Whether you can believe it or not, The Elder Scrolls series is now twenty-eight years old, as Arena released in 1994. The last main-series game was released over a decade ago in November 2011. So the most recent content in the series has been in The Elder Scrolls Online. Which has just passed its eight year of live service, a fact which continues to surprise given the game’s lackluster performance right out of the gate.
While it may not be modern gaming’s biggest Cinderella story, The Elder Scrolls Online has survived a shaky launch that left critics and fans feeling underwhelmed. Initially conceived as a subscription based MMORPG set in the world of The Elder Scrolls franchise, the game floundered under the weight of its lofty ambitions and a few game-breaking bugs. Given the subscription model of the game, most players felt Elder Scrolls Online wasn’t compelling enough to warrant the price tag, which led to the 2015 Tamriel Unlimited rebranding in 2015. Since then, the MMORPG has seen five expansions, more than 15 major patch updates, and has racked up a considerable player count of 20 million.
After Tamriel Unlimited, Elder Scrolls Online released on both Playstation and Xbox consoles, while the next major update for the game would add the Imperial City of Cyrodiil to the map, which would entice a number of players hungry for more Elder Scrolls content to pick up the MMORPG. Since 2017, Elder Scrolls Online has seen a new major chapter update every year, leading to five full expansions and year-long content seasons which seems to be the game’s current holding pattern for development.
The High Isle expansion marks Elder Scrolls Online’s eighth year of service with a deep dive into one of the less explored races of Tamriel: the Bretons. The human-aldmeri citizens of High Rock have never truly been at the forefront of any mainline game in the series, nor have they been the focus of an Elder Scrolls Online expansion. Which naturally made this anniversary the perfect time to look into their culture and begin the “Legacy of the Bretons” storyline.
“Ultimately it just came down to the realization that they’ve never been explored in any Elder Scrolls game.”
As Creative Director Rich Lambert noted during an interview with CGM, the Bretons are some of the most accessible characters in the series as they “fit that traditional medieval fantasy” mold more than just about any other culture in the games. The Imperials are clearly based on ancient Rome while the other races are some combination of real-world culture and fantasy. But the Bretons live in a society where one can work their way into nobility from being a farmhand. “Ultimately it just came down to the realization that they’ve never been explored in any Elder Scrolls game.”
Most games in the series and most expansions to the MMO focus on the activities of the Daedric Princes or about the politics of the Empire and the Septim line. So while Bretons may feature heavily in many aspects of the series, no part of it has ever focused on the Bretons and their culture. And given Elder Scrolls Online’s particular structure, this makes High Isle a decent point to jump into the MMO “because they’re so accessible, anyone can come in” and instantly understand the world and develop a relationship with its characters.
As for the Bretons themselves, their culture is somewhat of a combination of real-world cultures from various points in history. Obviously there is a heavy Celtic and Arthurian influence between the overall aesthetics of High Isle and Amenos, but there is also a Roman influence to the Bretons as well. Lambert “picked out a few cities” to base High Isle on, and one of the largest influences in the creation of that zone was Baia, “essentially this wealthy party town” for ancient Rome. Which translates nicely to High Rock which is something of a vacation settlement for wealthy Bretons looking to escape the Three Banners War. An ideal spot for a bit of political intrigue and sabotage, surely.
For those new to the game who want to instantly jump into the latest content, that’s an easily achievable feat because Elder Scrolls Online is “about you and your journey into the world.” So players can instantly jump right into the new expansion without any prior knowledge of the original Three Banners War campaign or any of the other DLCs. Naturally that content is there for anyone who has yet to experience it, but there’s no set path for The Elder Scrolls Online. You can jump from the tutorial zone right into any aspect of the story you find most interesting.
