The Elder Scrolls Online: Necrom is a rare expansion for the long-running MMORPG that introduces a new character class into the mix, shaking up the lore and allowing players to experience a different style of gameplay. When playing as the Arcanist, characters will adopt the use of a spell book for magical combat, harnessing the power of the mythical Apocryphal realm to unleash green-hued, hard-hitting abilities.
According to Brian Wheeler, Combat Lead at ZeniMax Online Studios, the most important part of implementing the new class was ensuring it was accessible to everyone, and that it shook up traditional combat.
‘One of the main tenets of the Arcanist class was making sure everybody can use it, and that it plays and feels different to any of the current classes we have out there,’ Wheeler told GamesHub. ‘That can be derived via the look and the feel, and the sound, but also the play button cadence.’ Through a process of testing, prototype, and discovery, Wheeler believes the game’s development team struck on something ‘very, very cool’.
Wheeler and his team worked alongside the Elder Scrolls Loremasters, as well as artists, and designers to flesh out the bounds of the Arcanist class, and its ties to the chaotic Daedric Prince, Hermaeus Mora. The challenge was in creating a new, lore-accurate class that pushed the bounds of the game – but wasn’t ‘too far out there’ for new and returning players.
Each class needs to have a firm mastery curve, where wild and creative attacks can be unleashed at higher levels, while lower levels remain rewarding. For Wheeler’s team, that meant starting the Arcanist journey with coherent combat values, to ensure it could be played using multiple approaches.
‘We’ve been working really hard for the past four years or so to get our combat values established … and [on] some of those core tenets, like having a mastery curve, but also [on the Arcanist] being easy enough for other people to play,’ Wheeler said. ‘Having that action-based combat, all those things kind of bleed into design discussions.’
‘We knew it had to play different, [that] was sort of a larger overarching goal that we had to stick to. A mechanic can help things play differently – and that’s where [the new] Crux [ability] comes into play … I think we got a good balance of the mechanic influence on certain abilities.’
As Wheeler describes, one of the unique features of the Arcanist class is the ability to build up Crux. This is a new combo system that allows you to charge up to three Crux points, which can enhance your attacks when you choose to unleash them. This adds an element of strategy to combat, as players can bide their time and unleash their Crux at the opportune moment.
A multi-layered skill tree also allows players to expand their capabilities as an Arcanist, with three unique branches to pursue: The Herald of the Tome (offense), Apocryphal Soldier (defence), and Curative Runeforms (healing). Abilities from each branch can be combined in combat, with player-driven customisation allowing a range of specialties and attack loadouts.
‘We knew we had to have it look different and feel different, and stand out.’
Opening a door
Beyond Crux, another unique and intriguing ability for the Arcanist class is the teleportation-based Apocryphal Gate, which allows players to form their own portals at a range of around 22 metres. Using this ability, players can jump around the battlefield, controlling a central area by attacking from multiple sides in quick succession – or, alternatively, use it to escape battles entirely.
‘The idea is that you are controlling this area via your movement,’ Wheeler explained. ‘This location between the portals, I’m going to be able to bounce back and forth between it, probably two or three times, keeping up combat while you’re doing it.’
But while Apocryphal Gate presents exciting possibilities for new combat styles, it proved to be a challenging development for the team – as new technology and coding had to be written to control these new teleportation powers.
‘Some of the things we have with doors in our game – some doors are authoritative on the server, like Keep Doors in Cyrodiil,’ Wheeler said. ‘They function very much on the server base level where it’s like, it knows the physics is there and then when the door is broken down, the sever de-spawns the physics, and goes through on other doors that are used more in [other] areas and dungeons.’
‘[Portals are] client authoritative because they don’t run the physics process that Cyrodiil runs. So in those situations, we had to have the tech for the portals be adjusted to not be purely checking on what’s happening with the server, and what was going on with the client to obey those doors properly.’
Other adjustments to the game’s tech also had to be made to account for other debut Arcanist abilities, including Fatecarver and Remedy Cascade.
‘The [Remedy Cascade] healing beam didn’t conform to terrain properly. We had to get some new tech for that. We had to worry about limitations on how high how up you could angle it, up or down, where it didn’t look weird, where you have a 90-degree beam shooting straight down out of your hands. So, there were considerations that had to exist across the board … We had several engineers on the team looking out for things like this.’
This wasn’t the only iterative process the ZeniMax team underwent during production on The Elder Scrolls Online: Necrom – as there was a desire to get the Arcanist class to perfection before it was revealed in the latest game chapter.
According to Wheeler, the Arcanist’s full suite of abilities went through around 150 prototypes, with many ideas being scrapped before they could come to fruition.
‘We had something like 150 prototypes of abilities,’ Wheeler said. ‘So, it was a whole lot of abilities we ripped through before we settled on some. The original version of the portal was that you could just do it repeatedly over and over and over. We felt it was cool, but when it got into PvP (player vs. player), that’s when it got a bit abusive.’
This led to the team developing more restrictions for the portal ability, and implementing a cooldown system. In the process, the Arcanist’s new Crux ability was also readjusted, with the goal of ensuring a fair amount of creativity, as well as good balance that contributed to a manageable combat flow.
Prototyping and rigorous playtesting also contributed to the look and feel of the Arcanist’s book-based combat, allowing the ZeniMax team to adjust abilities to their overpowered potential – at higher levels, Arcanists can summon giant monster tentacles – without breaking the game’s combat entirely.
Though a delicate process, it has contributed to making the Arcanist class feel like a whole new experience, even for tenured TESO players. While playing the Necrom chapter as an Arcanist isn’t strictly necessary, the launch of this expansion invites experimentation for those keen to fully immersive themselves in the moody halls of Apocrypha.
The powers of the Arcanist may just come in handy as the future of TESO grows darker.
The Elder Scrolls Online: Necrom launches for PC on 5 June 2023, and Xbox and PlayStation consoles on 20 June 2023.