Inside the Quest to Make 'The Elder Scrolls Online' Truly Great

Inside the Quest to Make 'The Elder Scrolls Online' Truly Great

First released in 2014, 'The Elder Scrolls Online' has steadily improved over time and now has over 8.5 million players Zenimax Online Studios

Designer Matt Firor discusses how his team pulled off one of the greatest turnarounds of the decade

Designer Matt Firor discusses how his team pulled off one of the greatest turnarounds of the decade

Log into the PC version of the Elder Scrolls Online today, and you'll almost certainly find it bustling with activity. Players work together to slaughter bosses, fully stocked guild traders pepper every town, and in most zones you'll have no trouble coming across other players. It feels social and strong, and it's now one of the most popular massively multiplayer role playing games in the world, with over 8.5 million players across PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

There was a time not long after the game launched in early 2014 when such a future didn't seem possible. Elder Scrolls Online originally embraced more traditional MMO gameplay ideas that many players felt lacked the essence of a beloved Elder Scrolls game like Skyrim or Morrowind. Many had written it off as a missed opportunity that failed to live up to the name, but last year developer ZeniMax Online Studios completely turned things around with its vaunted "One Tamriel" makeover. Nearly everything that early players objected to was addressed in some way. Today, regardless of level, players can play wherever they please in the world, fight monsters and bad guys that are always served up at an appropriate difficulty level, and embark on any quest. They can steal, pickpocket, and sell the spoils to shady fences in shadier sewers. They can even choose to kill pretty much any friendly character if they choose, but they'll need to run from the game's enthusiastic city guards if they do so.

Elder Scrolls Online might be in the same genre as World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV, but now it feels like a proper Elder Scrolls game, rather than a traditional MMO with an Elder Scrolls wrapper. Most people seem to feel that Skyrim = Elder Scrolls, so One Tamriel doubled down on that.

On June 6, the next big expansion for the game will drop in the shape of Morrowind – a update so massive that the studio is changing the name of the game to embrace it. Once it drops it will allow players to return to the setting of the 2002 Elder Scrolls adventure, one of the most memorable RPGs ever made.

The man behind almost all of these decisions is game designer Matt Firor, an MMO veteran formerly best known for his work on Mythic Entertainment's Arthurian Dark Age of Camelot back in 2001. We recently chatted with him to learn what it's been like to steer a beloved series like The Elder Scrolls through choppy waters and come out the other end with something that's quietly become a huge success.

Were there any struggles about the decision to even do an Elder Scrolls MMO at the beginning?
Actually, no. The studio was founded to do an Elder Scrolls MMORPG.

Since launch, you've introduced things that many people claim make Elder Scrolls Online more properly Elder Scrolls-y. Did you always intend to introduce these elements or did you largely come up with them based on the turmoil you faced after launch?
I think it was a combination of both. I mean, I've been doing this a long time so I was under no illusions that the game wouldn't change over time. Making games of this type, you basically have to be done when you launch because you need to get as much feedback as possible from players. We knew we were going to have to do changes. We didn't know exactly what we would have to do until after we launched and then started seeing the reaction.

You turned things around pretty quickly. What was the atmosphere like in the studio?
It was basically, "All right, we got work to do." No, not quite that smooth. It was more, "All right, here's what we did. That didn't work. We didn't see that coming but we can do this." So we did a lot of assessment of what was behind the complaints and then we did what we could to add systems that got to the heart of them. It wasn't necessarily what are they were specifically asking for, but ways of addressing what was causing the feedback in the first place.

A lot of the feedback was simply about player choice. Choosing where to go, what to do, what armor to wear, what weapons to wield. A lot of the features we added freed players from having the game's systems mandate choices for them.

We basically tried to make more of what they liked and less of what they didn't.

So there was a lot of changing the world, with One Tamriel especially, so you weren't on rails through each of the alliances. We added things like the Champion System, which lets you make your characters the way that you want without needing to grind veteran levels. With the Justice System, it was, "I just want to go out and steal things and fence them. I don't want to have to go on quest to do it." So we made that fun sandbox-type system where you can just go steal and pickpocket and even kill if you want and then fence the loot at outlaw refuges.

