Interviews

Zenimax Online Studios on The Elder Scrolls Online Flames of Ambition

Lots to talk about.

While playing through the new Flames of Ambition dungeon, Black Drake Villa — which you can read about here — we spoke to Mike Finnigan, Lead Encounter Designer and Jeremy Sera, Lead Content Designer about how The Elder Scrolls Online continues to evolve and grow.

Joab Gilroy, Stevivor: What are you most excited for players to experience in Flames of Ambition?

Jeremy Sera: The biggest, coolest thing we’re excited about is the champion’s system. We basically took the old system and chucked it. There are now three constellations only, Craft, Warfare and Fitness. Everything you have already earned is split in three, so if you had 300 Champion points you’d get 100 per [constellation].

There are still the passives you’ve come to know and love, or at least themes thereof, across our constellations, and there are now a kind of Collectible Card Game system where you get four slots per constellation where you can actually slot active abilities.

We’re pretty excited about this because it gives you the opportunity to have some very customisable builds, and we’ve been having a lot of fun trying it out.

Stevivor: Can you give us a few more details on why that’s exciting?

Mike Finnigan: It’s been in development for two years. The champion system we had before, we had a cap on the amount you could spend. It was a finite system, and that was because the system as it was had a lot of vertical power, which means, as you got more points you got more powerful, and we had to cap that because otherwise the delta between those who’d just become champion level and the people at really high champion levels was really high.

So the impetus for the change was to rebalance some of the vertical power, make it more performant and give people the opportunity to use the points that they’ve been accruing. It’s been a long process, it’s been in earnest for the last year, where [we’ve] been working to make sure that system was good and robust and hit all the notes that we wanted it to, and now we get to unveil it for Flames of Ambition.

We’ve simplified the system, because now if you look at the Champion Points you can see where the break points, you can see ‘oh if I spend 50 points in this I get this much power, this much ‘X’ stat. But also because we have this slottable system and because we have an entire tree dedicated to non-combat skills, it allowed us to open up the system to give you more things. You can be better at harvesting resources. You can choose to be better at getting treasure chests, you can choose to be a little bit faster when you’re not in combat.

And the system is expandable. And once you get to a certain point, because we have the slottable passives, it becomes an active choice. Like, ‘oh, I’m going into this [encounter] and I know I’m going to be behind my target so I’m going to want to use my flanking bonus out of this because I’ll get more damage out of it’ whereas elsewhere you might say ‘oh this particular dungeon has a lot of enemies where I need to be in front, so that flanking bonus won’t be as beneficial’. The idea being that you can get a good baseline for what you want your character to do, but then make incremental changes to how you play per dungeon.

Stevivor: So does that raise the overall ceiling on the Champion System then?

Finnigan: Actually, no. One of the things we wanted this system to do was reduce a bit of the power that players had gotten — or more, the difference between lower CP people and higher CP people. There are still opportunities to squeeze as much as you can out of the system as possible, but part of that build system is related directly to how you play the game so it’s going to be different for everyone. But lowering the ceiling was definitely a goal of the system.

Sera: One of the highlights of watching the PTS was watching players make viable builds with way less than 810 Champion Points. You choose where you’re going to influence each constellation, so you can get to the active ability from a number of ways. You may not unlock everything, but to get to some of the highest Champion Skills you don’t have to spend tonnes of points. A person who has 150 CP can make a build that is very viable.

Stevivor: Talk us through the return of Eveli Sharp-Arrow. Why is she back? What makes her great?

Finnigan: Eveli is great, a fan-favourite. She was in Orsinium, and people love her, she’s this spunky adventurer type, so she’s fun to have adventures with. She’ll give you context on what’s happening in the Black Drake Villa.

Sera: If you’ve met her before she’ll actually acknowledge that, and as you meet her throughout the year — spoiler, she might be in more content — she’ll react to whatever you’ve participated in [alongside her].

Stevivor: When you visited Morrowind and Skyrim, ESO did a great job of making those Chapters feel like their related games. Is that a coincidence, or are you trying to do that? Will we get that feeling of Oblivion this year?

Sera: Oh, we’re definitely trying to do that. We all love [The Elder Scrolls] games. Me personally, I have thousands of hours in Oblivion specifically, we’re all passionate, across the entire company, about different portions of the lore in the games, and so it’s really cool for us to be 800 to 1000 years ‘ahead’ of those games. We have opportunities to pay off these really cool stories, and to give players the chance to go ‘oh, that’s that guy’ and make that connection, that’s super important to us.

Finnigan: I think as we get closer to the chapter and players are able to explore more of that stuff, we’ll talk more and more about that stuff.

Stevivor: Did 2020 and its associated challenges pose any threats to the ongoing nature of The Elder Scrolls Online?

Sera: Because of the nature of our game, we were pretty situated for work from home [already]. I won’t say it didn’t pose additional challenges, but many of those were just making sure we were still on the same page because for the most part our production had it well in hand.

Finnigan: I think we only had a delay of I think a week. That was down to getting situated to the shift to working from home. And it was down to just maintaining lines of communication. Where I used to be able to get up from my desk and go over and talk to a worldbuilder or a content designer, now I just have to make sure I reach out via the right channels, and then make sure everyone is in the loop. But as Jeremy said, us being, by nature, an online game, we had a pretty seamless transition.

The Elder Scrolls Online is currently available on Windows PC, Mac, Xbox One, Xbox Series S & X, PS4 and PS5. Flames of Ambition is available from 8 March.

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About the author

Joab Gilroy

Joab Gilroy is the best games critic in the world. He is the current holder of the title 'Best Esports Journalist in Australia'. He did not write his own bio. Steve Wright wrote it, actually. Check him out every week on the GAP and follow him on Twitter. Joab, not Steve Wright, who definitely wrote this bio.