Touring Western Skyrim With The ESO Team
The Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor — the first chapter in ESO’s year-long The Dark Heart of Skyrim adventure — is almost upon us. It’s bringing with it an array of good stuff — expanded Vampire content, a brand new introductory quest, a huge new trial and the brilliant Antiquities system.
But the big draw for a lot of people is a little broader than all of that. Greymoor is, at its (Dark) heart, about exploring Skyrim — one of the most beloved and revered locations in video game history. The icy mountain home of the Nords has played host to more than 30 million players since The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim launched nearly a decade ago, and since then players have delved deep into everything it has to offer. There’s no question that ESO is hoping to tap into that love with Greymoor.
We joined Ed Stark and Rich Lambert — Zone Lead and Creative Directors on Elder Scrolls Online respectively — to take a tour of ESO’s Western Skyrim, and based on that tour Skyrim fans will get a load out of Greymoor.
Our tour began at the Solitude Docks wayshrine. It’s where players will begin their Greymoor journey if they have existing ESO characters — the moment you warp in a nearby character beseeches you to help them, the literal call to adventure for the region. We ignore them and head off as Ed explains why they picked Solitude as the starting area.
“We didn’t want to just replicate what [Bethesda Game Studios] did in Elder Scrolls V, but we wanted to pay homage to it,” Ed said as the tour began. “So looking at [the capital], you can see Solitude to the left, you can see the Blue Palace off to the right, but if we go inside you’ll see we’ve made some tweaks and changes.”
Heading in is its own reward, of course. Because Greymoor takes place 1000 years before the events of TESV, Solitude itself remains the capital of Western Skyrim but it’s architecturally different. So those tweaks and changes mean the city looks very familiar in the strangest of ways.
Critical to the story of TESV is the Imperial occupation of the land, but that hasn’t happened yet — so all the architecture in ESO’s Solitude is Nordic in design, instead of Bretonic. It’s a subtle change, but it does a great job of reinvigorating the sense of wonder you feel when entering the city — even if it is, for us, probably our thousandth trip to it.
Once inside, the city maintains that air of familiar difference. One of the things the team is very proud of is how they’ve significantly reduced load times for players entering Solitude — every time they build out ESO they find new ways to improve the optimisation, and all of those learnings have gone into Solitude.
“The zone itself is a balance between the ‘one-stop-shop’ versus how the game actually runs, so when you compare Solitude to say, Rimmen in Elsweyr, you’re going to see some differences in terms of how the services are laid out,” Rich explained. “So if you look, you’ll see the Crafting Station area is a little bit further away from the wayshrine and the turn-in area than it was in Rimmen, and that came directly out of performance testing and looking at metrics.”
They apply this philosophy to old locations, too — but only when they absolutely need them.
“We do, but only in cases where it makes sense,” Rich said. “A really good example is Delves. We went back and looked at Delves, the general size of them, and we did a pass on them because they didn’t really meet the same standards as what we did post-launch. So we do go back and do that when we see a need. But that takes time away from building the new things, and one of the things our players have told us is they love the cadence that we have, where there’s always something new for them to play. That’s a delicate line for us to balance.”
And while they’re balancing those things against one another, they’re also trying to keep Solitude feeling like a real location — the capital of Western Skyrim, and a location that Nords from all over might flock to.
So as our tour continues we see how the city is laid out to draw people further in — the stuff you need is placed a short distance from the Solitude Wayshrine, but as you move further away you see the furnishings stores, the various guildhalls and the antiquities building.
“Up here, if you look, to the West of us, you’ll see this big tower,” Ed says. “And if you remember Solitude from TESV, you’ll remember that this Tower of the Wolf didn’t exist. This is something King Svargrim, in his pride, has had built. And it plays a major factor in the zone’s story. And I don’t want to give any spoilers, but you’ll get to find out why it’s not part of Castle Dour in the future.”
