To celebrate the upcoming 10th anniversary of The Elder Scrolls online and the new Endless Archives update, I was lucky enough to sit down with the game’s Creative Director, Rich Lambert, while he was in Sydney.
Jess: So first things first – you are Creative Director for The Elder Scrolls Online. That’s obviously kind of a broad title, which could mean a bunch of different things depending on where you’re working. Can you tell me a little bit about what Creative Director means for you?
Rich: Sure! So I guess in a nutshell, I am ultimately responsible for everything that goes into the game. So I don’t do it all, obviously, by myself, we have a big team that, that does a lot of that stuff, but I work with all of the teams to make sure that we’re working on the right things and that they’re the right quality and they kind of fit the bill for the Elder Scrolls Online.
Jess: So you work with a bunch of different teams – is it just directors or do you get in on the ground level?
Rich: I like to get my hands as dirty as possible. So I like to be in there with the teams in the design reviews as much as I can be. The way I’ve kind of structured my days is the mornings are usually play sessions where I will play with the team, pretty much anything that’s ready to be looked at, so that we can help iterate throughout. Then it’s not kind of a big grand reveal at the end, like, “hey, we’re done” and then it’s like, “no, that’s terrible, we have to change things”. So that’s my favorite part of my day is working with the teams on that and then usually the second half of the day is other meetings, other game stuff, future planning, working with the brand teams… a big broad range of stuff.
Jess: I know you have a background in QA and production leading up to where you are. How do you feel that informs what you do and how you do your job now?
Rich: It’s actually helped a lot. So I think QA for as hard as it was, was probably the best thing that I could have ever done, because I got to work on a bunch of different teams and a bunch of different games over the 6 -7 years that I was in QA to kind of see what worked and what didn’t work, and I was able to take a lot of those lessons when I went into production and kind of put those things to the test and whatnot. And then now as you know, the creative director, I still have that kind of background and it helps me a lot in my kind of day to day.
Jess: Alright, let’s talk Elder Scrolls. So nearly 10 years of The Elder Scrolls Online – what are the biggest ways that you think it’s kind of grown and changed in that time?
Rich: Oh boy, big question. How long do we have? [laughs]
Jess: [laughs] As long as you want!
Rich: I mean, the game has changed a lot over the years. You know, it’s kind of no secret that the launch – it wasn’t super well received by the masses. You know, there was definitely a kind of a core following that were like we get it, we love this, we understand it, but I think we tried too hard to kind of appease the MMO crowd and the Elder Scrolls crowd. We found this really kind of awkward position right in the middle of that. And so we right after launch decided that we were going to be an Elder Scrolls game first and foremost, and then that really helped shape the game and turn it to what it is today. And so the game’s done a remarkable job, and the team has done a remarkable job at kind of changing the game and turning it into what it is like now. It’s an Elder Scrolls game at its core. You can go anywhere, you can do anything, you can do it in any order you want. And you really have that freedom to kind of do what you want and build the character you want, all while doing this in this online space with your friends – in this virtual world of other activities that aren’t just questing and killing.
Jess: Yes! And thinking about it as an Elder Scrolls game in that world, how do you balance making sure it maintains the legacy of that long running series while also making sure that it’s its own thing and its own property? Especially given now that we are, well, [laughs] “question mark” time away from the next Elder Scrolls, but it’s happening.
Rich – So I think, obviously it’s in the Elders Scrolls universe, right? So that’s kind of the core through line. It helps that we’re set 1000 years before any of the other games. So we’ve got this big long window where we can kind of play with the lore and do things and whatnot and then, you know, 1000 years later it makes a lot of sense that some of this stuff is lost to time or forgotten or, or whatnot. So we get a lot of latitude to kind of play with things.
You know, one of the things we really like doing is trying to find those obscure nuggets in the lore and kind of pull those out and turn them into actual things, you know, grabbing books that talk about battles, or talk about characters and whatnot and then actually bringing them to life and putting them in the world – that’s a lot of fun for us. But also just adding to the world – we did that with High Isle, and are playing with that with Necrom as well. The thing that ties it all together is Elder Scrolls and that kind of unreliable narrator in terms of the stories – where the stories are told from multiple perspectives. And I think that that has worked well for us over the years and I think that’s gonna work well for us in the future as well.
Jess: Alright, so – kind of a two part question. What was your biggest goal for the Elder scrolls when it first started, compared to your biggest goal for it now?
Rich: So, you know, I think I’ve said this before in previous interviews, but I am super passionate about online games. That’s kind of my thing, you know, I’ve played as many online games as I can over the years. I think my very first one was The Realm way back in the day and then I’ve just kind of gone through and, you know, I met my wife playing Everquest and we’ve been married 22 years now. And I always wanted to be a part of a game that I could say, hey, people have, you know, met their significant others – or their best friends – while playing this game. So that’s kind of always been the dream and I always thought Elder Scrolls could do that. It’s such a huge world, It’s a huge IP. There’s lots of room for you to kind of play with and, and there’s lots of really cool stuff there. So that was kind of always the goal – to do that.
I think we’ve done that well, but I think there’s always ways that we can improve on that as well. So, in terms of what do I want to do in the future on ESO in particular? It’s just to continue to do that, continue to build that world, to find better ways to connect people. And then you know, set ESO up for the future.
