I recently had the opportunity to sit down with various members of Zenimax Online Media — including Rich Lambert (Creative Director), Mike Finnigan (Lead Dungeon Designer), and Bobby Weir (Lead UI Designer) — for a walkthrough of Scalebreaker, the latest DLC to hit ESO.
Releasing in tandem with Update 23, Scalebreaker is included for ESO Plus members, or can be purchased separately in the Crown Store.
Along with these host of changes comes two new dungeons: Moongrave Fane and the Lair of Maarselok. I was asked which dungeon I wanted to preview, and I selected Lair of Maarselok.
The official preview article describes the Lair of Maarselok thusly:
“Deep beneath the border mountains of eastern Grahtwood, the Dragon known as Maarselok wakes with the release of his brethren from the Halls of Colossus. Hungry and vengeful, the terrible beast has ravaged the wilds, and his corrupting power threatens the Elden Root tree if left unchecked.”
I asked how the team approached characters and story for the Lair of Maarselok, with Mike Finnigan explaining,
“What we try to do — we did it with the Wrathstone dungeons, we try to do it with these dungeons — characters that are significant that people recognize and people like, we try to bring them back and tell further aspects of their stories. In this dungeon, this character will be familiar to players who have played some of the base game dungeons, specifically the base game dungeon of Selene’s Web.”
Because I had been away from the game for so long and had not yet played Selene’s Web at the time of this preview, players like me will be unfamiliar with Selene. However, veteran ESO players will instantly recognize her.
“In Selene’s Web, you went through and you helped Warlock Carindon defeat and essentially capture a forest spirit by the name of Selene. As you go through the dungeon, you realize Warlock Carindon is not really a great guy. A lot of players felt bad that Selene got captured at the end and was going to be studied.”
Having played Selene’s Web in the days since my Scalebreaker preview with ZOS, I can confidently say the story of The Lair of Maarselok is simply more impactful with this knowledge from Selene's Web. This then is part of the story behind the Lair of Maarselok. You essentially work to convince Selene to defeat Maarselok.
“So the premise behind this dungeon is Maareselok is awakened. When the Halls of Colossus opened up, he came out. He exudes and seeps corruption from his pores and everywhere he walks. As you progress though, you’re going to see more and more corruption elements.”
I noticed how beautiful the corruption was. It looked unlike any corruption I’d seen in other games. During the dungeon preview, I asked Mike Finnigan specifically about this corruption, and how they decided on the unorthodox bright blue, almost-crystalline beautiful design, which is completely antithetical to the traditional connotation of the word:
“That was a discussion that we had with our team going back and forth about what we want the corruption to look like. We wanted this kind of alien, otherworldly feel so that's where we stuck with the blue where it’s not quite ugly, but at the same time, it doesn't look like it appears in nature.”
As we moved forward, the other immediate feature which stood out was the architecture. The dungeon is located between the Bosmer land of Grahtwood and the Khajiit land of Elsweyr, and there’s actually quite a lot of Khajiit architure to the design. If you’ve played Elsweyr, this Khmer-inspired architecture aping designs from the likes of Angkor Wat will no doubt be familiar to you. I asked about the architectural design inspirations behind Lair of Maarselok, with Rich Lambert explaining how they took inspiration from a mix of cultures.
“It’s Thai-Indian culture inspired. You see a lot of those shapes and whatnot, and color palettes. There’s definitely some outside real-world influence. One of the things the art team is really good at is taking that influence and making it its own, so it looks familiar but it’s different.”
As we progressed, the corruption becomes more and more evident. It’s as much a gameplay mechanic as much a physical presence driving the story forward.
One such example deals with how the enemies are presented. There was a previous Bosmer (wood elf) expedition sent in to deal with Maarselok, but this expedition then became corrupted. You must fight these fallen Bosmer, but rather than kill them, you actually end up eliminating the influence of the corruption on them.
In that sense, you are effectively cleansing them, with the now-freed Bosmer actually thanking you in return. It’s a nice touch which serves to tell the greater story of the corruption of Maarselok.
