Following a preview event for The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood, creative director Rich Lambert shares an insider’s overview of the chapter’s most exciting new features.
The Elder Scrolls Online is amidst an exciting moment as it edges ever closer to the release of Blackwood, the MMO’s latest expansion – or chapter, as it’s called in ESO. It will see players venture to the Tamrielic zone of Blackwood, a piece of country wedged between the Argonian homeland of Black Marsh and Cyrodiil, the Imperial capital.
The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood is largely concerned with Daedric Prince Mehrunes Dagon and a deal he struck with quasi-emperors of old. If all that’s sounding nice and familiar to Oblivion players, that’s because it is. Yes, Blackwood will have you visiting iconic locations such as Layawiin, and yes, you’ll be plundering Oblivion gates in the game’s open world.
But if creative director Rich Lambert has learned anything from working on The Elder Scrolls Online for seven years, it’s that nostalgia can be a double-edged sword. “If it’s too similar, you ripped off the old game, but if it’s too different, it’s not what they wanted”, he told Clocked in an exclusive interview following a recent Blackwood preview event. “It’s a tough line.”
Reforging old worlds
According to Lambert, the ESO team has slowly been reiterating their strategy when it comes to locations previously seen in single-player Elder Scrolls titles. His current theory is that you need to change some bits and leave others as is – but of course, that’s a massive grey zone.
“I think we got it almost on the nail with Skyrim in terms of familiar locations feeling slightly different. And then we really did our own path with Blackreach, and this year we’re kind of doing the same thing with Greymoor in terms of going to really well-known locations – even Gideon which was in Arena – there’s still that sense of familiarity and nostalgia, except it feels different.”
In Blackwood, there’s certainly a lot of nostalgia to dig into, from facing off with Dagon once more, to the reemergence of Oblivion portals – a game feature that has certainly been looked back upon with a yawn by Oblivion players.
Lambert assured us that Blackwood’s take on the portals is different. They’ll function as mini-dungeons where players must defeat a number of rank-and-file enemies along the way to a boss, and rather than closing the portals, you’ll be hopping straight into them to invade the Deadlands – a small slice of Oblivion the chapter will be fleshing out.
“In the chapter you’re going to little pockets of [Oblivion]. You’ll go to some in the main story, then you’ve got the Oblivion portals, which are essentially a large public dungeon. With those Oblivion portals, your adventure is always going to be different, because there’s multiple starting locations.”
“So you’re never quite sure where you’re going to come in – so that mixes things up, makes it a little different. We can’t make it always randomised so it’s unique all time time, but in the fourth quarter, we’re going to spend a lot of time in the Deadlands exploring.”
It’s easy to tell that Lambert is, outside of his role, a massive Elder Scrolls fan. He rattles off obscure lore points with the best of them, and seems to be genuinely overjoyed at revisiting these locales and themes first presented to players in Oblivion – a game he worked on as a technical producer.
But love alone can’t deliver a fantastic game experience – more than a little direction is needed. When I asked if there was a defining piece of inspiration to the story arcs we’ll experience in The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood, Lambert clued us into a creative technique the team has been using for the past several chapters.
“The biggest thing when we go in and start talking about stories and area to explore is we try to figure out what the tone and feeling is, and a lot of times that can boil down to one word.”
“So for Elsweyr that word was ‘revenge’, with Skyrim it was ‘gothic’, for us this time it’s a couple of words, but essentially it’s ‘deal with the devil’ and all the things that means. That helps drive the feel all the way through the year and makes it really easy for the team to really rally around that.”
The Elder Scrolls Online is set 800 years before the events of Oblivion and Morrowind, which in turn occur just over 200 years before Skyrim. So curiously, everything that will happen in Blackwood will already have ‘happened’ in the worlds of these other games.
“That’s the beauty of Elder Scrolls in general: there’s no single source of truth”, Lambert explains, speaking on the enjoyment his team finds in adding to the expansive Elder Scrolls universe.
“All the stories are told from the perspective of the individuals living in the world, and so you can have the same story told in about four or five different ways, and they’re all right because those characters in the world experienced it. And every player in the world experiences it differently.”
Something for everyone
Which, as it turns out, is another one of Lambert’s design tenants. From the addition of two in-game companions – NPCs designed to “fill whatever role you need”, or for Lambert, it means “my wife and I can do four-player dungeons” – to a variety of endgame quality-of-life improvements, Blackwood seems to be ticking boxes for solo adventurers, new faces, Trial veterans, and every player in between.
“I think the biggest push for Elder Scrolls Online in general is that ESO is a true Elder Scrolls experience,” Lambert explained.
“It is very much play the way you want to play, explore what you want to explore – it’s all about your journey through the world. You can play it solo if you want, you can play it with friends, it’s really up to you. So it’s not your typical MMO.”
“We realise that not every player has the same likes and dislikes. What we try to do, over the course of a year, is try to serve each of those individual cohorts and make sure there’s something new for the solo player, or the PvP players, or the veteran Trial runners… we segment the playerbase like that so we make sure we hit as many of those leads as possible.”
But that doesn’t mean broad strokes aren’t being made across the game’s systems. Blackwood will introduce a feature called Endeavours, giving players daily and weekly goals that are shared account-wide and rewarded by gold, experience, and Seals of Endeavour. These are used to purchase items from Crown Crates.
Features such as letting non-perfected and perfected set items count towards set bonuses, the free visual and performance upgrade for PS5 and Xbox Series X/S players, the simple option to choose your title screen music, and more all speak to a team that’s constantly improving on the game at its basic level.
And most importantly of all, Lambert shared a stunning update in regards to the amount of pettable pets in ESO.
“… there’s more in Blackwood.”
The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood is coming to PC, Mac, and Stadia on June 1st, then Xbox and PlayStation on June 8th. Find out more or pre-purchase the chapter here.