The Elder Scrolls Online Interview: Paul Sage, Creative Director

As well as getting getting our hands on the game for a significant period of time last month, we also got a chance to speak to some of the staff on the game - including Paul Sage, the game's creative director. We quizzed him on the process of taking a beloved single-player franchise to an MMO audience. You can find our in-depth hands-on preview through this link .

RPG Site: The obvious place to start is the MMO genre in general - you've been working on this now for a few years - the genre has changed immeasurably. How do you keep up with those changes?
Paul Sage: That's an astute question! Y'know, you have certain ideas that you start out with. You saw in our presentation that I said, like - 'Where do MMO players line up against regular Elder Scrolls players?' That's one of the places that when I took over as creative director, I really wanted to analyse that. It's important. 

Elder Scrolls first, MMO second.

What I felt was that MMO players in general had kind of got to that point where they're like 'We really want something new. We like what we have, and it's fun, but we're at that point where if we're going to move on to a new game it has to be something fresh, a new experience,' right?

With Elder Scrolls players - with me in particular as an Elder Scrolls player, I like it. I like that experience a lot. It seems natural that we want to make sure that's where we progress.

When we're looking at the market, when we're looking at the games, at everything, seeing the market change and move... It's like... we've got to stay true to what we are. That's Elder Scrolls.

RPG Site: Has retention been a worry for you - the idea of those single-player Elder Scrolls fans experiencing the core story and then leaving the game?
Sage: When we looked at it, we knew that we had to appeal to that solo player. One of the things is that you're able to go all the way up to level 50 as a solo player.

When we start looking at things - like today we looked at Mega Server technology and things like that - how do we encourage you, as a solo player, to want to group up? If you're competing for resources, all those things... these are the things that turn people off from being social versus just getting into a public dungeon and getting into a spot of trouble and having some random guy help you out. That stuff seems so simple, so easy - everybody says them as examples. But then you turn around and realize that often isn't actually what happens in MMOs.

It's about getting these particular things right, so you get excited when you see another player, or happy to see another player, or, as we talked about today, getting the group of friends you've already established. Maybe you don't have a guild that you play with in another game or any of those things, but maybe you face Facebook friends or something like that. You get to take those social groups you already have and bring them into the game, and that's been super important.

RPG Site: Some games have launched applications outside of the game - on mobile, Facebook, whatever - that link back into the world in a more direct way. Is that something you'd want to look into?
Sage: Absolutely. Again, the whole point is 'How do we get you with your established relationships to play the game together?' We want to remove those barriers - we want to make sure that your friends aren't on one server and you another so you can't play together, or that your friend is level 40 and you're level 10 and you can't play together.

We're trying to obliterate those barriers just to make it so you can go in, you can play together. Can I play the same quest as I've played before, but with a friend? Those are the things we look at, we analyse - these are the things we've decided are very important features to have.

Social features will help friends team up more easily.

RPG Site: Where do you draw the line with this stuff? There's nothing I despise more than seeing automated tweets getting dumped into my twitter feed by games, for instance. How much choice and freedom do you give users in how they link to social stuff?
Sage: Well, you'd never have to link in if you didn't want to. It's really optional - we don't want to annoy anybody. If you've already made the commitment and bought the game, we want to treat you right. That's really important to us.

Obviously there are the realities of any business, but we never, ever want to get to any place where this stuff is annoying the player. That'd be bad.

RPG Site: In a creative role, I imagine you played a part in figuring out where you'd end up in the lore and whatnot. With so much to draw on, how did you land where you did?
Sage: It's a great time - the Interregnum. It's a period in the past where there's not a lot of history. Something happened, but there just simply isn't a lot of history as to what went on. That's already established in the Elder Scrolls lore, so getting this period. There also isn't an emperor yet, so people want to become Emperor and restart the empire - it felt like a perfect place and the perfect fit for us in all of The Elder Scrolls.

Plus, the nice thing is when you're developing this you get to draw on that lore. We get to go back to some things that maybe people have learned about and heard about. Maybe they've heard about certain battles or areas - we get to go back to those places, or places you've never heard of before, and touch on them. One of the coolest things is recreating things people are familiar with.

RPG Site: The game really does feel different to other RPGs; specifically in how closely the gameplay and controls mimic the action-based single player experience. Do you feel that's more action and less turn based combat is the next generational shift for the genre?
Sage: It's like a puzzle piece that locks in properly to form a wider picture. [Pauses] I don't know if I can explain it any better than that.

Battles feel far more real-time than most MMOs.

Combat was something we knew we had to get right, but it started with a really simple concept - we want you looking at the world. We want you engaged with the game, not a massive UI and a lot of hot bars. We tried a lot of different things and iterated on a lot of different systems for combat.

We had this brilliant coder who said 'I have this idea - I want to use the left and right mouse button like an action game.' We were all pretty big on that anyway, but we also asked ourselves - this is different to the regular MMO market... so we have to make it feel right.

It was a risk at first, but once we played it, we said that this is definitely the right thing to do. We locked it in.

I don't know if this is a generational shift for the MMO genre, but I know that it makes our game feel natural. It's what makes it feel good to me when I'm playing it. Instead of going around and sometimes avoiding combat to explore, I find myself ready, throwing myself into it, engaged in it.

RPG Site: The thing that interests me in particular about what you've done with the controls is that it has a level of simplicity to it that makes it feel like it could work with a controller. I know that's not planned right now, but is that something you guys have your eye on potentially for the future?
Sage: Yes. [Laughs] The simple answer is yes; of course. We have a slew of gamers that work at this company, and one of the things that people are going to do is ask 'can I control this now with a controller, and how would it feel?'

I'd be lying to you right now if I told you it felt anything but great - a lot of people can't believe it works as well as it does. Whether that becomes an option in the final game... if you make it an official option, you have to support it, you have to make sure it's stable... but I will say that, just internally and maybe off to the side a bit that it certainly is fun.

A great deal of Tamriel is available in ESO.

RPG Site: The first thing I thought when you announced this game and I read the details from the Game Informer cover was that I thought you were insane for wanting to portray parts of every single province in the Elder Scrolls world. How did you come to this decision?
Sage: [Laughs] I don't want to do anything to dissuade you from your assumption that we -might- be insane, but... definitely, it's a challenge. What we have to do is get the density of content correct. As you play, we want to make sure that you feel 'oh, I've been walking in this direction and it's only so long before I find something to do.'

It's definitely been a challenge, but we wanted it to be so that when people get to areas they hadn't seen before we wanted them to be excited about it. That's big.

One thing I don't want to do is misrepresent - we're taking sections out of provinces, right, out of Tamriel. That's just Tamriel - the one content where all the Elder Scrolls games have been. I think that the great thing is that in only taking certain areas from provinces it leaves you lots of areas to expand, lots of areas to update... which is exciting to me. It's a great way to grow.

As a player, I only get so excited - and here I'm talking about me as a player, not the direction of the game - I can only get so excited about level cap raises or new abilities. What really makes me excited is exploration opportunity, when I have new places to see, new things to see... that's when I get really excited. I think that's why it's smart we've picked the areas we have picked - it gives us the breadth of Tamriel but still allows us to have new areas to go in and see.

Disclosure: Bethesda Softworks invited RPG Site to visit their ZeniMax Online studio in Baltimore, MA to see the game. Travel and accomodation was funded by the company.