We head away from Solitude now, with Ed wayshrining off to the Dragon Bridge, a huge stone bridge spanning the Karth River, shaped like a ribcage and featuring a large dragon’s head statue in the centre. It’s different here, 1000 years in the past, with a garrison surrounding it to build out the environmental story-telling.
It’s part of how they build out ESO in a way that plays on that familiarity again — they get to explore the history of memorable locations in fun ways that also build out the lore of ESO itself.
In the distance we can see a Harrowstorm spinning up. Harrowstorms are the world combat events of Greymoor — like the Dragons in Elsweyr. We’re not visiting one in this tour — I clearly didn’t opt in for the high-octane tour package — but like the Dragons, they’ll need players to come together from all over if they’re to be shutdown.
As we cross the Dragon Bridge itself, I get that most classic of Elder Scrolls pitches. “You see the snow-covered mountains,” Ed says. “Those aren’t just paintings — those are places you can go.”
It’s almost traditional at this point, but that’s the beauty of The Elder Scrolls. If you can see it, most of the time, you can go to it. And ESO expands on that concept so broadly that it can feel almost overwhelming.
For Ed, it’s not even about the ‘see those mountains’ meme — it’s just par for the course. And down here where we are, in the midlands, he’s very proud of how distinctively different the world is. Western Skyrim is broadly Nordic, but it’s also visually distinct from moment to moment. There are loads of things happening. Bears fish in streams, birds scavenge dead foxes, Elk scratch their horns on trees.
“One of the things that I think players associate with Skyrim is that it’s a zone that really cries out for exploration,” Ed says. “And I think our designers did a really good job of putting it together [that way], we didn’t want everything to be so quest driven. We wanted to have that feeling of discovery.”
So when we stumble across a ruin up the hill, there’s a decent chance that we’ll never be sent there by a quest. But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to visit it — there’s a ghost, which hints at a mystery, and there’s lore attached to the ruin at this location that we will be able to dig deep into. Don’t get me wrong — I know we’re not ‘stumbling’ across anything here. It’s a guided tour. There’s a chance that ruin is the only one of its kind. But it makes sense, when we hear Ed talk about the game world, that it would be constructed in a more holistic sense (from a storytelling perspective) because they’ve paid so much attention to what drives Skyrim players from the outset.
Digression aside, we roll along and we come across a Dwarven Great Lift. These elevators take players down to Blackreach, the massive secondary portion of the Greymoor expansion.
Before we head down to Blackreach, we find the Shademother, one of the World Bosses in Greymoor, a leftover from the War with the Reach. There are six World Bosses in Greymoor, something the team tries to keep consistent. Four are in Western Skyrim, and two are in Blackreach. It comes back to that ‘cadence’ Rich was talking about — the rate of content that players really like.
“You guys are paying for this content, so we don’t people to feel like one chapter is bigger than the other or I didn’t get to get as many achievements this time,” Ed explained. “So we always try to make sure that in our chapters or DLCs there is roughly the same amount of content.”
“Part of that too is that the more we can be consistent, the easier it is for us to schedule and balance the resources we have,” Rich said. “We don’t have infinite time, money and people to do things, so having a good idea of the rough numbers gets us to a place where we can better use our time appropriately.”
“We’re one of the few game companies that maintains a regular release schedule,” Ed said. “Last year it was dungeon, chapter, dungeon, DLC. This year it’s DLC, chapter… and we’ll see what happens after that.”
“We do what we do. Really, since launch it’s been a quarterly cadence,” Rich added. “We announced in January that it’s going to be a full year of content, there’s going to be four quarters of content, there’s a dungeon DLC and a Story DLC still coming up. It’s a very well-oiled machine at this point, and a lot of that is because of how we plan.”
“We’re constantly revising how we do things to make a better player experience,” Ed explained. “There are a couple of design decisions that we made in this zone that are different because people said they prefer something a different way, so we’ve tried it to see if it’s true.”
