5 Lessons Learned From Creating the Orsinium DLC Game Pack
Orsinium, Elder Scrolls Online's first big exploration-based DLC after becoming Tamriel Unlimited, is now a year old. The orc-themed story driven campaign is a huge shift in how ESO tells its tales, and in this exclusive developer journal Zenimax's own Matt Firor lists five main takeaways one year after we returned to Wrothgar.
Orsinium was the first "exploration"-based DLC developed for ESO. It had a simple goal: continue the tradition of great storytelling and exploration from the original zones, and give players the best Player vs. Environment experience that we could. Orsinium launched in November 2015, about five months after ESO launched on PS4 and XB1. Our original development goal for Orsinium was to make a new zone that encapsulated all of our learnings taken from both developing the original game and refining that experience during the 18 months ESO had been live on PC, and the five months it had been live on Consoles.
Orsinium was an incredibly important DLC, both for pushing our own development skills forward as well as laying the groundwork for the future in how we optimize and expand the game for the players. ESO players who have been with us from the beginning are probably able to look back at Orsinium and see clearly the improvements evident in its presentation and gameplay over the original game, as well as its critical role in laying the groundwork for our largest update yet – One Tamriel.
Here are some big lessons we learned from creating and launching Orsinium, how our players responded to it, and the important role it played in the future of ESO.
1. Vertical Cities are Far Cooler than Flat Ones - But They Make it a Bit Hard to Navigate.
One of the most consistent pieces of internal feedback during development of the original game was that our cities just didn’t feel like living, breathing cities. One of the things the Elder Scrolls is known for is cities that are teaming with life: citizens and shopkeepers, unique architecture, and a haphazard complexity born from decades or centuries of inhabitance. At the time, however, we simply didn’t have the art and engine technology to make cities feel truly alive in the way we envisioned, and “A couple of buildings plopped on the ground” was typical of the feedback from our internal playtests. An example of this struggle is the city of Sentinel in Alik’r Desert: while we did our best with the tools we had at the time, and the results are generally viewed as ‘OK,’ the city is simply not as awe-inspiring and interesting as we wished it could have been.
The city of Orsinium, however, is the fabled capital of the Orcs, and we knew that it deserved to look and feel as impressive as that stature should warrant. So, one of the goals for the art team was to focus on making the environment a key pillar in the DLC Pack – the city itself had to be interesting and memorable, which meant designing it to be vertical, as well as horizontal. That’s why when you go to Orsinium for the first time, you are immediately struck by the sheer amount of buildings on top of other buildings, as well as the more realistic layout, especially the winding alleys and stairways. The attention to detail and vertical depth provides Orsinium with a much more medieval, solid feel, and makes the city one of the most important “characters” of the DLC.
When we released Orsinium, players immediately noticed this improvement in our city-building abilities, and absolutely loved the way it looked; but it did take them some time to figure out how to get around. With all of the detail and complexity, players had to take navigation more seriously or risk getting lost in dark side pathways and alleys. We found this city-building technique to be so successful and so popular, we applied it to our next DLC in development: Thieves Guild. That DLC’s main city, Hew’s Bane, was built with the same tools and philosophy as the city of Orsinium, and it shows even more evolution of our design process and art team’s mastery of detail.
2. Level-Scaling Really Works Well in PvE
Early in development, one of the main design discussions for Orsinium was figuring out what level the content would be. This is one of the most important discussions that designers of games of this type have when developing new content. Who is it for? What level is it? Is it intended to attract new players or to keep experience players engaged? Our discussions for Orsinium started there, but went in an interesting direction: we had just launched our first DLC,Imperial City, which (because it is primarily PvP based) used our PvP level-scaling to ensure that everyone was on an equal footing. “Why not”, we asked ourselves, “take the level-scaling from the PvP part of the game and apply it to an entirely PvE zone?” As we explored this possibility, we soon realized that by doing this we could make something completely new in the online RPG genre: a DLC pack that ALL users – from newbie to hardcore – could enjoy. Because ESO is such a huge game, we knew it was important to supply content for all different player types, and opening up the DLC to all players, regardless of level, seemed a great way to go about it.
