GameCentral talks to the director of The Elder Scrolls Online, about the future of the game and of MMOs themselves.
We always find it very difficult to cover massively multiplayer online (MMO) games. The amount of time needed to give them a fair review, and the need to keep up with their constant updates, makes it all but impossible for us. But we are always interested to see how they fare, and although we also try to avoid email interviews where possible we did take up Bethesda’s offer to speak to The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) director Matt Firor.
Together with PlayStation exclusive Final Fantasy XIV, it’s one of the few games of its type available on consoles. And it’s probably no coincidence that both are based on well-known single-player franchises. That’s still no guarantee of success, but with the game soon to celebrate its second anniversary on PC, and with new DLC Thieves Guild out on March 22, it seems to be prospering.
What we wanted to know from Firor is why, and how he thinks the game, and the genre at large, will continue to evolve over the coming years…
GC: How do you feel The Elder Scrolls Online has performed since launch and what are you most pleased with? What do you think were the biggest mistakes at launch and what do you think ESO offers that other MMOs do not?
MF: ESO is doing awesomely! Our success has gone a bit under the radar so to speak, but we are very happy with where we are. I am very pleased that we developed a game that can take so many different types of gamers and give them different play experiences – but all the while introduce them to other play styles and stay true to the Elder Scrolls lore. I’m also extremely happy with how our technology works behind the scenes. We don’t get to talk about that enough, but we seamlessly hide server transitions and instancing, which allows players to simply choose a region megaserver (Europe or North America), and the technology does the rest.
To answer your question about comparing ESO to other MMOs: ESO is not really a traditional MMO, so we don’t use that term much around the office – and it is this distinction that separates it from other games. If you want to play it solo, like you did with other Elder Scrolls games, you can do that. If you want to play it super-grindy with dungeons, Trials, and group bosses as the core of you experience, you can join up with others and do that too.
It’s really up to you to figure out how you want to play it, as we don’t enforce a play style one way or the other. In fact, ESO has been super-successful at taking gamers not used to massive online games, introducing them to the concepts of group play by making it fun and optional, and turning them into online gamers.
I think we could have done a couple of things better at launch like setting proper expectations for our betas (which for the first few were done primarily for technical scaling testing, not for game testing), and we definitely launched with a content bug that prevented many players from completing quests.
GC: Were there no qualms before release about the game being yet another MMO in a Tolkien-esque universe? Why has that become the standard for the genre and surely it’s damaging to have casual gamers assume you can’t have one without the other? Was there no thought to make Fallout Online instead, and what challenges did adapting the Elder Scrolls universe to an MMO present?
MF: Again, we’re not really a traditional MMO, we are much more of a hybrid, kind of like an ‘online RPG’. The term MMO is freighted with a lot of pre-conceived notions, most of which are outdated and obsolete. But, no, of course we had no qualms about making an online Elder Scrolls game – we were following just two and a half years after one of the best-selling (and awesome) RPGs in history: Skyrim, which ignited huge interest in the Elder Scrolls as a brand.
As far as challenges go, for much of the game’s development, Oblivion was the most recent Elder Scrolls game, and we had to change with the times when Skyrim was so successful. But by far the biggest challenge was to create that Elder Scrolls feeling where you are free to do what you want inside a massive online game where you see other players.
GC: What is the breakdown of players within ESO, in terms of casual and more hardcore gamers, and those that have played previous Elder Scrolls games and those that have not? Do a lot of people play the game expecting Skyrim 2 and how have you dealt with this and other misconceptions?
MF: The answer to this question came as a very pleasant surprise to us: we always assumed that console players would be more casual than PC players, and boy were we shocked after our console launch when we found that console gamers were just as much into ESO – in terms of hours played and dedication – as our PC community.
We don’t really segregate our player base into ‘hardcore’ and ‘casual’, we see it more as players who prefer to play solo and socialise via chat, players who primarily PvP, players who run dungeons and daily quests, etc. Looking at it that way is far more useful to us, as it shows habits, and lets us track players as they discover different play styles as they encounter new systems (and other players, who teach them) in the game.
