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ESO and how ZeniMax Online Studios chooses where new chapters are set

We never know where we're going next in the Elder Scrolls Online but its developer does, carefully planning out new chapters and locations.

ESO and how ZeniMax Online Studios chooses where new chapters are set: Ember from ESO stands in conversation with the playing, looking a little unhappy.

Ten years is a long time to actively develop a game, especially one as ambitious and broad as ESO. Over those years we’ve seen many areas in Tamriel, and other places like planes of Oblivion, become opened up for exploration. From the Systres Archipelago to Vvardenfell, we’ve been to a ton of places on and off Nirn, and there’s plenty yet to come.

In the Elder Scrolls Online each chapter traditionally heralds an additional area being added to the MMORPG, such as the West Weald in upcoming expansion Gold Road. One of the things I’ve always been curious about is how ZeniMax Online Studios decides where to send us in each chapter. I had the chance to sit down with loremaster Michael Zenke and narrative director Bill Slavicsek to ask how it all works.

“We flip a lot of coins,” Slavicsek laughs. “No, it actually starts with the studio head and creative director, they talk to us about where we want to go next? What part of the map do we want to fill in? And once we get that idea my team and I begin to bring out what stories we can tell in that part of the world. We’ll expand on them and focus in one we like and develop a ten page big picture of the main story, and the zone lead will develop that into a zone story bible. Eventually all those little bits and bobs turn into the 30 plus hours of play that we put into each package.”

Deciding where to go next isn’t just about adding more content to the game, however, there are also conversations about adding depth to less-explored ideas. “I’m the ultimate support class, the bard at the back of the party, suggesting opportunities and trying to point out stuff we can use,” Zenke tells me. “One of the things in particular I’m excited about is getting to explore the Wood Elves. The Green Pact is a thing and everyone uses it as their lens to look at this culture, but what are some other ways we might look at these people?”

A scene from the High Isle chapter of ESO, looking over a city among the mountains.

It’s looking backwards at the Elder Scrolls as a whole that shapes how the team decides where to go next. “We start by doing our own research,” Slavicsek explains. “We look at the various websites that collect material, we play the original game, we play our own game because there’s ten years of history to catch up on. We’ll create a style guide for a zone and Michael will create a document about lore saying, don’t violate this and here’s the lore he’s suggesting and if we can find a place for it – let’s use it. Then we begin to create our own stuff, making it fit with what we want to do.”

“I view the reams of stuff out there as an opportunity, not a barrier to surmount,” Lenke says. “If someone’s written a throwaway sentence in a book somewhere in Morrowind, that’s a fun hook for us to use as a jumping off point, rather than a set of shackles that we have to wear.”

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With ten years of game and an evolving universe to use as a basis for future adventures, it’s clear that there’s still plenty to explore in Tamriel. If you’d like to learn more about the next chapter, you can check out the official site as ESO Gold Road will be launching on Monday, June 3.

In the meantime, why not explore other worlds in our guide to the best fantasy games, or take a look at other lives in our best RPGs guide.

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