Basically you seem to have gotten to a point where everything kind of worked out. Do you feel you've been lucky in that regard? A lot of MMOs that have a rough start never get a second chance.
Luck always has something to do with it because that's just the way the market works, but I really think that we were given the opportunity to sit down and use our data and our own experience to decide what needed to change. We had a good game plan and we were allowed to execute on it.

We had a really core group of players that logged in every day and played the whole time this was going on, so we knew we had something. We knew that it was a great game at heart and we just needed to free up the systems to operators to enjoy it more. So even if the numbers weren't quite as high as we wanted, and obviously they weren't in the beginning, we did have that core committed group of players. We basically tried to make more of what they liked and less of what they didn't.

I think it's funny. The expectations for the game were so huge that even though it didn't seem like a giant world-shaking success in 2014, the number of users that we had – even when we wanted more users – were still pretty substantial. We weren't what I would consider a flop by any means. It's just that a series like Elder Scrolls is very mass market. We expected to get more of those mass users and we got more of what I would call the hardcore MMO guys.

Morrowind obviously holds a special place in many players' hearts. Was there always a sense that you wanted to save Vvardenfell for release until ESO was "just right"?
It ended up that way but we certainly didn't plan for that. I think probably about a year ago, One Tamriel was well in development and we were like, "Well, once this comes out, we can start concentrating on annals, chapters, and content and some bigger things and new systems." Then we started looking around for the area of the world that we wanted first to expand into.

Vvardenfell makes the perfect choice because first, it's an island so it's already geographically separated from the rest of the world and so easy to add in. Second, we already had some Morrowind zones in the game, so we had a lot of art, cultural references, and other things. Third, it's this awesome part of the world that players know and loved from Elder Scrolls III, so it kind of hit all of the high notes. That's really why we went there. We didn't plan on that until once One Tamriel was well underway and we were pretty sure we were going to start doing bigger releases.

Since you had so many chunks of Vvardenfell content in the game already on the mainland, what sets Vvardenfell itself apart from what we've already seen?
Yeah, that's a great question. So I'm not going to go too deep into the geeky culture of the Dark Elves, but there are different houses that run the politics of Morrowind. It just happens that, the way the lore is set up, Vvardenfell is dominated by different houses than mainland Morrowind is. They all have their slightly different take on Dark Elf culture and so because of that, it has a different flavor. For example, one of the houses that control part of Vvardenfell believes in slavery even though it's outlawed in mainland Morrowind because of the Ebonheart Pact, which disallows slavery.

So you go to parts of Vvardenfell and you see Argonian slaves. In fact, there's a couple of great quest lines about that very subject. You just wouldn't see that on the mainland Morrowind. And, of course, it's wilder, with much crazier plants and animals and insects and things like that. So it feels different from mainland Morrowind but you can tell it's still related.

One of One Tamriel's core features is letting you travel and fight anywhere you wish, which is what a lot of people consider a core part of the Elder Scrolls experience. Why didn't you go with that approach at the very beginning?
Boy, we could talk for hours about that. So a lot of the systems at the heart of ESO were originally designed somewhere between 2008 and 2010. But then Skyrim came out in 2011 and was, of course, one of the best games of all time. It really changed what people's perception of what an Elder Scrolls game is. If you look back to Oblivion and older Elder Scrolls games, levels were much more important than they were in Skyrim.

So we were like, "Wait a minute, here's a huge open world game which is awesome and it's what players think an Elder Scrolls game is going to be like." So we started to model a lot of the core systems of ESO after Skyrim. That's when we added a first-person perspective. We went to much twitchier combat, as in using the left mouse button and the right mouse button to block and attack. We started to think about a smaller toolbar, so it doesn't feel quite so MMO and feels much more like an RPG.

We had thought about going without levels, but it's such a huge, huge undertaking to change a giant world that's level-based and then make it not level-based. It reaches into everything from the combat system to the gear system. We thought about it but we thought we really, really didn't have time to do it justice and we weren't sure it was needed. Then of course, it turned out it was needed.

But we'd been thinking about it for around 18 months or so, which made it a little easier when we started the transition. I think mostly we didn't want to rock the boat too much. Skyrim came out and showed that it was possible in a single player, big open-world game. Then we started to think about it but thought it really, really wasn't the right thing. Then after launch, as part of our "make it more Elder Scrolls, make it more free" efforts, that's when we decided to go ahead and do it.

