The latest ESO expansion, Waking Flame, is now out and about. STACK got to play it with the game’s creative director Rich Lambert and lead encounter designer Mike Finnegan, and took the chance to find out a bit more from behind the scenes.
While other online multiplayer games have struggled with getting new content and updates out to players since the pandemic forced studios big and small to figure out how to work from home, The Elder Scrolls Online has calmly forged forward as though nothing had changed. That’s pretty remarkable, too, given the pace of ESO’s update cycle these days.
With year-long stories centred around a paid expansion (or “Chapter,” to be more accurate) the game’s developers and writers have been able to take their time doing what ESO arguably does better than anything else in its genre – telling meaningful stories.
The current tale, based around the Blackwood chapter released a few months ago, follows the familiar pattern of content updates alternating between dungeons and “overworld” story. Flames of Ambition’s pair of dungeons kicked off this latest yearlong saga, followed by Blackwood itself bringing plenty of story alongside major additions including the new Companions system.
With Waking Flame, then, we head into the penultimate chapter of the Gates of Oblivion storyline, with two new dungeons to challenge players while expanding on the plot as it leads towards the final story-based update, Deadlands, which we’re expecting somewhere around late November.
“…these days, an ESO dungeon is much more than a simple stroll down a parade of bosses with a guarantee of success.”
We were given a preview of one of the new dungeons – Red Petal Bastion – by ESO’s creative director Rich Lambert and lead encounter designer Mike Finnegan, which in many ways was the ultimate “tourist mode” – they brought along extremely well-geared characters, knew the dungeon backwards so could point out the many surprises and secrets within, and gave us a close-up look at the mechanics of the boss fights.
Heading into the second of the dungeons later – without the undeniable bonus of having the guy that designed the thing taking care of the hard stuff – it was pretty apparent that these days, an ESO dungeon is much more than a simple stroll down a parade of bosses with a guarantee of success. Even on normal difficulty, these dungeons demand attention and fast response times – there’s plenty in here that’ll cheerfully one-shot you if you mess up. In many ways, they feel more like miniature four-person raids than what passes for dungeons in most rival games these days. Bring friends.
But what if you’re not the dungeon kind of ESO player? Will there be gaps in the year-long story? Thankfully no, says Lambert. “The stories being told in the dungeons and prologue quest help provide more context and backstory for the events that are going to occur in the fourth quarter DLC. They aren’t required and are not integral to the key story points.” That prologue quest, by the way, is available to all players who are keen for more detail about the ongoing story.
The two dungeons, as usual, have ‘Normal’, ‘Veteran’ and ‘Hard’ modes available – which sounds like a balancing nightmare, needing to tune each dungeon to be accessible to random groups and challenging for organised ones. “We have a fantastic QA group with standards we have developed over the years in order to ensure we hit the right balance points,” says Finnegan. “Couple that with four weeks of dedicated testing time and we are able to really home in on the balance points we strive for. That isn’t all, though, as we also routinely engage other groups within the company to try the dungeons – and we also closely monitor PTS [the Public Test Server].”
With these dungeons bringing the total in the game to 38, Finnegan and his team have been switching up the way they’re designed, paying close attention to feedback from the game’s dedicated players. “The team always strives to push the envelope and design new experiences for players so that every dungeon feels new and unique,” he says. “Our original Dungeons – and most for the past few years – have been five-boss dungeons, with the final boss having a way to activate a hard mode if you’re in veteran difficulty. We heard player feedback that they would like more ways to tweak the difficulty to their liking, so we started designing dungeons to have three bosses, but each one has their own activatable hard mode. This has given players much more control. At the same time, we still wanted to provide the amount of content players are used to, so we implemented ‘secret’ or ‘side content’ for players to explore and find should they wish.”
One design element that ESO’s team has to take into account that other games don’t is the use of a game controller. ESO is extremely popular on both Xbox and PlayStation – with newly-enhanced versions out for Series X and PS5 for those that can get their hands on one. But designing dungeons and their often-complex fight mechanics to work well with a controller can’t be easy.
“That was definitely something we were concerned about initially when developing ESO in general,” says Lambert. “How would players with controllers play the game? Would it be different, or are there things they would struggle with? In reality though, we’ve found that gamers are just gamers – folks playing with a controller can do everything that mouse and keyboard players do and at the same level.”
“The team always strives to push the envelope and design new experiences for players so that every dungeon feels new and unique.”
Those new console updates for the current generation, meanwhile, have resulted in an unexpected performance bonus for PC players, especially those on lower-spec machines. A new toggle in video options to enable multithreaded rendering is now available to all (though it’s still officially in beta) and our experience with it so far – on a very old i5 CPU paired with a more recent Nvidia video card – has been pretty incredible.
“For players on high end machines, who already have great framerates, the impact won’t be as noticeable,” Lambert points out. “Their frame rates will be much more stable and won’t spike as much, especially in high intensity combat or in high population areas. For those players on lower end machines with older CPUs – note that ESO is CPU bound in most cases – there is a huge impact. Those players should see a 10-20-plus FPS improvement in most cases, potentially even greater in high intensity combat or populated areas.”
Trying out multicore rendering is as simple as toggling it on in settings and restarting the game. We’d recommend giving it a try regardless – you may be pleasantly surprised by the result. And with the amount of fire and flame effects going on throughout the Gates of Oblivion overworld story and dungeons as we head towards Deadlands, it’s come along at just the right time.