“Data plays a large role,” Rich said. “I like to consider myself data-informed rather than data-driven. And basically that’s more of a case where I take the data, and I take my own personal experiences and the team’s personal experiences, and we put all those together, and that’s what drives the decisions we make. But playing the game is a big, big part of that. I highly encourage the team to play the game constantly, I play the crap out of the game, and I’m very much in the mindset that you have to play your own game in order to make it better, and if you don’t it’s not going to get better.
“One thing from my own personal experience is, when we came out with Elsweyr and Dragonhold, not surprisingly Dragons were incredibly popular,” Ed added. “And there was a conversation very early on [in development] where we were all ‘well, do we want to throw in a dragon or two?’ And that was a situation where we were dragon informed, not driven. Because Dragons are very popular because they’re really cool and interesting creatures, but also they fit into the story of Elsweyr. But everybody knows that during this time period there aren’t any dragons in Skyrim. They don’t exist in the lore. And we would have to explain that, and get into some lore hurdles that we don’t think would benefit the game.”
Heading down into Blackreach is easy when you’re with the Zone Lead — Ed has access to all of the Wayshrines around Western Skyrim and Blackreach both — but it’s just as easy for regular players. When you’re making your way through the Greymoor storyline, you’ll naturally wind up in the vast caverns beneath the mountains, but if you can’t wait you can find one of those Dwarven Elevators and head in straight away. It’s a point of pride amongst the team — ESO, and Greymoor in particular, is designed to allow players to tackle it as they see fit.
Even down here, under the world, there are disparate biomes that give each area its own feel. Dusktown has a bit of a Deadwood feel to it — shanty town construction, hodge-podge paths made from scavenged wood and a community built around the mining of the town itself. But being underground, it’s also lit by an unearthly purple glow thanks to the ore deposits littered around the cavern. There are four more like it, each with its own distinctive style.
As we’re exploring the cavern, Ed is attacked by a Falmer. It’s an MMO, after all, and as tour guide he strays too close to one of the former slaves. As he dispatches of his assailant, he explains that we’ll learn more about the Falmer over the course of Greymoor — they have ‘interesting stories’, he says.
After running into a handful of other Falmer, he wayshrines across to the Greymoor Caverns — we’ve run out of time.
“You’re going to get to see one of the cooler environments we’ve ever made,” Ed says, before adding. “Not to play it up too much.”
“It is pretty cool,” Rich adds.
When I warp over to Ed’s player character, I’m immediately underwhelmed. It reminds me a lot of Morrowind, actually — giant mushrooms stand tall and alone in a brownish mist.
And then I crest the hill next to the Wayshrine, and I’m confronted by Greymoor Keep. Consider me whelmed.
An epic gothic structure stands in the centre of the cavern, it was built by and for Vampires — one of the primary focal points in the Greymoor expansion. Row after row of spired buildings stand alongside one another, making the entire keep look like an old European graveyard — but 100 times larger in scale. At the centre is a giant tower, built from a stalactite in the ceiling of the cavern, thrusting its way down into the keep itself.
Surrounded by Vampire guards, it’s somewhere you can freely explore — but you’ll have to deal with the undead while you do. Otherwise, it’s a location you’ll arrive at over the typical course of the game — Ed says there are two major quests within.
“A player who has heard about this place and is excited about it can log in on the 26th [of May] and come straight down here,” he explains. “We’re not locking things up. They won’t be able to do the zone story quests, but they can do anything else while down here in any order they want. And at any level they want. That’s something we have to emphasise — Tamriel is a big open area and you can start wherever you want.”
That it is. And it’s worth exploring, too, exactly the right sort of game for these trying times. My guided tour of Greymoor ends here, just outside a giant castle built by and for vampires. It feels fitting — a perfect reminder of how Elder Scrolls Online has taken a world people utterly adore and created something new and wonderful from it.
The Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor, is out on PC next week, and it drops on consoles in early June. Bethesda sent us over this short teaser for the upcoming CGI Launch Trailer.