The Elder Scrolls Online: Stonethorn DLC – Interview with Lead Encounter Designer Mike Finnigan

Mike Finnigan has been the Lead Encounter Designer for The Elder Scrolls Online for a short time, taking over the role in mid-2020. Before that, Finnigan was the Lead Dungeon Designer and in both roles, works to create engaging content for ESO players. We had the chance to sit down with him ahead of the release of the Stonethorn DLC and discuss everything that goes into creating new dungeons.

Stonethorn includes both Castle Thorn and Stone Garden dungeons, new Dark Heart of Skyrim storylines and a tonne of other content for players to sink their teeth into; pun very much intended. However, new content doesn’t just happen and it isn’t created in a vacuum. Speaking to Finnigan, it’s clear how much work and effort goes into these creations, especially when it comes to thematic and environmental storytelling.

Dark Heart of Skyrim and Greymoor have been focused on much darker, horror focused stories and Stonethorn is no exception. Stone Garden takes players deep into the secret lab of a mad scientist (a la Frankenstein) while Castle Thorn pits players against the very Dracula-esque Lady Thorn.

Below is our conversation with Mike Finnigan. Enjoy!

The Elder Scrolls Online – Stonethorn DLC

PowerUp! – Watching the gameplay trailer I get some really strong Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Frankenstein vibe. Was that deliberate?

Mike Finnigan – Part of the Dark Heart of Skyrim is we want to tell these darker stories, right? Explore the more grim side of Tamriel and in Greymoor we talked about the Greyhost, which was an ancient army of vampires and werewolves that were unleashed upon Tamriel and eventually defeated.

We knew going into Stonethorn that we wanted to tell the story of both halves of this army. But we didn’t want all the enemies to be the same. So we split it. We have one side, which is vampires and the other side, which is werewolves. But at the same time, we went with the mad scientist angle too.

So we have a little bit of mad scientist and then very much the ancient vampire and the Gothic castle kind of feel so absolutely anything we can do to invoke any 1930s horror movies.

PowerUp! – The two Dungeons will be the main feature of this DLC and there are also some new stories as well. Can you tell us about those?

Mike Finnigan – There’s a prologue for what’s coming up in quarter four and that usually releases a couple of weeks before the DLC for quarter four to drop. What we try to do with all the dungeon packs like if you saw Harrowstorm at the beginning of this year, and even dating back to last year is what you learn in the two dungeons provides context for that prologue.

So when you go into the prologue and if you’ve done the two dungeons, not only will the NPC, Gwends, recognise you and know who you are because you’ve helped her at the dungeons, she’ll also put together the two pieces that she kind of learned in those dungeons for you and then help you carry forward the story.

PowerUp! – So when we’re jumping into these dungeons, what are we gonna be facing? What are we going to learn? Is there new gameplay ideas that you guys have chucked at us?

Mike Finnigan – We always try to find new and interesting ways to challenge people. If you go back to the first quarter of this year when we released the Harrowstorm dungeons, one of the dungeons was Unhallowed Grave. It had these secrets that we didn’t really tell people about.

We said there are secrets in the dungeon and people went through and they actually found it pretty quick.

We were impressed.

In Stonegarden in particular, in this dungeon and this DLC, we have secrets, they’re not as hidden. If you look at the map, you’re going to kind of see where you need to go, but how you interact with those secrets is very much hidden.

We dot little books and stuff around and it all makes sense. This being a mad alchemist, it might make sense kind of how all the pieces fit together. And once you figure out what you’re doing you’ll say, “Oh, I get it and this is how this benefits me and helps me.”

Castle Thorn is very much our classic dungeon experience, where you have five bosses you go through, it’s kind of linear but we’ve taken the vampire angle to another level. The final boss, Lady Thorn, has lots of crazy flying around mechanics, she’s teleporting all over the place, disappearing, going into bat swarms.

We tried to not only challenge the players with do mechanics, but also play into the theme of what you’re actually fighting in here so that it all kind of makes sense.

And I mentioned Castle Thorn being a classic experience because for a while we’ve heard the player feedback that they want a third level of difficulty in dungeons and we’ve always kind of hemmed and hawed about how we could provide that. Last year’s trial, Suspire and this year’s trial Kyne’s Aegis, what we did in those was we dialled back the number of bosses, but we provided a hard mode for each boss. There are three bosses and then there’s three activated hard mode.

If you’re in veteran, you can activate that higher level of difficulty. And we decided to take that idea and bring that forward into dungeons, to see, first, player reaction, player engagement and if this kind of scratches that itch.

Stonegarden is unique in that it’s the first dungeon we’ve done that has three bosses, but there are three separate, hard modes to really challenge.

PowerUp! – How difficult was that to integrate?

Mike Finnigan – The final boss in every dungeon usually has a hard mode. The general approach that we’ve taken is we go to the designers and say, “okay, just make this as hard as you possibly can.”