We don’t know exactly how many ESO players previously played other Elder Scrolls games, but we assume it is the great majority. After PC launch, and especially leading up to console launch mid-last year, we have done a great job setting customer expectations about what ESO is, and now that it has become so popular, I don’t think we run into anyone thinking the game is Skyrim 2. Our bigger challenge has been to educate players that we are not a traditional 2004-style MMO and much more an expansive online Elder Scrolls RPG.
GC: One of the great pleasures of The Elder Scrolls is exploring the world and stumbling on areas that it seems only you can have ever found. How important was this to the experience of ESO and how have you kept them refreshed over time?
MF: This concept is the core of our content design – lead the player somewhat, but leaving plenty of areas for the player to explore and wander until their heart’s content. This is the core experience of Elder Scrolls – we refresh this by releasing new DLC game packs periodically that have new areas, and we are constantly refining the game to be less restrictive and let players explore the game more.
For example, all of our DLC game packs released allow players of all levels to explore together and the game scales appropriately. This has been very popular with the players, so we are going to continue with that philosophy when creating future content.
GC: How have you found that different people are playing the game? What percentage treat it as single-player game like Skyrim and how many as a co-operative experience? How much overlap is there between the two groups and what has surprised you about the way the game has ended up being played?
MF: ESO is a huge game with a lot of different types of content, so we encourage players to play the game the way they wish. Most players start out mostly solo, but the game introduces them to new concepts over time – group bosses, which are encountered in the wild and require some help to defeat, along with other auto-grouping features like Dark Anchors and public dungeons.
Later, they get introduced to four-man dungeons, PvP, and eventually Trials, our large-group ‘raids’. All of these are best tackled with a group, but players aren’t forced to do them. In fact, you can play the hundreds of hours of solo quest content if you wish and still have a great time.
As for overlap, there is a ton. Most of our players have at least tried group content like dungeons, and there are many players who reserve days of the week to do different types of content: Tuesdays, for example, are a popular dungeon and Trial day. We encourage this by having daily quests (via our in-game group, the Undaunted) that take players into dungeons to discover really cool rewards.
GC: Do you feel the age of subscription-based MMOs, or games of any kind, is now over? And why? It seems somewhat ironic that as most individual games give up the idea subscription services like PS Plus and EA Access are becoming more prominent.
MF: As they say, the forecasting business is best left to palm readers – I would never make a firm ‘never’ statement, as business models tend to evolve so much they eventually come back around to where they were. But, obviously, for now the market is trending towards pay-as-you go and pay-for-entrance type business models, both of which ESO supports.
GC: Why are MMOs still rare on consoles and what do you feel the success of ESO can teach other games? Is it the audience that presents a problem on consoles or merely technical and licensing issues?
MF: Making games of this type is really, really hard. There are only a few studios in the world that would attempt a project so large and complex to develop as ESO – and the console stakes are really high. You need to have a really solid, experienced development team to pull off a AAA game running on a custom-built private cloud network, make the game fun and engaging, and be able to support it indefinitely with content and infrastructure upkeep. And for a game the size of ESO, it has only been with this current generation of consoles that the devices were even capable of supporting it.
GC: From your perspective what has changed for the best, and worst, in MMOs over the last decade? What do you think are the next important evolutions for the genre, in terms of gameplay, monetisation, and technology; and how will ESO approach them?
MF: What has happened in the last decade is that the term MMO doesn’t really mean anything by itself any more. Most games are online at this point, and some of them are pretty massive, but wouldn’t be considered MMOs by 2004 criteria (like Grand Theft Auto, Minecraft, etc.). As networking and platform technology has become commoditised, it has become easier to make online games, which has brought much needed competition and opening up to other genres like shooters, strategy games, and of course role-playing games.
The online RPG genre is interesting right now, because much of the energy is currently being spent on far smaller player-per-server models that focus on a specific type of gameplay: like Crowfall, for example. Quickly-scaling AWS (Autonomous Web Services) server technology makes session-based games like this easier to do, and focusing on one playstyle (like PvP in Crowfall’s case), makes it smaller and more focused.
GC: Will MMOs as a distinct genre always be around or will they perhaps become a style of play, in terms of the persistent world and characters that is merely applied to multiple styles of game? Or will they always be considered something separate?
MF: This is a great way to state what I was attempting to answer in the last question: MMO now refers to a technology, not to a genre, and will probably keep moving in that direction.
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