hold me for at least another year. Still building champion points, still have found every single skyshard on any one character, still building up crafting, have played very few public dungeons, etc. I’m just enjoying the journey this time and yes, I have to agree that combat is just okay. I think that is ESO’s weakest point…and jumping. Three foot mounds of dirt/rock/grass still cause me consternation but hey, I can swim just fine in full plate mail.

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John Mclain

Yeah, combat is definitely the game’s major Achilles heel. Everything else is great, but man does the combat (and as a result classes) compare poorly to most other games. It’s playable.

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Sushi Maru

When you say you “had” to ask about loot boxes, you really didn’t though. Anyone experienced with ESO knows their lootbox system is the best out of the entire genre. They give you fair value in each box for the money spent (in the form of their currency) and the percentage drops are very high. I’m sure they weren’t concerned because they are actually doing things right.

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Tandor

Agreed, ESO’s crown crates are a lot fairer than most and are more likely than most to comply with any regulatory restrictions in terms of them guaranteeing a certain level of value in the content which can be converted to other stuff if you don’t want the original content. I guess they may one day have to publish the odds of getting the headline items but that would be a minor change for them to make and one that I doubt would bother them unduly.