And then we pull stuff out.

So we’re like, “Oh, okay, this is the hard mode difficulty.” We make hard mode first and then pull abilities off. We’ve thrown everything and the kitchen sink in there then we pull back the faucet, take the pipes out…We dial it back so that so mortals can beat it.

PowerUp! – I’ve heard a lot from fans and players of the game that they love the story content and the dialogue and everything that happens in the dungeons but often it gets missed because the team rushes through and they don’t get to experience it because someone just wants to get that daily reward or they want to get through it as quickly as possible.

Is there anything that in this, or maybe in the future, that is going to cater to those people who want to take it slow and see the story?

Mike Finnigan – We have normal mode, which is usually designed to be a little bit easier, but it’s also designed for a more casual experience. We have heard the request where people say, “Oh, we want a solo mode for dungeons,” but we are happy with where dungeons sit in this space and we really want to keep that group mode. Where we think about it, where we do as much as possible in these dungeons, we try to tell the stories visually and with as little interaction as possible needed by the player, so that as you’re naturally progressing through it, the story is going to happen.

We try as much as possible to make it easier for somebody to kind of hang out here, like after there’s a boss fight, then there’s like a gap between when you’re going to have the monsters and stuff. The NPC is talking or there’s theatre thing, you can kind of hang back and see this stuff and then progress on.

As much as possible, we try to do that visual storytelling. We don’t really have any “talk to” steps or anything where you have to talk to an NPC in a dungeon. It is a delicate balance for us, especially to tell a story while the action is happening and whenever possible we try to do that.

Stonegarden is another example of this. The NPC that’s following you through the dungeon that gave you the quest is going through the dungeon. She’s helping you in this dungeon and she’s doing things while you’re in a boss fight.

The very first boss fight is this giant werewolf behemoth, right. The NPC is picking the lock on the door while you’re fighting this werewolf behemoth. He’ll scream and do these things and it’ll knock you back and she’ll be talking to you the whole time. She’s like, “can you stop that guy from screaming?”

We try to have those kinds of interactions. Then the final boss, Arkasis, he has this giant machine contraption that he keeps retreating into to throw new things at the players. She’s going around and sabotaging it during the fight and in the final phase, he goes in there, but it’s all broken because she actively sabotages that stuff.

That’s how we try to integrate the story. We make these NPCs part of it, they’re not just like standing outside a gate, they’re actively part of this.

PowerUp! I was reading about Vaduroth? It says his job is to resurrect vampires that fall in battle. When you’re fighting is he gonna be resurrecting the ones you’ve just killed, so they’re going to keep coming back?

Mike Finnigan – When we talk about interesting mechanics like you talked about earlier, this one is another fight that has really, really interesting mechanics. He is a Wraith of Crows, which is traditionally a Daedra that’s dedicated to Nocturnal. The vampires have summoned this thing and then bound it. So he has all these vampiric runes all over him. And in his workshop, essentially where you’re at, there are these four slabs and they have these resurrected vampires sitting on the table. So throughout the fight, he will resurrect these things as Adds that you actually have to fight. And you actually see them kind of peppered throughout the population of vampires that you’re fighting on the way to him.

But the interesting mechanic is he is equipped with a sickle. You go in and it looks like a bunch of meat hooks hanging from the ceiling, and there’s all kinds of different creatures hung up. Some of them are writhing a little bit and moving, twitching a little bit. At one point in the fight, he’ll throw the sickle off in the distance and then it pulls all the players and then you run away from each other, cause you’re going to have this giant explosion on you.

Then you can go over to the sickle and then look up at the creatures and use the sickle to cut down some of these creatures. And then they form these little Adds that help you It’s just one of those little cool dynamics that you have in this fight of using his weapon to get little helpers. He’s doing that whole thing just to distract you because he’s throwing his sickle over there to distract you so he can go resurrect the vampires.

PowerUp!That’s great! When you see these guys dotted throughout, before the encounter, do they have different stats with different powers than a standard vampire.

Mike Finnigan – They’re larger and they have a unique skin. For every dungeon that we do, if you complete it on veteran difficulty, we have what is what we call as a cosmetic reward. So that is the skin, the actual skin reward for doing veteran Castle Thorn.

It almost kind of looks like a zombie, but it’s got all these red parts. It’s a pretty unique looking skin that we haven’t offered before. And the cosmetic for Stonegarden is a memento where you juggle potion bottles.

PowerUp! – Obviously dungeons are important for players to get story, get new combat but also to get their new gear, armour weapons etc. You’re going for this horror theme with the vampires so what sort of armour and weapons is there and will they be horror-themed and dark and twisted.

Mike Finnigan – What we try to do is theme the armour based on whatever is in the dungeon. It’s not usually based around the NPC. But I think all of these sets are related to the bosses that you’re going to fight in a dungeon. A lot of the Castle Thorn ones are going to be themed around blood and fighting vampires. For every dungeon, we also get a unique motif or visual style.

