Earlier this month, The Elder Scrolls Online unveiled its 2020 plans for the Dark Heart of Skyrim at a live community event. Some of the information had been predicted well ahead of time. For example, everybody is now very familiar with the major-release-per-quarter content release cadence. We’ve come to expect two dungeon DLCs, a story DLC and a major chapter. Since last year, we expected that all four content releases would be thematically linked. We even knew, thanks to an already released teaser trailer, that Skyrim was the intended destination.ZeniMax Online Studios still managed to slip a few surprises into the presentation, which of course makes for a much more exciting unveiling – especially for the folks who were there live!
In hindsight, the first surprise really was the event itself. Instead of hosting the show in a cramped little studio at Twitch as with the Elsweyr announcement, ZOS held this year’s announcement in the HyperX e-sports arena in Las Vegas. While I’m terrible at estimating crowds, I can tell you that every seat was full, including the press tables in the balcony. Community interest in the event was off the charts, and the (free) event reached capacity shortly after registration opened.
And instead of the presentation being limited to the ZeniMax community team (again, as Elsweyr was), this year’s stage was graced by both ESO creative director Rich Lambert and Pete Hines, vice president at Bethesda. Hines was not involved in last year’s chapter reveal. I’ve heard through the grapevine that while the post-show had somewhat looser parameters, the announcement itself was highly scripted and rehearsed ad nauseam under the watchful eyes of various business types.
So do the change of venue, heightened scrutiny, and an increased presence by Bethesda speak to the climbing importance of ESO within the Bethesda portfolio, or simply a recognition of the power of the #ESOfam gaming community? I think perhaps a bit of both. ZeniMax has occasionally touted the health of the game over the past year, and the increased spectacle of the reveal seemed to back up those numbers.
As far as the content within the announcement, I fully expected the next chapter to simply be called Skyrim, to continue the pattern of chapters being named after the major region contained within (Morrowind, Summerset, Elsweyr). But instead of leaning into the Elder Scrolls V IP, which might seem like a no-brainer to a marketing department, ESO has decided to set its chapter apart by using an entirely different location as the chapter name: Greymoor. When I asked Lambert about it, he told me,
“[T]hat’s why we’re calling the chapter Greymoor instead of calling it Skyrim. We’re not trying to tell people ‘this is Skyrim in Elder Scrolls Online.’ This is our version of Western Skyrim, which is a very different story. It’s going to feel familiar, but it’s our own take on it.”
The perception of “yet another Skyrim” is one that ZeniMax appears to be fully aware of, and yet there’s a big hole in the ESO map of Tamriel that the studio’s got to fill at some point. ESO is trying to walk a fine line here; it’s hoping to get players who loved Skyrim to be interested in the chapter while also distancing the chapter from the previous title just enough to prove that it’s not a re-skin.
Prior to the event, there was a lot of speculation in the community about a new skill line. Dragon shouts was an idea that was bandied about quite a bit as players were attempting to make a connection with the Skyrim region, as with the Psijic Order in Summerset. Of course, dragon shouts by every player in Tamriel would be incredibly lore-breaking considering the supposed rarity of the Dragonborn, but then again the Psijics were said to be rare and mysterious as well.
What was unexpected was a large focus on vampirism. While the original Dawnguard DLC for Skyrim focuses heavily on vampires, the community didn’t predict their inclusion as a central focus of the new chapter. But from the moment the dark, gothic trailer began to play, it was apparent that the main adversary in Greymoor would include vampires.
Plus, along with the story elements, ESO will redo the existing vampire skill line to make it more feasible and enjoyable. This update comes at the perfect time, as the werewolf line was more recently updated via the Wolfhunter DLC back in 2018. My own main character is afflicted with vampirism, so I’m eager to see what new goodies I’ll have to play with come Greymoor.
Occasionally ZOS will enhance systems within the game, be it jewelry to the crafting system or updating the UI for guild traders. But at this stage of the game’s life, it’s seldom that we see an entirely new system implemented. In fact, by ZeniMax’s own admission, we haven’t seen a new non-combat related system introduced since Homestead in early 2017.
So it came as a welcome surprise that ESO is getting a system focused on world exploration and lore building: antiquities! The antiquities system will have the player scrying for relics from the ancient world of Tamriel, presumably from the First and Merethic eras (ESO takes place in the Second era). These artifacts will not only encourage players to explore the far reaches of the game world but also expose bits of lore from further back in Tamrielic history than TES has previously explored. Not only that, but various rewards in the form of housing items, emotes, and gear will be awarded to players upon discovery of the artifacts. The system is supposedly being designed to scale with new areas, so as to stay relevant as the game continues to progress.
When the location of next year’s chapter was teased to the community, it was assumed that some familiar iconic locations would be included. However, the inclusion and expansion of the fabled Blackreach cavern left players with a few gasps of awe. This was especially true when Hines and Lambert revealed that 40% of the new chapter’s landmass would appear underground as an enormous cave system that includes Blackreach. The new (or is it old?) Blackreach cavern system will make up almost half of the traversable landmass in Greymoor. While all zones have elements of underground exploration, this is the first time such a large portion of the story occurs at a subterranean level.
While we’re talking numbers, we also got an update on the performance improvements being rolled out over the course of 2020. Thanks to the panel at Quakecon, we knew that the entire game would need to be re-downloaded in order for some of the benefits to be realized. At the time we weren’t given many specifics as the changes were still being worked on, but at the announcement, Rich Lambert talked about a possible 30GB reduction in required drive space for the game – yes, 30GB! For comparison’s sake, the entire TES V: Skyrim Special Edition requires only 12GB of storage to install. The fact that ZOS has been able to find 30GB of unused code and resources speaks to the commitment it’s made to shoring up the game’s tech to improve the player experience.
One last little tidbit may have slipped out during the live event, or it may turn out to be nothing. Credit to the Tenets ESO podcast for sleuthing this one out. At one point in the presentation, Rich Lambert was espousing the benefits of ESO. The money quote goes something like this:
“You can do anything you want. You can, from level one, go to the new content and experience it. If you want to be a mage in heavy armor, you can do that. If you want to throw a fireball, you can.”
But as the Tenants note, you cannot simply “throw a fireball” in ESO. That type of magic requires a two-handed staff in this game. Could the verbiage used by Lambert merely have been a slip of the tongue? Or could it allude to another long-sought-after system possibly in development: spell crafting? Perhaps we’ll find out at a future live reveal.