Jess: So what are the biggest lessons that you have learned, making the game? In terms of how the game itself functions, but I’m also interested in how the studio functions, how the teams function, the culture of the studio – all of it.
Rich: So a lot has changed since COVID. COVID has made it unbelievably difficult to be collaborative, right? Like that’s kind of the biggest thing. People might be surprised at just how much game development happens and how many problems are solved with those 30 second water cooler conversations. [When you’re remote] you can’t be like ‘hey, I’m having trouble with this thing and somebody’s right there’ and have them help you or you walk by and be like ‘why is your screen flashing, what’s going on?’ You can’t do that remotely. You have to book a meeting and it’s really hard. So we had to learn how to be collaborative all over again with COVID.
In terms of building the game and learning about the game, I think the biggest thing that I learned – and I kind of knew this, but it was reinforced – was make sure you have a really good idea of what you want, your core game pillars, and make sure you have a really cool, really focused identity of the game. And don’t be afraid to change it afterwards! That’s the other big thing. And I think that is kind of a game development trap that a lot of people fall into is ‘this is my vision, this is what it’s gonna be’ and then they release it and people don’t like it, there’s this fierce defense of ‘no, this is what it’s supposed to be – love it’, rather than ‘well, this isn’t resonating with people – how do I make it resonate with people?’ And I think we did a fantastic job on ESO with that.
Jess: Yeah! It can be very difficult. I work in game dev too [laughs], and understand that tricky balance of ‘what do the players want, versus what do we want, and how do you find that’.
Rich: Yeah! [laughs] We have to find that balance. Because, you know, there’s lots of memes out there about ‘if you only do what the players want you to do, you will have a pizza with ice cream and a bunch of other crazy stuff’ or you’ll have Boaty McBoatface, right? So you have to find that balance and really tease out the core problem that they are having and then find a way to make it fit within your game.
Jess: What are you proudest of having achieved over these 10 years?
Rich: Honestly, making it to almost 10 years! You know, there’s a lot of games that haven’t made it, there’s been a lot of crowned “ESO Killers” that – you know, ESO is still going and they’re not. So I’m just proud of the team being able to dig in, you know – our launch wasn’t particularly spectacular, right? But those of us that stayed around, we loved the game and we knew it could be good and we had the support of the senior management to make it that way and we just worked hard, we listened to the community and we turned it around. And it’s one of the best games on the market today.
Jess: Thinking about the pivot that you’ve had to make since the launch and the lessons you’ve learned from that, what do you think is the most important thing to get right? What got you to 10 years?
Rich: I think the big turning point for us was when we decided that we weren’t going to straddle that weird line between MMO or Elder Scrolls game and we were like ‘Elder Scrolls game, first and foremost, online game second’. And we’re still an online game and there’s still lots of ways that you can play it online, but with ESO – you can play it like a regular single player, Elder Scrolls game, right? You can do all of the story stuff solo, you can do it in any order, levels aren’t the thing that prevent you from exploring and doing that stuff, but they don’t prevent you from playing with your friends either. So I think that was a really big moment. It was a scary moment. And it was a moment that even internally, we weren’t sure of – we were pretty divided with One Tamriel in particular – half the team was like ‘ this is the greatest idea ever’, and the other half of the team was like, ‘you’re killing the game, what are you doing?’ And once we started actually testing it and we could start to see the magic, that was kind of a big, epiphany moment for us. And that was actually one of the first test builds of that – the kind of ‘no levels required to go in and play it’ thing – and it just worked and it felt good and here we are today.
Jess: So what’s next for the Elder Scrolls?
Rich: I mean, we’re not slowing down! We’ve got update 40 that’s coming in November and there’s a whole bunch of really cool quality of life improvements in there. And then of course, the Endless Archive, which I think is going to turn into my new favorite piece of content. I love Maelstrom Arena. I love the arenas – I like that kind of challenging thing. But I’m also a huge kind of rogue-like buff and this just kind of tickles that nerve, if you will. But you know, we’re already working on next year’s chapter and have been for a while. We’re already working on content all the way up to update 44 which is for next year, and working on story things for 2025 and 2026. So, yeah, there’s, there’s no shortage of things being worked on right now!
Jess: Awesome! So, one last question. Is there anything that has happened in the game that players have kind of done that you didn’t expect?
Rich: [laughs] Oh, all the time!
Jess: What are some of your favorites?
Rich: We see it all the time, from different boss encounters to you know, just how players go about – so, their trading, right? You know, guild traders is one of those things where we liked the idea and the concept of this kind of shopping, finding the right deal thing. And it has turned into this just incredible system where it’s – it’s cutthroat, almost! [laughs] Like it’s trading guild wars for a lot of it, and there’s all this kind of sniping of really good deal trader locations and whatnot. So, yeah, I mean, players are always super creative and they do all kinds of really just bonkers things. And a lot of them we try to think about beforehand but there’s just some stuff like that just is… I mean, I think a really good example of this is way back in the day when we first added assistants. They had collision. And we were like, ‘well, they’re only gonna be out for a little bit, you know, they’re probably not going to cause a big thing…’ and players found ways to jump on top of their assistants and then get outside of the map. And so they would, you know, they would use them as basically a ladder to get around in these really weird places and we’re like, ‘well, we probably should have thought about that.’ But that’s just, you know, what players do, they’re super creative.