Not only will you get the drops in there that have the unique sets, but they also drop in that new look and whenever possible we equip the monsters in the dungeon with that motif so that you can see what it looks like on people. So all the vampires in Castle Thorn, for instance, are using this Arctic vampire style and all of the gardeners in Stonegarden are using this alchemical Nord style.

PowerUp! – Lady Thorn’s been building up her forces, creating the vampire army and stealing people from the nearby towns. Are there any NPCs who will help you like dudes with pitchforks or a burning torch?

Mike Finnigan – The only NPC that’s really gonna help you there is Gwendis. It really a lot of sense in Castle Thorn because this is a vampire and it’s an evil vampire and she’s House Ravenwatch, so she’s naturally going to go in there. When you first go into Castle Thorn, you notice that she has taken a guy by the name of Talfig, a vampire who belonged to the Thorn Legion, a hostage, and he led her to the castle. As things go on, he betrays you, shockingly, nobody saw it coming.

He actually turns into one of the bosses that you fight later. It turns into this big blood knight that you get to fight. But Gwendis is the one who is going to help you in that particular fight. He’ll bring to life these gargoyles and then Gwendis will run over there and channel power into these gargoyles to basically stunned them so that you have a chance to defeat these things before they do a lot of damage.

PowerUp! – Yeah. I guess a serf with a pitchfork is not going to last very long.

Mike Finnigan – It’s one of the things that we talk about. It’s funny because when we go through development and we implement stuff, we talk about different things and suggestions. Like, “what if you’re in here? And there’s a bunch of prisoners, and then they opened the prison gates and they force you to attack them. You have to kill them?” And I’m like “yeah, we probably don’t want to kill innocents. That’s probably gonna be bad. You know?”

Putting NPCs in the game that don’t get a chance to live, that feels bad right?

PowerUp! – You mentioned before Gwendis is picking the locks and she’s saying things. Obviously a lot of ESO has got a little bit of that campy humour and you’ve got to balance that with the seriousness and the very sombre tone. Is that why you guys are using this thirties horror, movie motif in the trailers because it’s going to be a little bit of that.

I mean, it’s dark and vampires, but it’s going to be a bit more lighthearted with the storytelling.

Mike Finnigan – It is and it isn’t. It’s one of those things that as we’re these kinds of things and we look at the characters that we’re going to use. Cause if you look at Unahhlowed Grave the characters in there were very serious characters. We just play into that. Gwendis has always been this kind of pseudo plucky vampire hunter. She’s also kind of a young and new at this. So she’s always had that kind of attitude. We always wanted to play up that kind of thing.

But we also are telling this really, really dark story. I think that she counterbalances the darkness of this story quite well.

PowerUp! – Do you use a similar kind of technique when you design the actual dungeon itself? And what’s the process of creating the map and how does that all come together?

Mike Finnigan – What we start off with is a story. That’s the most important here. We sit down with the content designers for whatever the DLC is afterwards. So whatever the prologue is going to be and whatever the previous chapter was and we sit down with the content leads and by we, I mean, it’s usually, I think me and a producer.

I sit down and say, “what do the players have to know when they come out of these dungeons?” And then they give us kind of the broad strokes of what we have to know. Then we usually sit down and brainstorm with one of my leads and the producer and say, “okay, this is what we have to learn. Where are we going to set this?”

We create this big zone design doc, which kind of roughly outlines everything. Then we hash it out as a team and say, “Is this going to work as it’s not going to work? Is this going to work or something like that?” I will sit down or my content lead or my content designer will sit down and kind of do a rough map. At that point, we probably already have it kind of all figured out in our head, but at that point, we were like actually putting it to paper. I usually say I have to sit down with the content designer and the fiction writer because they’ll have ideas for where they want theatre to go. And that’s like a bit of horse-trading. It’s a collaborative effort between a large number of teams.

PowerUp! – What’s the thing in this that stands out to you when you think about designing this dungeon DLC?

Mike Finnigan – I love when it hits PTS. Cause then we get to see people stream it. Do you know what I mean? We get to see people play it so that’s what I’m most anxious to see is see people get in and try to challenge these things and challenge themselves and to defeat these things.

I’m anxious to see if they get all the secrets and figure out how to do it in Stone Garden. The final boss fight in Castle Thorn against Lady Thorn can be a challenge, so I’m interested to see that stuff. It’s basically getting in front of people’s hands and getting a chance to see them play it. That’s the biggest thing that we’re excited about.

Stonethorn DLC is available for The Elder Scrolls Online now.

Thanks to Mike Finnigan for his time.

Related articles

Leo Stevenson
I've been playing games for the past 27 years and have been writing for almost as long. Combining two passions in the way I'm able is a true privilege. PowerUp! is a labour of love and one I am so excited to share.

Share article