We were really excited about unlocking additional content for all players, but it’s interesting to note that we didn’t fully understand what we had accomplished with level-scaling and our new ability to spread different types of content out in zones. We were surprised (pleasantly!) when soon after the DLC launched, much of the player feedback centered not on the great content, but more on the fact that level-scaling meant players and guilds could finally play with one another without needing to worry about level. Guilds could – and did – run recruitment events in zones where the highest level guild members could play with newbies, and everyone could have fun. Players could get their friends (many of whom hadn’t logged into the game in a long time) to come back to ESO, and could play with them, even if they had a wide level disparity. Instantly the game seemed more interesting, and more modern. We were incredibly excited to see that the players found ESO to be a more social and more group-friendly game and took advantage of it.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the content was also top-notch and kept players interested as they helped King Kurog rebuild the city and…. (no spoilers here!).
This lesson was, of course, incredibly important long-term for ESO. The success of level-scaling in Orsinium led directly to the decision to implement level scaling to the whole game – Orsinium sowed the seeds for One Tamriel, which launched almost exactly a year later, expanding social freedom and removing even more restrictions on player interaction and the reaction so far has been just as incredible and rewarding.
3. A Good Story is a Good Story
We approached the story for Orsinium with the idea of injecting political intrigue into the game, much in the vein of Game of Thrones – different factions with deep-seeded suspicions (and worse) towards one another, with religion, arms, and political machinations all part of the plot. As with just about everything else in Orsinium, we had learned a lot over the years of developing content for the original game – how to pull players through a zone by making storylines interesting, how to distract players by introducing new content near major quest markers, and many more techniques. As such, our world and quest team applied all of these lessons when creating Orsinium, and the result is a very good, and very deep, storyline seamlessly integrated with the zone. Our writers and world-builders created a storyline that seemingly happens around you as you explore: the city of Orsinium becomes more visually “finished” as you help out the Orc King; you learn much more about how the Daggerfall Covenant came to be – and how tenuous it really is. All of this unfolds in a zone that is both visually striking and evocative of major fantasy movies.
Also, teeny adorable Pocket Mammoths.
4. Elder Scrolls Orcs are Awesome
The Elder Scrolls features ten major races, and there has been much lore and gameplay in the various games devoted to most of them. The Orcs (or Orsimer, as they refer to themselves) are by far the most unknown of the races, owing mostly to the fact that for vast swaths of Tamrielic history, they do not have a homeland, as Old Orsinium was sacked, leaving the Orcs to wander Tamriel for hundreds of years. They are deeply clannish and insular, but are capable of creating soaring poetic works and are known as extremely meticulous craftsmen. In fact, the term “Orc” is a bit misleading, as they are not much related to the “Orcs” of other fantasy genres. Instead, they are sophisticated warriors and deeply devoted to their main god, Malacath. We dug deep into the lore to come up with an ethos, a building style, and a political system that best matches this very nuanced, nomadic tribal group. It was a great pleasure to provide the Orsimer with their own platform, stories and homeland to shine a light on their unexplored history.
5. Level Scaling Means Zones with Multiple Types of Content
By making the Wrothgar (zone in which the Orsinium DLC takes place) level-agnostic, we discovered we could design the zone differently from other zones in the game – simply because we didn’t have to worry about player level. With level requirements lifted, we could put different KINDS of PvE content in the zone and then lead players to it. We always had World Bosses (enemies that take a group of players to defeat), but they were never implemented particularly well, and had no quests that led players to them organically. We rectified that in Orsinium by adding Daily Quests for players to discover that led to World Bosses and then designed those Bosses to drop good loot so they would become popular. This led to Orsinium having a great mix of content for all playing styles: solo PvE storylines, which were awesome; World Bosses; and, of course, public dungeons for gear chasing and more challenging encounters.