Elder Scrolls Online seems particularly friendly toward solo players today and it seems like that really helps it capture the fundamental Elder Scrolls experience. Is that the feeling you were going for?
Yeah, I think with One Tamriel we really had a chance to focus on making the game approachable to solo players. We didn't want to make it where you were forced to group or have to know all this jargon to be able to play the game. Instead, we wanted to add optional group play. So now in One Tamriel every zone has what are called World Bosses or Group Bosses, and you can join other players who happen to be fighting them. You're grouping with them at that point even if you're not talking to them.

Eventually, since players tend to go across the world in similar ways, you're going to end up seeing more and more of the same people when you go to do a world boss or go into a public dungeon. Eventually you're going to start talking to them and, hopefully, you'll start grouping and then you'll realize that the grouping is actually a whole lot of fun and you can go forward and do dungeons and trials.

So that's the way it's designed and it's working out that way pretty well. The game's not intimidating to new users because you can play solo pretty much all of the quest content. But if you do run into other people, it's very easy and seamless to group with them. That was the philosophy and we have a ton of group content in the the game. Our entire PvP system is group based. We're adding in a different type of PvP in Morrowind, but it's still group-based with four on four on four. We have "trials" for 12-player groups and we have dungeons for four-player groups, so we have a ton of group content there. It's just you're not forced to do it so new players don't feel like they have to.

Has it been hard to keep that balance?
ESO is so big at this point in terms of content that the players really go in and figure out their own version of what it means to them. So yes, some log in and play solo, meet people, and then find guilds and then do group content. Some log in and find the crafting system and just start making things and selling them to players. Some roleplay. Some purely do PvP.

It's such a big world at this point that two players can play and have vastly different experiences and describe the game completely differently to their friends. So it's pretty cool when you see that. It's sometimes difficult to hone a specific message to that big a group of players because what you're really selling at that point is, hey, there's this giant virtual world and you can go in and do hundreds of different things. That's really where the game is evolving.

Underwater content got cut at some point because we just didn't have time to do it or do it justice

Was there ever a moment when you were afraid the project was going to be a failure?
I'm not speaking for everyone here, but I never thought that. Mostly because we had that dedicated group of people that was there, and they weren't just playing the game, they were playing it every day, at least five times a week and for four or five hours a day. I've been in this industry long enough I know that no one will do that if the game isn't good. It was a large group of people and we still have a group of players now that have played, with some exceptions, almost every day since we launched in 2014. So when you have that, you know that there's something there to build on, and as long as there's something there to build on, you know you can make it more successful.

Is there anything that you wish that you could add to it that you know that you'll never be able to with the technology?
Underwater content got cut at some point because we just didn't have time to do it or do it justice. I was pretty mad about that because I actually loved finding content underwater in games like this, but that was purely just for me. That's one thing the team always gives me grief about because I would just bring it up at meetings – "When can we add underwater?" – and it just never got added. When you think about all of the older Elder Scrolls games, how many great experiences did you have underwater?

Not that many.
No, not many. It's not a cool part of the IP, so we ended up not putting it in.

Along the same line, is there anything you think the single-player games offer that you'll never be able to capture in Elder Scrolls Online?
Obviously, the feeling that you're the only person in the world. That's what the single-player Elder Scrolls games have and that's a blessing and a curse. Multiplayer is a blessing and a curse in that sense, which is, I could be in the middle of nowhere and still see someone. Let's say you're in the middle of Vvardenfell, which is the most remote place in the entire region, and suddenly see another player adventuring along. It removes that "I'm the first person that's seen this in 700 years" feeling you can get in the single-player Elder Scrolls games. But it's also a blessing that I can see that guy and ask him for help or just chat.

Are you happy that Morrowind is coming out at this point in the game's life?
Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah, ,yeah. I mean, this has been a really, really amazing ride and it's been up and down, but now we're talking about a huge new chapter a little over three years after launch. The game's really successful, there's a ton of people playing it, we're on console and we're now in Japan, and we're doing lots of different things. We're basically rebranding the game right now as Morrowind and bringing new players into the game with a new tutorial and so forth. If you never played the old game, you could just buy Morrowind and jump in and play. We're really, really doing a lot of cool things and it's because we've been successful enough to start playing with the formula a little bit.