At this point, I asked about how the team goes about designing dungeons for players of all types. For example, it’s no secret that I play ESO mostly solo and take my time exploring. However, ESO is full of players with completely different playstyles. I asked how the team reconciles all these play styles when creating dungeons. Mike Finnigan explained,
“We pride ourselves as a game to have a little bit of something at least for everybody. The overland, and world bosses, and delves to kind of cater to smaller groups, single players. Dungeons have always catered to four players, so that’s kind of how that comes about. We don’t go into this expecting — there are some players who are really good and can go through dungeons and can fight stuff solo. But they are always geared for four players. That’s kind of the experience we’re going for.”
I brought up the fact that dragons were the world bosses in Elsweyr and are meant to be taken down with a large group. Yet in Lair of Maarselok, a dragon is expected to be taken down only by a group of four. I asked how these two design decisions can co-exist, and how a four player group can take down a dragon. Mike Finnigan explained that this was a conscious choice during designing the dungeon.
“We realized that in overland and in Sunspire, you needed more than four players to take on a dragon. That was the design for these things. These were big bad beefy creatures. In this dungeon, you are taking on a dragon, but you are fighting the dragon in three separate boss encounters. So you chip away a little bit of its health each time. And that was to keep the exact same thing you were talking about, ‘Hey dragons were big. Why is this guy a chump and dies to four players?’ The reason he dies to four players is you’re fighting in multiple places. You aren’t defeating him all in one shot.”
Rich Lambert added,
“But you aren’t fighting all by yourself. Selene plays a very large role in all the fights against him.”
Throughout the Lair of Maarselok, we fought and took out corrupted enemies, including giant spiders, hoarvors, and stranglers. As Rich alluded to, Selene helped us along the way. For obvious reasons, I will not spoil how these fights bore out — that’s for you to discover when you dive into Scalebreaker. However, having played Selene’s Web, keep in mind Selene is a forest spirit. Every fight we had with Maarselok was mechanically different from the last. This fact coupled with Selene’s innate abilities created some very unique situations which forced me to think and play slightly differently from the previous Maarselok encounter.
The corruption became more and more prevalent as we fought our way towards Maarselok, once again showcasing that visual storytelling I love so much about ESO. They’re not just telling you about the corruption, they’re also showing you.
As for Maarselok himself, he is quite impressive. As Mike explained, we fought him multiple times, with each fight being unique from the last. He’s actually the same physical size as other overworld dragons, but his design is deliberately different. He literally oozes with the blue corruption prevalent throughout the dungeon, and very clearly stands out from the rest of the dragons.
As with my experience in ESO thus far, I enjoyed the story in the Lair of Maarselok. I suspect those who have played the base game and are more familiar with Selene than I am will find this bit of fan service more enjoyable. I asked about the story and writing, and how the team approaches writing for dungeons. Mike Finnigan explained:
“The goal that we have going into the dungeons is: we start with the story. We start with, ‘What story are we trying to tell? What story are we going to put the players into?’ And that is the start of our process. Yes, we like to add cool mechanics and engaging fights and stuff like that, but also tell a good story. We realize that there are people out there that don't necessarily want the story. They just want to rush through the dungeon and kill the boss and get loot. And that’s fine too.”
He explained that in the overworld, you can really slow down and take in the story. But in dungeons, as developers, they want to keep the action going. Because of this, there’s a lot more visual storytelling like the corruption noticeably spreading. In addition to that, in every one of the boss encounters throughout the Lair of Maarselok, Selene played a role and provided some exposition.
Overall, I truly enjoyed the Lair of Maarselok. The mini-bosses, the characters, and the story were all engaging and different to what I have experienced in ESO thus far. The one thing that really struck me was the uniqueness of the physical manifestation of the corruption. I haven’t really seen something which is supposed to be inherently malevolent designed in such a beautiful way. This deliberate design choice made the impact of the corruption far greater than had it been designed more traditionally.
Having now played Selene’s Web in the days between my preview with ZOS and at the time of this writing, I can wholeheartedly say this continuation of Selene’s story in The Lair of Maarselok is satisfying. It does a fantastic job showcasing ZOS’ storytelling ability, how they remain cognizant of older characters, yet still keep the story fresh.
Scalebreaker looks to be a great new addition to ESO, one which I am sure to thoroughly enjoy. Scalebreaker is out today for PC and Mac, and will hit consoles on August 27.