Pete Hines would like you to know, on the day Bethesda launch Elder Scrolls Legends, that CCGs weren’t created in 2014.
Read more: the best Hearthstone decks for beginners.
“Look, I’ve been playing strategy card games for a while,” says the publisher figurehead. “There’s going to be obvious comparisons to other stuff. But our creative director on this project has been working on board games and card games for two decades. It’s not like strategy card games were only invented a couple of years ago and everything is riffing on that.
“There’s been a lot of stuff over a very long period of time, both digital and not digital. We felt like we could find our own space there in terms of how it was different and how it was Elder Scrolls.”
It’d be easier to dismiss Legends as a ‘me too’ game if it didn’t come from a publisher who traditionally haven’t felt the need to have a game in every market, during every quarter (in 2013, in fact, Bethesda didn’t publish a single game at all). What’s more, the sense that Legends is, somehow, a real Elder Scrolls game, is only strengthened the longer you spend looking at it.
There’s the lore of course, but that’s not really the heart of it - the Elder Scrolls has never sold itself on lore, despite the name.
There’s the parallel Shadow Lane, where cards stay cloaked for a turn, which could only have come from a concerted effort to bring stealth mechanics to a CCG. There’s the familiar tab which numerically tracks every shot fired and Daedra felled, building a fondly recollected picture of fantasy mass murder. Hines is particularly fond of that one.
And there’s the emphasis on solo play, in a dedicated single-player Story Mode. It’s that which Bethesda and developers Dire Wolf Digital are doubling down on in their first post-release expansion, The Fall of The Dark Brotherhood, which comes out April 5.
Here’s a full 25-mission story that takes place over three different maps - purchasable individually or together. Play through all three and you’ll unlock some 40-odd Brotherhood-ish cards, with attendant assassination mechanics - namely a card ability called Slay, which grants beneficial effects for attacking and destroying enemy creatures. A sort of CCG backstab.
“That’ll be a new wrinkle to add to the game, but there will be a lot of other stuff that allows folks to go in a variety of different directions in building new Dark Brotherhood-themed decks,” hints Hines. “There’s characters and names you might know if you’ve played previous Elder Scrolls games.”
Oh yes: Legends isn’t exempt from Elder Scrolls canon - and everything that goes into its stories gets vetted by Bethesda Games Studios first.
The Skyrim division made a “long and laborious” effort to pull together two decades of lore for The Elder Scrolls Online, and continue to play an active role in defining the appearance of their world in Bethesda-published games.
Developers like Dire Wolf and ZeniMax Online have almost free reign when it comes to art style (“So long as you’re not adding arms or heads to something already established in the Elder Scrolls universe, I think they were mostly like, ‘Fine, whatever.’”) But occasionally, Todd Howard’s studio will veto the inclusion of a character deemed too important to fiddle with, or a location they might revisit in a future game.
“So we tend to stick these in areas outside of the base games, and we can pull and reference characters from various games,” explains Hines. “It’s something we’re going to continue to do. Everything that we come up with gets scrubbed by their lore guys.”
After today, for the first time, Bethesda will have two in-development Elder Scrolls games running alongside each other. Are there any plans to link Legends updates with goings-on in the larger Elder Scrolls universe, perhaps launching a pack of Vvardenfell-themed cards alongside ESO’s Morrowind expansion?
“First of all, we have so much Elder Scrolls history to pull from,” Hines points out. “There’s plenty of games that aren’t immediately in development that we could pull from and reference. We have some ideas about where we want to go in the future, after The Fall of the Dark Brotherhood. But we also want to get an idea from how this goes over in terms of what folks want more or less of.”
Beyond the Dark Brotherhood story, the Legends team have a big expansion planned - a larger set of cards and new mechanics - which Hines will talk about at E3 this year.
“In general I would like us to be doing [new content] stuff about once a quarter, more or less,” he expands. “What form that takes or what the cadence is, I want to be a little bit flexible. If we feel like we need to change things up or do things slightly differently I think we want to be willing to do that, based on player feedback.”
It’s player feedback during beta that’s encouraged Dire Wolf to get to work on more stories and solo expansions; to stick more Elder Scrolls in their CCG. Bethesda believe that Legends doesn’t have to be Hearthstone to be successful, and so far, its players are backing them up.