A fact which seems to keep people coming back to Elder Scrolls Online over and over throughout the years. The game’s quarterly update system and yearly expansion release schedule offers plenty of content for each player, so it’s no real surprise to know that the player base has reached well into the twenty million milestone. Seeing a steadily growing number of players even eight years into an MMORPG’s lifecycle is something of a feat, as most MMORPGs tend to see their player numbers level out or even start to decline around the five to seven year mark. However, as Lambert indicated “Part of that whole play at your own pace, freedom to pick up where you want… It allows players to put it down and pick it back up… it’s very cyclical, but very stable” which means players who leave to go play the latest single player release often come back to Elder Scrolls Online when they’re finished. Just in time for one of the quarterly updates.
This summer’s expansion and subsequent content season will give players a break from the cosmic Daedra threats they’ve been facing since the release of the Daedric War storyline. While gamers tend to be reactionary at the best of times, and one can always count on an MMO player base to be resistant to change if nothing else, Lambert’s team has “seen a lot of positivity from the Community” about the change from the Daedric plotlines to a more grounded political arena in High Isle.
The chief antagonists of this content season are the Ascendant Order, who exist as an anti-war faction in the middle of a three-sided political conflict. There is plenty to find sympathetic about when it comes to the Order and the expansion will show multiple perspectives on the MMOs central conflict, but things are more morally ambiguous this time around.
“When you look at Blackwood,” Lambert explained, “if you don’t do the thing, the world is going to end. THis year, we focused more on letting the players be a part of the story rather than watch it… so it has been a challenge in that regard. And ultimately you are going to put down the Ascendant Order, but it may not be an easy decision.” The early introduction of the Ascendant Order marks them as solidly the villains of High Isle, as they’re seen kidnapping, manipulating, and murdering their way toward their goals. However, after a key NPC is swayed by their arguments, and you find yourself more embroiled in the intrigue, the decision to cast down the Order may come at some personal cost.
After all, both the Ascendant Order and the Society of the Steadfast are looking to end the Three Banners War. Their differences exist entirely in the methods they undertake toward that end. It’s the kind of moral quandary that has allowed the Elder Scrolls series to thrive in the last twenty-eight years.
But don’t let that get you down, as there’s a brand new feature to be enjoyed alongside the politics and murder. High Isle will also see the release of a brand new social feature, Tales of Tribute. The collectible card game is something Lambert’s team has “always wanted to do” and it has certainly been a feature that players have enjoyed in the PTR. “We don’t have a lot of alternate activities that you can play with your friends” and the obvious solution to that was a tavern card game. So when you get sick of the politics, you can play a few rounds of cards before going back to it.
One thing that becomes very clear while playing through the opening of the new season is that High Isle is a chance for ZeniMax Online Studios to really flex their creativity. The Systres Archipelago has never been seen in any other Elder Scrolls game, which is a rather unique opportunity for the Elder Scrolls Online devs. While Lambert and his team had “the freedom to do whatever [they] wanted to do,” ZeniMax Online does work closely with Bethesda Game Studios on making sure the environments and the world work within the confines of Bethesda’s series. But High Isle was a “very blank slate” that needed to be filled in rather quickly. After all, Elder Scrolls Online’s development cycle leaves little room for rest and recuperation.
“Despite the busy schedule, there are no plans to end service of The Elder Scrolls Online anytime soon.”
“We’ve gotten very good at planning that,” Lambert confessed. There are multiple teams working on aspects of each expansion, with three teams devoted to content while a fourth team focuses on just the dungeons. “We don’t crunch” but the teams are constantly asked to deliver on a regular basis. “After eight years of doing that, you do notice that you don’t have time to fully detox” so ZeniMax has had to get better at planning, get more people involved, and rotate between teams so everyone gets some downtime.
Despite the busy schedule, there are no plans to end service of The Elder Scrolls Online anytime soon. “As long as people want to play, we’re going to keep supporting it… keep going in the directions that they’re asking. I don’t see why this can’t keep going another ten to fifteen years.” Given the MMO’s unique structure and the series’ enduring interest, that doesn’t seem too far beyond the realm of possibility.